Baking a cake, whipping up a batch of muffins or making some brownies can be a daunting experience if you’ve ever had a nightmare in the kitchen. Whether you ended up with a soggy center on your cousin’s birthday cake or burnt the cupcakes for the school bake sale, you probably ended up feeling put off by the idea of returning to the kitchen ever again.
It’s easy to feel like those mistakes can’t be prevented and leave the baking to the experts at your local Costco, but it’s more than likely you just made one simple mistake that can be easily rectified.
1. If the batter doesn’t turn out right, your ingredients might be the wrong temperature
As a rule, most baking (except pastry) should use ingredients at room temperature unless otherwise stated. All the ingredients will mix together much more effectively if they’re all at the same temperature, and certain items like butter won’t mix well at all if they’re still solid from being in the fridge. Be sure to keep all your baking items in the same place – you won’t have to waste time searching all over the kitchen for certain ingredients and your end result will be much better.
2. If your cake is tough and chewy, you could be using the wrong flour
Photo: Markus Spiske/Flickr
The type of flour you use is vital to any successful attempt at baking – cake flour will provide a much lighter product than bread flour, and all-purpose flour is somewhere in between. Also, be sure to measure out your flour carefully. If using cups, it shouldn’t be too compacted or you’ll end up using too much which can make your cake turn out cracked and ugly. Rather than pulling the flour straight from the bag, try spooning it into your cup measures and using a knife to level off the top. Most cookbooks will provide a little more advice on how to accurately measure out flour in the first few pages.
3. If your cakes turn out ugly, your oven might be too hot or too cold
Photo: Parker Knight/Flickr
It seems like all appliances should heat up to the temperature you set them to, but in reality many ovens can be several degrees off. If you set your oven to 400 degrees, it might actually be heating up to 420. This can result in the outside of the cake hardening before the batter inside is finished rising, which will result in unsightly cracks and an odd shape in the finished product. If you think this might be happening to you, it’s possible to buy specialized oven thermometers for around $10, and they’ll tell you exactly what temperature your oven is running at. It’s also a good idea to make sure you’re not overcrowding your oven. If you’re baking multiple layers or cakes at once, try to make sure they’re all as close to the center of the oven as possible and they aren’t directly above or below each other so equal amounts of warm air can reach each cake.
4. If your bakes are undercooked or dry, check the size of your bakeware
It can be easy to overlook, but a lot of recipes often include recommendations for a specific type of pan or tray. For example, if you just jump straight in and use the only springform pan you have, you might end up with a cake that burns on the outside and is undercooked in the middle if it’s too small, or you’ll get a flat overdone cake if your pan is larger than the one suggested. The same goes for brownies, where you might use a 9×9 inch pan when the recipe calls for a 13×9. This will yield sloppy, underbaked treats if you don’t adjust the cooking time accordingly, so it’s worth investing in a few different sized pans for your kitchen or finding a recipe specifically designed for the kind of bakeware you already own. For someone swapping one size pan out for another, you can see if the capacity will work by filling the pan with water and measuring it. There are also a lot of tables online that list pan capacity by dimensions (for those who don’t care for math).
5. If your cake comes out flat, stop peeking into the oven or buy some new ingredients
There’s nothing worse than working hard in the kitchen only to end up with a flat, dense, disappointing cake. If this is happening to you, there’s a few things to watch out for. First of all, your raising agents (baking powder or baking soda) might be past their prime. These items generally have a shelf life of around six months. To check if they’re still usable, add a teaspoon of your leavening agent to a few tablespoons of white vinegar. If it doesn’t start bubbling away furiously, it’s time to hit the store and buy some more.
Secondly, it could be because you’re too curious. Peeking into the oven while your cake is baking can be very tempting, but doing so will let the heat out and mess with your cooking times or make your cake collapse. It’s worth your while to leave the oven alone the cake is set. If you need to rotate the cakes during baking, make sure it’s at least two-thirds of the way through the cooking time.
Lastly, it’s vital to whip a little air into most cakes while you’re mixing the ingredients. This is often advised in the form of creaming together butter and sugars until light and fluffy or whipping eggs until pale. In doing this, you fill your batter with the air it needs to rise – so invest in an electric mixer if you don’t already have one! Just be sure to go a little softer once the flour is added so you don’t overmix the batter or beat any of the air out.
6. If your cakes are too brown or overcooked around the edges, your bakeware might be the wrong color
Yes, even something as seemingly innocuous as the color of your baking pan could be screwing up your cakes. Light-colored, shiny metal pans deflect heat away from their contents allowing for a steady cooking time while darker metals or glass bakeware can cause your batter to cook too quickly on the outside. If using a dark metal or glass pan, try reducing the oven temperature by 25-30 degrees.
7. If your cakes are falling apart, you might be too eager to eat them
It’s easy to get impatient and feel the need to try your warm, gooey cake as soon as it comes out of the oven – we’ve all been there. But if you don’t let the cake cool sufficiently (at least 10 minutes for smaller cakes, 20 minutes for larger ones) before removing it from the pan, it could change shape or fall apart into a horrible mess. This is also a risk if you didn’t grease or line your pans properly – always use butter/oil or some baking parchment if you want your cake removal to go swimmingly.
8. Don’t fall at the last hurdle—make sure your cake is completely cool before frosting it
Photo: Michelle Schrank/Flickr
It’s an easy trap to fall into — you’ve been in the kitchen for hours, trying to get the perfect cake, and you can finally see the finish line. All you need to do is pipe on some frosting and you’re done. Well, it’s always a good idea to take a step back and wait a little longer so every last inch is at cooled. The best way to do this is to let the unfrosted cake cool to room temperature then refrigerate it for a little while before adding a crumb coat and the final layers of frosting. Just make sure to let it come to room temperature before serving so the flavors come through nicely.