Do you know how to fix these common baking disasters?

By: Maria Trimarchi
Image: Shutterstock

About This Quiz

Julia Child felt a party without cake is just a meeting. Do your cakes take the ... cake? Where there's a whisk, there's a way. From deflated egg whites to the right way to measure a recipe's ingredients, see how much you know about fixing baking mistakes. And don't forget to set the timer!

Curiosity got the best of you and you opened the oven door. What could that do to your cake?

You shouldn't open the oven door when you're baking a cake, at all. Especially not during the first half of its baking time. And definitely not every couple minutes to check on its progress. While the smell of baking cake wafts over you when you open the oven door, refrain -- doing so can affect how well your cake rises.

Some ovens run hot, others cold. How can you check to make sure your oven's 350 degrees Fahrenheit is really 350 degrees Fahrenheit?

The best way to check if your oven runs a little over or under the set temperature is to test it with an oven-friendly thermometer. Let the oven come up to temperature and check it against the thermometer reading. Do they match?

What can cause your cake to turn out raw in the middle?

The most common reason your cake is raw in the middle when you take it out of the oven? It's underbaked. Even if you cooked it for the full time recommended in the recipe, there are a few things, like the variance in oven temperatures, that can make your cake need a few extra minutes.

Your cake smells divine and looks good, but why is it too tender to handle without it crumbling?

A cake that looks just fine but crumbles when you handle it is too tender. The problem could be one of two things. One, your batter has too much sugar, too much shortening or too much leavening. And two, you may not have mixed the batter well enough.

What happens if you skip preheating the oven?

Although skipping preheating may not have a noticeable effect on your savory dinners, there's no doubt you'll notice a problem if you skip the step with your baked goods. The problem specifically is uneven baking -- and that means uneven color, an uneven rise and an uneven texture throughout. Additionally, you won't know when your baked goods are done.

A cake that is dense and rubbery was baked with not enough what?

It's important to beat air into your cake batter to avoid this, and leavening agent, too. Creaming, which is when you mix the butter, sugar and eggs together, should be done slowly. And always mix gently after you start adding flour, so you don't overdevelop the gluten.

How long does it take refrigerated butter to reach room temperature?

There are no shortcuts when it comes to bringing cold ingredients up to room temperature. Butter is ready to use when you poke it and can easily make a dent without getting a buttery finger -- and that'll take up to an hour on the counter to get the right consistency. Don't have an hour? Relying on the microwave to soften your butter in a hurry is a recipe for a cake or cookie disaster. Butter that's too soft, or melted, will cause your cookies, for instance, to spread out while they bake, and cakes won't be tender. Instead, you can speed it up a bit by cutting the butter into tablespoon-sized pats before letting it sit.

You watched your cake rise in the oven, and you tested it with a toothpick for doneness. Why, then, did the center fall after baking?

You think your cake is perfect inside and out, but within minutes of being removed from the oven the center of the cake falls. This is a common problem if you live in a humid environment or your kitchen was humid while you were baking. Too much moisture in the flour you use is often to blame; keeping flour in an airtight container can help.

What are the symptoms of an underbaked cake?

Your cake may look done on the outside when you remove it from the oven, but if you don't test it for doneness, you could end up slicing into a sticky disappointment. In the future, check its doneness by inserting a toothpick into the center. If it comes out clean, the middle of the cake is done.

What could cause your cake to turn out with a tough texture?

Using the wrong type of flour can cause some unexpected problems in your baking because different types of flour contain different amounts of protein. What's great for a loaf of bread is not great for a cake. In addition to using the wrong flour, imprecise measurements can also mess with a cake's texture, as can overmixing your batter.

Which is not true about baking powder and baking soda?

Baking powder and baking soda are both leavening agents, but they aren't interchangeable. Baking soda, sodium bicarbonate, is a base, and when it comes in contact with an acid (such as vinegar or buttermilk in a recipe) the chemical reaction causes bubbles (carbon dioxide). This reaction makes your baked goods rise. Baking powder also is used to make baked goods rise. It's a mixture of baking soda, cream of tartar (which is an acid), and, sometimes, cornstarch.

Your cake has come out cracked on top. Next time, what should you change?

Baking your cake at a too-high temperature can cause it to bake faster, but it will bake unevenly. Too much leavening, like baking soda, can also change your cake's texture. And, in addition, if you're not using the right pan for the job, you risking uneven baking, as well.

You greased your cake pan, but the finished cake won't come out. What might have happened?

Often, bits of crumb left behind in the pan from previous cakes can cause your cake to mysteriously stick. When baking future cakes, try lining the bottom of the pan with flour-dusted parchment paper or try using unsalted butter, one of the best choices, to do the greasing.

To avoid overmixing your batter, when should you stop mixing?

Overmixing cake batter can turn into a cake with a coarse grain -- not exactly what you're looking for. The secret is to stop mixing the batter when it's lump-free, and not more.

What happened that caused your cake to spill over the sides of the pan?

When a cake spills over the sides of its pan as it bakes it's a sign the pan you chose is too small. You can avoid the problem, in any pan, by never filling it more than three-quarters up the sides of that pan.

What is the best type of pan for baking?

A lighter-colored aluminum pan is the best for baked goods. Don't have one? Baking in a darker-colored metal or a glass pan may not be ideal, but it's definitely doable -- just adjust the oven temperature (reduce it by 25 degrees Fahrenheit).

Is it true you shouldn't prepare your batter and refrigerate it the night before you need it?

Unless the recipe specifically calls for it, cakes, biscuits and other baked goods won't be the best they can be if you refrigerate them before baking. Unless you're looking for a coarsely-textured crumb, it's better to mix the batter the same day you bake it.

What caused your cake to come out with a peak in the middle and cracked top?

Often this is a sign that the oven temperature was too hot. But a too-small pan can cause these symptoms, as well as adding too much leavening agent.

What's the best way to measure flour?

The best way to measure flour is to use a kitchen scale, and one cup of all-purpose flour weighs 4 1/4 ounces (or 120 grams). No scale? Use your measuring cups -- but make sure you're using cups for dry ingredients.

What could cause a cake to turn out flat, with large air bubbles on the top?

There are two common problems that can cause your cake to finish flat, with large air bubbles on the top. One, make sure the oven is properly preheated and up to temperature before you put the unbaked cake in the oven. And two, unless the recipe calls for it, don't let the batter sit for too long before baking.

What could happen to your cake if it's not cooled properly?

Cool your cake for only five minutes in the pan, and then turn the cake out onto a cooling rack. Keeping it in the baking pan can cause condensation, and that will cause soggy cake.

What causes the sides of your cake to turn out crunchy, or even burnt, when the inside is okay?

When the sides of a cake turn out crunchy or burnt, the first thing to look at is the oven temperature: was it too hot or baked too long? In addition, check the type of fat you used to grease the pan -- they're not all created equal. And, finally, check the type of fat you used in the recipe. Some substitutions just don't work.

Is it true you can use the same measuring cups for both dry and wet ingredients?

Baking is a science, and if you're not precise in each step you risk a number of baking problems. Measuring your ingredients is serious business. Because the volume marks fall below the top of a wet measuring cup, it's difficult to level dry ingredients in it. Stick to using the proper tools when measuring dry and wet ingredients for accuracy.

How can you soften brown sugar that's turned into a hard lump?

If your brown sugar has turned into a brick, you can blame exposure to air for the problem -- all the moisture has evaporated out of the sugar. To fix it, you can microwave it, covered with a damp paper towel, until it's soft. And keep brown sugar in an airtight container for best results.

Where's the best place to let your muffins, quick breads and cakes cool?

When you first take them out of the oven, it's best to cool your baked goods in the pan for the first five minutes. Leaving them to cool completely in the pan, unless the recipe specifically says to do so, will make your baked goods moist -- and not in a yumy way. To avoid wet cake, transfer it to a wire rack to allow good air circulation.

Which is the worst place to store most flours?

The best place for flour is in an airtight container, stored either in the freezer or refrigerator. Keeping them in the pantry will cause them to spoil quickly. Some flours, like all-purpose flour, are a little less particular, and just need to be stored in a dry place that's cooler than 75 degrees Fahrenheit.

What can you do to prevent crumbs in your cake frosting?

Letting the cake cool completely is key to easy and crumb-free frosting -- and freezing the cake overnight will do the same thing. Professional bakers typically apply a crumb coat, which is a thin layer of frosting that seals in any crumbs that may want to migrate into your frosting. If you use a crumb coat, make sure it's thin and put it in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes to let it set before you continue frosting.

Which ingredient should be room temperature before using it in your baked goods?

Room temperature ingredients will help keep your batter smooth and your baked goods fluffy with a nice texture. Butter, milk and any other dairy product you use in your baking should be at room temperature before you use it as an ingredient in your baked goods. Butter, for instance, is ready to use when you poke it and can easily make a dent without getting a buttery finger -- and that'll take about an hour on the counter.

When it comes to ingredients like salt, oil, and baking soda, if it's just a pinch or a "glug," can't you just eyeball the measurement?

You may be tempted to guess just how much a half-teaspoon of salt is, but studies show that when we guess, we tend to overestimate what different measurements look like. A 1/2 teaspoon salt, for instance, contains 1,150 milligrams of sodium. But one teaspoon of salt equals 2,300 milligrams of sodium -- and that's the maximum daily amount of salt the American Heart Association recommends in just one day. Similarly, guessing at fat measurements can mean the difference of 80 calories and nine grams of fat -- the difference between one teaspoon of oil and one tablespoon of oil.

What's likely to happen if you forget to seal and vent the pie crust?

Forgetting to seal the edges and/or vent the pie crust is a setup for pie disaster. Without properly sealing the edges, there's nothing to stop the pie filling from leaking out (and into your oven). Vents cut into the top pie crust allow steam from the filling to escape during baking. Even if you have sealed and vented, it's always smart to bake your pie on a foil-covered baking sheet, just in case.

If you're baking a yeast bread, at what temperature should yeast be dissolved?

Yeast should be dissolved in water that's between 100 degrees and 110 degrees Fahrenheit. The yeast is good and active if the mixture foams. Colder water won't trigger their growth, and hotter temperatures can kill the yeast.

Baking powder is important to give your baked goods lift. How can you tell if yours is expired?

There is an expiration date on the package, but you can expect baking powder to last between six to 12 months, if you keep it in a cool, dry place. You can easily test your baking powder before your baked goods turn out flat, by mixing 1/2 teaspoon into 1/4 cup of boiling water. If it doesn't bubble, it's expired.

What temperature should your dough be before you roll it out for pie crust?

Pie dough needs to chill -- literally. For the perfect pie crust, you should work with cold dough. You'll never get flaky layers with warm or room temperature dough, because the fat (like butter or lard) will start to melt into the crust prematurely.

What happened if your biscuits didn't turn out tall and flaky?

Often, biscuits that aren't flaky or biscuits that lack volume are because of your cutting technique: don't twist the biscuit cutter! Doing so may make for more precise rounds, but the twist leaves behind sealed edges that can't rise to its flaky layered potential. The best way to cut is to press straight down and pull the cutter straight up.

It's best not to mix egg whites in what type of bowl?

Many people will tell you copper bowls are the only way to go when mixing meringue. There's some truth to that. There's a chemical reaction that happens between the egg white and the copper that makes the meringue a fluffier foam. But it's not the only acceptable bowl for mixing egg whites.

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