Your peanut butter cookies crumbled and your black bottom cupcakes turned out black (really black). What went wrong? Allow me to count the potential pitfalls. Baking is a science, and before you can turn that triple layer cake into a work of edible art, there are countless ways to screw it up. Don't blame the recipe if you're committing one of these nine major baking mistakes.
1. You didn't really preheat the oven.
By the clock, your cake should be ready, but it's toast on the outside—browned, maybe even burned. On the inside? Not so much. Why? Because you slammed those cake pans into the oven five minutes after you turned it on.
"Modern ovens are designed to preheat FAST! Every heating unit in the oven comes on full power until the oven reaches the set temperature," observes Shirley O. Corriher in Bakewise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking. So if you set it at 350°F, your oven is blasting those cakes with 500°F heat for a while before the heating unit clicks off, the temperature settles, and the preheat cycle completes. That kind of fluctuation might fly when you're braising a roast, but when you're baking Jacques Torres’s chocolate chip cookies, the timing and conditions required for essential chemical reactions to occur (say, rising or browning) are far more exact.
Baking maven Dorie Greenspan even recommends waiting several minutes after the oven registers preheated before you slide your pans in. "Ovens cycle on and off to maintain an average temperature,” she says. “The oven hits its stride and keeps the most consistent temperature after it has cycled on and off three times."
2. You've never calibrated your oven.
You think you're baking at 350°F because the digital display on your oven says it's so, but if you've never run the most basic temperature test, your oven could be 10°F to 20°F off. Break out a probe thermometer with digital display and conduct the definitive test, according to Nathan Myhrvold, coauthor of Modernist Cuisine at Home:
1) Place the bottom oven rack in the lowest position.
2) Preheat your oven to its lowest setting, and give the temperature a minute or two to settle after the oven registers preheated.
3) Clip the probe to the middle of the rack so the probe points to the center of the oven.
4) Close the oven and give the temperature time to resettle, then note the temperature on the oven and on the digital display. Do the numbers match up?
5) Repeat the process with the probe clipped near the back corner and door of the oven to note any hot spots or cool zones in your oven.
6) Increase the oven temperature by 50°F and repeat the tests.
3. You used the wrong pan.
Your olive oil cake runneth over or domes in the middle because you used an 8-inch cake pan instead of the 9-inch called for in the recipe. Your cranberry-orange quick bread is flat and dry because you doubled the recipe and baked it in a glass casserole. If you use a different pan because you scaled a recipe up or down or don't have the correct-size bakeware, you've changed the amount of batter surface area exposed to the heat.
To compensate for the difference, you need to adjust the baking time and oven temperature. The rule of thumb: If the pan makes the batter shallower than the original recipe, increase the oven temperature and decrease the baking time. If the pan makes the batter deeper, decrease the temperature and increase the baking time. Example: Pastry Chef Hedy Goldsmith recommends upping the oven temperature by 25ºF and reducing the bake time by 25 percent if you switch from an 8-inch pan to a 9-inch.
4. You didn't sift.
Wonder why your muffins and cookies always turn out crumbly or dense? You're using too much flour because you didn't sift. Over time, flour settles and packs down into its container. Sifting aerates the flour, which not only makes for a more accurate measure (Parade found that 1 cup of unsifted flour weighed as much as 25 grams more than 1 cup sifted), it allows other ingredients, such as baking soda or baking powder, to distribute more evenly during mixing and baking.
5. You nuked your butter to soften it.
Blame the butter if your cookies spread and flatten during baking. If it’s too soft or melted, or you've overbeaten the butter and sugar together, the milk solids separate and the butter loses air. Butter should be softened to cool room temperature; your finger should leave a small dent if you press it lightly, says Handle the Heat baker-blogger Tessa Arias. The butter is too warm if it pools or looks greasy around the edges.
6. You substituted yogurt or applesauce for oil.
You can healthy-up certain baked goods by swapping out a bit of fat for these ingredients, but if your cake falls flat or those cookies don't brown, you need to adjust the amount of liquid and leavener, as well. Yogurt and fruit purées are more acidic than the fat you're replacing and will react differently in recipes using baking powder, which also contains acidic ingredients. "The [baked good] can have an off flavor or color, a funny texture, not rise as high, crack, and a whole host of other problems because the pH of the recipe is too acidic," says baking expert and CraftyBaking.com CEO/founder Sarah Phillips. "Generally, you have to lower the baking powder and substitute it with some baking soda." Exactly how much baking soda depends on the recipe, and you'll have to make that cake a few times to get it right, says Phillips. "It takes a lot of baking knowledge, food science, and painstaking testing to get the leaveners balanced once you start substituting a major ingredient like fat. You have to take the whole recipe into account because every ingredient contains different amounts of fat, water, fiber, etc., and interacts as a whole differently."
7. You used dark baking pans.
Baking pans with a dark surface (whether it's nonstick or not) absorb and retain heat to a higher degree, and can burn or turn yellow Bundt cakes and muffins brown before the center is set. Light-colored aluminum pans are best for baking because they absorb and conduct heat evenly. If you bake in dark metal pans, Cooking Light recommends reducing the oven temperature by 25°F and start checking for doneness about 10 minutes sooner.
8. You used ancient baking powder or baking soda.
If your apple-cheddar quick bread turns into a brick, your leavener may have lost its bubbling powers. Under ideal conditions—stored in a cool, dry, dark place—baking powder can last up to one year after the best-by date listed on the box and baking soda can last indefinitely, according to EatByDate.com. To test a leavener's effectiveness, combine 1 teaspoon baking powder with 1/2 cup hot water, or 1/4 teaspoon baking soda with 2 teaspoons vinegar. If the mixture bubbles immediately on contact, the leaveners will work in your recipe.
9. You used the wrong measuring cup.
Put down the liquid measuring cup and step away from the flour. If you're using dry and liquid measuring cups interchangeably, your measures may be slightly off—not to mention messy. Dry measuring cups enable you to employ Julia Child’s scoop-and-sweep method of measuring dry ingredients like flour and sugar: Dip into the ingredient, fill the cup to overflowing, then sweep the excess away. Unless you're using a scale and measuring by weight, this is the most accurate way to measure dry ingredients. The pour spout and below-the-rim measure lines on liquid measuring cups make for less spillage and more accurate measuring of liquid ingredients as well.
Photo credits (top to bottom): In the Kitchen & On the Road with Dorie Greenspan; Modernist Cuisine; Mom's Recipes and Adventures in the Kitchen; Pat Haverfield Studios; Handle the Heat; Serious Eats; The Food Librarian; JES Restaurant Equipment Blog
Colleen Rush is a food and travel writer who eats, drinks, cooks, and writes mostly in New Orleans, but also ... everywhere else. She is the author of "The Mere Mortal's Guide to Fine Dining" (Broadway Books, 2006), and co-author of "Low & Slow: Master the Art of Barbecue in 5 Easy Lessons" (Running Press, 2009) and the upcoming "Low & Slow 2: The Art of Barbecue, Smoke Roasting, and Basic Curing" (Running Press, 2015). Follow her on Twitter @FoodRush or Instagram @NewOrleansFood.