Domed cakes, flattened cookies, rock-hard muffins, yeast buns that just won’t rise – if you face any of these disasters when you take your pans out of the oven, it’s time to hone your baking skills. For many, baking can be difficult with its precise measurements and super specific instructions. But it doesn’t have to be a frustrating or failed process. There are easy fixes for many of your most common baking mistakes.
You may be making one of the following infamous cooking mistakes. But you won’t be making them anymore with these simple tips and tricks to help you solve any problems with your baked goods.
1. Your baked goods are dry in the desert.
Baking is both an art and a science – and the science part requires a fair amount of precision. A few extra tablespoons of flour can turn a tender, moist cake into a parched, crumbled disaster.
For the most accurate results, use metal or plastic beakers, not clear Pyrex measuring cups; these are for liquids. And while we’re at it, never dunk the cup in a bag or can of flour. This will compress the flour and skew your measurements.
Instead, gently fill cups with a spoon. Do not shake cups or tap them on the counter; fill them lightly, then scrape the back of a butter knife across the top to level it. Better yet, invest in a kitchen scale. You’ll find inexpensive basic options for as little as $20. And if the recipe calls for sifting the flour, don’t skip this step. Sifting breaks up lumps and ensures precise measurement (plus, it’s easier to incorporate into recipes, minimizing mixing).
2. Your muffins and breads are like hockey pucks.
You know how the instructions sometimes say “mix until combined?” This is not a suggestion – it is a really serious advice. Beating the dough activates the gluten, which causes the protein strands to bind together and form a matrix, giving structure, texture and elasticity. But too much of the mix develops too much gluten, leaving you with tough, heavy, or unpleasantly dense muffins, quick breads, and cakes.
Handle the dough gently and keep mixing to a bare minimum. Stop as soon as everything is mixed and no traces of flour remain. To make sure you assimilate all the ingredients, also scrape down the sides of the blender jug. Use a flexible silicone spatula, ideally with curved edges to scoop up every last bit.
And if your recipe calls for room temperature ingredients, don’t cheat. Eggs, milk and other dairy products mix more easily at room temperature, creating an even, consistent batter and trapping air that expands during cooking, which means lighter, fluffier treats.
3. Your yeast buns just won’t rise
Yeast is a finicky beast. It is a living organism, and mishandling means certain death. Hot liquids activate the yeast, but the temperature is critical. Too cool, and nothing happens; too hot, and you’ll kill it.
When working with yeast, your water or milk should be between 112 and 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Don’t guess; use an instant-read thermometer. Yeast also has a tough shelf life, so that half-empty packet you opened last Thanksgiving has probably perished. Buy fresh yeast at the store and stock up on supplements in case you get a bad batch. Store it in the refrigerator and use it within four months.
And when it comes to using your yeast stock, don’t assume it’s good to go. Even if you just opened a new package, still, always test the yeast before embarking on a recipe. Stir half a teaspoon in warm water and let sit for 10 minutes; if it’s not frothy and doesn’t smell like yeast, mix it up and start over with a new packet.
Also, you should let the dough rise in a warm place, away from cold air or drafts. If your kitchen is cold, preheat the oven to 200 degrees for a minute or two; turn it off and place the bowl of dough in this now grilled environment.
4. Everything ends up sticking to the pan
If you have pastries that won’t budge, you’ve probably missed a prep step.
For effortless release of bread and cakes, generously grease the inside of the pan, then line the bottom with a circle of parchment paper. Coat parchment with butter or shortening, dust with flour, shake and swirl until the entire pan is lightly dusted. Then, turn the pan upside down and tap the bottom to remove excess flour. Do the same with muffin pans or line them with parchment (a more grown-up alternative to paper liners): cut a sheet of parchment into 5-inch squares, then mold each square around a cup or glass the size of an individual. muffin compartments.
And always prep your casseroles before you combine the ingredients. It is important to put this batter or batter in the oven as soon as it is mixed. Even a few minutes of languidness in the bowl can impact the leavening agents and interfere with the rise. Grease, flour and line the pans with parchment paper ahead of time – ideally, when you preheat the oven – to maximize success.
5. Your cookies aren’t reaching their chewy potential
The deceptively simple cookies contain few ingredients; the key is in the technique. This flaky, tender perfection comes from slivers of butter deftly suspended between layers of flour. As a result, if your butter isn’t the right temperature, you’ll end up with hopelessly heavy, gummy cookies. The same goes for scones, pie crusts and other baked goods that rely on thin slices of butter embedded all over.
To get this perfectly moist and flaky cookie, start with cold, hard butter. Measure it, cut it into small pieces, then freeze for a few minutes while you prep the ingredients. You can even chill the mixing bowl and flour first to further improve flakiness. Mix the butter into the flour with a pastry cutter, two forks or your hands. Just don’t use a food processor – it will create too much friction and heat, melt the butter quickly and toughen the dough. Mix only until the dough resembles coarse flour and work quickly. If you feel the butter softening, place the bowl in the refrigerator for five minutes to firm it up.
6. Your cookies are spreading
Do those perfectly sculpted balls of dough flatten into a fat, shapeless puddle? This is because the fat in the dough melts before the ingredients have time to set.
To solve this problem, start by measuring the ingredients precisely. Too little flour can’t hold the fat, causing the cookies to spill into a useless, oily puddle. Then, using a stand or hand mixer, cream the room temperature butter (not melted) with the sugar. Butter and sugar creaming incorporates small pockets of air that slow the rate at which the butter and sugar melt and create a matrix that stabilizes the dough. Add your remaining ingredients, until blended; overmixing introduces too much air, so the cookies rise quickly, then flatten out. If the dough is sticky or greasy, place it in the fridge for a few minutes to firm up the fats and delay melting (or make it ahead of time and chill overnight).
Oh, and don’t grease your baking sheets. Adding a layer of fat prevents cookies from seizing and promotes spreading. Line pans with parchment paper or use a silicone mat to prevent cookies from sticking.
7. Your cakes always bulge…
Do you find that no matter what you do, your cakes turn into mountainous domes, impossible to stack and frost? Here’s why: once the cake reaches the oven, the pan heats up quickly, so the outer edges rise and harden quickly. Meanwhile, the thicker center continues to swell more languidly, manifesting as a mounded middle.
For flat, crisp tops, bake cakes slowly and on low speeds to even out baking rates. Reduce oven temperature 50 degrees F and bake 30-50% longer. Insulating the sides of the pan also encourages the edges and center to rise and cook at a similar rate. You can invest in even baking strips to wrap around the mold. Or, use a damp cotton towel to insulate the sides – it’s bulky, but it’s a decent emergency hack.
And if all else fails, you can rescuing domed cakes. Once cooled, freeze them for several hours, then carefully cut the domes with a bread knife to level the top.
8. …or they fall apart
If the center of your cake is crumbling into a spongy heap, you’re probably peeking when you shouldn’t. Opening the oven door lets out hot air, lowers oven temperature and almost guarantees inconsistent results. This is particularly risky at the start of baking, when a blast of cold air interrupts the initial rise and causes the medium to sink.
Trust the process (and your timer): instead of opening the door, turn on the oven light to monitor progress. If you need to see if the cake is done, wait until the end of baking when the batter has stabilized.
Not looking at or touching the oven door? Another common culprit of cake collapse is overmixing, which introduces an abundance of air, weakening the structure of the cake and causing the center to fall apart. Or, it may be a sourdough problem. Too much baking soda or powder means the cakes rise quickly before the batter has time to set, which inevitably leads to collapse. Stale baking powder also hinders your cake’s ability to rise. Check its freshness before you start mixing the ingredients: mix a teaspoon of baking powder in a quarter cup of hot water – if it’s bubbling, you’re good to go. If not, mix it up and use a new container.
For more expert cooking tips and tricks (and to learn how to avoid cooking mistakes), keep reading:
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