How to avoid baking blunders
Ever opened the oven to disappointment? (I certainly have!) Baking isn’t just an art form: science is behind how ingredients react to create the perfect pan of brownies or tempting loaf of bread. Think of recipes like formulas: sometimes a misstep like a missing ingredient or wrong temperature can turn a decadent delight into a veritable disaster.
Be sure to watch out for these common baking blunders this holiday season.
Not knowing your cooking vocabulary
Do you know the difference between cutting-in versus beating? Sometimes how you handle ingredients is as important as what goes in a recipe. One of my earliest kitchen blunders was stirring instead of folding — and losing the fluffy, airy texture of a no-bake cheesecake.
Avoid it: Before you dive in to a new recipe, read it through to make sure you understand all the steps. If you spot an unfamiliar term, take a moment to look it up. (About.com has a good Cooking Glossary.) Online videos also offer demonstrations to help you perfect your technique.
Being afraid to throw out ingredients
We all hate waste, but there’s something to be said for ditching stale flour, waxy chocolate and slightly burned toasted nuts. Beware that some ingredients can absorb flavours from food stored near them. (A mistake I once encountered with old icing sugar.) Ultimately, inferior ingredients often mean an inferior result.
Avoid it: Be careful how you store your ingredients and get to know their shelf life. Use fresh, good quality ingredients for the best results. When in doubt, throw them out — or at least save them for your personal use rather than baking for guests.
Ignoring your oven’s quirks
We’d like to believe that our ovens heat up to precisely the temperature we want and bake things evenly. Instead, we end up with baking that is over or under done or parts of the pan that burn. Many of us have gotten to know our ovens through trial and error.
Avoid it: You always fully pre-heat your oven before baking, right? An oven thermometer can be a cook’s best friend — see if your oven is really at the temperature it claims and make adjustments accordingly.
You can find your oven’s hot spots by conducting a bread test where you arrange slices of white bread on a cookie sheet and bake them. (Like this version from Cooking Light, for example.) The colour of the bread will reveal where your oven is the hottest — allowing you to rotate the pan part way through baking or position food so as to avoid trouble areas.
Mixing up ingredients
Just because they look the same, doesn’t mean they behave the same. Many bakers have met with disaster by mixing up baking powder and baking soda — that’s because each one works with different combinations of ingredients. Another no-no: using self-rising flour (which already has baking powder and salt added) in place of all-purpose.
Avoid it: Make sure your containers are clearly labelled — and double-check your recipe to make sure you’re using the right one.
Leaving out an ingredient or losing count
Sometimes we get distracted in the kitchen when the phone rings or a spouse/child/pet decides to help. Suddenly you can’t remember if you added the baking soda, or how many cups of flour you put in the bowl.
Avoid it: You can’t always prevent distractions, but you can mis en place — that is, have all of your ingredients measured and ready to go before you start. (Especially if there are a lot of steps.) If you miss an ingredient, it will be obvious — and if you lose count, you can start again.
Making unwise substitutions
Remember what we said about recipes being like formulas? There’s a reason you can’t use brown rice flour for all-purpose flour without compensating for the lack of gluten — or substitute no-fat ingredients for the fat. In order to make successful substitutions, experts say you need to know what role a given ingredient plays in the chemistry.
Avoid it: Let cooks and recipe testers do the work for you. Look for recipes that use lower amounts of ingredients you want to limit or use substitutes for ingredients you want to avoid. There’s no shortage of gluten-free, dairy-free, diabetic-friendly, light and healthy recipes out there. Once you get the hang of things, you can try adapting your own recipes.
Another option is to research healthy ingredient substitutions to find out what works and what doesn’t.
Being careless with measurements
Do you neglect to level your cups of flour or "eye ball" liquids rather than getting down at eye level? You could be adding more of the ingredient than you need and throwing off your recipe. Even a little extra flour could stop your cookies from spreading properly or cause a cake to dry out.
And did you know that scooping ingredients from canisters could make them "pack down" in the cup, causing you to add more?
Avoid it: Experts say to aim for accuracy. For example, try spooning ingredients into measuring cups rather than digging into the container — and use a straight edge to level the top. Be sure to use the right measuring cups for dry and wet ingredients too.
Softening butter too much
Recipes often call for butter to be "softened", but if it’s too soft or too hard it won’t cream properly with sugar — an essential step for cookies, cakes and pastries. Once it gets too warm, the water-fat emulsion breaks down and loses the ability to incorporate air when beating with sugar.
Avoid it: How soft is too soft? Experts say the perfect temperature for creaming is at or under 65 degrees Fahrenheit — just below the temperature at which butter begins to melt. It should be cool to the touch and you should be able to make an impression in it with your finger without being able to push too far down.
The best way to soften it is to cut it up into chunks and let it stand at room temperature. Even if you’re in a hurry, experts say you should never put butter in the microwave or use heat. (Livestrong.com and the New York Times have good overviews on how to handle this crucial ingredient.)
Using ingredients that aren’t at the right temperature
Butter isn’t the only ingredient you have to handle with care. Did you know that some batters — like muffins and some cookies — are at their best with room temperature ingredients while others require cold?
Avoid it: Pay careful attention to the recipe. If room temperature is preferable, allow time for ingredients to stand. If cold is required, don’t be afraid to stick your bowl, mixers and ingredients back in the fridge part way through to ensure things aren’t getting too warm.
Wondering why your baked goods get too tough or dense? Gluten — the protein in flour that helps hold everything together — toughens up as you mix wet and dry ingredients. After much experimenting, I realized my favourite muffins fared better if I mixed as little as possible.
Another danger: cold ingredients have a chance to warm up from too much handling.
Avoid it: Experts note to mix wet and dry ingredients until they are just blended. Some sources say to stop as soon as you no longer see any streaks of flour. If you’re using nuts, chocolate or fruit, you’ll want to add them before the flour is completely mixed in.
If you’re using an electric mixer, experts say to keep your eyes on it and stop just before all the dry mixture is incorporated. You can then make the final few blending strokes by hand.
Under-baking the goods
Living in fear of foods that are too dry, tough or burnt, many cooks go in the opposite direction — they don’t bake items long enough. The result: doughy, undercooked and gummy middles.
Avoid it: Follow the recipe directions and test the food after the given amount of time. A toothpick inserted into the middle of a cake or muffin can tell you if it’s still undercooked in the middle.
Hopefully, you won’t encounter any of these baking errors this season. If you do, here’s a final word of advice: don’t be afraid to try again. Remember, we learn from mistakes — though we would rather they not happen in front of guests!
Additional sources: About.com, DairyGoodness.ca, Epicurious.com, Livestrong.com, WNetwork.com