Even if you’re a pretty decent home cook, replicating your favorite pastry chef-created baked goods can be a real challenge. Flaky pie crusts and airy cakes are tricky for even trained chefs, and when whipped up in an at-home kitchen, they can often quite literally fall flat. Even if you’re following a recipe to the letter, you could still be making some important mistakes that keep your baked goods from being the best that they can be.
Many people think that they’re just not good at baking after several failed at-home attempts at the perfect angel food cake or pecan pie, but it likely just means that you’ve got some technique to learn. If you’re struggling with baking, try troubleshooting your process. These five tweaks could take your cakes, cookies, bars, and pies from “meh” to magical.
No matter what Grandma says, baking isn’t just throwing a pinch of this and a handful of that together and expecting for magic to happen in the oven. It is possible to occasionally get lucky and produce an edible baked good by winging the measurements, but your dish will always be better if you accurately measure each ingredient. This step may seem tedious, but your volume-based measuring cups really are completely useless. Baking ingredients should be measured by weight, which means that a $30 digital kitchen scale could be all that’s standing between you and a perfectly airy cake.
You definitely want to make sure that those eggs, flour, and milk are all really well-incorporated, but it is very easy to overmix a batter or dough, and it’s probably happening more often than you think. Overmixing or overbeating your ingredients makes the glutens in your flour become tough and dense, which will prevent you from achieving a desireable light and airy texture. When mixing a batter, make sure to stop stirring immediately after you see all traces of flour incorporated into the mixture (unless the recipe states otherwise; sometimes, such as with choux paste, you want gluten development). You may still see a few lumps, but that’s better than letting an overmixed batter ruin your cake.
Baking is basically just a really delicious science experiment, and it’s easy to understand why you want to keep opening up the oven door and checking out your dessert as it bakes off. Every time you open up that door, though, you release heat and lower the cooking temperature of the oven. That causes your baked goods to rise unevenly, crack, or even refuse to set properly. You can use the oven light to monitor your dish’s progress along the way, but for the sake of your cake, leave the door shut until it’s time to check for doneness.
Even the most delicious cakes and cookies can be ruined by an unexpected enemy: the pan in which it was prepared. When liberal butter and flour just won’t do, parchment paper is a fool-proof way to keep even the fudgiest brownies from sticking to the bottom of the pan. You should make sure that you’re giving your sweets plenty of time to cool — outside of minimizing sticking, that time is also necessary for your baked goods to finish setting.
Temperature is incredibly important in baking in more than just one way. Your oven’s temperature — which may not be exactly the number you’ve preheated it to — will dictate how your cake rises (or falls) and whether or not it cooks consistently. An oven thermometer can help you ensure that when you’re baking at 350 degrees, the temperature inside is accurate. The temperature of ingredients, especially eggs and butter, can also influence your baked final product. If the butter is too warm, for example, in your chocolate chip cookie recipe, they’ll spread out on the cookie sheet and cook too quickly. Fortunately, a good recipe should note the temperatures of these important ingredients. If yours doesn’t, it might be time to find a new recipe.
Amy McCarthy is Paste’s Assistant Food Editor. You can find her in the kitchen, tediously measuring out ingredients for her favorite brown butter chocolate chip cookies, or on Twitter @aemccarthy.