Baking FAQs and Helpful Tips

By Ann Fulton

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What are the most common baking mistakes? How can we avoid them? This post addresses the common pitfalls and provides expert tips for troubleshooting trickier problems. 

What are the most common baking mistakes? How can we avoid them? This post addresses common pitfalls and provides expert tips for troubleshooting trickier problems. (Tried-and-true recipes included!)

 

Have you ever flipped a cake out of the pan, only for chunks of cake to break away and remain in the pan? 

Have you sliced into a seemingly perfect loaf of quick or yeasted bread, only to notice a thin line of undercooked batter along the bottom of the loaf? 

And do I really have to grease and flour my cake pans?

Baking may be a science, but the solutions to many of the common questions and frustrations really are easy.

Below, I’ve combined my baking experience with a few tips from the pros in order to tackle the questions I’ve been asked most frequently over the years, and I will continue to update this resource as I receive new questions.

Happy baking! 

 

What are the most common baking mistakes-and how do I avoid them?

  • Not realizing the difference between light and dark-coated pans - More details on this subject are included in the Baker’s Helpline, below. But in a nutshell, baked goods (and even roasted vegetables) will cook more quickly in dark coated pans than in their light-colored counterparts. 
  • Using wet and dry measuring cups with the wrong ingredients - The difference may seem small, but wet and dry measuring cups don’t result in the same measurements and can have a big impact on baking results. 
  • Measuring flour improperly - Scooping directly into the flour will compress it and lead to too much flour being used. It might seem fussy, but take a spoon, fluff up the flour, and then spoon the flour a little at a time into the measuring cup. Then, level off the top with the straight edge of a knife. 
  • Over-mixing the batter - Mixing or beating ingredients too much tends to make the gluten in the flour tough and dense. This can lead to a chewier end result and is especially important for cakes, which we want to be light, airy, tender, and moist. 
  • Baking in an oven that isn’t preheated - This can mess with the general chemistry of the baked good. Specifically, putting batter in an oven that hasn’t come to temperature can lead to insufficient rise and further effect details like crumb consistency and cooking time.
  • Opening the oven door frequently - The occasional check is generally fine, but a sudden drop in temperature can effect rise, and more delicate baked goods may collapse or sink. 
  • Forgetting to set the timer - We think we will remember…  More times than not, if a baked good is dry, it is because it was baked too long. On that note, always check a recipe early the first time you make it. All ovens vary, and recipes can be wrong. 
  • Substituting baking powder for baking soda (and vice-versa) - These ingredients are both leaveners, but they are chemically very different. They are chosen to react with the acid in a recipe (or make up for lack of acid in a recipe) in order to create the proper rise. The wrong choice can also create a metallic aftertaste.  
  • Not waiting for cakes and cupcakes to cool completely before frosting - Cakes are more fragile when hot, so spreading the icing then is likely to create crumbs and even breakage. Also, if the cake is hot, the icing may slide off or melt into the cake. 
  • Not greasing pans properly - Non-stick vegetable oil spray or melted shortening will work better than butter. The milk solids in butter can act like glue, encouraging cake batter to stick to the pan. When spraying a pan, especially a Bundt pan, do it just before adding the batter, as the oil can run down the sides and pool at the bottom over time. Parchment paper is especially helpful with round, square, and rectangular pans. Some recipes will tell you to grease the parchment, but I find this to be unnecessary when using a decent parchment paper.   

 

Best egg replacer I've found

What’s the best egg replacer? To date, neat egg is the most reliable I have tested. (Pictured with Pumpkin Ginger Cookies.)

FAQs and Baker’s Helpline:

Should I use a glass or metal pan? The short answer is that light metal is preferable to dark metal and glass. The science behind this is as follows: metal is a conductor, and glass is an insulator. Glass is slower to heat, but once hot, does a better job of retaining heat. This means edges and bottoms (especially with a sugary cake) often brown too quickly, sometimes before the inside has cooked through. When removed from the oven, a loaf in a glass pan takes longer to cool, which can lead to a slightly drier end result. Similar results can occur with dark metal pans, which absorb more heat than light-colored pans.

Further baking pan troubleshooting: If you’ve been cooking your recipes in a glass or dark metal pan and haven’t had a problem, keep using it. If you’ve experienced some of the above issues, you can work with what you have. First, try lining your loaf pan with parchment paper. This will help prevent the outsides from overcooking—it also makes removing the bread from the pan and cleaning up really easy, too! Second, lowering your oven temperature by 25° F when baking in glass or dark-colored metal will compensate for the material as well.

How should I store quick bread and muffins? On the counter for up to 3 days or freeze.

But will the muffins go bad on the counter? The heat of the oven and the sugar in the recipe will have a preserving effect for this amount of time. However, if you see condensation on the container or wrapper, which can happen when humidity is present, this can create mold sooner. In this case, store, well wrapped, in the refrigerator or freezer.

Why does my baked good seem dry when stored in the refrigerator? This can happen even after one day with well-wrapped quick breads or muffins when butter or coconut oil is used as the fat in the recipe. But there is a fix. The bread only seems dry because these fats reharden and draw in moisture when chilled. To soften and restore moisture, simply warm the bread. I like to toast it. To alleviate this problem from the start, a vegetable oil, like safflower or canola, may be used, although you may miss out on a hint of flavor. 

Should I use butter or oil in my brownies? Butter adds more flavor, but for the reasons listed directly above, you may find that, over time, your brownies maintain moisture better when oil is used. Also, many people like to store brownies in the fridge and enjoy them cold; in this case, the warming trick isn’t helpful. Also, brownies typically have enough decadence so don’t need the flavor in butter to taste great.  

How do I intensify the fruit flavor in a quick bread or muffin? Simply adding additional fresh (or frozen) fruit runs the risk of adding too much moisture, which will likely result in a dense or wet crumb. Enter freeze-dried fruit. (Note this is different than dried fruit.) For more intense fruit flavor, you can add about ½ cup of freeze-dried strawberries, blueberries, bananas, raspberries, or even mango to your favorite quick bread and muffin recipes. Lightly crunch the fruit pieces after measuring and then stir into the batter. If you’d like to color the batter, you can pulverize the freeze-dried fruit into a powder first.

Which milk is best for baked goods? The top pick of the experts at King Arthur Flour is cow’s milk (with first choice being whole, followed by 2%) because of its “perfect balance” of fat and protein. That said, plant-based milks offer a worthy alternative when a plain, unsweetened variety like almond or oat milk is used.

Is it necessary to grease AND flour a cake pan? Flouring a greased pan is often unnecessary and can actually leave a floury residue. However, some cakes, like sponge and angel food, don’t contain a leavening agent other than whipped egg whites. In this case, a coating of flour helps the batter cling to the sides of the pan (aiding rise and preventing a potential collapse), while the grease allows the cake to release after baking. When in doubt and instructed to do so by the recipe, flour the pan. If using baking spray with the oil and flour combined, simply spray the whole pan with that. If instructed to flour the pan for a chocolate cake, you may substitute cocoa powder to avoid a white residue.

What do I do when my baked good isn’t cooked through but is really brown on top? Simply draping with a piece of foil should prevent further darkening. Also make sure to bake, unless otherwise specified in the recipe, on the middle rack. Note that nut flours tend to brown more quickly than grain-based flours. Also, because of the way heat is transferred, use of glass and dark metal pans will result in faster browning than light metal pans.

How can I be sure quick bread, cakes, and muffins are cooked through the whole way? It can be difficult to tell, especially with a big loaf where the toothpick doesn’t reach down the whole way or when the surface is crusty. The absolute best way to determine the perfect level of doneness is with a quick-read thermometer. The temperature of the bottom/center of the quick bread, muffin, or cake (or nearly any batter enriched with eggs, butter, and milk, for that matter) should register between 200 and 205℉. (A temperature as high as 210℉ will be acceptable when the baked good has a high moisture content, as with a fruity blueberry muffin.)

How can I tell when a yeasted bread is fully cooked? For pan breads, freeform loaves, and soft rolls that do not contain eggs, a temperature of 190°F at the center will yield bread that’s fully baked (soft and moist) but not over-baked (tough and dry). The exception to this rule appears with baguettes. For best results (crisp and chewy), these should be baked to a higher temperature of about 210℉, although exterior color (nicely browned) tends to be the best indicator of a well-baked baguette. 

Why do I sometimes get a dense layer along the bottom of a quick or yeasted loaf of bread? This happens when the bread is almost fully cooked, but not quite. Again, using a quick read thermometer and looking for the temperature noted above will remedy this problem.

How long should I wait before frosting a cake or cupcakes? Allow 2-3 hours for a cake to cool completely. The cake will then be sturdier and crumble less when icing is spread across it. For the smoothest finish on a cake, add a crumb coat (see below) and then refrigerate the cake for up to 30 minutes before frosting.

What is a crumb coat? This is a very thin layer of icing used to “glue” crumbs down, seal in the cake’s moisture (which is especially useful when needing to store the cake before decorating it) and provide an even base for additional frosting. As an added tip, room temperature frosting will be far easier to spread that cold icing.

What adjustments do I need to make when baking at altitude? Higher altitude means lower air pressure, and this makes baking far trickier. The best at-a-glance reference I’ve seen is this high-altitude baking guide from King Arthur Flour. To address certain complexities, additional resources are also offered. 

 

Favorite baked good recipes

Carrot Cake with Almond Flour - naturally gluten-free but a perennial favorite with everyone!

Many of these recipes are marked as gluten- and/or grain-free, but most can be modified easily. Many are also nut- and dairy-free or adaptable. 

Cakes and cupcakes:

Grain-free, naturally sweetened Zucchini Banana (or Applesauce) Bread-this healthy edition of the ultimate summer quick bread is easy to customize and completely delicious

Quick breads and breakfast cakes:

Breads and rolls:

* No yeast recipe

Sweet and tangy with a tender crumb, Rhubarb Streusel Muffins are sure to become a seasonal favorite!

Muffins:

Decadent, fudgy brownies score big points in flavor and texture while delivering a filling dose of fiber and protein. A total dessert win!

Brownies and bars:

Fresh, sweet flavor is the highlight of this seasonal favorite, which offers make-ahead convenience and countless ways to customize.

Baked oatmeals: * 

* All are gluten-free with use of certified GF oats, as are recipes directly below.

Oatmeal Packet Mug Muffin - You choose the flavor in these healthy, protein-rich, single-serve muffins that can be made with just four easy ingredients!

Single serve breakfast muffins: 

Grain-free and delicious!

Cookies:

These no-bake treats are healthy, easy to make, and sure to become a family favorite!

No-bake treats:

 

MORE QUESTIONS?

Do you have a question that isn’t answered here? Feel free to ask questions in the comment section below or email me through the contact page. I will continue to update the post as questions arise.  

Healthy Chocolate Chunkers
Chocolate Chip Cookies

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Comments

  1. Judy Kaiser

    Hi. I love your recipes. I just moved to Colorado from the East Coast. The higher altitude creates a challenge. I want to make your Strawberry bread recipe – any suggestions on modifications needed? Thanks!

    Reply