Baking at any culinary experience level can be tricky–but for the novice, even the most basic ground rules can seem foreign or intimidating. There’s no shame in a going through few burnt cookies or soggy undercooked pound cakes as part of the learning process. Baking is based in the science of precision, and precision takes practice. If you’re new to the baking world, take care to avoid these 10 common newbie mistakes, and you’ll be cake bossing in no time.
#1. You don’t read the recipe in its entirety
Though it may sound elementary, this is a step both new bakers and cooks often overlook. Make sure you have all the ingredients, tools, and time you need to complete the recipe. There’s no greater disappointment than prepping a dessert an hour before a dinner party only to discover that it needs 12 hours in the fridge to set! Trust me, I’ve been there. Save yourself the heartache and last-minute scrambling by reading through the recipe in its entirety before committing.
#2. You don’t bring ingredients to room temperature
When a recipe calls for ingredients “at room temperature,” it’s not a casual suggestion. There is real science behind this, so DON’T skip this important step. When ingredients like butter, eggs, and dairy are brought to room temperature, they form an emulsion that trap air. When baked, this air is released and expands to form a fluffy consistency. Room temperature ingredients also bond together more easily creating a smoother and more even batter. And when it comes to creating custards on the stove top, you always want to work with room temperature dairy and eggs; they will be much less likely to curdle/scramble when introduced to heat if they are not coming straight from the fridge.
#3. You use liquid and dry measuring cups interchangeably
A measuring cup is a measuring cup, right? Wrong. A liquid measuring cup is usually plastic or glass, has a pouring spout, and most importantly–bears measuring marks in volume. Dry measuring cups are designed to allow the ingredient (often flour or sugar) to be leveled off with a straight edge. The difference? Volume vs. weight in ounces. Liquid measuring cups measure in fluid ounces while dry measuring relies on weight. For example, in a liquid measuring cup 1 cup = 8 fluid oz. However, dry ingredients vary in weight so 1 cup of all-purpose flour is actually 4.5 oz., not 8. Using these interchangeably can lead to inaccurate measurements and a less-than-ideal final product. Especially when trying a recipe for the first time, measuring ingredients is not the place to “eyeball” it.
#4. You don’t prepare your pan properly
Ok, seriously, this is everything. If you don’t want your brownies to crumble or only half of your cake to make it out of the pan, thoroughly greasing and/or flouring your pans is a must. I promise, it’s not nearly as much of a pain as it seems–don’t skip it and don’t cheat it. When a layer cake recipe instructs you to grease, flour, and line each layer pan…. non-stick spray is not a viable substitute. Speaking of lining–always keep a roll of parchment paper (not wax paper and not foil) on hand. This inexpensive tool is super handy when it comes to keeping baked goods from sticking to the pan or bottoms of treats like cookies or scones from over-browning.
#5. You crack eggs directly into the mixing bowl
Picture it: you have a beautiful batter before you, you can already envision the glorious finished treat emerging from the oven–and then, with a couple of careless cracks, you taint it with a rotten egg or impossibly tiny egg shell shards. No one should have to go through that. Even pros don’t crack eggs perfectly every time and you never know when it’s going to be your time to encounter a bad egg, so go ahead and accept having one more dish to wash and break those eggs into another small bowl. Then, incorporate the eggs into your batter once the coast is clear. If a recipe calls for you to add eggs “one at a time,” just crack your eggs into your little egg bowl one at a time. No biggie.
#6. You dump all the ingredients together
At least once on their journey, all baking newbs will inevitably drop everything together in one bowl and mix, mix, mix. It’s fine, you get one freebie. But I can’t stress this enough: Follow the recipe. If it tells you to incorporate certain ingredients at different times, then do that. If you want to bake, but you’re really not into all of this precision, the one key word that you need to seek out in a recipe is “dump.” Typically, this key word (as in “Vanilla Dump Cake” or “…just dump and stir!”) indicates that you can take a little less care with how ingredients come together.
#7. You don’t sift the dry ingredients
To new bakers, this may seem like an unnecessary step, but I can guarantee that no recipe developer is out there adding superfluous steps to the process just to make your life difficult. If a recipe calls for flour or powdered sugar to be sifted before weighing or incorporating, do it. Sifting dry ingredients eliminates any potential lumps, incorporates air, and results in a smooth, textured batter that will rise consistently and bake evenly. A fine mesh sieve works perfectly for sifting.
#8. You multiply or divide the recipes for your baked goods
While in some instances simply doubling or halving a recipe may not be a big deal, in others it can alter the chemistry of the ingredients. And honestly, it can be difficult to make that judgement call until you understand baking recipes on a slightly more advanced level. At least until your more comfortable in your baking game, make multiple separate batches of the recipe instead multiplying the ingredients.
#9. You put your dish in the oven before it fully preheats
Listen up–this is a biggie. When a recipe indicates that a cake bakes for 45 minutes at 350 degrees, it needs to bake steadily at that temperature. If placed in the oven before reaching the peak temp, it will be hard to gauge when the cake is actually done which could lead to under-baking or over-baking.
#10. You open the oven during baking
We know you’re excited to see your treat, but have patience. Opening the oven allows cool air to enter and could make parts of your baked goods cook at different rates. Try looking at your masterpiece using the oven light instead.
Although baking can be a little tricky to start and certainly requires finesse, creating that perfect layer cake is so rewarding–so be patient and keep trying. Always remember to follow the recipe carefully. Skimping on steps may seem like a shortcut, but precision is key. Let us know in the comments if any of these common baking newbie mistakes were helpful in your own kitchen. Happy Baking, folks!