Wednesday, September 9, 2015

6 common baking mistakes and how to fix them

I'm being lazy and refusing to do the dishes at the moment, which means I haven't done any baking because I can't ignore the mountain of dirty bowls and frypans if I go into the kitchen... So in light of my failure at being a proper grown-up human being, I thought I'd write about some possible baking failures (an area in which I am also accomplished).

These are the main mistakes I can think of - let me know if you have any to add!

1. Cake is too dry
This is really, really common - and really, really easy to do. It's not limited to cake, either. Cookies that are supposed to be chewy can end up crunchy and muffins can taste stale almost immediately.

I was in denial at the time but
these are definitely overcooked

Why does it happen? Overcooking - probably the baked goods should have been taken out of the oven five minutes earlier. If you're making a cake, use a knife or skewer to check - the probe doesn't have to come out clean, but if the consistency has changed from gooey batter to cooked-looking stuff it's probably good to go. Lightly touching the top of a spongy cake to see whether it springs back is another good test - but doesn't work for denser things like mud cake.

For cookies, usually they will form a slight crust around the edge, so gently touch the side and if it seems to have gotten a bit crisp they're probably ready. It does vary by recipe so check the instructions for clues on when they're done - but cookies usually finish cooking after they've been removed from the oven so they'll probably be ready to take out earlier than you think.

And if you discover after the fact you cooked a cake for too long you can bring a cake back into the tasty zone by making a simple sugar syrup and drenching the cake in it.

2. You can taste the raising agent
This can really ruin otherwise delicious baked goods, and unfortunately you can't tell for sure until you take a bite of the finished product. Usually baking soda is the culprit.

Pre-activating the baking soda can resolve this, and many recipes call for this in their method - usually with a combination of liquid and heat (my favourite chocolate cake recipe dissolves the baking soda in warm milk).

The other thing you can do if you have an otherwise-awesome recipe that has a bit of an aftertaste is to reduce the measure next time. Try using half or three quarters of the recommended amount and see what happens - it may take some trial and error to get it just right but you might be pleasantly surprised!

3. It doesn't look like the picture
Apart from the fact that you haven't spent hours on styling your food with fancy props - remember that the pretty picture on the recipe has probably had quite a bit of special treatment - there are a few things that'll help your baking come out looking fancier.

These macarons were intentionally hideous...
That's my story and I'm sticking to it!
Baking a cake or slice in the wrong size tin can make a big difference to appearance - taller cakes tend to look fancier but most people only have one or two sizes of cake tin so you can't always exactly follow the recipe. Personally I would always go smaller if I can, or even make a double mixture if I only have a big pan (or if it's for a large gathering).

Being in a hurry can also cost prettiness. If I'm in a rush I often make mistakes with the recipe, or just don't have time to let it cool before decorating or cutting or whatever, and that generally means the end result will be sloppy.

A few bonus touches: trim the edges off things with obvious crusts (then eat them, obviously - no waste here); trim the top off dome-topped cakes and flip them upside-down before icing; use a hot knife to slice anything gooey, and wipe it down between slices... And remember that so long as it tastes good it doesn't really matter, so feel free to disregard all of the above.

4. It's tough and chewy
Gluten, that much maligned protein in wheat, makes things chewy when it's developed. It's developed by working - think kneading when making bread - and that's awesome when it's wanted. My favourite brownie recipe relies on a bit of gluten-development for its va-va-voom.

Unfortunately it means if you overmix cake batter it's likely to get chewy, too - so when instructions say to fold in the flour until just combined, that's what you should do. Just the bare minimum to get everything mixed together. Lovely.

5. It doesn't rise the way it should
Raising agents can be rather fickle so there's definitely heaps of room for failure here (reassuring, right?). Did you beat enough air into your batter? Are the raising agents fresh? They can eventually lose their efficacy. Did you add too little or too much? Too much can sometimes cause baking not to rise enough, counter-intuitively, so make sure you measure accurately.

6. It's just an all out fail
Oh dear! I'm so sorry for your loss.

It was supposed to be a cake!
First question: did you substitute or add any ingredients? Baking can be a balancing act and a simple change like adding frozen raspberries to a cake (my most spectacular cake fail - unless you count burning stuff) can destroy the chemistry altogether. If you want to switch out ingredients it's wise to start with a recipe with similar properties to your desired end state and make subtle changes. For my raspberry white chocolate cake I should have started with a recipe designed to include fruit, instead of just throwing some berries into a white chocolate cake. The mixture looked great and it seemed perfect when I took it out of the oven, but five minutes later it was more shrivelled oily pancake than decadent cake.

It could just be a terrible recipe. In these days of unqualified bloggers filling the internet with delicious-looking photos there are plenty of those about (hopefully not here...).

Or maybe it's something that's quite sensitive and something was slightly off - your oven temperature is out by 20 degrees, your ingredients weren't at room temperature, or the humidity is too high.

So, tell me about your worst baking fail... Please? It'll make me feel better...

1 comment:

  1. When baking a nettle souffle, putting in more nettles than the recipe requires is not a good idea, even if the garden is full of nettles. Biggest fail was refusal of co-owner of the garden to ever eat it again.


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