They say that baking is when you first glimpse your mortality. Up till then, you've succeeded at everything you've tried—your hollandaise is smooth and velvety, your prime rib effortlessly roasted to medium-rare perfection. You think you're invincible.
Then one day you bake a cake, and it comes out looking like a spare tire. Or instead of a loaf of bread, you appear to have baked a brick. We've all been there. Fate is cruel, and life is absurd. Figure out what went wrong and get it right the next time.
Follow The Recipe
One of my most cherished memories is of a one-star (out of five) review left by a reader who complained that my recipe for whipped cream didn't work, and she'd followed it exactly, other than substituting mayonnaise for heavy cream because she was lactose intolerant.
The point is if it's your first time making a given recipe, don't make any changes! If a recipe calls for bread flour, use bread flour. Don't swap raisins for walnuts, or eggs for applesauce.
The thing is, with so many trillions of recipes out there, if you want to make a pound cake with applesauce instead of eggs, you're far better off finding one that's written with applesauce and making it, instead of trying to modify a recipe.
And by the way, following the recipe includes preheating your oven. It really matters! No matter what type of leavening agent you're using, it won't produce a proper rise if the oven isn't hot when it goes in.
Measure Your Ingredients Correctly
That means weighing your flour. If you scoop, you'll use too much flour, and whatever you're making will be too hard. A cup of flour weighs 130 grams. When a recipe calls for two cups of flour, weigh out 260 grams of flour. Also, don't mix up your units. Ounces in a cup are not the same as ounces in a pound.
And, in no particular order:
- Don't overmix (or you'll overwork the glutens).
- Use a light-colored baking pan (or your cake/pie/cookies will burn).
- Quit opening the oven to look inside (or you'll let the gremlins out).
All right. With that out of the way, let's delve into some of the common pitfalls specific to each type of baking. We'll assume that you've followed the recipe. Thus, if a cake is too dark, it's probably not because you used too much sugar, but likely an issue with your oven calibration.
Collapsed in the middle: This can be a sign of improper temperature, which can be caused by opening the oven door during baking. Or you may have walked too heavily near the oven at the crucial moment before the cake had set.
Too dense, or didn't rise: This can be caused by not using enough leavening, but if you followed the recipe, it might be that your leavening is old. Baking soda and baking powder are most effective in the first six months after you get them home. After that, they lose their oomph and should be replaced.
Cracked on top: You followed the recipe and measured properly, so we can rule out using too much flour, or not enough liquid. It might be that your oven is too hot. Get an oven thermometer to make sure that your oven is actually the temperature it says it is. Also, make sure you're using the right size of pan (and not a dark-colored one).
Stuck in the pan: Line the bottom with a round of parchment paper cut to fit the bottom of the pan. Grease the paper and the sides of the pan with butter.
Frosting full of crumbs: Let your cake cool all the way before frosting. And don't let it cool in the pan for too long or it can turn soggy around the edges. Take it out as soon as the pan is cool enough to handle, and let the cake cool the rest of the way on a rack.
So much is going to go wrong with your bread, so just don't even worry about it, but:
Misshapen loaf: You overmixed or used the wrong kind of flour or the wrong kind of yeast or your oven was too hot, or it was the wrong phase of the moon.
Too dense: Underproofed or underfermented.
Split crust: You overmixed the dough, or underfermented it, or didn't shape it right, or your oven was too hot.
Too hard: Other than using too much flour, this is almost always because the dough was overmixed. Mix your cookie dough just until all the ingredients are combined. Beyond that and you'll overdevelop the glutens.
Too much spread: This could be caused by your oven being too cool, or possibly because you used too much cooking spray on your pan. Try using parchment instead. Or a darker pan. You may also have creamed the butter and sugar too long.
Not enough spread: Reverse of above. Oven too hot, or pan not greased enough. Try using a light-colored pan.
Uneven browning: You may have hot spots in your oven. Rotate the pan halfway through baking.
Crust too tough: This is almost always caused by either overmixing or overhandling the dough while you're working it. If you had to roll it out twice or tried to roll your scraps into the crust, you can overwork the glutens.
Soggy bottom: This is generally caused by your oven temperature being too low. Use a dark-colored pan and/or bake the pie on the bottom rack of the oven, or even the floor of the oven. Also, make sure you're using a mealy dough for the bottom, not flaky.
Crust shrinks during baking: Number-one cause of this is that you stretched the dough out when you transferred it to the pie pan. Try to drape it across, not pull it.
Filling boils out: Make sure you vent the top crust and let the filling cool before you pour it into the shell. Also, don't overfill it.
Have fun! Even if it doesn't look quite right, it probably still tastes good. And if it doesn't, you probably learned something. Make breadcrumbs. Feed the birds. Life is short — try to enjoy it!