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13 biggest sins of baking (and how to avoid making them)
Sunken cakes, rock-hard scones and burnt biscuits? These are baking's biggest sins.
There might be an art to cookery, but baking is all about science, especially when it comes to sweet treats. Sure, leaving spuds in the oven a few extra minutes isn’t a problem (it might even make them more delicious), but for biscuits, it could mean the difference between perfectly baked and burnt to a crisp.
“The science behind food is incredible,” says RACV executive pastry chef Josh Cochrane. “There are things happening at molecular levels that you might not really understand but, if they don’t happen, you end up with a different product.”
Baking is no cake walk. So whether you’re a hobby cake maker or you’ve jumped on the #quarantinebaking bandwagon, never let your cakes fall flat again. These are the biggest baking sins and how to avoid them.
Chef's guide to the 13 biggest baking sins
Not following the recipe
Whether it’s a (deceptively) simple sponge cake or perfectly flaky filo pastry you’re trying to master, success comes down to one thing: the recipe. “Skill will only get you so far,” Josh says. “The only difference between a good baker and a bad one is their ability to follow a recipe. Following the recipes is key.”
Not measuring ingredients
Ever taken a bite out of a biscuit only to get a mouthful of something that tastes like fizzy soap? This is a classic baking blunder. Adding a few extra grams of flour to your biscuit batter won’t affect the result but adding too much baking powder, on the other hand, will. “Ingredients that are only called for in small amounts, like baking powder or yeast, they’re the ones to look out for because they can make a big difference to the end product,” Josh says.
Substituting the wrong ingredients
If you’re going to change a recipe, you need to understand which ingredients can be substituted. Especially when it comes to floury faux pas. “Bread flour and plain flour are totally different things,” Josh says. "So if you sub bread flour for plain flour, it won’t work as well because the gluten just isn’t present.” He says understanding the ingredients – and their function – is key.
Pro tip: “If you haven’t heard of something, Google it. There is no excuse for not understanding.”
Thinking baking powder and baking (or bi-carb) soda are the same thing
They’re not. Sure, they’re both raising (or leavening) agents, but baking soda is pure sodium bicarbonate, which requires an acid and a liquid to become activated and help baked goods rise, whereas baking powder contains both the raising agent (sodium bicarbonate) as well as the acid needed to activate it. “Baking powder is baking soda but also has cream of tartar and often cornstarch in it,” Josh explains. “That means it only needs a liquid to become activated.”
Pro tip: Baking soda is much stronger than baking powder so when substituting you need about a third of the amount, otherwise your baked goods will taste chalky or bitter.
Not sifting ingredients
This one is pretty important, Josh says. “Sifting ingredients disperses the baking powders and salts and spices,” he explains. “It also helps to make sure you don’t get any little lumps – like little pockets of bitter baking soda – in your cakes.”
Not waiting for the oven to properly preheat
As a rule of thumb, you’ve got to pre-heat your oven. This is particularly important when you’re baking things like bread or sponge cake.
“If the oven is 10 to 15 degrees out – for something like a sponge, where you want to create a bit of a crust on top – if the temperature isn’t right when you put it in, the crust won’t develop before it starts to rise, so you’ll end up with a big crack down the middle,” Josh explains.
Pro tip: Josh says for most things slight temperature variations won’t make a huge difference. “There is always a few degrees’ tolerance.”
Not having patience
When it comes to baking, patience makes perfect. “If you have a cake that has to bake for 45 minutes, don’t get antsy and check it before,” Josh says. “When you open that oven door, you lose so much heat, which causes [the cake] to collapse."
Pro tip: "Trusting the recipe is so important. People have tried and tested that recipe so have patience.”
Not setting a timer
Every oven is different so when it comes to timing, Josh advises to always allow a little extra either side. “Timing is important,” he says. “If you don’t have an oven timer, use your phone. Set it for the minimum time stated on the recipe and don’t check it before."
Pro tip: If you have to check on your cake or cookies, only open your oven once the product is at a point where it’s meant to be done. "It might have some slightly doughy batter in the middle but it shouldn’t be at a point where it’ll collapse," Josh says. "If it does (and your oven is on the right setting), then the recipe is not very good.”
Not letting eggs come to room temperature
Eggs are full of protein. This is what gives cakes strength. “Room-temperature eggs whisk up a lot faster and get more volume than cold eggs,” Josh says. “If I am making macarons or meringues, I will warm egg whites up over a double boiler to about 30 degrees to make sure they’re going to whip up nicely.”
Pro tip: If you’ve forgotten to take your eggs out early, Josh says, put them in a bowl of warm water for 10 minutes to heat them up straight away.
Beating around the bush
Ever wondered why your egg whites never seem to form stiff peaks? “Fat inhibits egg whites from whipping,” Josh says. “So if you’ve measured out your butter and there’s even the tiniest thin film left on the bowl, you can whisk for hours and they won’t do anything.”
Same goes when you’re separating egg whites. “If there’s even a sliver of egg yolk in there – forget about it. It’s never going to whip up.”
Pro tip: Josh says to always err on the side of caution and make sure everything is clean and sanitised – hands included – before you try to whip your eggs into shape.
Not using fresh eggs
“I always thought an egg was an egg,” Josh says. “But when I had a chicken a few years ago I was amazed at just how thick the egg whites were when the egg was fresh compared to store bought.”
Pro tip: You can always tell an old egg, Josh says, because if you crack it into a pan, the egg white will run everywhere because the protein has started to break down. “Fresh eggs have a lot more protein, so they are a lot more stable when used in baking.
Killing your yeast
Salt and yeast are not friends. “When you’re making bread, for example, if you have a live culture like yeast, and you add salt into the mix when you’re weighing out/sifting your dry ingredients, you can potentially kill the yeast, which means you’ll have flat bread.”
Pro tip: If you’re working with dried yeast, Josh says, always rehydrate first. “Add some water, give it a whisk, then let it sit for 5-10 mins. When the yeast starts to come alive you’ll start to get little bubbles.
Not planning ahead
As anyone who has ever watched MasterChef can attest, being organised in the kitchen is essential. This includes reading the recipe before you lift a utensil. “Some recipes are not written in the order of how they should be produced,” Josh says. “So always read through the whole recipe first so you understand all the steps before you start. If it’s a recipe that you haven’t made before, or has lots of steps, make sure you have all your ingredients sifted, prepped and weighed out."
Pro tip: "The more prep you do, the easier it’ll be once you get started.”