Baking…universally loved, and almost equally feared. Baking a golden hued, tender-crumbed and fragrant butter-cake might be easy-as-pie to some, but for many a beginner-baker, it’s the stuff of nightmares. Let’s look at some of the most common mistakes made by newbie bakers, and how they impact the final product.
Not reading, fully understanding or following the recipe
The first step to ensure baking success is to own the recipe. By that I mean, complete familiarity with it. The recipe should be
A) read from start to finish, twice if necessary
B) understood thoroughly – look up any unfamiliar terms and processes to ensure you know what needs to be done, make sure all ingredients and equipment needed are on hand and at the temperature required, and
C) followed to a T.
The old cliché that baking is a science not an art, is a cliché for a reason. It’s annoyingly true. Baking calls for precision in ingredients, times and temperatures – so curb that impulse to get creative on your first attempt, and don’t second-guess/change the process. There will be time for that later.
Most recipes talk in terms of volume – cups, teaspoons and tablespoons, which have specific volumes attached to each measure. e.g. a US cup is 240 ml, a teaspoon is 5ml and a tablespoon is 15 ml. Professional quality baking recipes go a step further and list ingredient amounts in grams so that the margin for error is minimal. Make sure you use standard measuring cups/spoons to measure out your ingredients if going by volume and/or invest in a small measuring scale (preferably digital) to weigh your ingredients if going by weight. You will thank yourself.
Over-beating the batter
When it comes to beating your cake batter, less is more. Most cake recipes call for creaming the butter and sugar in the start, and this is where you can happily expend energy because this process creates the aeration required for a light cake. However, once the flour and liquids are added, resist the temptation to beat the batter to death. Mixing past the point where all the ingredients are combined will only lead to gluten-formation and a tough,bread-like cake.
All ovens were not created equal, and temperature gauges are notoriously inaccurate. It is therefore important that you figure out your oven, its accuracy and hot-spots, and use this knowledge during final baking. It could be trial and error for the first few times, but soon you will be able to tell whether a recipe that calls for 25 minutes of baking takes 30 mins in your oven or is done in 18 mins. For greater accuracy, invest in an oven-thermometer (easily available on most websites) and calibrate your oven accordingly.
Last, but not least – unwise substitutions
For example, though baking powder and baking soda are both leaveners/raising-agents, they are chemically different and react differently with other ingredients in a cake. Baking soda is alkaline and usually needs some kind of acidic element like lemon juice, vinegar, buttermilk etc. to react with and cause the leavening (raising) action in the cake. Baking powder, however, contains the alkaline and acidic element within itself and does not need an additional acidic element. So though they both act as raising agents, one cannot be substituted for the other without compromising on the consistency and quality of the baked item. There is a wealth of knowledge on allowed substitutes available on the net, so if you’re ever short of an ingredient and are looking for substitutes, a quick check will sort you out.
If you are new to baking, let the precise scientist in you run the baking process and then unleash the creative artist when decorating. All will be well. Happy baking!