Who among us has not binge-watched The Great British Bake Off and thought, “I could do that, easy!” only to find yourself sitting on the floor of your kitchen five hours later, weeping and holding a black disc that’s supposed to be a bundt cake while your smoke detector blares in the background?
Alright, maybe it’s not that dramatic, but everyone who starts baking screws it up somehow at some point. Here are seven of the most common ways the screw-up are likely to happen so you know what to avoid.
Starting with something too ambitious
I know you want to create work-of-art tarts and Canelés de Bordeau, but you have to learn to walk before you can run, so start with something simple. I suggest Gâteau au yaourt. Don’t let the fancy French name fool you — children in France learn to make this in kindergarten. In its simplest form, this yogurt cake has only six ingredients, and you don’t even have to measure them. It’s a good first cake because early success is motivating, and it’s much tastier than that complicated cake you would have ruined.
Not reading the recipe before you start
Every beginner cook has made the mistake of following a recipe without reading it all the way through first, but it’s even worse when you’re baking because it’s usually harder to “salvage” baked goods than other food. Read the recipe all the way through so you know how long the whole process really will take (cheesecakes need hours to chill, for example), and whether you have all of the necessary ingredients or if you need to hit the store first. It’s also helpful to put out your ingredients where you can easily reach them, and do a mental “dry run” of the entire recipe before you start baking.
Not completely preheating your oven
Sliding a pan full of batter into a too-cool oven has ruined many birthday parties, so make sure your heat box is at the right temperature at the right time. If you have a fancy oven with a thermometer, use it. If you don’t, invest in an in-over thermometer. They cost as little as five bucks, and are worth at least 10 for the peace of mind alone. Also: I know you want to check on your cupcakes as they bake, but resist the urge as much as possible. Every time you open your oven, you change its temperature.
Not using room temperature ingredients
I don’t get precious about cooking or mixing cocktails — I’m just making a burger/getting drunk, so it doesn’t need to be perfect — but I’m a stickler for making sure the ingredients are the right temperature when I’m baking. It’s not snobbery like trying to perfect the proportion of rye to vermouth in your Manhattan; it actually matters. Mixing something like cold milk or eggs in with softened or melted butter will immediately chill the saturated fat into hard chunks. That once fluffy, smooth batter will appear curdled and can even result in melted-out butter pockets in the final product.
Not mixing dry ingredients before wet
Have you ever looked at a recipe and thought, “Why do I have to do this in this specific order? Everything is getting mixed together, right?” I have, and then I tried not mixing the dry ingredients first because I am a fool.
Mixing the dry ingredients disperses the rising agents, sugar, and other flavours evenly throughout the flour. Mixing the liquid ingredients before combining them with the dry means you have to mix the wet and dry together less, preventing the over-mixing that gives baked goods a heavy, gluey texture. Keep things light and airy by mixing dry with dry, wet with wet, and then the two together.
Frosting a warm cake
Trying to slather frosting or icing on a warm cake is a rookie mistake. I know you want to eat it as soon as possible, but the frosting or icing is going to melt. Sometimes that’s what you’re going for, but if it’s not, have patience. It’s not a damn race.
Making too many substitutions
You can throw just about anything into a curry or stir fry, but when you substitute ingredients in baking, you have to do it right. In a pinch, you can use baking soda instead of baking powder, but the ratio of soda to powder is 1/2 to 2, and it’s not the same. You can sub in chickpea juice if you’re out of eggs (or you’re vegan), but when you start substituting more than one ingredient in a single cake, pie, or tart, you’re likely to be met with unexpected results of the unpleasant variety.
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