Baking can be tricky. It’s not the same as cooking, where taste tests and intuition can guide your process. With baking, which is based on specific ingredients, measurements, and processes, it’s important to follow recipes closely.
My grandmother was a professional cake baker and decorator for many years and my mother has been baking for her whole life, so they've passed down a lot of baking knowledge. This list of common baking mistakes and how to avoid or fix them comes from generations of experience and trial-and-error, so if you’re an aspiring baker or if a recipe went wrong and you’re not sure why, read on.
Mistake: Not having all cake ingredients at room temperature before starting. This is important because it affects the texture and consistency of the final product – it can make the difference between a fluffy cake and a dense one.
How to avoid: It’s best to prepare in advance and set things (like milk, butter, and eggs) on the counter with enough time to reach room temperature naturally before you begin mixing up batter or dough.
How to fix: In a pinch, you can warm ingredients on the stovetop or in a microwave (though just enough to get to room temperature – you don’t want them hot). This isn’t ideal because it will still affect the overall consistency of your cake, but it’s better than using cold ingredients.
Mistake: Forgetting that there’s a difference between self-rising and all-purpose flour.
How to avoid: Sounds simple, but read the package carefully before you buy flour.
How to fix: If you realize you accidentally bought self-rising flour instead of all-purpose, omit the baking powder and reduce the amount of salt called for in the recipe. Your outcome won’t be quite the same, but you’ll still be able to bake with what you have.
Mistake: Dipping the measuring cup directly into the bag of flour.
How to avoid: Always lightly spoon your flour into your measuring cup without packing it down; you want it to stay light and airy, not dense. After you’ve spooned a heaping amount of flour into your measuring cup, level it off with the straight edge of a knife.
How to fix: If your recipes always seem to turn out too dense or too flat, try sifting your flour next time. To “fix” overly dense baked goods, top with ice cream or whipped cream – there’s no way to fluff up the end result.
Mistake: Using baking soda instead of baking powder (or vice versa).
How to avoid: Read the recipe carefully to make sure you’re using the correct ingredient. Adding too much baking soda will give your product a strong bitter taste, while too much baking powder will make things rise too much.
How to fix: If your recipe calls for baking soda but you only have baking powder, you can use baking powder as a substitute, but you’ll need a little over twice as much as the amount of baking soda called for. If your recipe calls for baking powder but you only have baking soda, you’ll need to reduce the amount (because baking soda is much stronger) and add about a teaspoon of lemon juice or vinegar for every half teaspoon of soda.
Mistake: Failing to replace your baking powder every six months or so.
How to avoid: To test your baking powder and determine if it’s still OK to use, add a small spoonful to a cup of hot water. If it starts to bubble and fizz, it hasn’t expired. If not, dispose of it and buy a fresh one.
How to fix: When you’re in a pinch, you can use expired baking powder if that’s all you have. It’s not harmful, but your final product won’t turn out as well.
Mistake: Mixing ingredients too much or not enough.
How to avoid: When you’re making a cake, it’s better to beat your ingredients too much rather than not enough, but it’s best to follow the recipe as closely as possible. When you’re making quick breads like pancakes or muffins, you really really don’t want to over-mix. Just mix until everything is incorporated, or until all dry ingredients are wet.
How to fix: Invest in a high-quality stand mixer to make sure that your mixing is controlled. It’s harder to control with a hand beater.
Mistake: Not sifting dry ingredients (especially powdered sugar and baking soda) to remove clumps.
How to avoid: Just to be on the safe side, make it a habit to sift all dry ingredients (powdered sugar, baking soda, baking powder, flour, cocoa, spices, etc.) before adding them to your recipe. To do this, you can put the ingredients into a fine mesh strainer and bump it against the palm of your hand over your bowl until all clumps have been broken up.
How to fix: If you don’t have a strainer or if you realize you forgot to sift your dry ingredients, stir them with a whisk before you add any wet ingredients.
Mistake: Your cookies are hard because you baked them too long, at too high a temperature, on a dark pan, or you didn’t add enough liquid.
How to avoid: Make sure to follow your recipe carefully and use a reliable timer. Check them five or so minutes before the recommended cook time is up just to be on the safe side.
How to fix: To soften cookies that turn out too hard, place them in a sealed container with a slice of white bread, as this will help the whole batch soften. You can also microwave them before eating to soften them a bit.
Mistake: Using wax paper instead of parchment paper for baking.
How to avoid: Never use wax paper in the oven — it is not oven-safe. Always use parchment paper if you have it.
How to fix: If you don’t have parchment paper, you should just grease whatever pan or sheet you’re baking on. Good news: parchment paper can be reused if you’re making multiple batches of cookies at once.
Mistake: Breaking eggs directly into your other ingredients.
How to avoid: Break eggs into a separate bowl. This gives you an opportunity to discard any “bad” eggs and to remove any pieces of shell that may fall in. Also, when making things like brownies that will be stirred by hand (rather than with a mixer), break up the egg yolks with a fork before adding to the batter. This prevents your brownies from having small, hard pieces of egg after they’re baked. Pay attention to what size eggs your recipe calls for; if it doesn’t specify, then just use standard large eggs.
How to fix: If you end up with pieces of shell in your batter, you can carefully fish them out with the empty half eggshells — just make sure you don’t accidentally break off more pieces of shell in the process.
Mistake: Separating eggs when they’re at room temperature.
How to avoid: Even if you’re making a cake and need to set out refrigerated ingredients to come to room temperature, you should separate your eggs (if the recipe calls for it) while they’re still cold, as it’s much easier.
How to fix: If you realize you’ve let your ingredients come to room temperature and you need to separate your eggs, it’s best to use your hands. It’s messy, but the easiest way to separate room-temperature or warm eggs is to crack them into your hand and let the white run between your fingers while you hold the yolk.
Mistake: Using evaporated milk and condensed milk interchangeably.
How to avoid: These two ingredients are packaged in the same size can and are often found near each other in the grocery store, so they’re easily confused. Pay close attention to which one your recipe calls for and be sure to get this one at the store. Condensed milk is very sweet and normally used in desserts. Evaporated milk is not sweetened, but is used in a variety of recipes.
How to fix: While you can’t substitute condensed milk for evaporated, you can use regular skim milk. For each cup of evaporated milk called for, add 2 ½ cups of skim milk to a saucepan and cook it down. It is possible to substitute evaporated milk if your recipe calls for condensed. For each cup of condensed milk, add five ounces of evaporated milk and ¾ cup white sugar. You’ll want to heat them on low in order to mix them together before use.
Mistake: Forgetting to preheat the oven or putting your baked goods in while it preheats.
How to avoid: Turn on your oven before you start making your recipe. The preheat cycle cooks differently, and baking is an exact science, so you want your oven at the correct temperature before you put anything inside.
How to fix: Be patient. If you get to the end of your preparation and you realize you forgot to preheat the oven, you’re better off to wait it out rather than putting your recipe into the oven early.
Cameron Pitts is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.
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