If you are relatively new to baking, you may have had a few disasters. Your cake was maybe a bit dry, your cookies may have melted into a huge cookie sheet, or your cupcake frosting may have refused to stay in place. The good news is that you can learn from your mistakes. The bad news is that you may not necessarily know what your mistake was.
Here are a few of the common baking mistakes that every new baker makes, and how you can avoid them. Once you have mastered these, you are well on your way to being a star baker!
You may have noticed recipes specify "room-temperature butter." You may have also ignored this completely because you keep your butter in your fridge and you're too excited to start to wait for butter to soften. This is a mistake, and there's a very good reason why.
Many baking recipes start with a direction to "cream" butter with sugar. Not only is this far easier to do with softened butter, but the softness also allows the rough sugar to carve out tiny air pockets in the butter. These create room for rising agents like baking soda to expand, giving you the light texture you desire.
If you know you are going to be baking, take out your butter a few hours ahead. If you have forgotten, heat a glass bowl in the microwave and place it over your butter: it will only take a few minutes to soften.
While they serve a similar purpose, baking soda and baking powder are not the same thing. Baking soda needs to interact with an acid - like milk, molasses, or lemon juice - to act as a rising agent. Baking powder, on the other hand, is made from baking soda and cream of tartar. If a recipe calls for one or the other, there is probably a reason for that, so a well-stocked baking cupboard will have both.
Also, check your expiration dates: both baking soda and baking powder can expire. It doesn't make the food dangerous to eat, but it does render the powder ineffective, resulting in flat baked goods. There is an easy way to test whether your baking powder/soda is still good: place a small amount in hot water. If it fizzes, you're good to go.
Most baking recipes start with the same two steps: Preheat your oven and line the pan with butter and/or parchment paper. It is easy to skip these steps, or to think you'll just do them once you're done with the batter. However, this could easily ruin your cake.
Lining the cake tin is essential to make sure it doesn't stick. If you wait until the last minute to do it, you are letting your cake batter sit idle for several minutes - more if you are fiddling with stubborn parchment paper. The air inside your batter will start escaping, meaning your cake won't rise properly. Similarly, the cake needs to go into the oven at the right temperature: putting it in whilst it is heating just means it is sitting there without baking for a long time.
This is quite an obvious one, but a common rookie mistake nonetheless. If you are intending to frost or ice cookies, cupcakes, or cake, leave them to cool completely before starting. Particularly if you are using buttercream frosting, which is mostly butter, and will immediately start melting on contact with the warm baked goods. So be patient, and you will be well on your way to beautifully frosted cakes!
Make sure you set your oven at the right temperature: different baked goods require different optimum levels of heat. Of course, an excessively high temperature can burn your cake before the middle is fully cooked, but the issue can be more subtle than that. For example, slightly higher temperatures can make your cake dome dramatically instead of sitting flat: this can make frosting a lot more difficult. If your cake or cupcakes have come out dome-shaped, don't just chop off the top: you can gently press down with a paper towel while they are hot to flatten them.
Even if you have set your oven to the right temperature, some ovens do not actually match their set temperatures. If you suspect your oven is too hot, invest in an oven thermometer to get your baking temperature perfect every time.
You have baked your cake, it has come out beautifully, and you have waited for it to cool completely. You start frosting your masterpiece and... it starts getting messy. Cake crumbs are getting mixed in with your beautiful frosting.
There is an easy way to avoid this: the crumb coat. Do one thin, messy layer of frosting all over the cake before going in with the thick layers. This captures all the crumbs, giving you a smooth surface to work on.
Most bakers have experienced the disappointment of carefully rolling and trimming their dough into perfect cookie-cutter shapes, only to open the oven an see a mass of misshapen blobs.
The secret to perfectly shaped cookies is chilling your dough before baking. For optimum results, use the "triple-chill" method: chill before rolling, chill after rolling, and chill once you have made your shapes. Your cookies will come out perfectly-formed and ready to be iced into beautiful works of art - just remember to let them cool.
It's completely natural to want to keep checking up on your baby as it bakes. However, it may be stopping your cake from rising properly and achieving that light, fluffy texture.
Leave the cake in the oven for as long as is specified in the recipe, and then you can open to check. Poke a stick into the cake to see if it is ready - if it comes out clean, it's good to go. If it isn't quite ready, then you can start regularly checking: it's mostly baked anyways, so it won't make much of a difference.