Tips on baking from beginning to end

Baking can be finicky and challenging.

Recipe directions provide the oven temperature, baking time range and usually general instructions to bake an item until it is “golden brown.”

But it doesn’t always turn out. Sometimes an item seems dangerously undercooked even at the max time. Sometimes the inside of your dish is undercooked while the outside is turning a rich black color.

But why?

Well, it all has to do with chemical reactions, the weather and finicky ovens.

I’m no professional, but here are my tips and tricks that I have learned and collected over time. I’m hoping that at least one of these helps you in your quest for perfectly golden brown baked goods.

On recipes:

You grab your recipe and turn on the oven to preheat at the suggested temperature. Stop yourself. In cooking you can omit certain herbs and add in others to make your dish just the way you want it as you go along. In baking you can, over time and after trying a base recipe a few times, adjust some ingredients. Adding cherries instead of blueberries will likely not change your muffins too much (but even that can change depending on the water-level of different fruits, etc. and the ripeness of the fruit and so on).

Cooking recipes are more like guidelines. Baking recipes are formulas.

If you don’t believe me, just try doubling or halving the baking soda in your next batch of baked goods.

Baking recipes depend on a multitude of chemical reactions to produce the desired texture, taste and density. A pinch of salt rather than a teaspoon may produce a floppy product. Too much baking soda may force too much leavening in a cake.

Always be sure to read the recipe before you even go to the store. Recipe directions and notes are your friend, the result of repeated attempts to make the desired dish. This will also give you fair warning on how long things need to rest or chill or freeze or rise.

On oven temperature:

If your oven is old and finicky, or even if it’s new, be sure to check the temperature. A simple oven thermometer can be left in, usually hanging from one of the racks. My oven varies as much as 30° and sometimes I have to adjust the temperature setting as something is baking to keep the oven temperature on course. While some baked goods will manage just fine within a 15° range of desired temperature, other things such as macarons will be dramatically impacted by an off temperature.

On measuring ingredients:

Be sure to follow any directions on how to measure ingredients. Some recipes give gram or milliliter quantities and are best measured using a food scale (which you can pick up for $20-$40). If there are no specifications here are some general guidelines:

  • Liquid ingredients must be measured in liquid cups – be sure to set on a level surface or else you may be off by a quarter cup.
  • Granulated sugar is measured by scooping into a measuring cup and leveled using the backside of a table knife. Brown sugar is usually measured by being hard-packed, meaning you overfill the measuring cup and pack in the sugar using the back of a spoon and continue until the scoop is hard packed full of brown sugar and then leveled off.
  • If measuring flour by measuring cup (rather than a scale, the most accurate method) usually you should loose pack into the cup. This means using say, a smaller measuring cup or a spoon or a scoop and lightly toss the flour into your measuring cup. Level it off with the backside of a knife, while making sure to not pack more flour into the cup.

On mixing ingredients:

Good baking recipes suggest if the ingredients need to be mixed in cold, room temperature or warm. Softened butter shouldn’t be a combo of ice cold butter and melted butter. Often it helps to let all the ingredients come to room temperature so everything is combined at the same temperature. But this greatly depends on the recipe. Pie dough, for example, requires chilled water and cold cubed butter. Pizza dough requires water around 105° — warmer and the yeast will die off, colder and the yeast will not activate.

Even baking is your friend

Getting a pie or cookies or a cake to bake evenly is every chef’s dream. Here are some tips and tricks:

  • Make sure the even is heated to the proper temperature before inserting your dish.
  • Add a baking tray under your pie dish or add an extra baking tray under your tray of cookies. More layers underneath can help if your oven is not evenly heated – especially when the bottom of your oven is warmer than the top.
  • Generally place items in your oven in the middle. This is where the heat should be the most even. If putting two trays of items, halfway through the baking time switch the two trays so the top item goes on bottom and the bottom goes on top.
  • Halfway through baking turn your baking trays or items 180° — generally the back of the oven is warmer than the side closest the door.
  • Warning! Be sure to only open the oven door during baking as much as necessary, to check for doneness and to flip trays around. But be sure to read the recipe – some items will deflate if you open the oven door during the baking process.

How to tell if your baked good is, well, baked:

Good recipes will specify what exactly will indicate if your dish is done. But here are some guidelines and tips:

  • Color of your baked good is not always the best indicator. Sometimes, for example, pies will have a medium brown crust but the inside will not be done (in this case, you might consider covering the top of the pie with aluminum foil to protect it from over-browning).
  • Smell can be a good indicator. Oftentimes you’ll hear people who bake often say that things just smell “done.” This can take some time to develop, but its a good idea when baking to check your item when it smells done. This often indicates that air is escaping through holes in the baked item, which releases a yummy caramelization smell and can indicate that it is done.
  • The toothpick test. Many recipes, such as those for brownies or cakes, suggest putting a toothpick in the center of the item and once the item is baked thoroughly the toothpick will come out clean. This is often the best indicator when starting out baking, but it has often lied to me. Sometimes part of the item will be cooked thoroughly and the rest not.
  • The bounce back. This is my favorite way of checking for doneness on cakes, cupcakes, muffins and other similar items. These items, most of time, once baked thoroughly should have a spring back when pressed. Be sure to pull the item out of the oven when doing this or you just might burn the top of your hand (which I have done). Press lightly (not to create a divot) and the item should spring back right away. This test is best to learn over time – go by temperature and toothpick and when those indicate doneness do the bounce back to see what it looks like for future reference.
  • Set a timer! And not just any kitchen timer. Your phone! Kitchen timers have a bad habit of suddenly not working or pausing or not sounding loudly enough. Set a timer on your phone and I’m sure you’ll get the message.

Sonya Quick

Full-time mom, freelance journalist and dancer. Loves cooking, listening to good music and drinking craft beer.