Back To Basics :: Kitchen Tips and Tricks #2

The hardest thing about baked goods is that it can be difficult to tell how the final product will turn out until it has, well, turned out. It's not a multi-step process that you're involved in along the whole way and can reverse or intervene at any time: you make the batter, throw it in the oven and hope for the best.

Sometimes, what comes out of the oven does not resemble the picture of perfection you had in your head before you closed that oven door.

The list of faults that may occur in baked good is lengthy, so this week I shall focus on cakes. Here's a guide to some of the most common errors made and how to avoid them. 

Oven Temperature 

In the last entry, I spoke of how important pre-heating an over can be, the same goes for cooking at the right temperature. If you have an older oven and keep experiencing baking troubles, it can be a good idea to get an oven-proof thermometer and double check your oven temperature. 

Oven temperature too high

  • Coarse and open texture
  • Risen in centre
  • Cracked surface

Oven temperature too low

  • Close and heavy texture
  • Final product is dry
  • Risen unevenly
  • Sugary crust
  • Fruit, choc chips or other solid additions to batter sunk to the bottom
  • Sunk in centre
  • Sticky top [especially in sponges]

Uneven Rising

Flat-topped cakes look impressive, but can be annoyingly difficult to achieve: even the pros will often cut off the dome and invert the cake to make it look perfect. Having said this, there's a huge difference between a domed cake and a volcano. The main reason for a cake that has risen in the centre is because the pan heats up quicker than the oven, causing the outer batter to bake quicker than the centre. There are a few ways to reduce this problem:

  • Lower the temperature 5-10°C (25°F). The appropriate amount depends on the pan being used, the recipe, the initial baking temperature and so on: experiment and take notes!
  • Use cooling strips. Some stores sell strips that wrap around the cake tin. I can't vouch for these as I've never bothered. Some bakers swear by them. 
  • Wrong sized tin. Are you using the size the recipe recommended? Are you over-filling the pan? If the centre takes too long to cook, it will rise more than the rest. Try using a larger tin if the peak bothers you. Reducing the amount of batter per patty pan works well for even-topped cupcakes – same principle can apply to their larger cousins. 
  • For thick batters, the way you scoop it into the tin can effect the end result. Do you ever scrape the edges of the mixing bowl and dump the spoonful onto the rest of the batter? Doing so can trap pockets of air in the batter and cause it to rise unevenly. It is best to pour the entire mixture into the pan in one go. There's usually a keen volunteer to help you get rid of the excess left on the edges of the bowl. 

Texture

Half the battle in producing a good cake is in correctly mixing the cake batter. There are a wealth of different things you can do to alter the final texture. Here's a few.

Close and heavy texture

  • too much flour in proportion to other ingredients
  • too large a proportion of shortening
  • shortening was overheated during mixture; such as when butter is melted
  • too much liquid
  • shortening and sugar over-creamed
  • over-mixing of flour and/or liquid, releasing air
  • too much flour added at one time, forcing out the air

Coarse and open texture

  • shortening and sugar not creamed enough
  • batter not mixed thoroughly

Uneven texture

  • shortening not blended properly; small lumps left, which in turn melt during baking, leaving holes in the mixture
  • over-mixing when adding flour and liquid
  • air trapped between spoonfuls of mixture
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