Baking FAQ: Answers to Common Baking Questions

Raise your hand if you’ve ever had flat cookies, were out of cake flour and didn’t want to go to the store, or experienced a sunken-in cake? I know I’m waving both of my hands frantically.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that we’ve all had our share of baking issues and run into unfamiliar ingredients or problems that have left us scratching our heads. I hope that this post serves as a remedy of sorts to some of the most common baking questions and problems that most people run across. Throughout the course of reading comments on recipes, and responding to emails and Facebook/Twitter questions about specific recipes and baking techniques, I have found that there are some common baking questions and problems that tend to pop up quite frequently. I have collected them all here, along with answers and tips to help you  have the most successful baking experience possible! Read on for the questions and answers…



Q: All of your recipes call for unsalted butter. Can I use regular salted butter instead?
A: I definitely recommend using unsalted butter in baked goods, because you can control the total amount of salt in the recipe. However, if you do not have unsalted butter and don’t want to make a trip to the store, simply use your salted butter, but omit the salt in the recipe.

Q: If a recipe calls for espresso powder or freshly brewed coffee and I don’t like coffee, can I leave it out?
A: Yes, you can omit espresso powder. Coffee typically enhances the flavor of chocolate, which is why you see it included in some brownie and chocolate cake recipes. It usually is not prominent, but if you don’t want to use it, you can omit it. Substituting for freshly brewed coffee depends on the amount called for. If it’s a tablespoon or two, you can omit or substitute vanilla extract. If it’s any more than that, I would recommend substituting hot water so that the final texture isn’t affected.

Q: How do I know if my baking powder and baking soda are still fresh?
A: To test if baking powder is still good, combine 1 teaspoon baking powder with 1/3 cup hot water. If it bubbles, it’s still good! To test baking soda, put 2 tablespoons of white vinegar into a small bowl and add 1 teaspoon of baking soda. If it fizzes immediately, it’s still good!

Q: How do I need to alter a recipe if I am using a convection oven?
A: The general rule of thumb for converting a recipe from a conventional oven to a convection oven is to either use the same temperature and bake for 75% of the stated time (i.e.  if a recipe says to bake for 20 minutes, bake for only 15 if using a convection oven), or you can reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees F and bake for the same time or use a combination of reduced time and temperature. You can check out this Convection Oven Temperature Conversion Calculator as a starting point. Also, open the oven door as little as possible during baking.

Q: Could you explain the difference between different types of flours – all-purpose, bread, cake, etc. – and how to substitute them?
A: The short answer is that they differ primarily based on protein content, which affects the final texture of the baked good you are making. All-purpose flour has 10-12% protein. Cake flour has 6-8% protein. If you don’t have cake flour, you can substitute ¾ cup sifted all-purpose flour plus 2 tablespoons cornstarch. Bread flour has 12-14% protein; the high protein content causes the bread to rise and gives it shape and structure. Some recipes on this site (bagels, for example) call for high-gluten flour, which has an even higher protein content than bread flour and gives baked goods like bagels its characteristic chewy texture.

Q: Can I substitute oil for butter in a recipe? How much should I use?
A: I would always recommend using whatever type of fat is called for in a given recipe because they each have different properties, and butter especially lends a great flavor. Using a liquid oil in place of butter will also affect the final texture of the baked good.

Q: Why does my cake cave in the middle after it’s baked?
A: This could be caused by a couple of different factors. The first thing to check is your oven temperature. I am a big advocate of using an oven thermometer to make sure that your oven is at the correct temperature. The wrong temperature can cause the cake to rise too far and collapse on itself. The second thing is to ensure that the cake is cooked through by using a skewer or thin knife inserted in the center and seeing that it comes out clean. If the cake is undercooked in the middle, it will cave in.

Q: Can I use a Pyrex bowl as a double boiler? Or can I use the microwave when a recipe calls for melting ingredients in a double boiler?
A: I have a set of nested glass bowls and have used them as a double boiler top with no problem, however, I did shatter a glass bowl of my mom’s using it as a double boiler. Since then, I don’t use my glass bowls. If you don’t have any stainless steel bowls, I would do your melting in the microwave. If you are melting chocolate, microwave on 50% power for 1 minute and then stir. Repeat in 30 second increments until the chocolate is completely melted.

Q: Why do my cookies always turn out flat?
A: There are a few things that can cause cookies to turn out flat. A few of the most common reasons are:  The butter is too warm when you add it to the batter; try refrigerating the dough for 30 minutes before baking. The baking powder or baking soda is old. The oven temperature may be off (again, I recommend an oven thermometer). Too much extra butter or shortening from greasing a baking sheet; instead of greasing, use parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.

Q: Most of your recipes call for lining a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Can I just grease the sheet instead?
A: Well, you could, but here’s the thing.  Depending on how heavy you are with the greasing (using either butter or shortening), it could affect the final product. Especially when baking cookies, once that butter or shortening starts to melt in the oven, it gets into the dough, and if too much is there, it can cause cookies to turn out flat. If you do a lot of baking, I would recommend investing in one or two silicone baking mats, or you could purchase pre-cut parchment sheets from a baking supply store or even on Amazon.

Q: What is different about Dutch-process cocoa than regular cocoa powder, and where can I find it?
A: Dutch-processed cocoa powder is treated with an alkali to neutralize its acids. Baked goods made with Dutch-processed cocoa tend to have a richer, deeper chocolate flavor. I have yet to find Dutch-processed cocoa at a regular grocery store, but have found it at Penzeys, King Arthur Flour and on Amazon (see below for links).

Q: A recipe calls for buttermilk but I don’t want to go to the store just for that. Can I make my own?
A: Yes! To make buttermilk, place 1 tablespoon of white vinegar or lemon juice in a liquid measuring cup. Add enough milk to bring the liquid up to the 1-cup line. Let stand for 5 minutes, and then use as much as the recipe calls for.

Recommended products mentioned in this post:

Oven Thermometer

Silicone Baking Mat

Pre-Cut Parchment Sheets

Dutch-process Cocoa – Found at Penzeys, King Arthur Flour & Amazon (Callebaut)

~     ~     ~     ~     ~

This collection of questions is surely just the tip of the iceberg, as we all encounter vexing baking problems from time to time, and they often leave us stumped. I will be turning this post into a reference page that will have a permanent place in the navigation bar, so that it can be easily accessed by readers. I will be adding more questions and answers to it as I come across them, so if you have one that wasn’t asked here, feel free to ask it in the comments section or shoot me an email requesting that it be included in the permanent page!

I hope that this was helpful for many of you, and look forward to your feedback!

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133 Responses to “Baking FAQ: Answers to Common Baking Questions”

Comment Pages 1 2
  1. ashley on May 17, 2010 at 11:18 am

    thanks for the great post! i needed cake flour last night and ended up using all purpose bc i didnt want to run back to the store, next time ill know the better substitute! thanks!

  2. Heather (Heather's Dish) on May 17, 2010 at 11:38 am

    this is a great post! i would say the biggest question i have is how to convert (using a ratio or equation) normal recipes to high-altitude recipes? i’ve read so many things, but can’t seem to find a consistent answer… :(

    • Lanie on January 11th, 2013 at 7:30 pm

      If you live in the mountains (i.e. Colorado) you can call the County Extension Office for recommendations on altering recipes for altitude. Here’s a link for an online resource
      http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/foodnut/p41.pdf

  3. Maria on May 17, 2010 at 11:45 am

    Love this post! Great Q and A!

  4. Mary on May 17, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    Thank you so much for this! I get so many great baking ideas from your site, it makes me (and my boyfriend) very very happy! Thanks again :)

  5. Baking Barrister on May 17, 2010 at 12:18 pm

    I actually have buttermilk powder in my fridge for baking because I would never use the entire container of buttermilk otherwise. It’s great for bread and cookies.

  6. manizor on May 17, 2010 at 12:21 pm

    i have a question about muffins. i have an orange-oatmeal muffin recipe that we love! it tastes fantastic but the texture is often very sticky – like stick to your fingers sticky, which makes enjoying them not as fun. any suggestions to why that’s the case? thanks!

  7. Debbie on May 17, 2010 at 1:25 pm

    This is a great post, I have one more reason to get a silicon baking mat now!

    One recommendation I was hoping you could offer is a good flour sifter? I am looking for one that I can clean easily.

  8. Amy on May 17, 2010 at 3:38 pm

    Thanks for all the valuable info. Love your site!

  9. Anissa on May 17, 2010 at 3:59 pm

    I second the question on the flour sifter. Mine rusts after a few uses, no matter how careful I am with it.

  10. Michelle on May 17, 2010 at 4:35 pm

    I know this sounds so lazy but I just love my battery operated flour sifter. I bought it about 20 yrs ago and it’s still going strong!

  11. Jen @ How To: Simplify on May 17, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    What an informative post! This is such a great resource for information on baking!

  12. Memoria on May 17, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    yeaaaa, I knew the answers to every single question! I’m so proud. My mom needs to read this post, but I know she won’t haha. She’ll just tell me to bake.

  13. Chef Dennis on May 17, 2010 at 7:51 pm

    thanks for all that great information!! you certainly cleared up a few things for me

  14. Katie on May 17, 2010 at 9:46 pm

    Michelle- I was in the burgh this weekend for my Mom’s 60th birthday party and my sister and I needed to do our last minute grocery shopping. We went to the new Market District in Robinson (which I had no idea was there) and HOLY CRAP!! Have you been there yet? I think it’s way better than the biggest Whole Foods I’ve ever been in. Seriously, I went back the next day because there was so much to look at! I figured I’d share becacuse I know you have to love that place if you’ve been there!

  15. Erin from Long Island on May 17, 2010 at 11:56 pm

    Thanks for doing this! I am proud I knew most of these already. For the coffee sub, I think you could use molasses for the powder or diluted for regular coffee with good results if you hate coffee.

    My question is this….I like to “super size” a lot when I bake. I do big cookies and usually double my quick bread recipes and bake them in a 13 X 9 pan. Are there any rules of thumb for this sort of thing, especially for the cookies? I was thinking slightly lower temp for longer so they dont burn on the outside while being raw in the middle

    Thanks!!!!

  16. Sana on May 18, 2010 at 2:56 am

    Hi Michelle, great idea to start an FAQ section. Will surely send you many questions to add more to it ;)

  17. Jim-49 on May 18, 2010 at 8:45 am

    Thanks,so much for the post.”We all need these posted on the frig.”!! I do a good bit of bakeing,and get better,with all these helps.After we get over the fear (of yeast) and lazyness,most find plenty of baked things around the house.Love the site!!

  18. Jim-49 on May 18, 2010 at 8:50 am

    Oh yes,I put my buttermilk in the freezer,in 1 & 2 cups,already measured.It only takes about 10 minutes in warm water.I also got some powdered around just in case.

  19. Eliana on May 18, 2010 at 7:53 pm

    Awesome tips. Thanks so much for sharing.

  20. Sally on May 19, 2010 at 8:26 am

    Oh, I heart you for this!

  21. Mary on May 19, 2010 at 1:48 pm

    appreciate that helpful baking tips. i will definately use them next time i bake.

  22. The Housewife on May 20, 2010 at 2:21 am

    Bookmarked! Thank you for the very practical, workable advice…very invaluable for amateur bakers like me.

  23. bridget {bake at 350} on May 22, 2010 at 5:48 pm

    Great list! Very helpful!!!

  24. Cristina (TeenieCakes) on May 23, 2010 at 9:55 pm

    What an informative and great post! Thanks for sharing all these Qs&As! Didn’t know that about how to test baking powder and baking soda for freshness…that’s a truly invaluable tidbit!

  25. Pingback: My First Attempt at Buttermilk Pancakes | Seattle Lunchbox

  26. linda rohner on January 13, 2011 at 7:00 pm

    Can I use a medium bread pan for a muffin recipe?

  27. Steve Smith on January 28, 2011 at 2:25 pm

    Hi,
    When I was a kid one of my cousins use to bake these German Pfeffernusses or, Peppernuts. I have been able to duplicate the taste of the cookies but her’s were very hard, almost like a jawbreaker. Mine come out crunchy & crumple in your mouth as soon as you bit down on them. Here is the recipe that I am using:
    1 c. shortening
    1 c. sugar
    2 eggs
    ½ c. molasses
    Vanilla no amount given probably 1 tsp.
    salt no amount given probably ½ tsp.
    1 tsp. anise oil
    1 tsp. baking soda
    2 tsp. baking powder
    ¼ tsp. nutmeg
    ¼ tsp. cinnamon
    nuts, chopped, if desired
    3 ¼ c. flour

    Roll in thin rolls, about the diameter of a nickel, refrigerate overnight, slice and bake at 350degrees until golden brown

    What do I need to adjust &/or add/delete from this recipe to get the hard texture that I am looking for? I can cook fairly well but baking is not one of my strong points & no matter what I have tried with this recipe I can’t seem to get it the way I want. Any suggestions? Any input will be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks

    Steve

    • Michelle on February 15th, 2011 at 5:12 pm

      Hi Steve, Yikes. I have never had one of those cookies so I wouldn’t even know where to begin. It’s hard to try to adjust a recipe I have never tasted. Maybe use butter in place of shortening? Shortening tends to keep cookies a little softer while butter will make them crisper. I don’t know if that would do it, but perhaps a place to start?

  28. Steve on February 15, 2011 at 6:13 pm

    Michelle,

    Thanks for the tip & I think you are on the right track as I did some further checking on the net & found a web site where the person makes “hard” Peppernuts. Along with the fact that she uses butter in her recipe, which mine doesn’t, she also uses a 1&1/4 more flour. So, with that in mind I think I am ready to give it another shot. I’ll let you know what the outcome is. If I break a couple of teeth off I’ll know that these suggestions worked!! lol JK If you feel adventurous why don’t you try these cookies as I think you will really enjoy them.

    Steve

    Steve

  29. Paulette Dunn on February 26, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    Pound Cake Issue
    I have a very old recipe for a cream cheese cake which I love. The only problem I consistently have is that the crusty (top of the cake when it is baking) bottom of the cake (when inverted onto the cake dish) gets too crusty and separates from the cake and falls off when the cake cools. Not too impressive looking! I am careful not to over-mix after adding the flour. What else could it be???

    • Michelle on February 27th, 2011 at 4:08 pm

      Hi Paulette, Hmm that’s a tough one. Without knowing details of the recipe, it would be really hard to say!

  30. Elfie on March 2, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    Hi Michelle!

    I’ve been slinking around your site for a fair while now, and adore your posts (especially the Royal Icing recipe– it’s my staple now!) This is a wonderful post as well, and answers so many questions that I asked myself when I first started baking. However, I have a few points to add in addition that might help others:

    Cakes collapsing: Part of it could be due to the thickness of the pans– thinner pans let in more heat and let the cake rise more quickly, which can be an issue that makes them fall later. Another thing is opening the oven door–a pet peeve of mine–which lets in a rush of cool air and, in a fashion similar to a soufflee, causes the not-fully-baked-cake to fall in on itself because the inside is still soft and just lost the support of the rising air.

    Dutch Process Cocoa– Within Canada, can also be found at the Fair-Trade store Ten Thousand Villages (tenthousandvillages.ca), which is where I get mine. It’s 7$ per tin but totally worth it– Fair-Trade and Dutch Process all in one. In Europe, Dutch Process Cocoa is the cocoa that is anywhere and everywhere; I don’t even know if they’ve heard of our not-Dutch-Process cocoa.

    Also, just thought I’d mention that I found the cookie-flattening-problem tip super helpful– it always happens with me and I never knew why. Now I think I finally have my answer! (Before I just used less baking soda, because I realised for some reason my new soda made them flatten if there was more of it, and made my cookie balls very, very tall, ahaha…)

    Thanks for the awesome article!

  31. Chung-Ah Rhee on May 3, 2011 at 6:07 pm

    Thank you for that buttermilk tip! My buttermilk always goes bad before I use it up so this alternative is perfect for me. Thanks for saving me money :)

  32. Amanda on May 17, 2011 at 3:45 am

    Hi Michelle,
    I always have a problem when baking either carrot or zucchini cakes. The cake appears done – it pulls away from sides of the pan, browns lightly at the top and even a cake tester inserted comes out clean. I cool it in the pan, then transfer to a wire rack. Once completely cooled, the middle of the cake appears raw and gummy.
    I follow recipes to the dot, check the oven temperature with a thermometer and I’ve even tried other recipes. This never happens with chocolate cakes, etc. Only if it’s carrot or zucchini cake.
    Please tell me what’s wrong?

    • Michelle on May 17th, 2011 at 7:53 pm

      Hi Amanda, I’m not entirely sure about the carrot, but I’m wondering if perhaps with the zucchini cake not enough moisture is removed from the zucchini before being baked, and therefore it causes the inside of the cake to be over-moist making it raw and gummy.

      • celeste mayer on March 10th, 2012 at 5:38 pm

        I had the same problem with gorilla cake. Raw inside.

  33. patricia kot on May 18, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    I have a really great granola recipe that I love…How do I turn them into granola bars

  34. Aga on June 10, 2011 at 9:21 pm

    Very very good advise. Baking makes me happy. It’s a hobby of mine. Having no official training either, sources like this blog, explaining the mechanics of baking, are essential. Thank you very much.

  35. Emily on June 11, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    Great post, thanks. Learned why my cookies fall flat! I did have another question though. I have a recipe for a yellow cake I’ve been wanting to try (can’t seem to find one that doesn’t taste like a pound cake, if you have any suggestions :) ), but for one ingredient all it says is 1/2 cup Crisco. I have no idea what Crisco to use. Oil? Shortening? Any help would be great, thanks!

    • Michelle on June 12th, 2011 at 8:34 pm

      Hi Emily, Anytime I see just “Crisco” or “oleo” in an old recipe I use vegetable shortening. Hope that helps!

  36. Daniella on July 18, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    To make buttermilk can I use skim milk?

    • Michelle on July 20th, 2011 at 10:35 am

      Yes, you can, it will just be thinner than if you used whole milk, but shouldn’t affect the final product much.

  37. Michael Nelson on July 20, 2011 at 8:13 am

    What two elements does a proofing cabinet control?
    Describe what leavening agents do for baked products?

  38. Casie on August 15, 2011 at 12:59 am

    can you tell me the brand of espresso powder you use and where I can buy some. My grocery store here does not have it and didn’t know what it was. I saw that William Sonoma carries some, but that’s an hour (one way) drive from me. I’m new to baking and I’m sure this is easier than I’m making it out to be. Thanks for any help you can give me! I LOVE your site =)

    • Michelle on August 15th, 2011 at 11:13 am

      Hi Casie, The brand of espresso powder I use is Medaglia D’ Oro – I buy it at a local Italian grocery store. If you can’t find anything near you, you could always order from Amazon or King Arthur Flour.

  39. Kara on September 7, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    My mom, at 70, has baked her fair share of cookies. Lately she’s complaining that the cookies are good for the first couple days and after that they become hard(er), regardless of how she stores them or type of cookie she bakes. Is there something she can add to the recipe when baking or is this just how it is.

    • Michelle on September 7th, 2011 at 1:41 pm

      Hi Kara, Cookies are definitely freshest in the first day or two, but after that you could always try the slice of bread trick – place a really soft, fresh piece of bread in the container with the cookies – the cookies will soak up the moisture from the bread and stay soft.

  40. Valerie on October 6, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    I am baking a pound cake and all I have is medium eggs. The recipe calls for six eggs and I wanted to know if I should use seven of the medium eggs. The recipe does not indicate what size to use.

    Thanks

    • Michelle on October 10th, 2011 at 4:39 pm

      Hi Valerie, I always use large eggs to bake, but I’m not sure about substitutions due to egg size. I did find this conversion chart that might help you though: http://whatscookingamerica.net/Eggs/EggEquivalent.htm

      • Dianne Evans on September 16th, 2014 at 1:18 pm

        Hi Michelle: what’s confusing about the eggs when baking. All of the egg companies have re-graded their eggs. The medium is now small, the large is now medium and the ex-large is now the large. You have to buy “jumbo” in order to get large for pound cakes! I don’t know why they’ve changed their grading system! Just like the cake mix companies. All the old recipes (I’m 82) call for an 18.25-oz. box of cake mix and now all the companies except Ingles Laura Lynn brand are 16.2-oz.! It’s ok if you’re just making a cake from the cake mix box but with so many of the older recipes use the cake mix as a base to add other ingredients! Wish they’d just leave things alone, ha…..Dianne

  41. Anna on October 17, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    I have learned from my baking experiences that sometimes cookies are flat because the recipe gives a wrong amount of flour. I have realized that if a cookie spreads try adding abut 1/4 to 1/2 cup more.And bake one and adjust accordingly.

  42. Barbara on November 19, 2011 at 5:39 pm

    Can a graham cracker pie crust always be substitute for a regular pie crust?

    • Michelle on November 20th, 2011 at 2:09 pm

      Hi Barbara, For a single crust pie (one without a top crust), then if you prefer the flavor, I don’t see why not. I love the buttery flaky traditional crust though :)

  43. Brad on November 24, 2011 at 6:12 am

    Why are my rolls burning on the outside and still uncooked on the inside?

    • Michelle on November 26th, 2011 at 11:15 am

      It sounds like it could be a case of an oven temperature being too high. I’d make sure you double-check your oven temperature with an oven thermometer.

  44. lynn on November 30, 2011 at 11:14 am

    Hi I need to know if I can use Swanson cake flour instead of Presto flour for chocolate chip cookies

    • Michelle on November 30th, 2011 at 3:22 pm

      Hi Lynn, I am unaware of Presto flour – is that a brand name? Is it all-purpose flour?

  45. Lynda on December 20, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    Hi Michelle— I am baking cookies for Christmas and was wondering if I should freeze them for 5 days until Christmas so they will be fresh? Or not. Thanks

    • Michelle on December 20th, 2011 at 6:48 pm

      Hi Lynda, I think you are fine with them staying fresh! I started baking yesterday :) Just be sure to store them in an airtight container.

  46. Lynda on December 20, 2011 at 7:09 pm

    Michelle, thanks for your info. I’m so glad I found your site. Have a great Christmas and a happy New Year. Thanks again, Lynda

  47. Sharnitta Brown on December 20, 2011 at 8:07 pm

    My recipe calls for heavy cream, I don’t have any can I use heavy whipping cream?

    • Michelle on December 22nd, 2011 at 12:33 am

      Yes, they are interchangeable for most recipes.

  48. Jo-Anne Dunakin on December 24, 2011 at 7:18 am

    I made cookies and after cooling they turned into hockey pucks, I know (think) its because there is too much flour but I made a master mix enough to make about 100 cookies. What if anything can I add to the mix to off set flour? Or do I have to throw away and start over

    • Michelle on December 26th, 2011 at 5:47 pm

      Oooh unfortunately I don’t know if I can help with this. Not knowing what recipe you are using would make it hard to gauge if you can add anything. Many times multiplying a recipe can cause funky things to happen, this might be one of those recipes :(

  49. eric walling on January 1, 2012 at 6:21 pm

    Can I substitute butter for oil in a brownie mix at equal amounts?

    • Michelle on January 3rd, 2012 at 10:49 pm

      I have never done it, but I personally would not. They have very different properties, both in flavor and how they affect the final texture/structure of a baked good.

  50. maybelle on February 8, 2012 at 9:55 am

    i’m trying to figure something out everytime i bake cookies they stick together to the other cookie. I take them out of the oven let sit for a couple mins than put them onto cooling racks when cooled i put them into containers but everytime i do they stick to the other cookie. Am i missing something?

    • Michelle on February 9th, 2012 at 12:14 pm

      I usually always separate layers of cookies with a piece of wax paper, that should keep them from sticking together.

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