Melted butter in a glass measuring cup.

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![/donotprint]


[email_link] | [print_link]