We’ve all been there: it’s a quiet Sunday and the idea of filling your homely walls with the smells of fresh bakes wafts (pun-intended) through your mind. How about a basic chocolate cake? Can’t go wrong with that right? You pore over every detail in the recipe, and head to the supermarket to get your ingredients.
Brimming with excitement, you whip out your trusty Kenwood stand mixer that has always been there for you – and you follow all the recipe instructions to a T.
Yet, your creations somehow just look like it popped out of an “expectations VS reality” compilation. It’s just not what you expected!
Well, baking requires an almost scientific precision, and with some trial and error, common baking issues are easy to rectify. Get enough practice and improve your technique, and you might find that your chocolate cake disaster was nothing more than a fun lesson in baking.
Here are some common baking issues you may face in your baking journey, and some tips and tricks to resolve them.
Cracks on the cake
A cake splitting on top is due to the crust forming too early, while the insides of the cake continue to cook and rise. An oven that is too hot is the likely culprit.
Using the right-sized baking pan plays a part, too. Too large and the cake batter spreads too thinly and heats up too quickly. Too small and the cake is baked unevenly.
The trick lies in placing the cake on the middle rack of the oven to prevent cracks from forming. Or if you have a small oven, put some foil over the tin before putting the cake in the oven.
Cake sinks in the middle
There are four possibilities to this problem: opening the oven door too quickly before the cake has a chance to set, letting the cake sit out for too long before putting it in the oven, the temperature is not warm enough, or you have used too much baking powder or soda.
Leave the cake in the oven for a few minutes so it has a chance to bake thoroughly and form its structure. Use precise measurements for your baking powder or soda – too much and it becomes too active, which leads to deflation later on. Deflation also occurs when the batter is left for too long, where the raising agent loses its effectiveness.
Preheat your oven before you start mixing your ingredients so it has enough time to heat up properly. When the oven is hot enough, put the cake in immediately. If you are unsure of whether the oven is hot enough, you could get an oven thermometer. They are inexpensive and particularly useful for rookie bakers.
Bake doesn’t rise, or the texture is just wrong
You are probably over-mixing the cake batter. An over-mixed batter overworks the gluten in the flour, resulting in weaker gluten structures. This makes your cake flat and destroys its fluffy texture. Fold your dry ingredients into the wet ones lightly with a spatula and do not stir too hard.
Make sure you use the right amount of raising agent. Self-raising flour already has baking powder in it, so do not add any extra if it is not required. Your baking powder or soda has to be fresh, too – if it has gone past its expiry date, you should throw it out and get a new box.
As mentioned in the previous point, oven temperatures are a deciding factor in how your cake turns out, so ensure that temperatures are just right. If not, you will have yourself a flatbread, instead of a cake.
Too coarse or dry
This happened to me when I used an extra pinch of baking powder in a chocolate chip cookie recipe. The cookies tasted more like chocolate flavoured sand nuggets, instead of the chewy and decadent feeling I was promised when I discovered the recipe.
Stick to the exact measurements of baking powder, as too much will cause the cake or cookie to form an open, hard crumb. Your cake will turn out too dry, while your cookie’s texture will be too crumbly.
Cookie spreads in the oven and cracks on top
You can prevent this easily by chilling your cookie dough in the refrigerator before shaping it into balls and arranging them on the baking sheet. If the cookie dough is too warm, it will spread too much before it cooks, so you end up with cookie discs instead of dome-shaped treats.
Bread doesn’t rise/ sinks in the middle
Despite containing just flour, water, salt and yeast, bread baking, too, has its fair share of issues. The problems are amplified if you use wild yeast, or sourdough starter, often yielding unpredictable results.
If your bread does not rise, it is likely due to over-proofing or leaving your bread to rise for too long. If you are using instant yeast, don’t proof your bread for more than two hours if ambient temperatures are more than 28°C. The yeast would have lost its activity if the dough had been left out for too long, resulting in a flat loaf.
Under-proofing bread will result in a loaf that collapses in the middle. An under-proofed dough will activate too quickly and run out of steam in hot temperatures, resulting in the bread rising too quickly and sinking in the centre.
One way to test if the bread is ready to be baked is using the “press test”. Press the dough gently with your finger. It should bounce back readily, indicating that it is time to bake.
Bread that isn’t kneaded enough or too much will not retain its shape well. Like cakes and cookies, too much kneading will result in small and weak gluten structures. I typically knead bread dough until it is smooth, which takes just one to two minutes, before shaping it into the desired shape.
Bread cracks at the sides and on top
When cracks form on the sides, it is due to the dough not being shaped in a way that there is enough surface “tension” to hold in the hot air that is created during baking. You will need to create a “seam” around the sides of the dough, in order to create enough tightness to contain the air.
It takes some practice, and there are plenty of videos demonstrating how to shape your dough properly. Here is one by King Arthur Baking Company.
Cracks on the top and the sides could also be due to insufficient scoring on the top of the bread. You will need to score your bread deeply with a sharp knife or a razor blade before baking.
Bread turns out too dense
Many beginner bakers add flour when their dough appears too wet and runny, even after following all measurements and instructions of the recipe correctly. Dough readily absorbs any additional flour, producing a dense and hard loaf.
Instead of adding flour, wet your hands or rub a little vegetable oil on the dough. That should make it easier to handle and shape.