Wednesday 16 May 2012

Baking Problem Solver: The Science Bit!

Knowing how something works is usually the first part of mastering it. Take learning to drive a car. On your first lesson, your instructor will explain how the car is powered and how the gears work. Only then do you learn manoeuvres. 

I've had several conversations recently that have included the woes of a failed bake. Although I like to experiment with my baking, I am also an insufferable perfectionist who takes failure badly. Therefore, I do everything I can to minimise the chances of this happening. Knowing a bit about the science of baking will reduce mishaps, and help you to minimise the damage when they do happen!

So, I've compiled a few tips which generally help me on my way. I hope you find them useful! Feel free to leave your own tips in the comments field below...

The Method

Garbage in, garbage out. You can't expect a wonderful, fluffy cake to emerge from a bowl of ingredients whacked together in any old fashion. How you treat the batter is just as important as what you put in it. It's also useful to know how 'batter' becomes your finished masterpiece!
  • Know your oven - use an oven thermometer. Oven temperatures vary massively, so it's well worth investing in one. They are about £5 from cook shops, but will save you a fortune in wasted ingredients in the future. Place on the shelf as you preheat, and only pop your cake in when the desired temperature is stable.
  • Remember, fan ovens are hotter than conventional ones, therefore a thermometer is essential. 
  • Use the middle shelf in your oven. This is the optimum place for rising and browning. Gas oven temperatures vary from shelf to shelf. For example, gas 4 on the middle shelf is about gas 6 at the top if not a little more.
  • Gluten protein in flour is activated when moisture hits it. This process needs maximising in bread via kneading, and minimising in cakes by stirring flour in gently.
  • Cakes 'set' because of the protein in the eggs. This chemical process happens when heat is introduced.
  • If a recipe tells you to cream your butter and sugar, make sure they are beaten for about 5 minutes and look much paler and fluffier. This is how you add air! Under-creaming will mean a dense cake. 
  • Sugar tenderises cakes because it dilutes protein in gluten. 

Top Tips for Bundt Bliss

Bundt cakes are particularly tricky as they don't look nearly as good with chunks missing! Here are my tips for a brilliant bundt every time...
  • Grease and flour your pan/tin. This creates a protective layer between the batter and tin which allows for easy release. I use a release spray, but I've heard good reports from both oil and melted butter too.
  • Make sure it's cooked before taking it out of the oven! Sounds simple, but if the mix is still a bit soft you are more likely to lose bits to the tin. The cake should feel firm, a skewer should come out clean and the cake should be slightly shrinking away from the sides of he tin.
  • Let it cool. As cake cools it gets firmer. Firm cake means a more robust cake.
  • To release, cover the tin with a large plate and flip over quickly, giving a quick shake if it doesn't come free immediately. 
  • Diaster strikes! Oh no! A dusting of icing sugar can hide a multitude of sins...

Cake Problem Solver

We've all had disasters. Here are some causes of the most common misdemeanours...
  • Cake is flat as a pancake or very dense - either not enough air has been whisked in at  the appropriate stage e.g. creaming or there has been too much gluten formation caused by over-beating the mixture after the flour was added.
  • Cake has a peak in the middle - the oven was too hot causing raising agents to go bananas. Perhaps the oven is hotter than you thought or the cake is too high inside the oven. It can also be caused by too much flour.
  • Cake has sunk - this is a very common one. This is usually caused by undercooking, so make sure you follow the tips above for testing when a cake is done. This includes opening the oven door whilst the cake is still vulnerable! Leave it until it is at least 75% cooked before even contemplating testing! A gooey centre is proof of undercooking. However, too little raising agent or too much flour will also weigh your cake down.
  • Cake is dry as an old bone - most of the time this is caused by over cooking. It can also be caused by too much egg and/or flour or not enough liquid.
  • Tunnels of air or large air pockets - this is caused by excessive gluten protein formation because of over-beating your mixture. Gently does it.
  • Cake is very dark in colour - apart from the obvious overcooking, this can also be caused by a dark tin or high sugar content. A lot of bundt recipes produce a dark crust. This is because of their high sugar content.
  • Cake keeps sticking to the tin - make sure you either line your tin with baking paper (e.g. sandwich and loaf tins) or grease and flour (e.g. intricate designed tins). This will stop the cake adhering to the tin and wrecking it on release. Also, don't take cakes out of the tins immediately. They should have at least ten mins to firm up first, with bundt cakes taking longer. And lastly, make sure the cake is fully cooked!
If you have any cake queries of your own, feel free to ask!


  1. Thanks for this = very helpful hints! I have good days and bad days in the kitchen and it's always good to know what went wrong so you know what to do next time :)

  2. A great post Rachel. I think it's largely why I avoid baking cakes, because so many things can go wrong and you have to be a bit more precise when it comes to measurements but this is a useful checklist to consult if I want to practice more baking. Thanks for sharing!


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