Through my 10 years of food blogging, I have had the opportunity to interact with a number of people who have contacted me because they baked a recipe of mine that turned out differently from mine.
All recipes on Seasons and Suppers are made using full fat dairy products and oven temperatures are stated for a regular (not fan-assisted/convection) oven.
While some are anxious to insist that they "made it exactly as written" or that "there is a a problem with the recipe", it's important to remember that all of my recipes are tried and tested in my own kitchen and if they didn't work, they would never have been shared on my site. The pictures that you see are pictures of the results of that recipe, made successfully in my kitchen. So if you had an outcome different from mine, it's time to dig deeper and figure out what you did differently in your kitchen.
Issues may arise from something as simple as misreading amounts or instructions, but more often though, the issue is something less obvious to the baker. In my experience, there are definitely a "Top 5" causes of these baking issues that I have seen over the years, that can lead to different results or recipe fails.
So if you've had a less than great baking result, take a moment to read through this article and see if you can find the issue.
Common Causes of Baking Fails
- Ingredient substitutions
- Pans used or oven setting
- Baking at elevation and not making adjustments
- Improper baking techniques
- Under/over baking
Let's look at these in more depth ...
This one definitely gets the #1 spot! Substituting ingredients is the most common issue I encounter. Maybe they used a low-fat ingredient, instead of a full-fat one. Frozen (or canned) fruit instead of fresh. Perhaps they used oil instead of butter. Or coconut oil instead of vegetable oil. Or half the sugar. Or gluten free flour. Or yogurt instead of sour cream. Or milk instead of cream. Or brown sugar instead of white. Or bread flour instead of all purpose. Or whole wheat flour instead of white. Or margarine instead of butter. Or a sugar or butter substitute product. Or they skipped the egg. Or they used a spoonful of something in place of the egg. Or applesauce instead of oil.
The list goes on and on. The fact is, that baking is science and changing the ingredients will almost always alter the results to some extent and sometimes, to a baking fail extent. There are, of course, ways to alter or adjust recipes, but it needs to be done from a place of experience and understanding of the baking process and the affect that those changes will have on the end result. Unless you have that experience or understanding, making ingredient substitutions is fraught with risk.
Another important point it to understand that even when not directly specified, when a recipe writer says "sour cream" or "cream cheese", they aren't referring to low-fat or no-fat sour cream or cream cheese. That may be what you "always buy and use" in your home, but that is almost certainly not what the recipe was tested with. None of my recipes have been tested with low or no fat products. Why? Because low and no fat products are substantially different from their full-fat counterparts. Beyond the removal of fat, there is often the addition of water, thickeners and other things that turn it into a product that, while it may taste just fine to you on top of your baked potato, will very often not work well or at all when it comes to baking.
At the end of the day, you get to make choices in your kitchen, just as I do in mine, but when it comes to the end result of your baking, understand that your ingredient choices can and will have consequences when it comes to baking :)
Pans used or oven setting
All recipes will specify a pan size and oven temperature for baking a recipe. What often isn't specified is the colour of the pan or the material of the pan or whether the oven temperature is for fan-assisted (convection) or not. Here are some considerations that you should be aware of when baking recipes ...
- Reduce your oven temperature by 25 degrees F. if using glass pans.
- All recipes on this site assume a regular (not fan-assisted oven). For a fan assisted (or convection) oven, also reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees F. from what is stated in the recipe. (*Generally speaking, most North American recipes are written assuming non-fan-assisted ovens, unless otherwise specified.)
- Black or very dark metal pans will cook more quickly than lighter pans, so you should check your baking for done-ness earlier and often.
- Using a pan of a different size than the one specified in the recipe will not generally affect the outcome, but will almost certainly affect the baking time. If you use a different sized pan, assume that the baking time will also change and watch closely and check often.
Baking at elevation without adjustments
I live in Central Ontario, Canada, where the elevation is 771 feet above sea level. When it comes to baking, it pays to know what elevation you are baking at. If you are above 5000 feet of elevation you WILL need to make alterations to your baking. As I don't bake at elevation, I don't really want to offer advice. Suffice it to say that there is a ton of information out there on the adjustments you will need to make to every baking recipe when baking at elevation.
Improper Baking Techniques
This is quite a general topic, but these are the top baking technique issues I see ...
- Over or under softening butter for baking - Butter is at the perfect temperature for baking when it is about 67 degrees F. (and yes, you can test it with an instant read thermometer, if you like). To test it manually, gently press on it with your index finger. If you leave an indent in the butter, you are good to go. Do note that over-softened butter is not a good thing, either. At a certain temperature, butter will separate into solids and oils, which will not make it useable for baking. To speed up the softening of butter, do not microwave it! Any bit of melted butter will compromise your baking. Instead, use your box grater to grate the butter into your mixing bowl, then let stand about 5 minutes before proceeding.
- Not understanding how to "cream" butter and sugar - Recipes will often direct you to "cream" together the butter and sugar. The act of creaming is not beating. Creaming should be done only at moderate speed with your mixer. On a Kitchen Aid stand mixer, that is about 4 or 5 on the speed setting. Be sure you cream for the amount of time specified in the recipe, or if a time is not specified, cream for at least 1 minute.
- Over or under beating - Again, "beating" in instructions does not mean whipping. The top setting of a Kitchen Aid mixer is reserved for whipping cream and is not a setting that you should use for most of your baking. Beating is best done in the 6-8 range.
- Improper measurement of dry ingredients - always measure your dry ingredients using the "stir, spoon and level" method, meaning you stir the ingredient, spoon the dry ingredients into a metal measuring cup, over-filling it slightly, then use the back of a knife to scrape off the excess level with the top of the measuring cup.
- Not understanding how to "fold" - the process of "folding" means that you use a spatula to incorporate an ingredient, often at the end of mixing, but you do so in a way that doesn't deflate the volume of your batter that you built earlier. The basic technique for folding involves scraping from the bottom and gently lifting it up and over the top. If you are unclear on this technique, seek out a video demonstrating how it's done.
Over or under baking
It's always important to understand that baking times in a recipe are the times that it took that recipe to bake in the recipe writer's kitchen. IT MAY BE DIFFERENT IN YOUR KITCHEN! Always use the baking times given as a guideline and not a hard and fast rule. I always set a time for ahead of the specified time, so I can check on it early. Don't open the oven door unless you want to actually test it. Just look through the window and get a sense of how it's coming along. Is it pulling away from the sides of the pan? Is it puffy or flat? Is it pale or golden? Is it wet looking or set looking? When ready, test the baked good with a tester, being sure to test in the very middle, where it will take the longest to cook through. Remember, check often and test regularly to take your baking out of the oven at just the right time!
More Quick Baking Tips
- Read through the recipe before you start - just so you have a good understanding of the flow of the recipe before you jump into it.
- Mise en place makes for fewer mistakes - pre-measuring all the ingredients and having them ready to add makes for fewer mistakes and less forgotten ingredients.
- Place your oven rack in the centre position in the oven, unless otherwise stated.
- Scrape down your mixing bowl often - unincorporated ingredients can often hide at the bottom of a mixing bowl. Stopping your mixer and using a spatula to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl avoids that problem.
- Replace your baking powder every 6 months.
- Use better butter - less expensive butter often has a higher water content, which isn't ideal for baking. For better baking, use better butter. Likewise, unsalted butter is generally considered better butter, as it is fresher and butter makers can't hide inferior butter with salt. That's why unsalted butter is the butter of choice for bakers.
- If you use salted butter when the recipe calls for unsalted, simply reduce the added salt in the recipe by 1/4 tsp per cup of butter used.