Dawn is a baker and former restaurant owner. Her years in the kitchen provide a wealth of experience to share.
Baking Emergencies Happen: 11 Signs to Look For
Sometimes, no matter how closely you follow a recipe, mistakes happen. Baking is a fickle friend who prefers that conditions are nothing short of ideal—or your cake might go haywire or your cookies go flat. Attention to detail and a good eye are your best friends when baking. With them, you can avert disaster and serve dessert.
Baking is a delicate balance of ingredients and environment and the reaction between the two. In this article, we will learn how to look for the signs that tip you off when that balance is upset. Half the battle is knowing what to look for. The other half is knowing what to do when you see it. If you're noticing that every time you open the oven door, your cookies are in a puddle, or your cakes are coming out cracked, you're in the right place to learn how to fix it.
Not All Recipes Are Created Equally
Now, it's important to know that not all recipes are equal, and not all recipes work. The internet is full of recipes from here to come hither, and some of them are just flat-out duds. A recipe that works will be a recipe with good chemistry—the correct ratio of leavener to liquid, fats, and flour. When one is off, the whole recipe is off. Carefully reading a recipe and its reviews before committing to it can save you time, ingredients, and frustration.
Let's assume the recipe you're using is tried and true, but things still aren't looking right, and you must have gone wrong somewhere. If you notice any of the 11 signs that follow, we'll help determine what's happening and what to do about it.
Sign 1: My Cake Is Baked, but It's Soggy in the Middle
Problem: You followed the recipe and even preheated the oven. The cake baked for as long as it was supposed to, the edges are cooked, but the middle is soggy.
Cause: Heat is the culprit here. There just isn't enough of it. Baked goods need to be consistently cozy. If the oven temperature is less than ideal, fluctuates, or loses heat altogether, the middle of your cake is going to be soggy because it's still raw.
Most Common Causes of Heat Loss
- Opening the oven door. It's a surefire way to lose heat and to cause the oven temperature to fluctuate.
- Your oven temperature is off. Oven temperatures vary from oven to oven. Even when set for the same heat, one oven might be cooler or hotter than the other.
- Altitude. At higher altitudes, the air pressure difference affects the way baked goods bake, affecting both time and temperature.
Solution: Follow the directions below first, and make the necessary adjustments. Then loosely cover your cake with foil to prevent it from burning and put it back into the oven once it has reached an appropriate temperature.
- Check your oven temperature with an oven-safe thermometer. The oven setting and the thermometer reading should match. If they don't, adjust the oven temperature so that the thermometer reads the temperature needed.
- If you're at an altitude at or above 3500 feet, raise the oven setting by about 25 degrees. Higher altitudes require higher temperatures, as do ovens that run cooler.
- If your oven temperature is accurate and you're not at a high altitude, then you are likely opening the oven door too often and losing heat. Thus, causing your cake to not bake. Stop doing that, silly. As tempting as the door is to open, look through the window instead.
Sign 2: My Cheesecake Sunk in the Middle and Cracked Around the Edges
Problem: Your cheesecake looked fine when it came out of the oven—it was fluffy and beautiful. Then, it cooled, sunk, and cracked.
Cause: Air. You whipped it too well, causing too much air to be incorporated into the cheesecake batter. The air expanded during baking and caused the cheesecake to rise like it was reaching for the stars. But what goes up must come down. As the cheesecake came back down from being stretched to a dizzying height, it sunk, and then it cracked too.
Solution: Top it and eat it. In this case, once the damage is done, there's no undoing it. But this should have no bearing on flavor, and it should still be delicious. Top it with a fruit compote or caramel, and call it a day. To avoid this in the future:
- Don't over-mix your cheesecake batter. You only need to mix it until the ingredients are incorporated. Mixing it any longer than that just adds air.
Sign 3: My Cake Sunk in the Middle, but It Was Fine in the Oven
Problem: Your cake looked great in the oven, then it sunk when you took it out.
Cause: There is too much air, too much leavener, or both. Unlike a cheesecake, the cake has a leavener in the mix. Meaning this problem could have a twofold cause, compounding the issue if both are in play. Over-mixing creates too much air, and improperly measuring could mean too much leavener.
Solution: Eat it. Like the cheesecake, once the damage is done, there's no undoing it. But this mistake doesn't mean the cake can't be eaten. On the contrary, that sunken top is a great place to fill with something delicious, or you can flip it top-side-down and frost it; no one would be the wiser.
To avoid this happening in the future:
- Correctly measure your leavener. Measuring spoons should always measure leveled amounts, never heaping (unless directed specifically).
- Don't over-mix the batter. Cake batters should be mixed only until all dry ingredients are wet and incorporated. Mixing any longer causes incorporates too much air and causes too much lift.
Sign 4: My Dough Didn't Rise and It's Been a While
Problem: You mixed and kneaded your dough, and you've been waiting for it to rise, but it's not rising at all, no matter how much time has passed.
Cause: Yeast. The problem could be one of two things. The yeast is dead, or you forgot to add them altogether. Either way, without live active yeast, your dough isn't going to do anything but sit there.
Solution: Add yeast. Fortunately, it's not too late. Here's how you do it:
- Proof your yeast and make sure it's still active. Add the amount of yeast called for in the recipe to a small amount of lukewarm water. About 3 tablespoons. It should make a slurry similar to the consistency of pancake batter. Let the slurry sit for 5–10 minutes. If the yeast is active, you should see bubbles or foam forming on top. If not, the yeast is dead, and you need new yeast. In this case, tightly wrap your dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate until you get fresh yeast. But for no longer than a day or two. Then, bring the dough back to room temperature before proceeding to the next step.
- Knead your dough a few times, but not too much. 3–5 times should do the trick.
- Pour the yeast slurry over the dough.
- Knead the slurry into the dough until it becomes smooth again and the slurry is incorporated. Be careful not to over-knead, or the dough will become tight and tough.
- Allow the dough to complete its first rise and then continue as directed by the recipe.
Sign 5: My Cake Cracked on Top
Problem: You opened the oven when the timer rang, and your cake has cracks running across the top.
Cause: Heat. It's just too dang hot in the oven.
Solution: Luckily, even though the cake isn't as pretty as you'd hoped, it's still delicious. So, eat it. There's no fixing this damage once it's done.
To avoid this from happening again in the future, here's what you should do:
- Make sure your oven temperature is correct by setting an oven thermometer inside. The thermometer reading and the oven setting should match. If not, go by the thermometer from now on and set your oven according to it.
If the cracks are in the way of decorating the cake:
- Carefully cut the top off so that it creates a flat, even surface. Then, flip the cake over, top side down, and voila, you have a cake ready to go glam!
Sign 6: My Pie Is Burning on Top and Still Raw the Bottom
Problem: The top of your pie is beyond golden brown and heading into burnt territory, but the bottom of it still looks raw.
Cause: Too much heat. Not enough protection. Pie needs to be cooked at a relatively high heat, and without protection, it'll burn before the bottom is done.
Solution: Protect your pie and reduce the heat. Here's how:
- If the edges are burning, but the center isn't, then cover the edges with foil or a pie crust shield. I prefer the Talisman adjustable silicone pie shield, it can be used on pies of varied sizes, and it stays put. Foil is a little more difficult to get to stay in place without putting too much pressure on your crust, but it'll work if it's all you've got.
- If the whole top, center, and edges are burning, then loosely cover the top of the pie with foil. Turn down the edges of the foil over the edges of the crust.
- Place a cooling rack at the bottom of the baking sheet and place the pie on top. This will allow the heat to circulate around the bottom of the pie, promoting more even baking.
- Put the pie back in the oven on the middle rack.
- Reduce the heat and continue baking, but not lower than 325 degrees. I like to start baking my pies around 425–450 degrees for the first 20 to 30 minutes. Then, finish baking them at around 375 degrees.
Sign 7: My Cookies Are Flat
Problem: Your cookies smell fine and taste good, but they're flat.
Cause: There are a few things that could cause your cookies to be flat. Your leavener could be old. The oven temperature could be too low. Your dough could have been too warm, or maybe your cookie sheet was greased too heavily.
Solution: Eat them. So what? You can't fix a flat cookie, but you can make a crushed cookie pie crust out of them; just don't throw them out.
Here's how to keep your cooking from going flat next time:
- Use an oven thermometer to ensure your oven temperature is accurate and adjust it accordingly.
- Make sure to replace your baking powder and baking soda when it's out of date. Old leavener losses its lift as it ages and produces flat cookies.
- Resist the urge to open the oven door as your cookies are baking. Opening the oven door releases the heat, and leaveners like baking soda and baking powder need sufficient heat to activate fully. Without enough heat, your cookies will be flat.
- Be careful not to over-grease your cookie sheet. As the grease melts, it's absorbed into the cookie dough. This results in a dough that has a higher fat content than was intended, also giving you flat cookies.
Sign 8: My Dough Was Rising, but Now It Looks Deflated
Problem: You left your dough to rise, and it was rising as it should. But, when you uncovered it, it looked sunken and deflated.
Cause: Over-proofed dough. The dough was allowed to rise too long. The bubbles formed by the gas the yeast release are what causes the dough to rise. When the dough is left to rise for too long, the bubbles grow too big and begin to deflate. Baking over-proofed dough results in a smaller, dense, and gummy end product.
Solution: Start the proofing process over. Fortunately, this is an easy fix and produces results like it never happened. This is what you do:
- Punch down the dough
- Knead it a few times, 3–5 times should do.
- Allow the dough to rise again. You'll know your dough is properly proofed when it's grown about 2/3 in size, and the dough springs back when you press your finger into its surface.
- Continue with the recipe.
Sign 9: My Pie Looks Like It's About to Explode
Problem: You open the oven, and your pie is heaving in fits and starts like it's about to burst.
Cause: Ventilation. Your pie isn't properly ventilated. If a pie with a top crust doesn't have vent holes cut into it, the steam will build under the crust until enough pressure has built up to break through. If the vent holes are cut too small, they can close back up as the dough heats and the fat begins to melt. It is also not uncommon in fruit pies for a piece of fruit to block the vent hole and cause steam pressure to build.
Solution: Quick! Poke a few holes in the top! Your pie is about to burst! Now, to avoid this next time:
- Make sure to cut vent holes that are open wide enough that they won't seal shut.
- With fruit pies, after about 40 minutes of baking, check to make sure the vent holes are clear.
Sign 10: My Pie Dough Won't Stick Together
Problem: You followed the recipe, and your dough sticks together when you pinch it, but then it just crumbles apart.
Cause: Water or fat, not enough of one or the other. A common reason pie dough turns out too dry is because the dry ingredients weren't measured properly, and there is more flour than there should be. In turn, there is also not enough moisture.
Solution: Add a tablespoon of water and knead into the dough. Repeat, one tablespoon at a time, until the dough sticks together. To avoid this from happening in the future:
- Be sure to measure dry ingredients with the correct measuring utensils.
- Spoon flour into a measuring cup. Never use the measuring cup to scoop flour.
- Never tap, shake or press the flour into the measuring cup.
- Measured amounts should never be heaping, always level with the cup or spoon.
Sign 11: My Pie Dough Is Ripping
Problem: You're trying to roll out your pie dough, and it just keeps ripping when you push on your rolling pin.
Cause: Heat. Your dough is too warm. As pie dough warms up and the fats begin to melt, the dough becomes fragile.
Solution: Chill out and let your dough chill out too.
- Roll your dough into a ball and press it into a disc.
- Wrap it in plastic wrap.
- Stick it in the refrigerator for 15 minutes; or until the dough is firm but malleable.
Need More Help?
Didn't find the solution you were looking for? Are you having a baking emergency of a different sort? For more help, check out these additional articles.
Looking for an ingredient substitution? Read "Baking Emergency - 13 Essential Ingredient Substitutions".
Did you have a baking fail and need it fixed? Check out "Baking Emergency - 5 Fixable Fails".
© 2018 Dawn M