This is the time of year that I pull out my stand mixer and put on my apron. Every December, our family makes and eats a variety of sweet treats, and through the years, I have learned a few techniques and tricks to help my baked goods turn out delicious!
I've always been a flexible home cook (like most of you) when it comes to cooking dinner—I'll adjust spices, seasonings, and ingredients to suit our personal tastes. With baked goods, however, substituting oil for butter or omitting a teaspoon of baking powder can be catastrophic.
When you spend your time, money, and energy to make something for yourself and your loved ones, it can be so devastating if it doesn't turn out well. Read on to learn the five most important tips and tricks I have learned (the hard way) over the years . . . and then go conquer all your holiday baking!
1. Cream Your Butter and Sugar
Most cookie recipes begin with a first step that states "cream the butter and sugar." Nowadays, recipe verbiage has changed, and some recipes may simply say "combine" or "mix" the butter and sugar. What is creaming butter and sugar? Why is it important?
My mom would always make cookies and baked goods using her KitchenAid stand mixer, but when I started holiday baking in my own home, I never used a stand mixer. I didn't bother pulling it off the dusty garage shelf because I didn't want another bulky appliance sitting on the counter.
Last year, I baked quite a bit all fall and winter, and in doing so, I really researched baking techniques and why they are important. Needless to say, I now always start my cookie dough by creaming butter and sugar with either a stand mixer or hand mixer.
How to Cream Butter and Sugar
Creaming butter and sugar is the process of beating the butter and sugar for 4–6 minutes until the mixture becomes fluffy and pale in color. To properly cream butter and sugar, the butter should already be at room temperature. If it's too cold, the butter will break into separate chunky pieces and won't incorporate with the sugar. Creaming butter and sugar together versus simply mixing butter and sugar can drastically change the end result of your cakes and cookies!
Why Cream Your Butter and Sugar?
Creaming butter and sugar incorporates air into the butter and sugar mixture. The sugar crystals and butterfat molecules become surrounded by air pockets that increase the volume of the mixture! This web of fat, sugar, and air from the creaming process prevents the butter from quickly melting during baking. Have you ever baked cookies that had crispy, burnt edges? This is easily prevented by properly creaming butter and sugar.
Creaming also works to create shape and texture in baked goods. We'll look at cookies as an example again. All the air we beat into the butter and sugar is present when biting into a cookie! Incorporating air into the cookie dough helps with the shape and texture by creating air pockets in the cookie that lead to a thicker, fluffier, less dense cookie. If your cookies or cakes are dense and lack a light, airy texture, it may be due to not properly creaming butter and sugar.
2. Measure Your Flour Properly
Have you ever tried to follow a recipe for a cake or bread and the result was far from impressive? A common error in home baking is not properly measuring the amount of flour you use.
By far the best way to measure flour is by weight, not by volume. Many recipes from older cookbooks list ingredients by weight (ounces or grams) and by volume (teaspoons or cups). Measuring ingredients by weight is easy to do with a kitchen scale that costs less than $10. When you measure ingredients by weight vs. by volume, you have 100% certainty that the amount of flour you are using is exactly the same as the recipe you are following!
Flour settles over time in storage, and in packing for sale at grocery stores- it becomes denser. To properly measure flour we need to reincorporate air back into the flour.
How to Measure Flour Without a Kitchen Scale
There are several methods you can use to properly measure flour using no additional tools or appliances.
- If you keep your flour in a large container that is only 2/3 of the way full or less, shake the container to aerate the flour prior to measuring. Give it a good 10-15 second shake and you are ready to measure. One quick swoop with a measuring cup into the flour container, then run a butter knife across the top of the measuring cup to level the measuring cup and scrape any excess back into the container.
- If you keep your flour in the packaging you bought it in, you can simply use a spoon to fill a measuring cup. Fill your measuring cup spoonful by spoonful until it's heaping, then use a butter knife to scrape the excess flour back into the package. As you scoop and drop the flour into the measuring cup, the flour gets aerated! Most home cooks and recipe publishers today measure flour using this method.
- Alternatively, you can use a sieve or sifter to sift the flour into a mixing bowl, then use measuring cups to scoop out the flour. This method works well but takes the most time and creates the most dishes to wash.
3. Blind Bake Your Pie Crusts
This time of year is also prime time for pies! Pumpkin, pecan, cherry, cranberry, and chocolate pies are all commonly found at parties and holiday tables in the fall and winter months. Whether you make your own pie crust from scratch or purchase a frozen pie crust, blind baking your crust will help prevent it from getting soggy.
What Is Blind Baking?
Blind baking, par-baking, or pre-baking a pie crust all refer to baking your pie crust initially without the filling. This helps the crust develop a nice crisp and flaky texture without all the moisture of the filling weighing it down and making it soggy.
To blind bake a pie crust, whether homemade or store-bought, place the pie crust into your dish and line with a sheet of parchment paper. Next you'll need to add some weights on top of the parchment paper- you can buy pie weights specifically for this or you can use dried beans. Using dried beans is very common and many people have a jar of beans they use for this very purpose in their pantry.
The weight on top of the parchment paper prevents the pie crust from rising too high or shrinking during baking and this method results in the perfect crispy, flaky pie crust.
Tip: Save the beans you used as weights for the next time you blind bake a pie crust. After being used to blind bake, you can't eat the beans but you can reuse them for more crusts in the future. Dried beans are easy to find and very inexpensive.
Here's a great cherry pie recipe from The Kitchn.
4. Prevent Your Cakes From Overflowing
I have fallen victim to this numerous times. I have set out to make cakes from scratch before, taking the time to measure my ingredients and wait as my cake baked away in the oven—only to see the cake completely overflowing the pan and spilling out into my oven. What happened?
This can happen with boxed cake mixes and scratch-made cakes. When you are baking a cake, the cake batter should only fill the pan halfway. I know it looks thin and flat, but as a cake rises, it usually doubles in size.
Sometimes this happens if you try and make a double batch, too much batter in the pan size the recipe called for baking half the batter. This can also happen if you don't check the pan measurements detailed in a recipe: if a cake recipe tells you to use a 10" cake pan, don't use an 8" pan and expect it will be okay.
The smaller pan will result in the batter overflowing and spilling out as the batter rises in the oven! Additionally, a smaller pan can prevent your cake from baking correctly as it's too thick to fully bake the center without burning the top and edges.
5. Prevent Your Cakes From Falling/Sinking
A few years ago, I set out to bake a birthday cake and it was the first cake I had baked in years. I tend to prefer pie, bars, and cookies to cake, but it was a friend's birthday so I wanted to bake a cake. All seemed well as I removed it from the oven- it was golden brown, fluffy, and had risen to double the size of the original batter. I set the pan on the counter to cool—and within five minutes the cake sank down and lost all its volume.
What Caused My Cake to Fall or Sink?
There are a few key reasons why cakes can sink as they cool, even if they look amazing when you first pull them out of the oven. Be patient and use these tips, I know you can bake an amazing cake this holiday.
- The cake wasn't done baking. If a cake looks great when you first pull it from the oven, but it quickly sinks down afterward it probably wasn't done baking. Use the toothpick method to ensure your cake is thoroughly baked.
- There was too much liquid/moisture. This one is tricky because nobody likes a dry cake, but too much liquid can cause a cake to sink. As the cake bakes and the liquid in the cake batter turns into steam, the steam escapes through the top of the cake and lifts the batter as it does so. However, if the batter has too much moisture, the cake doesn't dry out enough to hold its shape and sinks when the baking ends.
- Too many eggs were used. Eggs are powerful binders, so powerful that too many eggs in a cake recipe can prevent a cake from fully springing up. Eggs also add liquid to cakes, and as in tip #2, too much liquid can cause a cake to sink as well.
- Too much baking powder was used. If your cake rises beautifully but falls after you remove it from the oven there may have been too much baking powder in the recipe. When this happens, this baking powder leavens the cake more than the structure of the batter can handle- resulting in a tall, airy cake that sinks flat.
Enjoy Your Holiday Baking
Thanks for reading. I truly hope all your holiday cookies, pies, and cakes turn out wonderful for your family and guests to enjoy. I hope you found these common baking tips and tricks helpful as you embark on the holiday baking season.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.