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Domed cakes, flattened-out cookies, rock-hard muffins, yeast rolls that just won’t rise – if you’re facing any of these disasters when you pull your pans out of the oven, it’s time to brush up on your baking skills. For many, baking can be difficult with its precise measurements and super-specific instructions. But it doesn’t have to be a frustrating or failed process. There are easy fixes for many of your most common baking mistakes.
You might be making one of the following infamous baking blunders. But you won’t make them again with these easy tips and tricks meant to help you fix any issues with your baked goods.
1. Your baked goods are desert-dry
Baking is part art, part science – and the science part requires a fair amount of precision. Just a few extra tablespoons of flour can transform a tender, moist cake into a parched, crumbling disaster.
For the most accurate results, use metal or plastic cups, not clear Pyrex measuring cups; those are intended for liquids. And while we’re on this topic, never plunge the cup into a bag or canister of flour. That will compress the flour and throw off your measurements.
Instead, gently fill cups with a spoon. Don’t shake the cups or tap them on the counter; slightly overfill them, then scrape the back of a butter knife across the top to level it out. Even better, invest in a kitchen scale. You’ll find basic, inexpensive options for as little as $20. And if the recipe calls for sifting flour, don’t skip this step. Sifting breaks up lumps and ensures accurate measuring (plus, makes it easier to incorporate into recipes, minimizing mixing).
2. Your muffins and breads are like hockey pucks
You know how the directions sometimes say “mix just until combined?” It’s not a suggestion – it’s a really serious piece of advice. Beating batter activates gluten, causing the protein strands to link and form a matrix, yielding structure, texture and elasticity. But too much mixing over-develops gluten, leaving you with tough, heavy or unpleasantly dense muffins, quick breads and cakes.
Handle batter gently and keep mixing to a bare minimum. Stop as soon as everything is combined and no streaks of flour remain. To guarantee you’re assimilating all the ingredients, scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl too. Use a flexible silicone spatula, ideally one with curved edges to scoop up every last bit.
And if your recipe calls for room temperature ingredients, don’t cheat. Eggs, milk and other dairy products blend more easily at room temperature, creating a uniform, consistent batter and trapping air that expands during cooking – meaning lighter, fluffier treats.
3. Your yeast rolls just won’t rise
Yeast is a fickle beast. It’s a living organism, and improper handling spells certain death. Warm liquids activate yeast, but the temperature is critical. Too cool, and nothing happens; too hot, and you’ll kill it.
When you’re working with yeast, your water or milk should be between 112 and 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Don’t guess; use an instant-read thermometer. Yeast also has a fussy shelf life, so that half-empty packet you opened last Thanksgiving has probably perished. Buy fresh yeast at the store, and stock up on extras in case you get a bad batch. Stash it in the fridge and use it within four months.
And when it comes to using up your yeast stash, don’t assume it’s good to go. Even if you just opened a new packet, always, always test yeast before you embark on a recipe. Stir half a teaspoon into warm water and let it sit for 10 minutes; if it’s not foamy and yeasty-smelling, toss it and start over with a fresh packet.
Additionally, you should let dough rise in a warm location, away from cold air or drafts. If your kitchen’s cool, preheat the oven to 200 degrees for one or two minutes; turn it off, and put the bowl of dough in that now-toasty environment.
4. Everything ends up superglued to the pan
If you’ve got baked goods that just won’t budge, you’ve likely missed a pan-prep step.
For effortless bread and cake removal, generously grease the inside of the pan, then line the bottom with a circle of parchment paper. Coat parchment with butter or shortening, sprinkle everything with flour, and shake and rotate till the whole pan is finely dusted. Then, turn the pan upside down and tap the bottom to remove excess flour. Do the same with muffin tins, or line them with parchment (a more grown-up alternative to paper liners): Cut a sheet of parchment into 5-inch squares, then mold each square around a cup or glass that’s about the size of individual muffin compartments.
And always prep your pans before combining ingredients. It’s important to get that batter or dough into the oven as soon as it’s mixed. Even a few minutes of languishing in the bowl can impact leavening agents and interfere with rise. Grease, flour and line pans with parchment ahead of time – ideally, when you preheat the oven – to maximize success.
5. Your biscuits fall short of their fluffy potential
Deceptively simple biscuits have few ingredients; the key is in the technique. That flaky, tender perfection comes from slivers of butter skillfully suspended between layers of flour. As a result, if your butter’s the wrong temperature, you’ll end up with gummy, hopelessly heavy biscuits. The same goes for scones, pie crusts and other baked goods that rely on wafer-thin slivers of butter embedded throughout.
To achieve that perfectly fluffy, flaky biscuit, start with cold, hard butter. Measure it out, cut it into small bits, then freeze for a few minutes while you’re prepping ingredients. You can even chill the mixing bowl and flour first to further enhance flakiness. Blend the butter into the flour with a pastry cutter, two forks or your hands. Just don’t use a food processor – it’ll create too much friction and heat, melting butter fast and toughening up dough. Mix only until the dough resembles coarse meal, and work quickly. If you feel the butter softening, stick the bowl in the fridge for five minutes to firm it up.
6. Your cookies spread
Do those perfectly sculpted balls of dough flatten into a formless, greasy puddle? It’s because the fat in the dough melts before the ingredients have a chance to set.
To fix this, start by measuring ingredients precisely. Too little flour can’t contain the fat, making cookies spread into a useless, oily pool. Then, using a stand or handheld mixer, cream room-temperature (not melted) butter with sugar. Creaming butter and sugar incorporates small pockets of air that slow the pace at which butter and sugar melt and creates a matrix that stabilizes dough. Add your remaining ingredients, just until they’re blended; overmixing introduces too much air, so cookies rise rapidly, then flatten. If the dough is sticky or oily, pop it in the fridge for a few minutes to firm up the fats and delay melting (or make it in advance, and chill overnight).
Oh, and don’t grease your baking sheets. Adding a layer of fat prevents cookies from gripping and encourages spread. Line pans with parchment paper, or use a silicone mat to keep cookies from sticking.
7. Your cakes always dome…
Are you finding that no matter what you do, your cake tops turn into mountainous domes, impossible to stack and frost? Here’s why: Once that cake hits the oven, the pan heats up fast, so outer edges rise and set quickly. Meanwhile, the thicker center continues to puff up more languidly, manifesting in a mounded middle.
For flat, flawless tops, bake cakes slow and low to even out cooking rates. Reduce the oven temperature by 50 degrees F, and cook for 30 to 50 percent longer. Insulating the sides of the pan also encourages the edges and center to rise and cook at a similar pace. You can invest in even-bake strips to wrap around the pan. Or, use a damp cotton towel to insulate sides – it’s cumbersome, but a decent emergency hack.
And if all else fails, you can rescue domed cakes. After they cool, freeze them for several hours, then carefully slice off domes with a bread knife to level tops.
8. …or they collapse
If the center of your cake collapses into a squishy heap, you’re probably peeking when you shouldn’t. Opening the oven door lets hot air escape, reduces the oven temperature and almost guarantees inconsistent results. It’s especially risky at the start of baking, when a blast of cold air interrupts the initial rising process and makes the middle sink.
Trust the process (and your timer): Instead of opening the door, turn on the oven light to monitor progress. If you need to see if the cake is done, wait till near the end of cooking time, when the batter has stabilized.
Not peeking or touching the oven door? Another common culprit of collapsing cakes is overmixing, which introduces an abundance of air, weakening the cake’s structure and causing the center to fall. Or, it may be a leavening problem. Too much baking soda or powder means cakes rise rapidly before the batter has a chance to set, leading to inevitable collapse. Expired baking powder also hampers your cake’s ability to soar. Check its freshness before you start mixing ingredients: Stir a teaspoon of baking powder into a quarter cup of hot water—if it bubbles, you’re good to go. If not, toss it and use a fresh container.
For more expert baking tips and tricks (and to learn how to prevent baking mistakes), keep reading: