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Baking fail? There’s a good chance one of these 5 things went wrong.

A common baking mishap includes not properly measuring or weighing ingredients.  (Tom McCorkle for the Washington/Food styling by Lisa Cherkasky)
By Becky Krystal Washington Post

Baking is science, we’re often told – and I love science. So much so that there was a period in college when I flirted with going into medicine. (I’m the daughter of a doctor, I couldn’t help it!) Alas, it was short-lived.

But my appreciation for figuring out why things work, or why they don’t, never went away. And that’s where my passion for baking comes in.

As thrilled as I am to hear from readers who have successfully baked something, I get just as much satisfaction out of helping people understand why a recipe failed and how to fix the issue. A baked good that flops is incredibly frustrating and often confounding.

When someone contacts me about a baking fail, I follow up with a list of questions and theories. Then we get to problem-solving. Based on my experience, if something went wrong in your baking, there’s a good chance it’s because of one of these five things.

You didn’t weigh the ingredients

My first question for home bakers is always, “Do you weigh your ingredients?” I believe using a scale is the single most important thing you can do to set yourself up for success and replicate what the recipe developer intended.

Weight is more precise than volume. How much of an ingredient you get into a measuring cup can vary based on how packed the ingredient is, the way you scooped it and the cup itself. Even measuring cups with the same advertised volume can hold varying amounts; in the case of flour, that variation can be as much as 20% depending on the baker, according to America’s Test Kitchen. In baking, even small variations in flour or sugar, especially when amplified across multiple cups, can be the difference between success and failure.

You baked in a glass pan instead of a metal pan

A few years ago, the Food team hosted a lunch session with our Post colleagues in which we talked about some of our recent work and opened up the floor to questions. One reporter asked why her brownies never cooked through. My response: Was she using a glass baking dish? Bingo. Since then, I’ve pinpointed this as the reason a reader’s carrot bread was raw in the middle, among other instances.

The gist: Glass is slow to heat. Metal heats up faster. With glass (or ceramic), the slower transfer of heat means foods will take longer to bake than those in metal. If you pull out a cake, or even a batch of brownies or blondies, when the faster-setting edges seem done, the middle may still be raw. If you wait for the middle to be done once the heat finally penetrates, it’s likely the edges will be overcooked. They may continue to dry out as the pan cools, too, because of the heat retention.

Your oven was not at the right temperature

Successful baked goods rely on accurate temperatures. I’ve had cookies spread rather than set when I’ve been impatient about preheating. And anyone who bakes bread knows the importance of heat when it comes to the coveted oven spring.

The importance of knowing your oven’s actual temperature – not what it claims to be – is a drum I constantly beat, to the point that regular readers have taken notice and told me what a difference it made. Persistence, it works! (“After seeing the suggestion many times in this chat, I finally bought myself an oven thermometer,” wrote a participant in one of our recent live weekly chats.)

Many home ovens will not be at the set temperature by the time the preheat chime goes off. In my case, that usually takes at least an additional 15 minutes, if not more. Get a stand-alone thermometer and check what it’s reading when that alarm sounds. If you consistently find your oven running a steady amount above or below what you put on the dial, adjust accordingly, or calibrate on your own or with the help of a pro.

You didn’t sufficiently mix

A plaintive email arrived in my inbox a week before Christmas. A reader’s beloved ginger cookies went sideways – literally, as they spread too much and turned crunchy – days before her son was due to arrive home expecting them. I sent along my standard questions, but things only clicked once I saw the recipe and the photo of the ruined batch. My theory: The flat, lacy cookies were the result of undermixing, possibly in the creaming stage where the butter and sugar were beaten, but even more likely at the point where the dry ingredients were added. Some of the cookies looked good enough; others had the telltale appearance of dough portions scraped from the sides of the bowl with insufficient flour. The reader made a second batch, taking care to get the butter and sugar fluffy and especially making sure the dry ingredients were thoroughly incorporated. Success!

Lesson: Whether you are stirring by hand or using a stand mixer or a hand mixer, be scrupulous about periodically scraping down the bowl, in between additions and more often as needed. Butter and sugar tend to cling to the sides. For the best results, when recipes call for softened butter, make sure it’s not cold and solid or warm and soupy. Cook’s Country says butter at its sweet spot “should give slightly when pressed,” and if you have an instant-read thermometer, aim for the butter to register in the low to mid-60s Fahrenheit.

You made a bad substitution

I can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard from someone wondering why a recipe failed when they swapped in almond flour for all-purpose flour. To be frank, any time you make a substitution in a recipe, you risk problems. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. It does mean you should think through your change and figure out whether it is a substantial alteration to the composition and function of the ingredients.

In the case of almond and all-purpose flours, these are two fundamentally different ingredients – nuts and wheat. Their ability to absorb moisture, stabilize doughs or batters, and expand in baking are not the same. This is where taking the extra time to understand why ingredients work and what they do is so crucial. If you are looking to make a substitution and the original recipe doesn’t address it, seek out other examples. If you want to do it, someone else probably has. For particular dietary needs, sometimes the best course of action is to find a different recipe developed with those parameters in mind.