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Top 10 Baking Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

The holiday season tends to bring out the baker in even the most reluctant among us. Who doesn't want to crank up the music, turn on the oven and get to work turning out tray upon tray of homemade goodies to give to friends, family and neighbors?

But the idea of baking can also strike fear into many. Baking is not nearly as forgiving as cooking, where a "dash" of this and a "pinch" of that probably won't affect the outcome. Baking success relies more heavily on precision, care and attention to detail.

But this doesn't mean that you need a culinary degree to create impressive, delicious and beautiful cakes and cookies.

I've been a serious home baker for almost 30 years, and have many—MANY—fails under my belt. And I've learned as much from my kitchen disasters as I have from my successes.

Here are my "Top 10" baking mistakes and how to avoid them (and, in some cases, fix them if they happen anyway)!

1. Not properly preparing your pans. If you've ever taken a beautiful cake out of the oven only to have half of it stick in the pan as you turn it out, I feel your pain. Taking the time to properly prepare your pan will pay off with cakes that come out neat and clean every time. To start, grease sides and bottom with a non-stick cooking spray. Then line the bottom (and sides, if you like) with parchment paper. Spray the parchment paper and generously sprinkle sides and bottom with flour. Tap out the excess.

2. Not bringing your ingredients to room temperature. Common baking ingredients such as butter, eggs and milk are most successfully incorporated when used at room temperature. This is as simple as taking them out about an hour before you begin. But on the chance that you forget? Grate cold butter on the large-hole side of a box grater. It will be ready to go in minutes. As for eggs, place in a bowl of warm water for about 10 minutes.

3. Not reading the recipe carefully. As I mentioned earlier, baking relies on care and precision. Reading through a new recipe a few times will help you prepare your ingredients, utensils and steps. For example, "one cup of almonds, chopped" looks like this:

Whereas "one cup of chopped almonds" looks like this:

In the first example, you measure one cup of almonds and then chop. In the second, you chop enough almonds to measure one cup.

Reading through the recipe will also alert you to ingredients that need to be melted and then cooled completely before proceeding, or batters that need to rest/chill/freeze overnight.

4. Not creaming the butter and sugar long enough. You'll notice that most recipes start out by creaming butter and sugar. The first step is making sure the butter is at room temperature (see tip No. 2!). The second is thoroughly beating the butter and sugar—you want a light and fluffy mixture, which will not only better absorb the remaining ingredients, but result in light and tender cakes and cookies.

5. Not using the specified ingredients. Substituting ingredients in cooking will rarely result in disaster. Not so much when it comes to baking. Salted versus unsalted butter, all-purpose versus self-rising flour, baking powder versus baking soda are just a few examples. And while there are a few exceptions, where a switch won't affect the end result, you are typically better off having the proper ingredients on-hand before you start baking.

6. Not measuring your ingredients properly. Precise measuring is key to successful baking. And the biggest pitfall when measuring is not using the proper tools based on your ingredients.

Liquid ingredients should be measured in a spouted measuring cup. Hold the cup at eye level and pour in your liquid as instructed. For dry ingredients, use standard measuring cups. Place on a piece of waxed paper and lightly spoon in your ingredient to overflowing. Level off with a knife without tamping down or packing, and pour any excess back into the original container.

7. Opening the oven door. It can be SO tempting to peek in on your creation while it's baking away in the oven. Resist that temptation! Opening the oven door too soon can cause a sudden change in temperature, resulting in cakes that don't rise properly. Keep that door closed for at least 3/4 of the cooking time.

8. Crowding the oven. Many cookie recipes specify placing multiple sheets in the oven, instructing you to switch positions halfway through. In my many years of baking this has never worked for me. First of all, it requires opening the oven door too soon (see above!). Second, I have found that the cookies just don't bake up or color properly. Yes, it takes longer baking one sheet at a time, but the end result is well worth the wait.

9. Crowding the pan. Pay attention to the recipe's instructions for spacing cookies on the baking sheet. Some cookies spread quite a bit once they hit the oven, and nothing's more disappointing than a mass of stuck-together cookie dough. If you're unsure of how far apart to space, place 2 or 3 cookies on a sheet and bake. You'll see how much they spread and can plan the rest of the batch accordingly.

10. Not using a cooling rack. A cooling rack is as important for cakes and cupcakes as it is for cookies. For cakes and cupcakes, you want to let them sit in their pans on the rack for 10 to 20 minutes (depending on the size). You then want to remove them from the pans to cool completely on the racks. This method will prevent soggy bottoms from sitting in the pans for too long. As for cookies, they will continue to bake as they sit on the sheet—even out of the oven. Transfer immediately to a cooling rack to ensure the best texture.

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Images via Sheri Silver

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