Baking secrets: top tips for getting perfect cakes and bakes

29 June 2020

We take a look at some of the most common baking questions to help you get the best out of your cakes, biscuits and scones.

Should you line a cake tin?

Some cake mixes are loose and can run; others may burn and many will stick. Lining solves all these problems.

For a more environmentally friendly method use washable reusable baking liners, which actually protect cakes better than traditional baking parchment. They come in all shapes and sizes and are really worth the investment as they can be washed in a dishwasher and used repeatedly. You can get them for loaf tins, sandwich tins and rectangular pans, and can be cut to shape to fit your favourite pans.

Should you sift the flour?

When you're baking always sift the flour. Recipes don’t always bother specifying this (often because there’s not enough space on the page), but if you want a light, airy cake then sift the flour using a fine sieve or sifter.

Do the eggs you use make a difference to a cake?

It pays to buy the best-quality eggs you can afford – rather than skimping and buying the cheapest because you think no one will notice. In a very simple recipe such as a sponge, good ingredients make all the difference and quality eggs, preferably free-range, produce a more flavoursome result.

Should you beat the eggs before adding?

When adding eggs to a mixture it’s best to beat them gently with a fork first.

Break them one by one into an empty bowl rather than into the main mixing bowl itself – that way it’s easier to remove any unwanted yolk/white or shell.

Then add them slowly in to the cake mixture to prevent curdling (splitting). If the mixture does curdle, add a little flour. Curdling won’t affect the taste but may make the cake a bit heavier and grainier.

Why do cooking times vary so much from the recipe?

Some ovens have hotter backs than fronts, some cook faster on the right than the left, so get to know your oven. Temperature gauges can be unreliable, too, so learn to understand yours.

Always preheat the oven to baking temperature before putting in your cake.

A fan oven is hotter than a standard oven, so reduce the recipe temperature given for a conventional oven by 20C.

Be careful when opening and closing the oven door: slamming can cause cake collapse. And avoid doing so when a cake is rising.

Why are baking ingredients use at room temperature?

Unless a recipe states that you should start with something chilled – butter, for example – ensure all ingredients are at room temperature. This is particularly important with eggs. If you want to warm fridge-cold eggs, simply put them in a bowl of warm (not hot) water for ten minutes. This is because room temperatures eggs are more viscous and combine with the other ingredients better than chilled.

Soften butter in a microwave if necessary on low for 10-20 secs, cutting it into small cubes first.

Are electric mixers better than beating by hand?

Electric mixers are great for people who bake a lot or have problems mixing, but should be used carefully as over-mixing can spoil a cake. Don’t whisk too fast for too long. Whisking adds air but over-whisking breaks the bubbles, leading to a heavy cake.

What's the best way of cooling cakes and other bakes?

Let bakes cool gently on a wire rack, allowing air to circulate. Cooling them too quickly spoils the texture. Some recipes will specifiy leaving a cake in the tin, or certain biscuits in the switched off oven, so always check the instructions.

Visit our cake section for delicious cake recipes.

How do you know when a cake is cooked?

When it’s ready, a bake often comes away very slightly from the sides of a tin. Very gently press the top – it should have a little give but feel firm. Insert a metal skewer into the centre of a cake. If it comes out clean the cake is done – bear in mind, though, that the test may be less reliable with a cake containing fresh fruit, gooey chocolate pieces or other moist ingredients.

Can you turn plain flour into self-raising flour?

Yes you can. Self-raising flour is plain flour with added baking powder. If you’ve run out, simply add 2 level teaspoons baking powder to 225g (8oz) plain flour.

Self-raising flour ingredients

  • 225g (8oz) plain flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder

How to make self-raising flour 

Sift 225g plain flour and 2 level teaspoons of baking powder together in a bowl. Either use immediately or store in an airtight container until you're ready to use it.

Is baking powder the same as baking soda?

No, baking powder and baking soda are not the same. Baking powder is sodium bicarbonate, while baking powder is a mix of baking soda and other ingredients (usually monocalcium phosphate and sodium acid pyrophosphate. If you don't have baking powder you can make some by mixing two parts cream of tartar to one part baking soda.

Is bicarbonate of soda the same as baking soda?

Yes, baking soda and bicarbonate of soda are the same thing. 'Baking soda' is the name used in American recipes, while British and Australian recipes use 'bicarbonate of soda'.

Is it better to use butter or margarine in cakes?

Butter is best in a cake mixture but margarine does give airy bakes. If using unsalted butter, add a pinch of salt to the flour. Margarine also has the added bonus of being usable straight from the fridge, so if you're prone to last-minute bakes it's handy to have some on standby.

What can you bake without eggs?

If you get the baking itch but don't have eggs on hand no matter, there are plenty of recipes using alternatives such as vegetable oil, gram (chickpea) flour, flaxseed, mashed bananas or even apple sauce. A Google search for egg free baking will turn up plenty of results. You could also make flapjacks or rocky road instead. You can also bake scones by adding a little extra milk and leaving out the egg.

Here are a few of our egg-free bakes:

Fudgy espresso brownies (uses sunflower oil)
Blackberry and chocolate cupcakes (uses vegetable oil)
No-bake fruit and nut flapjack (uses dates, flaxseeds and coconut oil)
Coconut and raspberry cake (uses coconut oil, vegetable oil and bananas)
Gluten-free Earl Grey fruit loaf (uses gram flour)

What's the best oil to use in cakes?

Some recipes – carrot cake, for example, and many vegan cake recipes – call for a vegetable oil. Always be careful about which you use. You don’t want to actually taste the oil, so avoid using extra virgin olive oil. Use rapeseed oil, sunflower oil, olive oil (not virgin) and similar. Oil-based cakes can be especially useful if you've run out of eggs, but don't get too hung up on what kind of oil you need, you can easily swap rapeseed for sunflower, for example.

Why do my scones not rise properly?

Few recipes will tell you this, but when cutting out your scones from the dough make sure not to twist the cutter. Instead, pull the cutter up straight. Twisting the dough prevents a successful rise. Before cutting, dip the cutter in flour to prevent it from sticking.

How long can you store cakes?

Some cakes, such as Christmas cakes, last well. Other lighter cakes tend to taste better eaten soon. It is worth investing in a proper cake carrier if you need to transport them.

Can you freeze cakes?

Yes, most cakes can be frozen before being iced. Just wait to cool and wrap in clingfilm. This is especially useful if you live alone and can't eat an entire cake before it goes off.

Why is my cream cheese frosting too wet?

For a cream-cheese frosting, use a good-quality cream cheese. Do not over-beat or the frosting will become too wet. Fat-free cream cheese will also often become too wet.

Which type of sugar should you use for baking?

Use caster, not granulated, as the smaller grains dissolve faster, helping to preserve the precious air bubbles. In American recipes this is often referred to as 'superfine sugar'. If you don't have caster sugar but you have plenty of granulated sugar you can put it in a food processor to blend it.

How can I hide a cracked or sunken cake top?

If the top of the cake has cracked (from too high an oven temperature), turn it over or ice over the cracks, no one will know. If the middle has fallen, fill it with fresh fruit and whipped cream.

How do I stop the top of my cake burning?

If the top of your bake is burning but is not ready to come out of the oven, gently lay a sheet of baking paper or foil over the top.

Read more baking solutions.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.