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Baking secrets: top tips for getting perfect cakes and bakes

29 June 2020 ( 22 November 2021 )

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.

Sifting flour
Recipes often don't specify sifting the flour, but doing so will give you a lighter cake

In this article:

Ingredient essentials
Using the right tools
When your cake is in the oven
When your cake has finished baking
Fixing problem bakes

Why are baking ingredients used 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.

Some recipes - especially biscuits - will require being chilled once the ingredients have been mixed.

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.

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.

Can you turn plain flour into self-raising flour?

Yes you can. Self-raising flour is plain flour with added baking powder, so if you've run out of self-raising flour but can't find a recipe with plain four and baking powder you can make your own. 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 from plain 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 soda is sodium bicarbonate, of bicarbonate of soda, while baking powder is a mix of bicarbonate of 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. The best egg replacement can depend on the recipe, so if you're trying to adapt a favourite recipe some trial and error might be in order, although there are plenty of recipes available with egg alternatives (see below). You could also make flapjacks or rocky road instead, or bake scones by adding a little extra milk and leaving out the egg.

Some common egg replacements:

Flaxseeds: for one egg mix 1 tbsp flaxseeds mixed with 3 tbsp hot water. Leave to sit for five minutes to turn viscous.
Aquafaba (water from a can of chick peas): for one egg use 3 tbsp of aquafaba, whisked.
Chia seeds: for one egg use 1 tbsp chia seeds and 2.5 tbsp water.
Chickpea flour (gram flour): for one egg mix 2 tbsp chickpea flour with 2 tbsp water and allow to sit for 5 minutes.

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?

When it comes to baking 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.

Most common baking ingredients

If you're getting started with baking there are a few store cupboard essentials you should make sure you have in, as well as some fridge essentials, to make basic sponges, scones and biscuits:

  • Plain flour
  • Self-raising flour
  • Baking powder
  • Bicarbonate or soda
  • Caster sugar
  • Coco powder
  • Chocolate chips
  • Vanilla essence or extract
  • Icing sugar
  • Butter or margarine
  • Eggs

These 'nice to have' ingredients will also give you more options when you want to experiment, decorate your cakes or try some different recipes:

  • Brown sugar
  • Ground almonds
  • Dried fruit
  • Cinnamon or mixed spice
  • Almond extract
  • Orange extract
  • Polenta
  • Food colourings
  • Sprinkles such as sugar strands or hundreds and thousands
  • Lemon juice
  • Lime juice
  • Desiccated coconut
  • Jam
  • Chocolate chunks
  • Fudge pieces

Should you line a cake tin?

Some cake mixes are loose and can run; others may burn and many will stick. Lining your pan 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.

If you don't have liners to hand then grease your tin with a little melted butter and a very fine dusting of flour. If using a tin that's hard to line - such as a bundt tin.

Using a bundt tin

If using a bundt tin, it's really important to grease and flour it well. Sieve the flour to avoid lumps sticking to the tin and spoiling the decoration. And make sure to knock off excess flour - again, so as not to leave lumps in the tin.

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.

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.

Get your cake in the oven quickly

Baking is a science, so get that cake into the oven quickly. Once the dry ingredients, such as baking powder, makes contact with liquids it starts to do its work and begins to rise. Make sure you don't put too much mixture in the tin, though.

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. This will give you a more even bake and will prevent the top becoming too golden or burnt, and is particularly useful for tall cakes.

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.

Why does my cake sink in the middle?

If your cake has sunk it might be that you opened the door too soon. Never get impatient when baking, you shouldn't open the oven door until it has cooked at least 3/4 of the way. Doing so could cause your cake to sink in the middle, and it will never rise back up.

Why are my scones not rising?

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. For well-risen scones, dip the cutter in flour before cutting to prevent it from sticking.

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 specify 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.

If the cake sticks to the tin

If the cake ends up stuck to the tin, leaving broken-off bits, use frosting to glue these back on.

How long can you store cakes?

Some cakes, such as Christmas cakes, last well. Other lighter cakes tend to taste better eaten soon, within a few three to four days. It is worth investing in a proper airtight cake carrier to store them, and it makes it easier 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, or you're baking for an event and have limited time. Leave to come to room temperature before sandwiching together with your favourite filling.

Can you freeze cookie dough?

Cookie dough can easily be frozen. Roll your dough into a sausage shape and wrap in cling film or pop into a freezer bag. Simply cut off discs and bake for fresh, gooey cookies whenever you want, or mix with ice cream for a frozen dessert.

Icing your finished cake

Avoid over-mixing icing or it will become too loose.

Before frosting, put the cake in the freezer to firm it up and prevent crumbs sticking as you ice.

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.

Alternatively, once cooked, take it out of the oven to cool completely, as per the recipe. Slice it horizontally down the centre. Cover the bottom layer with your favourite filling. Slap some cream on to the top layer and into the hollow, turn over and sandwich the bottom and top layers together. This becomes a hidden hollow cake.

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.

How to fix a soggy cake

If the cake is soggy in the middle, use a tin the size of the offending centre, press down onto it and cut it out, and throw it away before decorating the cake. Everyone will think you used a ring-shaped tin.

My biscuits have spread too thinly

Biscuits or cookies can spread too thinly on the tray if their batter was not chilled. To get around this, wrap your dough in parchment or clingfilm and then roll out and cut once cold. Circular biscuits can be chilled or frozen in a sausage shape. Simply cut discs off and bake.

You should also make sure you are baking them on a cold tray. Putting them onto a hot tray will cause the butter to start melting prematurely.

How to fix an overcooked cake

If your cake is dry and overcooked use a skewer to poke some holes into the top and pour over a syrup or liqueur.

How to fix a hollow cake

If your cake has a hollow centre then make a feature of it and fill it with berries and cream.

How to fix a domed cake

If your cake has a domed top then slice off the raised part, turn the cake over onto the plate and decorate. No one will be any the wiser.

Visit our cooking tips section for more advice and information.

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