Every year around this time, I get many calls from home bakers struggling to figure out what went wrong with their cakes, pie crusts, cookies, or chocolate desserts. The answer isn’t always obvious since one symptom can have several possible causes. Here are six common baking problems, along with their most likely remedies.
Why is my pie crust so tough?
If your pie crust is tough like cardboard and shrinks drastically during baking, it means that too much gluten formed during mixing and rolling.
When you stir water into flour, proteins in the flour grab water and one another and form strong, elastic, bubble-gum-like sheets of gluten. Gluten is essential in baked goods—it’s a big part of what holds them together. Sometimes you need a lot of gluten (for example, when making bread), but for a pie crust, you want just a little, only enough to bind the crust.
For a more tender pie crust, try working the fat (butter, lard, or shortening) into the flour more thoroughly. This greases the proteins, preventing them from forming gluten. The goal is to coat a lot of the flour with the fat for tenderness but leave some of the flour uncoated, allowing enough gluten to form to-hold the crust together. You might also try using more fat and letting it come to room temperature so that it’s softer and coats the proteins better. When you add water to the butter-flour mixture, be gentle with the dough to minimize the formation of gluten.
Another way to get more tender crusts is by adding sugar. Flour proteins combine with the sugar instead of the water and other proteins, and very little gluten forms. The high sugar content of cakes and cookies contributes to their tenderness.
Finally, an acidic ingredient such as vinegar can cut tough gluten strands and tenderize crusts, which is why some old-fashioned pie crust recipes call for a small amount of vinegar.
Why isn’t my pie crust flaky?
A big key to making flaky crusts is to have large, flat pieces of cold, firm butter, shortening, or lard in the rolled-out dough. When the dough goes into a hot oven, these pieces of fat remain solid just long enough for the dough above and below them to begin to set. Eventually, the fat melts and steam comes out of the dough, puffing it into flaky layers.
The more of these large pieces of fat you can get into your dough, the flakier your pastry will be. The fat pieces must be large (the size of a big lima bean) so they don’t melt instantly in the oven, and they must be flat so they don’t melt a hole right through the crust.
Pastry chefs can work cold fat into dry flour with their fingertips, but Jim Dodge, an author and baker, suggests rolling the flour and fat together dry on the counter until the mixture resembles flaking paint. This helps ensure lots of flat pieces. Always start with large, cold chunks of fat.
Butter can make very flaky crusts, but shortening and lard are even better because they’ll hold their shape over a wider temperature range.
Why did my cake sink?
A cake can sink in the center if it isn’t cooked enough or if it’s overleavened. If the center of the cake is wet, it wasn’t done; if the cake is cooked through, overleavening is the likely culprit. Leaveners like baking soda and baking powder enlarge air bubbles that already exist in the batter. In a hot oven, the bubbles expand more, lifting and lightening the cake. But if there’s too much leavener, the bubbles get too big, run into one another, float to the top of the batter, and burst. As a result, the cake sinks and it’s dense and heavy.
For most recipes, 1 to 1-1/4 tsp.of baking powder per cup of flour or 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda per cup of flour is ideal.
Why did my chocolate clump into a grainy mass?
You know how dipping a wet teaspoon into a sugar bowl causes the sugar grains to stick together in a little clump? This happens because a tiny amount of liquid causes dry particles to “glue” together.
Chocolate is composed of fine, dry particles (cocoa and sugar) in rich fat (cocoa butter). If a few drops of water (or even a bit of steam) get stirred into melted chocolate, the dry cocoa and sugar particles will clump together and form a dull, dry, grainy mass. This is called seizing.
You can fix seized chocolate by whisking in more water, which will provide enough liquid to wet all the seized particles and smooth the chocolate.
To prevent seized chocolate, you need to melt the chocolate with a sufficient amount of liquid from the recipe. The magic amount necessary is one tablespoon water (or a water-type liquid) for every two ounces chocolate. The liquid can be pure water or milk, or you can use cream or butter, but you’ll need to calculate the amount of water they contribute (cream is 60 percent water, butter is 20 percent water). Specialty chocolates with high percentages of cocoa may need a bit more liquid.
If you’re not adding any liquid to the melted chocolate, just be careful not to let water or steam get in the bowl, and be sure to use dry utensils.
Why did my caramel crystallize?
When you dissolve sugar in water and boil it to make caramel, the solution becomes supersaturated with sugar molecules as the water evaporates. At this point, it’s very vulnerable to crystallizing. The slightest shake of the pan, stirring, or even an undissolved sugar crystal stuck to the side of the pan can cause a chain reaction that crystallizes the entire solution.
Adding a small amount of corn syrup or lemon juice to the sugar solution at the start of boiling will ensure successful caramel. Why? A substance must be very pure to crystallize, so adding a different type of sugar to the solution prevents crystallization. Table sugar is pure sucrose, while corn syrup is glucose. The addition of lemon juice introduces a different type of sugar by breaking some of the table sugar into both glucose and fructose.
Why did my custard curdle?
Of the two types of stirred custards—pastry creams and crème anglaise—pastry cream is less susceptible to curdling because it contains starch (usually flour or cornstarch), which prevents coagulation of egg proteins. Crème anglaise, on the other hand, will curdle if it gets above 180°F, which is the temperature at which egg proteins coagulate. Cooking the custard over a hot water bath, stirring constantly, and careful monitoring should be sufficient to keep the temperature even and moderate.
For baked custards, such as puddings, crème brûlée, or even cheesecakes, you can prevent curdling by baking the custards in a water bath with a towel laid in the bottom of the pan (in the water) to protect against too much heat. The water bath keeps the custards at an even, moderate temperature (the water temperature can’t go above 212°F), far below the ambient heat of the oven.