Cooking is often framed as a science, but it's baking that most demands we pay close attention to the chemistry of a recipe, balancing ingredients like C12H22O11 (sugar), NaCl (salt), and NaHCO3 (baking soda) with more complex substances like milk, chocolate, and butter. We're not just mixing; we're producing emulsions, coagulating proteins, and dabbling in thermal decomposition, too.
Not that you have to fancy yourself a scientist to bake! For many of us, spending time in the kitchen has more to do with social, cultural, or even artistic inclinations—baking treats for friends, families, or holiday celebrations, or simply to indulge in a creative endeavor. And then there are the baser urges, like shoving cookie dough in your face...or maybe that's just me?
So, while I hope it's clear I don't mean to abolish aprons in favor of lab coats, it pays to respect the underlying chemistry of a baking recipe and realize that little changes can have a big impact on what's going on. For the most part, that simply means starting with a good recipe and following the directions as closely as we can. But it can also mean examining our equipment, assumptions, and habits to make sure we don't introduce flaws of our own.
Having spent the last five years helping folks troubleshoot recipes online, I've figured out a handful of issues that can sneak up on the best of us. Fortunately, these are easy to avoid once you know what they are.
Misbegotten Measuring Spoons
The photo at the top of this post shows but a smattering of the measuring spoons collected at Serious Eats over the years. No one can say whence some of these ridiculous utensils came, but I can tell you where many have gone: the garbage. Why? From the innocent-looking stainless steel set (35% too large) to the hysterically overengineered orange doodads (15% too small), not a single one was accurate.
In the United States, a tablespoon is defined as a unit of volume equal to half a fluid ounce (just shy of 15 milliliters), while a teaspoon is a unit of volume equal to one-sixth of a fluid ounce (roughly five milliliters). Maddeningly, these standards aren't upheld by government regulations, so the accuracy of any given spoon rests solely on the integrity of the manufacturer. For that reason, I've found novelty spoons (shaped like hearts or Pikachu or whatever) notoriously unreliable, as well as those based on some gimmicky design.
An easy way to verify the accuracy of your teaspoon is to grab the little dosage cup that comes with every bottle of cough syrup; two teaspoons should bring you to the 10-milliliter line. If not, your set's a dud. If you have a scale, you can also check by weighing out a tablespoon of water to be sure it clocks in at half an ounce. (Just make sure your scale is accurate enough to reliably measure in half-ounce increments.)
Liquid Cup Conundrums
It's tempting to think that a cup's a cup, but the markings on a fluid measuring cup aren't positioned quite where you might expect. They're offset to account for a liquid's meniscus—that weird curvature you see when water crawls up the side of a glass. With dry ingredients, there's no empty space where the water would dip down, making those markings completely inaccurate.
A dry cup can accommodate about five ounces of flour (give or take), but a liquid measuring cup may hold up to 150% of the original amount. Even if you bear that in mind and aim to under-fill, as I did in the photo above, you can still wind up with far more than you bargained for...especially with compressible ingredients like flour. (Despite the common belief that you should measure liquids from the bottom of the meniscus, the markings on liquid measuring cups are yet another unregulated standard that can vary from brand to brand—which is why my recipes will always include the weight of liquid ingredients as well.)
Swapping Grams and Milliliters
We all know grams and milliliters aren't the same, yet whenever I write a recipe that calls for grams of milk or honey, I'm always asked, "Don't you mean milliliters?"
Nope. If a recipe calls for grams or non-fluid ounces, rest assured the author intends for you to grab a scale, even if the ingredient is a liquid.
When it comes to water and fluids of a similar density, the difference between grams and milliliters is moot, since the mass of one milliliter of water is more or less one gram.* But it's just plain wrong to equate mass and volume, because they express entirely different concepts, and, with dense ingredients like molasses or condensed milk, that becomes abundantly clear. For example, if a recipe calls for 225 grams of agave nectar and someone opts for milliliters instead, the result will be 133% of what's needed—more than enough to ruin any recipe.
Originally, one gram was defined as the mass of one cubic centimeter (i.e., one milliliter) of water, but the standard has since changed. For kitchen purposes, though, they're still close enough to be considered equivalent.
This is something to bear in mind when it comes to ounces versus fluid ounces as well!
Losing Track of Your Prep
Have you ever been interrupted halfway through a recipe and wondered if you've already added the baking soda or not? This one has burned more times than I can count, and it's all the more perilous on occasions that require more than one scoop—uhhhh, have I added two and a half or two and three-quarters teaspoons?
Okay, so technically speaking, the safest thing is to measure each ingredient individually, but in practice, that's not something any of us are going to do. What is practical is to measure each ingredient into its own "zone" so that you can visually assess your progress and scoop out any excess if need be. This is particularly helpful with spices, leavening, and salt, which can so quickly disappear into a sea of white sugar and flour. I'm even in the habit of adding my baking powder on the left and baking soda on the right, so there's never any doubt of where I am in a recipe. (When you bake six to eight hours a day, being interrupted is all but guaranteed.)
Especially for those of us who bake by weight, it's easy to forget how important volume can be. If a recipe calls for three and a half ounces of shredded coconut, it's easy to imagine that we can opt for an equal weight of flaked coconut instead. Problem is, that doubles the volume of coconut, which can change quite a bit about the behavior of a batter or dough, including yield, bake time, tenderness, and texture.
Conversely, if a recipe calls for three cups of flaked coconut, using three cups of shredded coconut will double the amount of coconut by weight, creating problems of its own. The same goes for whole versus slivered almonds, sliced versus diced apples, whole versus crushed berries, or any other preparation that alters the density of an ingredient per cup.
Overreliance on Grams
However much I love my scale, there are times when volume measurements make more sense—particularly when it comes to doling out teensy-tiny quantities of powerful ingredients like baking soda, baking powder, gelatin, salt, and yeast. With these lightweight powders, a single extra gram can produce disastrous results, so it's imperative to measure them as accurately as possible.
A scale might seem like the best tool for the job, and it is for bulk ingredients like flour, sugar, and cocoa, but most kitchen scales don't have the level of accuracy required for small doses of leavenings and seasonings. Unless you bought your scale at a head shop, chances are yours rounds to the nearest gram, which isn't a fine enough resolution to precisely measure a gram or two of something like baking powder.
This means reaching for a reliable measuring spoon instead.
It's not just that kitchen scales have trouble registering the weight of something very small—it's also that we tend to gradually tap out powdered ingredients in tentative sprinkles when weighing them, until we reach our goal. Few kitchen scales are sensitive enough to register these micro-units, leading to an unfortunate series of 0 + 0 calculations.
This can go on until some minimum threshold is met, leading to a massive overdose of a volatile ingredient that needs to be measured with care. If you regularly find recipes to be salty, spicy, and over-leavened (soapy, metallic, or excessively browned), overreliance on your scale's gram measurements may be to blame. There's no shame in grabbing a measuring spoon to get the job done!
Regardless of your approach to baking, reaching for the tools that are right for you and better understanding the language of a recipe will eliminate frustration and ensure more consistently delicious results.