If cooking is hard, baking is harder. There’s a literal science to all things that you do in the kitchen, but that especially applies to baking, where a miscalculation, a poorly calibrated oven or even the altitude can ruin whatever tasty treat you spent hours laboring over.
Still, there’s no need to angrily toss ruined Bundt cakes and uncooperative bread dough into the trash while you stifle profanity and/or tears. We can fix it!
1. Your bread dough won’t rise
When it comes out right, homemade bread is pretty much the best thing that exists. The whole house smells great, your toast is borderline divine, and you feel like you’ve unlocked one of the ancient secrets of the Almighty Baking Gods. But when it comes out wrong? You get a dense little lump of dough that won’t rise and a few hours of your life that you’ll never retrieve.
Fix it for now: First, determine whether it’s failing to rise because of the yeast, the heat or a mismeasurement of some kind. Microwave a mug of water for a few minutes, then pop your covered dough into the empty microwave, and shut the door to create a testing sauna. If there’s still no action after a few minutes, it could be the yeast.
If the testing sauna does get your dough to rise a little, try this: Heat the oven to the lowest setting, then turn it off and wait a few minutes. Dampen a dish towel, throw it over the bowl, and put the bowl in the warm but switched-off oven.
If the testing sauna does nothing, test the yeast by proofing the same amount you used for the recipe in a dish with about 2 ounces of warm water and a little sugar. If there’s no foam after about 10 minutes, the yeast is dead, and your bread is a lost cause (sort of, we’ll get there). If there is foam, then the yeast is fine, and you may have added too much flour.
If that’s the case, do this: Make a little dip in the dough, mix in your tested yeast, knead it on a floured surface, and try to rise it again.
If the yeast is dead, you can either pitch the whole thing, run out to the store for live quick-rise yeast or go for broke with some homemade crackers by rolling sections of the dough into circles, brushing them with oil and baking at 400 degrees F for about 10 minutes.
Fix it for next time: With what you’ve learned, the fix is simple enough to remember. Make sure the atmosphere is warm and moist enough, be sure to always test your yeast first, and double-check your measurements. The most common mismeasurement people make is too much flour. Avoid that by swapping your measuring cups for a scale for a more precise way to add the correct amount.
2. Your cake won’t come unglued from the baking pan
Perhaps you forgot to prep the bottom of your pan, or maybe for some reason the oven is angry at you and demands a sacrifice of your painfully put-together cake. Either way, trying to scrape a stubborn cake out of its pan is frustrating and a little sad, frankly.
Fix it for now: Let your cake cool completely if you haven’t already. Then wrap that bad boy in foil, pan and all, and pop it into the freezer. Once it’s entirely frozen, you can jimmy two butter knives or a spatula underneath it and sort of lever it out in one piece. Let it thaw, frost it, and enjoy.
Fix it for next time: Cooking spray is a sham, so stop using it for your cakes. At the very least, you should always be buttering and flouring cake pans — just rub a pat of butter over the surface to make a thin film, then spoon some flour in, and shake your pan around until it’s completely coated. Better yet, use parchment paper, and avoid the prep and heartbreak altogether.
3. Your cake is dry and stiff
There is nothing more heartbreaking than following the delicious smell of cake into your kitchen only to find that your otherwise scrumptious-looking cake feels dry and stale and unappetizing. No worries, though. The fix is super simple.
Fix it for now: Take a toothpick, and prick little holes all over the abomination you created. Then, make a simple syrup using equal parts sugar and water boiled together until the sugar is dissolved. Finally, just brush the syrup over the cake, and frost as usual.
Fix it for next time: A dry cake usually means you’re measuring ingredients wrong. Once again, this is where a kitchen scale can come in handy. Also, be sure to sift your flour, because it will break up any nasty clumps and make sure the ingredients mix together more consistently.
4. You burned your beautiful pie crust
Pie is far from the easiest thing to make, which is what makes the saying “as easy as pie” such a dumb one. A burnt pie crust is a huge bummer, particularly when you’ve made a gorgeous lattice for the top.
Fix it for now: If just the edges are too brown, grab a microplane, and start sanding that bad boy down until the burnt bits are gone.
If it’s the whole top, start over. Seriously. Not the whole pie, of course; just the burnt top. You should have a little pie crust left over that you can just roll and drape and pop back into the oven, so remove the ruined one, and start fresh. If that’s not possible, you can work magic with a can of Reddi-wip.
Fix it for next time: Instead of attempting to tear tiny bits of foil off to protect the edges of your pie, save yourself some tedium by just folding a big old square of foil in half and cutting out a circle a few inches smaller in diameter than the pie itself. Cover the pie, and enjoy your evenly browned crust. As a bonus, you’ll sharpen your kitchen shears at the same time.
For full-top crusts and lattices, be sure to not overwork the crust when you’re making it. Start with very cold butter and ice-cold water, and you should be in the clear.
More: 10 easy ingredient substitutions to rescue your recipe
5. You went and cracked your cheesecake
Cracked cheesecakes are just kind of unappetizing. I’m not really sure why, but I suppose the term “congealed” springs immediately to mind, and it’s just not an appetizing word.
Fix it for now: Let your cheesecake cool completely, then cover it and put it in the fridge until it’s completely cold. When it is, remove it, fill a bowl with warm water, and grab either a spatula or spreader, preferably one that’s metal. Dip the metal into the water, dry it, and immediately press it into the cracked area on the cheesecake. You might have to smoosh it around a little, but if you keep at it, the cheesecake will sort of “heal.” It’s kind of fascinating to watch, actually.
Fix it for next time: To keep your cheesecake from cracking, you need two things, really. The first is a water bath for it to bake in so the temperature remains consistent in the cake as it bakes, and the second is some patience. Don’t open the oven door — it’s a one-way ticket to Crack Town, OK?
To make a water bath, get a second pan that is larger than the pan your cheesecake is in. Place the cheesecake pan in the bigger pan, fill it up about three-quarters of the way with water, and bake as usual.
There you have it: five common headaches, five common fixes. If none of these work, well, there are always some delicious no-bake treats you can try your hand at as well.
Before you go, check out our slideshow below.