How cool is food science?! I was developing a cupcake recipe last week, and encountered that horrible, sunken, crater-like effect. What to do?
I had started with a basic cake recipe and worked from there, but I knew something was off when my first batch sunk. I remembered reading somewhere that the leavening agents (baking soda, baking powder) could be a factor. I turned to Cookwise by Shirley Corriher, that classic resource that demystifies the science behind cooking and baking.
It turns out that there are some very important guidelines when it comes to the amount of leavening in recipes. Each cup of flour in a recipe can handle up to 1 1/4 teaspoons of baking powder OR just 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda (Of course other factors may come into play and some recipes may require a combination of the two.). The presumably reliable recipe I used as a blueprint called for 1/2 tsp. baking powder AND 1/2 teaspoon baking soda with just 1 cup of flour.
I can't really comprehend why it would ever call for so much baking soda. But, it was really fun to do some sleuthing and figure out how to fix my recipe. I ended up omitting the baking soda completely, resulting in perfectly level cupcakes, just like I wanted. I should also not that the one on the left is not as tall as the sunken one because I used less dough--not because it failed rise.
This also brings up another hugely important part of cooking that I love to preach about (so indulge me for a sec). Just because "the recipe says so" doesn't mean it's correct. Even recipes published in books and other reliable sources can have problems. It may be a simple mistake, or it may not have been developed/tested/edited with perfect clarity and/or knowledge. There are differences in equipment and ingredients, even the climate can be a factor. These things happen.
So, if something doesn't seem right in a recipe, absolutely question it! Just use your common sense and do what seems right to you, or compare it to a similar recipe from a source you've had good results with in the past. Okay, I'm done! I just had to share my geeky little science moment...maybe it will help you fix a faulty recipe someday!
One more thing: Corriher just did a follow up to Cookwise that focuses totally on baking! It's called Bakewise, and I'm resolved to buy it after my cupcake experience. If food science makes you giddy, check it out!