Thursday, January 22, 2009

How to Fix Sunken Cupcakes

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!


13 comments:

Mallika said...

I'm aiming to perfect cupcakes on maternity leave so this will come very handy!

Matt said...

I wish I had thought to check out Cookwise this week when a genoise cake I was making for my Tuesdays with Dorie baking group sank dramatically in the center. I couldn't even use it in the recipe which called for hollowing out the center of the cake. The recipe calls for 3/4 of a teaspoon of baking powder for 2/3 a cup of flour. I'm terrible at proportions, but I wonder if that's a little too much. It must be because virtually everyone in that group complained of sunken cakes.

My problem is that I always trust cookbooks despite my having discovered typos and other errors in some of them. My other problem is that I own so many cookbooks that I forget that I even have some of them, which was the case with the Shirley Corriher book!

Hallie Fae said...

Wow that is so interesting that taking out the leavening completely gave you the desired cupcakes. I don't know much about food science but it all makes sense that there are reasons thing don't come out the way you want them too. I can't wait to learn more and fix up all my recipes.

Julie said...

Matt: that's really interesting. Actually, it seems that the amount of baking powder should have been ok. Every recipe needs to be looked at individually of course, but I'd also consider other factors like the baking time and temp and amount of flour/how it was measured. I hope you find a fix!

The Other Tiger said...

I just posted about the tragic sunken cupcakes I made this weekend, and then I saw this and checked the recipe. Guess what--way too much baking soda! They really bubbled and bubbled when I mixed the wet and the dry together, so I was wondering if it might have been too much leavening. I'm curious to give them another shot now.

Mark Scarbrough said...

And can I add something to your wonderful remarks about questioning recipes? Time demarcations in recipes are mere suggestions. We've actually considered writing our books without any time markers at all--but editors have screamed over the idea.

We once tested brisket recipes and the same cut, the same weight, took 3, 3 1/2, and 5 hours to get tender. It all has to do with residual water content in the meat, how stressed the cow was in life and at slaughter, how its digestion functioned, etc., etc., etc.,

And beyond even that, I say you should contact the person who wrote the recipe. I once had a long email chat with a person, helping her make her figure out why our gelato recipe wasn't working for her.

Julie said...

Mark: I'm right with you! Sometimes when I write recipes I just want to say "cook until done!" That's really the truth; like you said there are so many factors. Use a thermometer, use your senses, but just don't follow a recipe to the letter and throw your own instincts and experience out the window.

Hillary said...

Thanks for this information - very helpful!

Stef said...

Really interesting post. I'll have to experiment with this at some point.

The Food Hunter said...

Thanks for the info.

Kristen said...

Thanks so much. I always thought that they fell because of something that I did. I never questioned the recipe. Thanks so much!

I linked to your post on my cupcake post.

Dana McCauley said...

One of the other factors that can affect recipe outcomes is geography. For example, in Canada a tablespoon's metric equivalent is 15 mL while in Australia, I'm told that 20 mL is used. That means that a tablespoon of baking powder in Canada is 1 tsp less volume than the one called for in the Aussie written recipe.

Bob said...

I loved your rant, you're so hot.