Top Tips for Baking Better Cupcakes

Cupcakes are easy to bake, but little tips and tricks will help you make the best batches. Here are a dozen rules of thumb — plus a bonus one — for how to bake like a pro.

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1. Read the Recipe
Read the recipe all the way through first. Preheat the oven, and assemble all ingredients and equipment before creaming, folding, baking and such. These basic strategies make the actual assembling of a cupcake much faster and easier.

2. Check Oven Temperature
If you've had suspicious results from past recipes (burned or still-liquid by the projected finish time), it's worth buying an oven thermometer. Some ovens can be off by 75 degrees F (any more than that and you will likely need repairs). Even a perfectly calibrated oven can have "hot spots," so plan accordingly: Place single tins on the middle rack and rotate halfway through baking. When baking two tins, place one on a rack in the upper third of the oven and the other in the lower third, and switch and rotate tins halfway through. And except for this rotation, keep the oven door closed at all times to avoid heat fluctuations.

3. Check the Dates
Baking powder and soda have expiration dates on them, after which they lose their lift. It's best to replace them after six months of usage. All spices lose their potency after a while. Old flour is also suspect — replace your bag if it’s been around longer than eight months.

4. Substitute with Caution
Experienced cooks are sometimes the guiltiest of trying to fiddle with recipes, but this can cause problems in baking, where recipes are a bit like scientific formulas. Cutting the sugar for less sweetness is tricky because that sugar is also responsible for producing a certain texture and moisture in the cupcake. Swapping dairy or cocoa can be problematic too — baking powder or soda may not get activated. Swapping oils, sweeteners, like molasses or honey, or types of flour can each cause different results. Cautious substitution can lead to tasty discoveries — and the occasional inedible hockey puck — so experiment when you don’t mind unexpected results.

5. Use the Right Temperature
Temperature makes ingredients behave differently, which is why it's good to pay attention to this information in the recipes. Cream whips higher when it's cold. Butter and eggs often respond better when brought to room temperature before baking. The eggs separate more easily and whip up into more voluminous foams, while the butter more readily marries with sugar for a fluffy batter base. Take these items out of the fridge an hour or two in advance. At the right consistency, for example, butter holds a thumbprint with a bit of resistance. If you want to speed things up, put eggs in a bowl of warm water for five minutes, and cut butter up into small pieces and spread them across a plate.

6. Take Time to Sift
It may seem like a throwback in this era of presifted flour, but when a recipe calls for sifting, don't skip it — this eliminates any clumps and aerates the flour for a super-light cake. The quickest way to sift: Spread out a sheet of parchment or wax paper, and place dry ingredients in a fine-mesh strainer. Shake or tap the strainer gently until all the contents work their way through onto the paper. Then pick up the sides of the paper, forming a big almost-tube, and let the ingredients slide right out one side into the mixing bowl.

7. Measure with Care
Precision in measuring gives you consistent results. To re-create the recipe at its best, measure ingredients the way the author did. Food Network Kitchen tested the recipes in this collection by lightly spooning dry ingredients like flour or cocoa into dry measuring cups, then leveling off using the flat side of a knife or the side of a spatula. Firmly pack down brown sugar into dry measuring cups. Place liquid measuring cups on the counter, and stoop down to read the markings at eye level to make sure the liquid is level with the line.

8. Cream the Ingredients
When a recipe calls for creaming the butter with the sugar, it means not only mixing them together, but incorporating air, resulting in a light and fluffy batter. For this reason, it pays to cream for as long as the recipe specifies for a feather-light cake — even if it already looks mixed. Scrape down the sides of the bowl several times. Electric hand-held mixers take a bit longer than stand mixers to achieve the same results.

9. Achieve Peak Performance
How do you know when your egg whites or whipped cream have reached the right texture? There will be no liquid left at the bottom of the bowl, and the foam will be quite stiff, holding the path of the whisk as it passes through. The difference between soft and stiff peaks? Stop whipping for a moment, pull the whisk out and hold it up. If the contents on the end of the whisk fold over (think Smurf hat), you've reached soft peaks. If the mixture stays standing straight up (more like a dunce cap), you've arrived at firm. Then stop whisking. Egg whites are meant to lighten batters by incorporating air. If overwhipped, they collapse, get grainy and make the batter dense. Overwhipped cream deflates and gets greasy.

10. Fold Like a Pro
When a batter — or whipped egg whites or cream — is just so, and heavier ingredients need to be incorporated, the instruction is often to fold them in. This is the technique: Take a large flexible spatula and slice it into the center of the batter. Then draw the spatula through the batter like an oar to lift as much as possible, folding contents from the bottom of the bowl over the top. Give the bowl a quarter-turn and do it again. Keep going just until the contents have a uniform consistency and won't deflate the batter — no streaks.

11. Mix Enough, But Not Too Much
Use a moderate hand with mixing. To prevent undermixing, scrape down the bowl as you go, which will keep ingredients incorporating evenly. Overworking the flour when folding, stirring or finishing a batter will result in a tough cupcake. Use a light touch once you add the flour for a light-textured cupcake.

12. Check for Doneness
Set the timer for the shortest time suggested in the recipe (or even a few minutes sooner, if your oven tends to run hot). Check if cupcakes are still visually liquid in the center (or very wiggly when you shake the tin). Close the oven door and check back in a few minutes. Done cakes tend to spring back when pressed gently with a fingertip, and a skewer, toothpick or paring knife poked into the center should come out clean, with no batter smears. (Check one cupcake from the middle of the tin and one from the edge.) Remember that cakes continue to cook in the tin.

13. Cool and Store
Cupcakes always need to be thoroughly cooled before decorating to prevent frosting from melting right off. Take note of recipe instructions: Some cupcakes need to sit undisturbed in their muffin tins for another 10 minutes after baking to continue setting, while others need to be promptly transferred to a cooling rack to halt cooking. A cooling rack allows air to circulate around and underneath cupcakes for even cooling. Once your cupcakes are completely cool, keep them in an airtight sealable container at room temperature until you're ready to decorate.

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