Baking: Measurements and oven temperatures
I have an oven that varies in temperature from time to time. So when I cook my cakes at the temperature the recipe recommends, it sometimes burns and sometimes it is all right. How can I allow for that when I am working from a recipe? Similarly, when I make banana cakes and muffins, sometimes I get it right but sometimes it tastes bitter from the baking powder.
Well, it seems like you have two issues here and both would seem to revolve around equipment - one being your oven and the other perhaps being measuring spoons or weighing scales. As someone with a terrible oven at home - the door literally comes off when I open it - I can sympathise with you.
Generally the hot and cold spots in the oven are always in the same places, although it seems in your case that may not be the case. If you find your cakes burn on the middle shelf at the rear left, then it's likely they will always do that.
So, knowing it's a hot spot, you'll need to place your baking in places where it'll cook evenly, or alternately you're faced with gently rotating your cakes every 10-15 minutes as they cook. Keeping the oven door open for more than 15 seconds will cause heat to escape and your cake could collapse - so be quick.
Another reason that things may not always work out the same is the recipe itself. American, Australian and New Zealand cookbooks often use cups to measure but sometimes they also include grams or pounds. And the Americans like to reference sticks of butter which still leaves me flabbergasted.
To me the best cookbooks are ones that use litres and mls and kg and grams - all of which you can measure accurately on a set of kitchen digital scales. I've seen people baking using a teaspoon (that they stir their tea with) as a measuring spoon. You'd be amazed if you lined up six teaspoons to see how different their holding capacity is.
Likewise, a tea or coffee cup isn't the same as a 250ml measuring cup, yet I've spoken to people who use them for baking. In New Zealand and Australia a cup is 250ml, in the US it is 236ml.
In New Zealand a pint is 600ml, yet in the US it's the equivalent of 2 cups - so 475ml - that's quite a big difference when baking, which is quite a precise discipline. In older cookbooks an imperial cup was a large 284ml. To make it even more confusing, probably for the Japanese rather than us, the Japanese cup is 200ml.
Hence, if we could move all of the world easily and swiftly to use metric volumes and measurements we'd all be in a better place immediately. So, it would seem to me, not knowing your kitchen equipment or set-up at all, that you might need to upgrade things a little.
The oven will be harder to do than some spoons, but you do need to keep a record of which part of the oven is best. Does it burn when the oven is full or empty? Does having more than one tray in the oven mean the heat has more difficulty moving around the oven, or does putting a baking tray on the top few shelves mean that the oven doesn't burn from the top?
Likewise, it may be that you should place a roasting dish in the lower part of the oven to stop the cakes burning from the bottom (using a baking sheet or roasting dish as a barrier from the heat) depending on whether your oven is gas or electric, fan-forced, and whether the oven is heated from a fan at the rear of the oven or elements on top or bottom.
One last note would be that when you make muffins that taste of baking powder (usually it's the baking soda that you can taste) you might want to drop back a little on both of them. Keep notes on your recipe itself until you get to a level you're happy with. Once you have adapted your own recipe it'll only ever be happy baking moving forwards.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you’re stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.