10 Fall Baking Tips

Smart tricks for making the best fall desserts.

Cinderella Cheesecake
Photo: Hector Sanchez

These fall baking tips may be second nature to an experienced cook, but, for a novice baker, a simple trick can mean the difference between a culinary failure or a sweet success. When falling temperatures outside and the appearance of cool-weather, seasonal produce at the market send many of us straight to the kitchen. And that's where we rummage through the cookbooks for beloved recipes and pulling out our favorite mixing bowls in preparation for baking delicious, spice-filled cakes, pies, and muffins.

For a baker, there are few things as satisfying as watching a stately three-layer cake being whittled down to crumbs because everyone went back for second helpings. On the flip side, though, nothing is quite as frustrating as spending time preparing a dessert only to find the caramel sauce was too hard or the cinnamon had lost its zing.

Over the years our Test Kitchen staff has compiled an extensive collection of helpful tips and tricks to ensure baking success in the kitchen. Here are a few fall baking tips that might help in the coming weeks as you tie on your apron and dive into the flour and sugar canisters.

1. Master Meringue– To prevent meringue from weeping, be sure to spread it on the pie while the filling is still hot; anchor it to the edge of the pastry to seal and keep it from shrinking. Bake the pie immediately and afterwards, cool it away from drafts. Our favorite pies

2. Buttermilk Substitute– Did you realize at the last minute you were out of buttermilk? No need to fret, just add 1 Tablespoon lemon juice or white vinegar to enough milk to make 1 cup. (Use a liquid measuring cup.) Stir well, and let stand 5 minutes before using. When the milk curdles, it's ready to use. Try one of our favorite buttermilk recipes.

3. Keep A Supply of Toasted Nuts– Many fall baking recipes call for toasted pecans.  Instead of preparing the required amount for each recipe, go ahead and toast more nuts than you need and freeze the extra in quality containers; you will be a step ahead next time your recipe calls for toasted pecans. This same tip holds true for toasted coconut, as well.

4. Don’t Go Stir Crazy– Be careful not to overmix muffins. For tender muffins stir the batter just enough to moisten the dry ingredients, and no more. If you stir the batter until all the lumps are smooth, the muffins will be tough and have pointed tops. Find a new breakfast muffin recipe.

5. Check Your Spices for Freshness– Store ground spices in airtight containers in a cool, dark, dry place for about 1 year. If properly stored, whole spices will usually keep up to 5 years. Arrange your spices in a cabinet or rack in alphabetical order so that you can always put your hand on what you need right away, and also see what is missing. Store seldom-used spices in the freezer in moisture-proof containers.

6. Soften butter correctly in order to achieve the best results– Remove butter from the refrigerator 2 hours before using; let stand in a cool, shaded spot. Test softness by gently pressing with your index finger. If an indentation remains, and the stick of butter still holds its shape, it’s ready to use.  

7. Tops of cheesecakes often crack, keeping them from looking as good as they taste. To prevent cracks, run a knife or small metal spatula around the edge of the cheesecake immediately after removing it from the oven. This allows the cake to contract freely. If the cheesecake does crack, however, simply cover the crack with macerated fruit or a layer of sweetened sour cream. Here are a few favorite cheesecakes.

8. Grease baking pans with solid vegetable shortening, unless otherwise specified. Margarines with a high liquid-to-fat ration and butter (which is about 20 percent water) can cause cake layers to stick to pans.

9. Measure dry ingredients accurately when baking. Extra sugar or leavening will cause a cake to fall; too much flour makes it dry. Spoon (don’t scoop) the flour or sugar into a measuring cup, letting it mound slightly, then level the top using the edge of a knife.

10. Decorate like a pro—without a pastry bag. Spoon your favorite homemade frosting or purchased ready-to-use variety into a zip-top plastic freezer bag. (Do not seal bag.) Snip a hole in one corner of the bag. Pipe desired shapes or letters onto brownies, cakes, or cupcakes. For best results, practice a few shapes on wax paper to find the perfect one and to get a feel for working with the bag and frosting. See our best cake decorating ideas.