This cupcake baking guide is full of baker’s secrets to all of your cupcake questions. I include ingredient substitutions, how to bake the perfect cupcake without sinking, and tips for how to decorate with and without an icing bag!
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From fixing the most common cupcake baking mistakes to finding the right substitute ingredients and finally clearly explaining the difference between baking soda vs baking powder – everything you need to make the most beautiful, fluffy, and scrumptious cupcakes is right here.
If you’re looking for delicious recipes check out all of my cupcake recipes here.
What makes a good cupcake?
If you ask me, the cupcake is superior to the cake and definitely the muffin. Why? Because they are a joy to eat. Have you ever been able to stay upset while eating a cupcake?
A good cupcake is pretty to look at, moist, light yet rich in flavor. The perfect cupcake brings a smile to your face and has you reaching for another one.
Who invented the cupcake?
As is the case with almost all food history, there is a lot of discussion on where a dish truly originates from and who invented it first. Cupcakes are no different. What we can say is that cupcakes first gained popularity in the United States thanks to two incredible women.
Although cooks and bakers have probably been baking mini cakes since the late 18th century, the first cupcake recipe was found in the 1796 cookbook by Amelia Simmons. A self-made American woman, Simmons’ American Cookery included over 100 recipes for everything from poultry to pies and of course, desserts.
However, the phrase cupcake was not found until 1828 when another great American baker, Eliza Leslie, published her cookbook, Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats. Inspired by these two baking trailblazers, we now have endless cupcake recipes.
Understanding Cupcake Ingredients: Differences and 1-1 Substitutes
Don’t have all the ingredients in the pantry and no time to run to the store? No need to panic, these tips on baking swaps and similar ingredients will help you improvise.
Baking Soda vs Baking Powder
They are both white powders used for leavening in baking but they are not quite the same. Most importantly, they cause different reactions in your cupcake batter.
Baking soda is simply sodium bicarbonate, an alkaline that will neutralize acids which in turn creates carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is what makes your cupcakes rise and stay fluffy. Baking powder is baking soda + dry acid – usually, the acid is cream of tartar.
Why Do Cupcake Recipes Call for Both Baking Soda and Baking Powder?
These two sister ingredients are a good duo in slightly acidic cupcakes, for example, a recipe that includes yogurt, buttermilk, lemon, or certain berries. It will make your cupcakes taller without losing the acidic flavor.
What Happens If You Use Baking Soda Instead of Baking Powder?
The problem with baking soda is that too much of it would remove all acids in the recipe and so change its flavor. It also wouldn’t do its job if there are no acidic ingredients in the recipe.
What Happens If You Use Baking Powder Instead of Baking Soda?
Baking powder can replace baking soda in a recipe but the proportions need to be right. Otherwise, you might get cupcakes that are too sour (too much baking powder), or too dense (not enough baking powder).
Baking Soda Substitute Replace 1 part baking soda with 3 parts baking powder. Baking Powder Substitute Mix 1 part baking soda with 2 parts cream of tartar. Add 1 teaspoon corn starch to the mixture if storing.
Cake Flour vs Self-Rising Flour vs All-Purpose Flour
You can’t tell the difference just by looking at them so I highly recommend labeling your jars of flour. Don’t mix them together either, thinking that you will get the same result.
There are a few ingredient differences between cake flour, self-rising flour, and all-purpose flour.
Self-rising flour, as you might guess, has leavening agents already mixed in which is why your cupcakes will rise (to a certain extent) without any added baking powder. It’s made up of all-purpose flour, baking powder, and salt.
Cake flour will also rise (slightly) due to having a lower protein content, not because it has any added leaveners. It’s made from softer wheat so when you use cake flour, you develop less gluten in your baked goods compared to all-purpose. This results in a softer texture.
All-purpose flour is made from harder wheat, so it develops more gluten and creates a structure in baked goods. In general, it’s great for cooking and baking almost anything, which is why we call it all-purpose.
Can You Use Cake Flour Instead of Self-Rising Flour?
Cake flour is the way to go when baking cupcakes. So, if a cupcake recipe calls for self-rising flour, I give you my blessing to take the executive decision and use cake flour instead.
Can You Use Self-Rising Flour Instead of Cake Flour?
Self-rising flour will lead to denser cupcakes with more chew. Your cupcakes won’t come out as a disaster but you will notice that your cupcakes have a consistency more like a pound cake.
If you’re looking for flour substitutes use these below:
Cake Flour Substitute Measure 1 cup all-purpose flour and remove 2 tablespoons. Replace the 2 tablespoons of flour with 2 tablespoons cornstarch and combine to equal 1 cup of cake flour.
Self-Rising Flour Substitute Combine 1 cup all-purpose flour, ¼ teaspoon salt, and 1.5 teaspoons baking powder.
All-Purpose Flour Substitute If you have cake flour on hand, I recommend using this first before other types that can change your results more drastically in baking. Replace it with the same amount as the recipe calls for all-purpose.
Almond flour (not almond meal) can also be substituted with a 1:1 ratio but may require additional eggs or other wet ingredients to bind them together. Almond flour will also add a light sweet flavor.
Buttermilk vs Regular Milk
You don’t serve a glass of buttermilk with a plate of cookies. Or maybe you do, in which case, color me impressed. But for baking cupcakes, buttermilk is king. Buttermilk is fermented milk, traditionally taken from the leftover liquid after churning butter. It tastes sour because of its high lactic acid content which gives your cupcakes a little tang while still staying soft and creamy.
Do You Really Need Buttermilk in a Cupcake Recipe?
Swapping out regular dairy milk for buttermilk creates a noticeable difference in your cupcakes. You get a deeper yet lighter flavor and a wonderfully fluffy texture. So if you are asking, what can I use if I don’t have buttermilk, try this homemade buttermilk recipe:
Buttermilk Substitute Combine 1 cup dairy-based milk and 1 tablespoon lemon juice or white vinegar. Let sit for 5 minutes before incorporating into the cupcake batter.
How to Bake Cupcakes: The Basics
People say that cupcakes are a very forgiving baked good but many of us have had cupcake blunders in our kitchens. When you are serving in such a small size, each bite counts even more. So, let me help you make the most satisfying cupcakes so there are no more cupcake nightmares. (Even a messy one is still delicious though, right?)
How to Mix Wet and Dry Ingredients
How you combine ingredients is more important than you may think. There is a reason why recipes tell you to mix the wet and dry ingredients separately.
Throwing everything together into a single bowl and then mixing results in very packed cupcakes. To achieve the airy texture that you love, you need to make sure that both the wet and dry ingredients are well mixed before they meet each other.
The longer you mix the wet ingredients, the more air you allow in (especially with eggs), the lighter your cupcakes become. This is the part of the prep where you should be taking your time. Be more meticulous, too, making sure that nothing sticks to the sides.
Then, once you get to the stage of combining wet and dry ingredients, do so gradually. It is better to add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients bit by bit for a smoother texture. Throwing it all in one go could result in clumps.
A final basic baking tip is not to mix the wet and dry ingredients for too long, especially if you are using a stand mixer. The wet and dry ingredients will react with each other and the longer your mix the more gluten will form which makes for pretty chewy cupcakes.
In short, the key to mixing ingredients is to do it step by step. This is not a rush job.
How much cupcake batter per cup?
If you want nice even cupcakes you need to be more precise in how much cupcake batter you pour into the cupcake liners or cupcake tray sheet. There are several ways to do this and it will depend on the exact recipe how much the cupcakes rise.
Option 1: Use a scoop. The smaller scoop that you use for baking cookies will require 2-3 scoops. If you are using a medium-sized scoop, like an ice cream size, use 1 scoop per cupcake.
Option 2: Use a tablespoon. Generally, 3 tablespoons are what I add to a cupcake liner, or about ⅔-3/4 full depending on the amount of leavening agents used in the batter. Like my red velvet cupcake recipe, I recommend going ⅔ full because it will rise more as it bakes.
Oven temperature, Pre-Heating, and Bake Time
The tricky thing about baking is that the same recipe comes out differently in someone else’s oven. Get familiar with your oven and pay attention to how much your cook time deviates from the recipe to determine how it bakes differently.
Also, look for hotspots in your even i.e. areas in your oven that get hotter than the rest. It can cause uneven cooking and you may need to rotate your pans as they bake.
Here are a few general things to know about baking cupcakes.
To help you estimate bake times:
- The higher the temperature, the shorter the baking time
- The more cupcakes in the oven, the longer the baking time
- The more batter in each cup, the longer the baking time
- Most cupcakes baked at 350°F need 15-22 minutes in the oven
Do’s and Don’ts When Baking Cupcakes:
- Do pre-heat the oven before popping in the cupcake batter
- Do bake a test cupcake
- Do follow the recipe recommended temperature and time
- Don’t leave the oven door open and close quickly after the toothpick test
- Don’t overbake the cupcakes – they will continue to cook after removing from the oven
- Don’t start decorating until completely cooled
Cupcake Baking Troubleshooting: Most Common Mistakes and How to Fix Them
Sometimes cupcakes require some trial and error and that is perfectly okay. These are some of the cupcake problems that I hear about most often.
Why Are My Cupcakes Flat?
Cupcakes stay flat when there aren’t enough ingredients for leavening. This doesn’t mean that you should use self-rising flour next – there are more specific causes and better solutions.
- You didn’t use baking powder
Even if you added baking soda, your cupcakes can benefit from some baking powder, too. Without baking powder, there is a chance that the baking soda doesn’t have enough acids to rise.
- Your Baking Powder or Baking Soda is Expired
These two baker’s staples last forever but they do have an expiration. Check whether your baking soda and baking powder is still active before you add it to your cupcake batter.
- You Didn’t Fill with Enough Batter
When baking regular-sized cupcakes in a muffin or cupcake pan, 3 tablespoons of batter or ⅔ full is a good rule of thumb. This leaves enough room for expansion without collapsing.
Why Do Cupcakes Sink?
Sunk cupcakes may be flat but this happens for very different reasons. Whereas flat cupcakes are usually due to what you do before the cupcakes go into the oven, cupcakes sink because of what happens after they go into the oven.
- You Opened the Oven Door
It is incredibly tempting to open your oven door and get a closer look at your cupcakes but every time you do this you are changing the temperature and air circulation. The final result: sinking cupcakes. Be patient and do the toothpick test quickly.
- Too Low or Too High Oven Temperature
This is why you need to know how your oven works – too low temperatures or too high temperatures can both cause a sunk cupcake. One trick that may help is to pre-heat your oven at a slightly higher temperature than the recipe suggests and then lower it to the suggested temperature when you place the cupcakes inside.
- Shaking the Cupcake
Be careful when you pull out the cupcakes. The reason why you need to leave them to cool is that they will continue cooking for a few more minutes outside of the oven. They need this time to further solidify which is why if you shake them, the top may come down.
Cupcake Decorating Tips
A cupcake without frosting is like jeans not made of denim. It’s just not the same! Even if you feel like you are the least creative person and don’t have a steady hand, frosting cupcakes does not have to be that hard. Here are some of my favorite nuggets of knowledge on how to frost cupcakes.
Cupcake Piping Tips
Choose the Right Tip for Frosting
Let the piping bag tip do all the work for you. There are many different kinds and each is specially created to form a specific shape. So, do yourself a favor and choose the one that best fits your design.
- Start with Stars
If you are a complete newbie to decorating cupcakes, I suggest you start with piping stars. Attach a star tip to your piping bag, hold it vertically, squeeze out some frosting, lift and repeat. It looks meticulous with minimal effort. You can practice on a plate or piece of parchment paper. Watch this video that shows you how to load your icing bag and create the perfect swirl from Cakes by Lynz.
- Don’t Overfill Your Piping Bag
You need a good grip on your piping bag and this is easier when there is no frosting squeezing out the other side. A general rule of thumb is to fill it up halfway or even less. I always twist the open end closed so it doesn’t come right out.
- Get the Right Frosting Consistency
More delicate frosting decorations benefit from a thicker consistency because they will hold their shape better but a simple dome topping can stay nice and creamy. I love using buttercream frosting because it is easy to adjust its thickness. Simply add more icing sugar for a thicker frosting and more milk for a thinner frosting.
How to Ice Cupcakes Without a Piping Bag
My favorite way of applying cupcake icing without an icing tip and icing bag is with a straight icing spatula.
I use the same method in my berry wine cupcake recipe (image below) and they come out gorgeous every time. This is also one of the easiest cupcake decorating methods to fix. A few strokes of the spatula and the frosting is perfectly smooth again.
If you’re afraid of imperfections, add some toppings! Fruit, sprinkles, candies, or chopped nuts can make them beautiful and covers up those imperfect icing edges.
How to Store Cupcakes the Right Way
The secret to how to keep cupcakes moist lies in how you store them. Since they are smaller, they can dry up faster so proper storage is extra important with these little gems.
How to Store Freshly Baked Cupcakes
Any leftover unfrosted/unfilled cupcakes can be stored in an airtight container in a single layer at room temperature. If you live somewhere that is extra tropical, keep your cupcakes away from the sun and in the coolest part of your house with the lowest humidity. You might be tempted to put them in the fridge anyway. In that case, look for cupcake recipes that use oil instead of butter as these will stay moist for longer.
How Long Are Cupcakes Good For?
If the cupcakes are filled and/or frosted, they likely contain dairy or other perishable ingredients that need to be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Cupcakes last longer in the refrigerator but they will also lose their moisture faster with cold storage and is best to be consumed within 5 days.
How Far in Advance Can I Make Cupcakes?
Of course, cupcakes are best fresh out of the oven but with bigger party planning this isn’t always possible. I suggest making cupcakes the day before or a maximum of 2 days ahead. When making cupcakes ahead of time, leave them unfrosted. The frosting won’t look as pretty as the days pass and they are easier to store without it.
Align the cupcakes in a single layer on a tray and wrap the entire tray in plastic wrap. This helps prevent them from drying out. Placing them in a large 1-2 gallon Ziploc bag in a single layer also works.
You can also freeze frosted and unfrosted cupcakes. They will stay fresh for 1-3 months in an airtight container.
I hope I was able to answer all of your cupcake baking questions and help prevent common baking issues that arise.
Let me know how your next batch of cupcakes comes out after reading this little cupcake baking guide.