Baking is not easy. For an untrained baker, reading a long list of ingredients and instructions can be daunting. When I first started baking, I had several fun mishaps including (but not limited to): cookies that baked into a giant sheet, frostings so thin they were impossible to spread, and brownies that, even after being in the oven for over an hour, somehow mysteriously refused to bake. Through my misadventures, though, I discovered my specialty: the cupcake

For reference, here are the first cupcakes I ever made:
chocolate, butter, pumpkin
Kara Braith

By now, I must have baked dozens of recipes—that's thousands of cupcakes. In doing so, I have learned a number of valuable tips and methods to ensure that each batch comes out perfectly, every time.

Whether you're a new baker looking to start simple or an old pro honing your game, this list will come in handy. 

1. Choose the right recipe

coffee, milk, tea
Megan Prendergast

When trying out a recipe, it is disheartening to have it completely fail despite following all of the instructions, and this is more likely to happen with some random blog than with a reputable website (of course, blogs can also be great sources—there's just much more variability).

I am a fan of Sally's Baking Addiction and Cooking Light, but basically any food magazine or show you've ever heard of has recipes for cupcakes.

2. Set out your butter before baking

milk, cheese, butter, dairy product, sweet, dairy, margarine
Caty Schnack

I know this one is basically common knowledge, but it is worth remembering. Butter makes the best frostings when it's soft and at room temperature; the same goes for cream cheese.

For a batter, if you did forget to set out the butter before baking and you HAVE to use a microwave, cut the butter into tablespoon-sized chunks and heat it in 5-second intervals. This will ensure that you don't get lots of melted butter while the other bits are still rock hard.

3. Spice it up

Christin Urso

I love adding extra cinnamon or ginger to cakes that already have those spices and find that it really bumps up the flavor. I also really like flavored extracts like almond; but be careful—a lot of people think those taste fake, so use them sparingly.

Also, I personally hate the taste of cream of tartar (a common ingredient in snickerdoodles), and was happy to learn that it can be substituted for an equal amount of lemon juice.

4. Don't overfill your cupcake tins

cake, chocolate
Jocelyn Hsu

I find that many recipes underestimate the number of cupcakes that they will make, and the batter ends up spilling over and creating unsightly muffin tops. Use your judgement. Typically, 2/3 full is the right amount, but some recipes rise more than others, so trial and error is the only way to be sure. 

5. Cover your muffin tops

sweet, chocolate, candy, cake, cream, goody
Beth LeValley

You have two options. One, you can accept them and serve them as is. Chances are that nobody except you really cares. Or two, you can carefully trim off the overhang, and hide the unsightly scars from the cupcake surgery with frosting.

If using method #2, I recommend using a small flower tip and doing little dots all around the circumference of the cupcake. It looks so classy, nobody needs to know the truth.

6. Add a filling

chocolate, cake, sweet, cookie, pastry
Kara Braith

There are two forms of filled cupcakes: those with the filling baked inside, and those with the filling added after baking. The ones with a filling baked inside are more challenging because it can be difficult to tell when they are baked all the way through. Nobody wants raw cheesecake or cookie dough inside their cupcake.

For newer bakers, I would recommend a filling that is added later. In this case, it's especially important not to overbake the cupcakes, because dry, crumbly cupcakes are harder to hollow out. Since you'll be scooping out the middle anyway, it doesn't matter if they're not completely done.

Depending on the directions, you'll want to use either a) a melon baller if it says to scoop out with a spoon, or b) a very sharp, preferably non-serrated knife if it directs you to use a knife. In either case, reserve the tops so you can put them back on unless otherwise directed.

Pictured above is an example of the "knife" method—I cut out a cone, added the filling, and put the whole cone back on top. 

7. Use a toothpick to see when your cupcakes are done

Jocelyn Hsu

A slight amount of stain on the toothpick from chocolate cupcakes, or a few crumbs, are fine. Vanilla cupcakes should be a lovely golden color, but not browned on the edges. Don't forget, the cupcakes will continue to bake for a few minutes in the pan once you take them out.

With chocolate cupcakes, it is slightly harder to tell when they're done—I have an unfortunate tendency to over-bake them by just a few minutes. Trust the toothpick, and when you gently press on the top of a cupcake, it should spring back.

8. Making a smooth, fluffy frosting

chocolate, cream, cake, dough
Maya Giaquinta

Always cream the butter with a mixer first (either stand or handheld works, but don't try to do it by hand), then add half of the powdered sugar and the other ingredients like the vanilla and spices. Once you have mixed all of that together, add some of the milk/cream if the mixture is too thick and then add the rest of the sugar. When thinning the frosting, add the liquid in very small amounts—a little bit goes a long way.

9. Make your own piping bag

Kara Braith

Stick one corner of a Ziplock bag into a glass, put the frosting inside, twist the top of the bag, cut off the corner, and bam, you're ready to pipe a swirl like a pro. This is a good video to see the process, although I usually like to make the hole a bit smaller than she does for more precise piping. 

10. Transform ugly cupcakes

chocolate, cake
Kara Braith

Distract! You'd be surprised how easy it is to cover a bad frosting job with candy decorations. Even sprinkles work wonders for improving the aesthetic of uglier cupcakes. 

Although I can't guarantee success if you follow all of these recommendations, I have found them to be helpful in my efforts to create tasty and attractive desserts. Good luck and happy baking!