5 Mistakes to Avoid When Making Strawberry Shortcake at Home

updated Apr 24, 2023
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Strawberry Shortcake

Strawberry shortcake is one of those familiar desserts that’s synonymous with holidays like Mother’s Day, events like spring brunches, and the early weeks of summer. The best thing about strawberry shortcake, however, is the simplicity in its construction. A delightfully flaky and subtly sweet biscuit is topped with syrupy spoonfuls of macerated strawberries and dollops of light-as-air whipped cream. 

Although the major components of a classic strawberry shortcake are rather straightforward, making a delicious version of the dish isn’t always so easy if you don’t prepare the dessert often. The traditionally buttery and flaky biscuit can accidentally become a dry and crumbly mess, the strawberries aren’t always in tip-top shape, and the cloud-like whipped cream can break and separate. To avoid these mistakes and get some expert advice on everything strawberry shortcake-related, we talked to a culinary instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education.

What Makes a Good Strawberry Shortcake?

Although everyone has their own idea of what a tasty strawberry shortcake is, there are some things that you come to expect with the dish. “What strawberry shortcake actually is, is subjective. It can be made with a light, airy sponge cake, with a biscuit, or anything in between,” says Penny Stankiewicz, Pastry & Baking Arts Chef-Instructor at ICE. “Generally, though, the cake is a vehicle and should highlight the strawberry.”

In addition to using a good bunch of berries, you also want to use a nice biscuit or cake component, which means making it from scratch, if you can. A homemade cake will almost always be tastier and have the appropriate amount of sweetness compared to that of a store-bought option. 

Lastly, you’ll want to use whipped cream that isn’t too sweet but also has the right amount of fluff. Just like with homemade frosting, whipped cream can easily break and separate. This means that it deflates and starts to look grainy after being overwhipped.

Mistakes to Avoid When Making Strawberry Shortcake

Using strawberries that are not fresh or in-season.

As Stankiewicz said, strawberries should be center-stage when it comes to a strawberry shortcake, so you want to make sure that they’re of the best quality. “The strawberries are the star of the show, so for the most idyllic version, use the freshest, in-season berries, with deep red color throughout,” says Stankiewicz. Many times, the most in-season berries are so sweet that you don’t need to add a lot of extra sugar to them, Stankiewicz notes. That said, strawberry season is short. “When out of season, the strawberries need a bit more help. Cut and toss with sugar, lemon zest, lemon juice, and vanilla and let them macerate at room temperature,” says Stankiewicz. “This will make them evenly sweet and delicious and that heavenly juice will soak into the cake and make an outstanding desert.”

Not whipping egg whites to medium peaks.

The “cake” part of a traditional strawberry shortcake is typically a biscuit or sponge cake. Although you can buy cake from the store, making one at home can go a long way. “If [you’re] using a sponge cake, it’s important that it is light, and can readily absorb the juices of the berries,” says Stankiewicz. “When making a sponge, the most important thing is to whip your egg whites only to medium peaks, so there is still room to grow during the bake.”

This means you have to know what medium peaks actually look like: Egg whites whipped to medium peaks will stick to the beaters or whisk of a mixer and often create a pointy, curled end or “peak”. If the whites only partially stick to the whisk but don’t hold shape well, they’re likely at soft peaks. If the whites don’t create a curled end and start to look grainy, this often means they’ve been whipped to stiff peaks or have simply been overwhipped.

Not folding your ingredients into the cake mixture.

This is related to making a great sponge cake from scratch. In addition to making sure your egg whites are properly whipped, you have to be sure to use the technique of folding to incorporate the ingredients for the cake. If you mix the ingredients too firmly or quickly, it rapidly takes the air out of it. “Deflating the air you worked so hard to add in can make the cake tough and rubbery,” says Stankiewicz. This is why you should take your time when gently mixing the ingredients. This way, your sponge cake will be an airy and lofty sponge cake instead of flat and underwhelming. 

Not using cold ingredients.

If you prefer a biscuit-like “cake” for your strawberry shortcake, there are some crucial steps to take to make sure it comes out properly — this includes using ingredients at the right temperature. “With biscuits, you want a layered, flaky dough. Keep everything cold, and add some folds,” says Stankiewicz. “I like to grate the cold butter, toss it with the flour to coat it, then add in the buttermilk, and toss it together by hand.” Using both cold butter and buttermilk will make sure the biscuit is flaky and rich, but not overly cooked or dense.

Over-whipping the cream.

Properly making homemade whipped cream is also just as important as whipping the egg whites. Although whipped cream in a can is a convenient alternative, it’s often overly whipped, very stiff, and too sweet. This is all the more reason to make the topping from scratch by using an electric mixer or simply a handheld whisk. “Whipped cream is the final touch,” says Stankiewicz. “I like a soft, slightly sweetened, silky cream, and if you whip by hand it’s much harder to over whip.” All you need is a couple tablespoons of granulated sugar and a teaspoon of vanilla extract to add just enough sweetness to the whipped cream, notes Stankiewicz. 

Keep these helpful tips in mind when preparing the dish at home, and you’ll be an expert in making one of the most beloved desserts of all time. “Strawberry shortcake can be dessert perfection,” says Stankiewicz. “But since it’s such a simple dish, the quality of each ingredient makes all the difference.”