Many of life’s large and small milestones are sweetened and celebrated with a slice of cake. So if you’re planning a birthday, graduation, wedding, or anniversary, a gathering of friends or family dessert, an afternoon tea, or dinner for two, let them eat a cake, but make it your cake!
Whether baking a simple butter cake and covering it with your favorite frosting or a lighter-than-air Angel Food Cake, making a cake is not difficult and can be richly rewarding.
Tips and Techniques for Baking a Perfect Cake:
1. Preparing the Pans
Prepare your pans before beginning to bake so that as soon as the batter is completed, it can be poured into the pans.
You don’t want perfectly finished batter to sit in the mixing bowl; the time it takes to locate the correct pan in your cupboard, then grease and flour is enough time for the delicate structure of some batters to start breaking down.
Pans with a light finish, such as aluminum, are best for baking cakes; they tend to produce a lighter, delicately crusted cake. Dark metal and glass pans absorb heat quickly and produce a crisper, darker crust.
Non-stick pans are the least desirable as they usually are very dark and absorb too much heat, which can result in the bottom and sides of the cake over-baking before the middle is done.
If using a dark metal, glass, or non-stick pan, you may want to reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees to help minimize the cake’s becoming overly dark before they are done.
Jelly roll pans should be heavy-duty so the pan doesn’t curl or warp in the oven from the heat. Always try to use the size pan specified in the recipe.
Pan-size substitutions can be made if necessary, but you may need to adjust the baking time. Baking pans are measured across the top, not the bottom, from one inside edge to the other.
Although parchment paper is not essential, most cakes remove easier from the pan after baking if the pan is first lined with a piece of parchment paper. It is difficult to line a fluted-type pan, but for standard round or square baking pans, cut a piece of parchment paper to fit in the bottom of the pan.
Use the bottom of the pan as a stencil to trace the shape, then trim the paper to fit.
If you overhang the edges with 1 or 2 inches of excess paper, it is easy to grab the paper to un-mold the cake after it is baked.
Wax paper can be used for more delicate cakes, such as lining a jelly roll pan for a sponge cake.
Aluminum foil works well in pans that are more difficult to shape, such as loaf pans. Brown paper bags work well for fruitcakes that require a long, slow baking time.
For all the paper types, you usually want first lightly to grease the pan to anchor the paper down.
Greasing and Flouring
Unless the recipe states to use an ungreased pan, such as for Angel Food Cake, most cakes are baked in a pan that has been greased and floured so that the cake is easily removed without breaking after baking.
Vegetable shortening is the best ingredient to use for greasing cake pans.
Butter has a lower melting point and absorbs too quickly into the batter. Use a pastry brush, a piece of left-over parchment paper, a piece of wax paper, a paper towel, or a paper napkin to spread a thin layer of shortening on the bottom and sides of the pan.
If you have first lined the pan with parchment paper, apply shortening on top of the paper.
After greasing the pan with shortening, always flour the pan. Otherwise, the slippery surface from the shortening will prevent the cake from clinging to the sides of the pan and rising properly.
Put a small amount of flour in the pan, then tip the pan and tap it lightly to spread the flour around. When the inside bottom and sides of the pan are completely covered with flour, invert the pan and tap out any excess flour, which can be reused later.
All cake ingredients should be fresh and at room temperature unless the recipe states otherwise. It is helpful to gather all your ingredients together and have everything pre-measured before you begin.
Make sure you have all the ingredients before beginning. You don’t want to get to the middle of your baking project and realize you must quickly run to the grocery store for more eggs!
It is important to have all ingredients used in the recipe at room temperature, usually 68 to 70 degrees.
In addition, the mixing bowls and pans you are using should also be at room temperature; let a mixing bowl that has just been washed cool before using so that butter doesn’t become too soft or eggs overheated.
When ingredients are at room temperature, butter, and sugar will cream properly and hold more air, and eggs will blend well into the batter to act as emulsifiers.
Egg whites are easier to beat, and dry ingredients will combine easier, resulting in a tender cake that will rise to its highest and bake evenly.
Butter must be a room temperature to cream appropriately. Butter that is melted, or too warm or soft, becomes oily and will not retain as much air, producing a cake that doesn’t rise as high and has a dense, heavier texture.
Too cold butter doesn’t cream; the sugar cannot be mixed in easily, and air doesn’t incorporate into the butter.
Butter should be softened to room temperature, usually 68 to 70 degrees. Remove the butter for your recipe from the refrigerator and let it sit on your counter.
Generally, 20 to 30 minutes before using is sufficient time to achieve the correct softness; however, the time may vary depending on the warmth in your kitchen.
Cutting the butter into one-inch pieces will speed up the softening time. To most accurately determine the temperature of the butter, use an instant thermometer.
Alternatively, test for room temperature butter by gently pressing the top of the stick of butter with your finger.
If an indentation remains, but the stick of butter still holds its shape, then it should be perfectly softened.
If your finger sinks down into the butter, it is too soft and should be placed back into the refrigerator for a short time to firm back up. It is best not to soften butter in the microwave as it can start melting quickly and become too soft or soften unevenly.
The eggs should be at room temperature to appropriately act as an emulsifier. If the eggs are cold, the previously creamed butter and sugar will tend to break apart or curdle.
Remove the eggs for your recipe from the refrigerator and let them sit on your counter for 20 to 30 minutes to warm to room temperature. Place the eggs in a bowl of warm water for 10 to 15 minutes to speed up the time.
As with the other cake ingredients, milk, half and half, or heavy cream used in the recipe should also be at room temperature. Remove the milk for your recipe from the refrigerator and let it sit on your counter for 20 to 30 minutes.
Accurate measuring is a must in baking. All measurements should be level using standard measuring cups and measuring spoons. If a recipe calls for a weight instead of a volume measure, use a small kitchen scale to weigh the ingredients accurately.
Use measuring cups designed for dry ingredients. The cups should have straight rims so the ingredients can be leveled off with a straight edge.
Add the ingredient into the measuring cup so it is mounded and overfull. Then, level off by sweeping a straight edge, such as a metal ruler or knife, across the top of the measuring cup, leveling off the ingredient.
Minimal amounts of dry ingredients are measured with measuring spoons.
Measure liquid ingredients using a glass or plastic cup with a pouring spout and clear measurement markings.
Place the measuring cup on a flat surface and pour the liquid into the marking for the needed amount.
Let the liquid stop swishing around to determine the level it is at. Minimal amounts of liquid are measured with measuring spoons.
Butter sold in cubes usually has tablespoon markings on the wrapper. You can use these markings to cut off the amount needed. In a one-pound box of butter, one cube equals ½ cup, and two cubes equals 1 cup.
Butter, including shortening, can also be measured using a dry measuring cup by packing the butter down tightly and leveling it off with a straight edge.
Flour settles and packs down while in its packaging; therefore, you don’t want just to dip the measuring cup into the packed flour as this would result in too much flour being used in your baking project.
Flour needs to be aerated before using; all-purpose flour should first be stirred in its bag to fluff it up; stir and fluff the first several inches of flour.
Once the flour is stirred, you can then measure it. One method of measuring is to lightly spoon the stirred flour into the measuring cup so it is mounded and overfull, and then level it off.
Don’t tap the cup after it is filled; tapping will cause the flour to settle, and you will want to add more flour to fill the cup, resulting in too much flour being used in the recipe.
A second method of measuring is to dip the measuring cup into the stirred flour, lift it out with the flour mounded above the rim and level it off.
If the recipe calls for sifted flour, such as “one cup sifted flour,” then sift the flour before measuring. Place the flour in a fine mesh sieve or flour sifter, and sift the flour onto a piece of clean paper towel or parchment or wax paper.
The sifted flour can then be lightly spooned into the measuring cup until mounded and overfull, then leveled off.
Another method is to place the measuring cup on a piece of paper towel, parchment, or wax paper, sift the flour over the cup until it is over full, and then level it off.
Cake flour is generally sifted before it is measured.
If the recipe calls for measuring before sifting, such as “one cup flour, sifted,” then the flour should be measured first, then sifted.
Tightly pack brown sugar into the measuring cup until level with the top edge. Use the back of a spoon to pack the sugar down.
For a less-messy alternative, dip the measuring cup into the bag of brown sugar, and then use your fingers from outside the bag to press the sugar firmly down into the cup until it is level with the top edge.
Confectioner’s (powdered) Sugar
Confectioner sugar is normally sifted before it is measured. After sifting, lightly spoon the sugar into the cup so it is mounded and overfull, and then level it off.
Scoop the measuring cup into the sugar until it is mounded and overfull, and then level it off.
Honey, corn syrup, and molasses are measured in a liquid measuring cup. If you first lightly oil the measuring cup, the sticky ingredient will slide out easily.
Dip a measuring spoon into the jar or container until the spice is mounded and overfull, then level it off.
Other Dry Ingredients
Such as nuts, seeds, oatmeal, or cornmeal; either pour the ingredient into the cup or scoop the measuring cup into the ingredient until it is mounded and overfull, and then level it off.
4. Filling Cake Pans
The general rule of thumb is to fill a cake pan two-thirds to three-quarters full, leaving enough room for the cake to expand and rise as it bakes.
If the pan is fuller, the batter may spill over the sides of the pan, and if the pan is not filled enough, the cake may be dense or flat.
If making layers, it is best to weigh the cake pans as you fill them so that each filled pan is of equal weight. If you don’t have a kitchen scale, check the level of the batter in each pan with a toothpick.
Cupcake pans should be filled about two-thirds full.
Swiss roll-type cakes are baked in jelly roll pans that have short sides. The pan should be filled about three-quarters full with batter. Use an offset spatula and gently spread the batter evenly into the corners and along the edges.
Try to spread the batter as evenly as possible, as thinner areas will bake quicker and dry out.
5. Baking the Cake
Preheat the oven before baking unless the recipe directions state to start with a cold oven. It usually takes 15 to 20 minutes to preheat the oven, but allow enough time for the oven to reach the correct temperature before you are ready to put your cake in the oven.
Cakes should be baked as close to the center of the oven as possible.
If baking two or more pans simultaneously, leave space between the pans and the sides of the oven for good air circulation.
Position the oven racks before the oven is preheated so the rack the cake will be sitting on is in the middle position, and place the pan or pans in the center of the rack when baking.
If a butter cake is not baked immediately, pour the batter into the pan and refrigerate until it can be baked. Don’t leave the batter in the mixing bowl because some of the beaten-in air used for leavening will be lost when allowed to sit and then poured into the pans later.
Avoid opening the oven door until the minimum baking time has elapsed. Opening the door too soon cools the oven and may cause a cake that is not entirely baked to fall.
If you have checked for doneness but the cake requires additional baking, quickly and gently close the oven door. You don’t want to jar the pan, which may cause the cake to fall.
6. Testing for Doneness
When a cake is made, it will start shrinking in height a bit and pulling away from the side of the pan.
A cake tester or toothpick inserted near the center of the cake should come out clean with no crumbs attached, and the cake should spring back when pressed lightly in the center without leaving an indentation.
Remove the cake from the oven only when it is completely done. Otherwise, the cake is likely to fall.
7. Cooling & Removing the Cake from the Pan
Small butter cakes, such as cupcakes, can be removed from the pan immediately after baking and place on a wire rack to cool.
Larger butter cakes, such as 8 or 9-inch cakes, should be cooled in the pan for 10 to 15 minutes before removing to help prevent the cake from breaking apart, then removed from the pan and placed on a wire rack to cool.
To remove from the pan, first, run a small metal spatula or knife around the pan’s inside edge to ensure the cake is entirely loosened. Place a wire rack over the top of the cake and invert the pan and rack together to unmold the cake onto the rack.
If the cake sticks to the bottom of the pan, turn the cake back over and try sliding an offset spatula underneath the cake to loosen it from the pan, being careful to avoid tearing the cake.
After the cake is removed from the pan, turn the cake over to cool on the rack, top side up.
A butter cake can also be cooled completely in its pan; place the pan on a wire rack to cool so there is good air circulation around it. Cakes should be completely cool before applying frosting or icing.
To remove the cake from a springform pan, first, run a small metal spatula or knife around the pan’s inside edge to ensure the cake is entirely loosened. Then loosen the clamp to open the side of the pan and lift the side away from the cake. Slide a metal spatula under the bottom of the cake to loosen it from the bottom of the springform pan, and slide the cake onto a wire rack to cool.
A sponge cake, whether baked in a jelly roll pan or regular round or square cake pans, must be turned out of the pan as soon as it is baked. Otherwise, the cake will easily collapse from the steam because it is so tender.
Foam cake baked in an ungreased tube pan, such as Angel Food Cake, is turned upside down immediately after baking so the cake does not collapse while cooling. Because the cake has a fragile structure, the weight of the cake will cause it to collapse while still warm.
Many tube pans have small one or two-inch “feet” to support the inverted pan. If the pan doesn’t have feet, invert the pan and place the tube over a narrow bottle, such as a wine bottle, to support the inverted pan while cooling.
When completely cooled, run a metal spatula or knife around the inside edge of the pan to loosen the cake, invert the pan to unmold the cake, and place the cake on a serving plate.
Final Thoughts on Baking Tips for Perfect Cakes
I hope this guide, tips, and techniques will help you to make cake baking easier and that your next cake will be a delicious success.