Whether you're baking with cake mix or baking cakes from scratch, these helpful hints will save you both time and money in the kitchen. From sunken cakes to dry cakes, these tips and tricks will give you the knowledge you need to make perfect cakes every time.
If you want to become a cake baking pro, the first thing you'll want to do is check to make sure your oven is heating at the correct temperature. If you've ever experienced common cake baking problems such as a sunken or collapsed cake, this could be because your oven isn't getting as hot as it says it is. An oven that's too hot could cause a dry cake. Invest in an oven thermometer -- your cakes (and cake tasters) will thank you!
General Tips & Tricks:
- Cakes baked in glass versus metal bake differently. If using glass, you'll want to lower your oven temperature by 25 degrees.
- Preheat your oven before you start mixing and prepping -- it's best if the oven is preheated for 20 to 30 minutes at the proper baking temperature.
- Be sure to use the correct pan size called for in the recipe.
- Fat, eggs, and liquid (eggs, butter, milk, etc.) should generally be used at room temperature. Cold ingredients could cause the batter to curdle.
- When combining butter and sugar, take your time to cream them together -- beat or cream together for at least 5 minutes. This helps to ensure a lighter cake, as it adds tiny air pockets to the batter. Sugar granules shouldn't be visible, but you can still feel them if you rub a bit of the mixture between your fingers.
- Measure flour and other dry ingredients exactly. Use a knife or other flat surface to level off dry ingredients in a measuring cup or spoon.
- And don't skip the sifting! This step helps to add air and ensures that all dry ingredients are properly combined. If you don't have a sifter, you can use a wire mesh strainer.
- When baking foam cakes like angel food cake, take great care when adding the flour to the beaten egg whites. Fold the flour in three stages, very gently so that you don't lose the airy volume of the egg whites -- this is what keeps the cake so light.
- Generally, the cake batter should fill the pan by at least 1/2 and not more than 2/3, unless otherwise instructed.
- Try to bake the cake in the middle of the oven and, if baking more than one cake at a time, don't crowd them together, or they will bake unevenly.
- For crumb-free slices, run your knife under hot water and dry it before cutting into the cake.
- Always wait for cakes to cool completely before frosting. Even the slightest warmth from a cake can quickly turn your frosting or icing into a mess.
- Brush your cooled cake with a pastry brush (or your fingers if you don't have one) to remove excess crumbs.
- Begin the frosting process by first applying a very thin layer of frosting to the cake. This is known as a "crumb coat." It will help to seal in the crumbs, and you can further help this process by refrigerating the cake for an hour or so at this point. The frosting will harden slightly and really hold in the crumbs. Now, you can frost as you normally would, starting with the top and finishing with the sides.
- For a truly perfect presentation, wipe the spatula clean each time you swipe frosting onto the cake. You may want to spread it on smoothly for a clean finish, or you may opt to swirl it decoratively around the cake.
Common Problems & How to Avoid:
- Dry Cake: As mentioned above, this could be caused by an oven that's too hot. You may need to calibrate your oven or bake at a lower temperature. You may also have baked your cake for too long. Alternatively, a dry cake can be caused by too much flour or baking powder.
- Sunken Cake: This can be caused by too much liquid, or an oven that's not hot enough. If the oven isn't hot enough, this could actually be a result of opening the oven door too many times while your cake is baking. In general, try to wait until the cake is nearly finished baking before you open the door.
- Difficulty Removing Cake from Pan: Make sure to properly grease and flour the pan before you add the batter. You may also want to try lining the bottom of your pan with parchment paper, especially when baking layer cakes. Be sure to remove the cake from the pan at the right time; allow the cake to cool in the pan on a wire rack for 5 to 10 minutes, then invert it onto a plate or rack to remove it from the pan and allow it to cool completely.
More Fun Facts & Substitutions:
- No cake flour on hand? You can substitute this by using regular all-purpose flour and cornstarch. For each cup needed, start by adding 2 tablespoons of cornstarch to a 1-cup measuring cup; fill the cup with all-purpose flour and level the top.
- Self-rising flour is not to be used interchangeably with all-purpose flour. The difference is that self-rising flour has baking powder already in it. If you want to substitute all-purpose for self-rising, you can add 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt to 1 cup all-purpose flour.
- To lower fat and calories in your cake, replace half of the oil with applesauce or yogurt. This will add moisture without adding fat.
- Ever wonder why chocolate cake recipes call for boiling liquid to be added to the batter? The hot liquid helps to release the flavors of the chocolate.
- If you're baking a layer cake and can't quite figure out how to divide the batter evenly between pans, you can stand a knife in each pan to see if the batter is measuring up to the same point.
- Most cake recipes can easily be converted to cupcakes. The average cake recipe that would produce two 9-inch cakes should generally make enough batter for 24 to 36 cupcakes. Oven temperature should be kept the same, though baking time will change from anywhere between 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the recipe. You'll have to keep an eye on them!
Got a cake bakin' question we didn't answer? Leave it for us below in the comments section, and your question could be featured in our next Q&A with the Test Kitchen!
And to help get you started, here are our own Test Kitchen's top 5 cake recipes:
- Cold Fudge Cake
- Million Dollar Pound Cake
- Chocolate Lava Cakes
- Buttermilk Carrot Cake
- Lemon Macadamia Cake