If you are going to turn your oven on this summer, then it better be for something tasty. Baking a cake from scratch is an investment of time, energy, cost of ingredients, and even our own sanity at times, but the end result is usually worth it. Right? Well, to help ensure that every cake baking adventure end in success, I'm sharing my Top 10 Best Baking Tips for cakes.
My Top 10 List for Cake Baking Success:
10. Read Through the Entire Recipe Before Getting Started + Mise en Place
Reading the directions might be an obvious start, but understanding the steps and order of the ingredients can sometimes be undervalued and quickly brushed over. Some recipes call for components that need plenty of time to rest/chill/cool, so be mindful when scheduling your baking sessions. You’d hate to have a cake all ready to go only to find out that the ganache needs to be chilled for at least 4 hours before being whipped into frosting. Likewise, some recipes, like caramel sauce, come together in a hurry, so it is best to be prepared and understand the process to keep stress and panic at bay. In addition to reading and understanding the recipe, I recommend practicing Mise en Place or “putting in place.” Having all of your ingredients pre-measured not only helps things move smoothly and stay organized, but it also lets you know if you are missing something. Have you ever pre-heated the oven and started creaming your butter and sugar just to realize you are short an egg or cup of milk? Yup, I've been there, so don’t let that happen to you.
9. Be Mindful of the Temperature of Your Ingredients
Similar to having ingredients pre-measured, the ingredients should be the correct temperature before getting started as well. You will find the temperature when you read over the recipe (see #10). Why does temperature matter? Using room temperature butter, eggs, and dairy will create a more homogenous, smooth cake batter. Butter needs to be softened in order to cream with sugar properly (see #2) and combine with butter or meringue to create luscious frostings. In other recipes like pie dough, butter must be very cold in order to for it to stay “chunky” and not totally combine with the flour. This way, when the pie dough hits the oven, the butter melts, steams, and creates air pockets as it bakes, resulting in tender, flakey crusts.
8. Be Mindful of the ACTUAL Temperature of Your Oven
Speaking of temperature, get to know the ACTUAL temperature of your oven. Unless your oven is calibrated often or you just happen to have the best oven ever (we are all super jealous), then there is a good chance that the temperature gauge on the outside does not accurately reflect what’s really going on inside. For me, my oven runs ridiculously cold and takes forever to pre-heat. How do I know this? I keep an internal thermometer in my oven at all times and adjust accordingly. My thermometer is nothing fancy - something I quickly picked up just at the grocery store when we moved. My last oven was an inferno! Your oven might also have hot/cold spots, so it’s wise to get to know it. Either adjust the temperature dial or bake times to fit your needs.
7. Properly Prepare Your Cake Pans
Is there anything worse than preparing a cake from scratch, patiently waiting for it to bake and cool, then being so frustrated because you can’t get the cake out of the pan? Heartbreaking, I tell you. I’ve been there too many times myself. A good cake recipe will tell you how to properly prepare your pans, but I usually stick to grease and flour with most of my butter cakes. Using either baking spray, butter, or vegetable oil and a pastry brush, coat the inside of your baking pan. Add a few tablespoons of flour and shake around until the bottom and sides of the pan are covered. Turn the pan upside down and tap out the excess. Some cake recipes call for uncreased pans (like Angel food cake), but when in doubt, just line the bottom with parchment!
6. Checking for Doneness Beyond the Clock
Since all ovens operate differently (see #8) and there are a multitude of other variables that can alter baking times, it best to know what a cake looks/feels like when it is done instead of solely relying on the clock. For most layer cakes and cupcakes, I use the toothpick test. Within the bake time (there should still be a window given), insert a toothpick or wooden skewer into the center of the cake. If it comes out clean or with just a few crumbs, then the cake/cupcake is typically done baking. Here are a few other clues to looks for to indicate that a cake is done: A yellow or butter cake should be slightly browned on top when done; a sponge cake should spring back if gently pressed with a fingertip; the sides of the cake will start to pull away from the sides of the pan.
5. Completely Cool Before Cutting
Want to know a secret for creating perfectly smooth frosting and even cake layers? Never frost or cut a cake that isn’t completely cool! I know how tempting a warm cake fresh from the oven can be, but trying to cut a warm cake may result in tears, cracks, and lots of crumbs. Try to ice it too soon? The heat from a warm cake can even melt the frosting right off the top. So, have some patience, my dears! And if you have the time, chill the cake wrapped well in plastic for even fewer crumbs and an easier cake-cutting experience. In the fridge, the cake will firm up a bit, making it a little sturdier to slice!
4. Use the Correct Consistency for Frosting Success
You might see a range of confectioner’s sugar and milk/cream in recipes for American Buttercream and fudge frosting. Why, you ask? For one, everyone’s room temperature butter may be a different temperature - making some frosting firmer or softer. Second, a person’s desired consistency may very. While some might like their cream cheese frosting super thick and others might want to keep it less sweet, be mindful of the consistency when trying to fill and frost a cake. As you can imagine, a too runny frosting will slip and slide out from between the layers and down the edge of the cake, while a too stiff frosting will be difficult to spread and may cause the cake to tear and crumble. So what do you look for? With meringue-based buttercream, I look for thick, mayonnaise texture (just keep beating until you get there). Ganache usually works as soon at is spreadable and stays on the offset spatula when you go to apply it, like a really soft peanut butter. For American buttercream, I like to really whip it to add in some air to make it nice and fluffy. I like it soft, airy, not to sweet, and not at all runny.
3. Know When to Splurge on High Quality Ingredients
I try to keep organic dairy and eggs in the house at all times for my toddler, but I understand that high quality ingredients can add up fast. In my humble opinion, there are certain times to splurge and other times you can totally get away with generic brands. Thankfully, my regular grocery store's cake and all-purpose flour is even more awesome than anything I can find at a specialty store and Costco sugar bakes up wonderfully. As a rule of thumb, I tend to splurge on unbaked items (think real vanilla bean in buttercream and high quality chocolate and cocoa in fudge frosting) where the flavours will really shine and keep conservative when I know some of the flavours will be baked away or muted by buttercream. Plain but pure vanilla extract is always good idea in my book when it comes to chocolate or red velvet cake, but if you want a superior butter cake, go for the bean! Likewise a culinary-grade matcha is just fine for being baked in a cake compared to premium brands used for sipping. There’s usually no need to splurge on spices, just make sure they are fresh!
2. Understand that Cream is More Than Just a Dairy Product
In my humble opinion, one of the most important steps to making a tender cake is in the cream. Not the dairy product, but the act of mixing butter with sugar! This step is usually first or second when it comes to baking a butter cake and shouldn’t be ignored, rushed, or skimped. Using an electric mixer, beat softened butter with sugar until it is fluffy and pale in color. This usually takes about 3 to 5 minutes. During this process, the sugar granules cut into the butter to incorporate small pockets of air. The friction helps the sugar start dissolving and the butter to soften even more. Creamed butter and sugar distribute throughout the batter more evenly for a smooth batter. Most importantly, the batter is more aerated and provides lift resulting in a tender crumb. Lastly, once you move on and add the next ingredient, you can’t go back, so be sure not to rush!
1. Respect but Don’t Fear the Science Part of Baking
Baking doesn’t have to be scary, but there must be some amount of order and organization. Unlike cooking, where recipes are likely more flexible and tossing in different ingredients now and then is more forgiving, there is some science involved with baking. Too much sugar and your cake may crumble, not enough and it won’t be tender. Likewise, things like flour are responsible for structure, but too much gluten formation will result in tough, dry baked goods. That being said, respect but don’t fear the science part. Once you begin to understand how different ingredients behave and what doughs/batters are supposed to look/feel/smell like, you start to figure out where you need to stick straight to the recipe and where you can change things up. Cake recipes typically follow a ratio of ingredients (I like this explanation), but you can push those limits and change things up a bit. Push too far, and you might have a baking flop, but keep within a certain distance and you can start to adapt a recipe to your own personal liking.
If you have any other tips or tricks of your own, please be sure to share in the comments below!