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 cake, but make it your cake!
Whether baking a simple butter cake and covering with your favorite frosting, or a lighter than air Angel Food Cake, making a cake is not difficult and can be richly rewarding. I hope the following tips and techniques will help to make cake baking easier, and that your next cake will be a delicious success.
Pans that have a light finish, such as aluminum, are best for baking cakes; they tend to produce a lighter, delicately crusted cake. Dark metal pans and glass pans absorb heat quickly, and tend to produce a crisper, darker crust. Non-stick pans are the least desirable as they are normally 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 or glass or non-stick pan
you may want to reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees to help minimize the cake from 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.
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.
Paper Liners: 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, and then trim the paper to fit. If you overhang the edges with 1 or 2 inches of excess paper, it makes it 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 normally want to first lightly 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 easily into the batter. Use a pastry brush, a piece of left-over parchment paper, a piece of wax paper, a paper towel or 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 ingredients should be 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 need to make a quick run to the grocery store for more eggs!
It is important to have all ingredients to be used in the recipe at room temperature, normally 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, eggs will blend well into the batter to act as an emulsifier, egg whites are easier to beat, and dry ingredients will combine easier, all resulting in a tender cake that will and rise to its highest and bake evenly
Butter: Butter must be a room temperature to properly cream. 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. Butter that is too cold doesn’t cream; the sugar is not able to be mixed in easily and air doesn’t incorporate into the butter.
Butter should be softened to room temperature, normally 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.
Eggs: The eggs should be at room temperature to properly 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 it sit on your counter 20 to 30 minutes to warm to room temperature. To speed up the time, place the eggs in a bowl of warm water for 10 to 15 minutes.
Milk: As with the other cake ingredients, milk, half and half, or heavy cream used in the recipe should also be room temperature. Remove the milk for your recipe from the refrigerator and let it sit on your counter 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 accurately weigh the ingredients.
Dry Ingredients: 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 that it is mounded and overfull, and then level it off by sweeping a straight edge, such as a metal ruler or knife, across the top of the measuring cup, leveling off the ingredient. Very small amounts of dry ingredients are measured with measuring spoons.
Liquid Ingredients: Measure liquid ingredients using a glass or plastic liquid measuring cup that has a pouring spout and clear measurement markings. Place the measuring cup on a flat surface and pour the liquid in up to the marking for the amount you need. Let the liquid stop swishing around to determine the level it is at. Very small amounts of liquid are measured with measuring spoons.
Butter: Butter sold in cubes normally 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, 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: Flour settles and packs down while in its packaging, therefore you don’t want to just 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.
Sifting Flour: 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 or parchment or wax paper and sift the flour over the cup until it is over full, and then level it off. Cake flour is normally 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.
Brown Sugar: 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.
Granulated Sugar: Scoop the measuring cup into the sugar until it is mounded and overfull, and then level it off.
Sticky Sweeteners: 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.
Dry Spices: Dip a measuring spoon into the jar or spice container until the spice is mounded and overfull, and 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.
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 get the batter spread as evenly as possible as thinner areas will bake quicker and dry out.
Baking the Cake:
Unless the recipe directions state to start with a cold oven, preheat the oven before baking. It normally 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 at the same time 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 going to be 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.
Try not to open 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 as this may cause the cake to fall.
Testing for Doneness:
When a cake is done, 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.
Cooling & Removing the Cake from the Pan:
Small butter cakes, such as cupcakes, can be removed from the pan immediately after baking and placed 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 inside edge of the pan to make sure the cake is completely 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 all around the pan. Cakes should be completely cool before applying frosting or icing.
To remove cake from a springform pan first run a small metal spatula or knife around the inside edge of the pan to make sure the cake is completely 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, because it is so tender, will easily collapse from the steam. 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.
Butter Cake Hints
Preparing Dry Ingredients:
Adding dry ingredients to the cake batter is typically the last step in the mixing process; however I like to have the ingredients combined and ready to Use. Dry ingredients normally include flour, leavening agents such as baking powder or baking soda, salt, and ground spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg. Sugar, even though dry, is not normally added with the flour; instead it is combined with butter in the “creaming” process. Having the dry ingredients already pre-measured, sifted, or whisked together, makes preparing the cake batter a smoother and easier process.
If the flour is to be sifted do it now; add the dry leavening agents, salt, and spices at the same time to the sifter to help distribute them evenly throughout the flour. Sift the ingredients onto a piece of wax or parchment paper or paper towel. If the flour is not to be sifted, use a medium size bowl to combine the flour and other dry ingredients; use a wire whisk to blend the ingredients and evenly distribute throughout the flour. A spoon can also be used but I find a wire whisk works the best.
The dry ingredients won’t be used until the end, so just set the bowl aside until ready to use.
Creaming Butter and Sugar:
Making a batter for butter cake recipes normally begins with combining two ingredients, such as butter and sugar, in a step called “creaming.” The purpose of creaming is to incorporate air into the butter. When the sugar is added, the sugar granules trap and hold the tiny air bubbles in the butter. The recipe will normally state something similar to “cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy,” meaning a pale yellow color and a whipped or fluffed up texture. Air is the main leavening agent to help the cake rise while baking and allows the finished cake to have a tender and light texture. Chemical leaveners (baking powder or baking soda) only increase the size of the air bubbles; they don’t create new ones.
Tip: Vegetable shortening may be substituted for butter and actually creams and holds air easier than butter; however butter adds a better flavor to your baking. Margarine can also be used but doesn’t hold as much air and may not have the best flavor.
Creaming can be done by hand with a wooden spoon but this task is much easier when done with an electric mixer. A stand mixer with a paddle attachment is easiest if you have one, or use an electric hand mixer.
Creaming Step 1: In a large and deep mixing bowl add the room temperature butter; with the mixer on medium speed begin by beating the butter 1 to 2 minutes until it is smooth and light in color. If creaming by hand with a wooden spoon, use the backside of the spoon and move your arm in a circular motion to spread the butter over the bottom and up the side of the bowl. Move your arm quickly to beat or “whip” the butter.
Tip: if the recipe includes lemon or orange zest; add at the same time as the butter to infuse the oils from the zest into the butter for added flavor.
Creaming Step 2: In order to maintain the air already incorporated into the butter in step one, the sugar must be added very slowly, either one tablespoon at a time, or in a very slow steady stream. Adding the sugar will normally take 4 to 8 minutes depending on the amount of sugar in the recipe. With the mixer still on medium speed gradually add the sugar and mix until the butter and sugar are incorporated. Stop the mixer occasionally to scrape the mixture off the paddle and scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula so the mixture blends evenly. Continue beating just until the mixture is a pale yellow with a fluffy texture, and then stop; you don’t want to continue beating the mixture at this point since over beating will cause the butter to overly soften and loose its ability to hold air. The entire process of creaming the butter and sugar with an electric mixer normally takes between 5 and 10 minutes.
After creaming the volume of the butter and sugar is increased, the mixture is a pale yellow, almost ivory color, and the texture appears fluffy. Once you start adding additional ingredients to the creamed butter and sugar, no additional air bubbles will be created.
After the butter and sugar are fully creamed, the next step is to add the room temperature eggs. Eggs act an emulsifier, holding the previously creamed butter and sugar together so they don’t separate. If cold eggs are added, the batter may seize into clumps and collapse the air bubbles.
Tip: You can add each whole egg directly to the batter, but just cracking the egg into the batter can also cause the creamed mixture to separate and deflate. It is best to first crack each egg into a small bowl and whisk with a fork to thoroughly break up the egg before adding. This also allows you to remove any small blood spots from the egg or any pieces of eggshell so they don’t go into the batter.
For each egg, start with the mixer on low speed so the liquid from the egg doesn’t splatter, once the egg is partially mixed increase the speed to medium. Add eggs one at a time to the creamed mixture. Each egg should be fully incorporated into the mixture before adding the next egg; it should take about one minute to blend in each egg. Adding the eggs slowly and one at a time will help to ensure the creamed butter and sugar mixture doesn’t break apart or curdle.
Tip: If too much egg is added at once the mixture may seem to “break apart”, looking curdled. This will normally correct itself if you continue beating the mixture a little longer. However, if the batter doesn’t want to smooth out, don’t worry, just continue with the recipe. Some recipes may have such a large proportion of egg compared to the creamed butter and sugar that there is no way to avoid the batter from breaking down and curdling. But once the flour is added the batter will smooth out and your cake should turn out just fine.
I normally add liquid flavorings, such as vanilla, at the same time the last egg is added. Alternatively flavorings can be stirred together with liquid ingredients in a small bowl or in the liquid measuring cup before adding to the batter.
Adding Liquid and Dry Ingredients:
The last step in preparing a butter cake batter is adding the dry ingredients, or the flour mixture, that you previously measured, and sifted or whisked together, along with the liquid ingredients. Liquid ingredients are typically water, milk, half and half cream, heavy cream, sour cream, buttermilk, coffee, and so on.
Recipes instructions may state to first add the liquids, and then finish with the dry ingredients; however many times the dry and liquid ingredients are added alternately to help prevent the batter from deflating. When adding alternately, begin and end with the dry ingredients which prevent the batter from separating, or curdling. Normally you can add the dry ingredients, or the flour mixture, one third at a time, and the liquid one half at a time. For larger recipes or if you have doubled a recipe you may want to add the flour mixture one fourth at a time and liquids one third at a time.
With the mixer on low speed, add one third of the flour mixture (you don’t need to measure exactly, just a guesstimate is fine.) Gently mix the flour in just until it is almost completely blended. It doesn’t need to be 100% blended; you don’t want to over mix because you want to retain air that was beaten into the batter previously. Scrape the bowl down, and add one half of the liquid, blending just until mixed. Scrape the bowl down again and continue alternating with the flour mixture and liquid, ending with the last portion of the flour. When finished, all of the ingredients should be thoroughly blended and the batter should still be light and fluffy.
Now you just need to fill the cake pans, bake, and enjoy your delicious creation.
Foam Cake Hints
The creaming step to produce air bubbles is eliminated in preparing the batter for foam cakes. Instead, various techniques are used to incorporate air into the eggs. The recipe may use whole eggs such as in Genoise cakes, or separated eggs such as in a classic Sponge cake, or egg whites only such as an Angel Food cake.
Beating Egg Yolks:
Egg yolks will normally need to be whipped before using to incorporate air bubbles before being added to the batter. Use room temperature egg yolks and place in a small or medium size bowl. The recipe may also state to add sugar and flavoring with the yolks. Beat the egg yolks with an electric hand mixer, or by hand using a wire whisk. With a hand mixer beat 3 to 5 minutes on medium-high speed until the egg yolk foam becomes thick and lemon colored and drops in ribbons when the beater is lifted. By hand this will take a bit longer, depending on how fast and how long your arm can endure.
Egg Yolk Ribbon Test:
Recipes using beaten egg yolks may state to beat until the yolks drop in ribbons. To test for this, lift the beater 2 or 3 inches out of the beaten egg yolks. The yolks should be light in color and fall to the surface in thick “ribbons.” You normally want a three second ribbon which means from the moment the ribbon hits the surface until it disappears from sight and sinks back into the body of the foam; you have been able to count one one-thousand, two one-thousand, and three one-thousand.
Heated Whole Eggs:
To make Genoise cakes, whole eggs and sugar are first heated over a pan of simmering water to dissolve the sugar. This step also allows the mixture to whip higher, holding more air bubbles. After warming, beat the egg and sugar mixture using an electric stand mixer for 6 to 7 minutes, or 8 to 10 minutes if using a hand mixer, until it is thick, light in color, and billowy like whipped cream. Use the ribbon test to determine if the eggs are sufficiently thick.
Beating Egg Whites:
Egg whites whipped with sugar form meringue, the basis of many foam cakes. The egg whites are normally beaten until they are stiff, but still moist. Once the egg whites have reached the consistency of stiff peaks stop beating them. Egg whites that are over-beaten become lumpy and dry lose their ability to retain air and are difficult to blend with other ingredients. After beating, egg whites begin to break down very quickly, therefore egg whites should be beaten at the end of the recipe, just before they will be folded into the batter so as to retain as much air as possible.
Using a copper bowl to beat egg whites is thought to be ideal; the copper reacts with the egg whites to produce greater volume, along with stabilizing the whites so they hold their shape better. However, not everyone has an expensive copper bowl sitting in their kitchen. Stainless steel bowls work just as well as copper, and the addition of a small amount of acid should generate the same result as a copper bowl. Plastic and wood bowls should not be used to beat egg whites as they are difficult to completely clean of all dirt and grease. Aluminum bowls are also not a good choice as aluminum is corrosive and can impart a grayish color. Glass bowls may work fine for making meringue, but don’t drop the bowl as there is always a chance of breakage.
The bowl and beaters you are using to beat egg whites must be clean and free of any dirt or grease; there cannot be even a speck of yolk in the egg whites or the fat from the yolk will prevent the egg whites from expanding to a whipped texture. You can beat the egg whites by hand with a wire whisk; however the task is far easier if you use either an electric stand mixer or hand mixer. Use room temperature egg whites and use a large size bowl. Beat egg whites starting with an electric mixer on medium-low to medium speed. The whites will look frothy at first with bubbles forming. Cream of tartar or lemon juice is added at this stage. Increase the mixer to medium to medium-high speed. As you continue beating soft peaks will begin to form; soft peaks gently droop when the beater is lifted. If the recipe adds sugar, add at the soft peak stage, adding the sugar one tablespoon at a time or in a slow steady stream while continuing to beat the egg whites. Also add any flavorings at this point. Continue beating the egg white mixture on medium to medium-high speed until stiff peaks form; stiff peaks will look like a soft glossy meringue and hold their shape when the beater is lifted.
Whipped egg whites are often used to leaven and lighten cake batter; however whipped egg whites alone are unable to provide support for the trapped air in the cake. Therefore if no whole eggs, yolks, or unbeaten whites are used in the batter, the cake will rise beautifully in the oven then collapse as soon as the cake begins to cool. To prevent this collapse whole eggs or egg yolks are normally added to the batter before the whipped egg whites are folded in. For cakes made with little or no flour, a greater amount of egg yolks are normally needed to support the cake. The cake will still probably fall a bit when cooled, yet still result in a moist and tender cake.
Folding is a technique for blending two mixtures, and is used when one of the mixtures is fragile or needs special care to prevent the mixture from deflating. Generally the lighter mixture, such as egg whites or whipped cream, is folded into the heavier mixture, such as chocolate or flour. Recipe directions may also specify to fold ingredients such as flour, chocolate, nuts and fruits into a batter to avoid over-mixing. When folding in egg whites or whipped cream the recipe directions may specify to first fold a partial amount in to lighten the batter, and then the remaining egg whites or cream is folded in.
Spoon the light mixture on top of the heavier one. Using a balloon type whisk or large rubber spatula, first cut down through the center of the batter. Use a circular motion with your arm and sweep the whisk or spatula toward you under the batter and across the bottom of the bowl and up the side to the top of the batter, then down through the middle again. Continue this circular motion, rotating the bowl slightly each time. Occasionally run a spatula around the inside edge of the bowl so that all of the ingredients get fully incorporated. It may take 2 or 3 complete 360 degree turns of the bowl to completely fold the ingredients; stop when there are no dry particles left.