Why Cakes Sink in the Middle and How to Fix Them After They've Fallen
Why Do Cakes Sink in the Middle?
Baking is a wonderful pastime, but sometimes disaster strikes. Here are some of the most common reasons cakes fall in the middle:
- Incorrect oven temperature
- Underbaking the cake
- Expired baking powder
- Too much baking powder or baking soda
- Incorrect measurement of ingredients
- Opening the oven door too early
- Closing the oven door too sharply
- Overbeating the batter in the last stage
- Mixing the ingredients in the wrong order
- Incorrect moisture levels
- Incorrect pan size
- Cooling the cake too quickly
- Batter sitting too long before baking
Now that we've identified some of the most common reasons cakes sink, let's look at how to troubleshoot each problem. I've included a quick guide, followed by more in-depth information about each issue, below.
Has your cake already collapsed?
Don't give up! You can still turn a sunken cake into a showstopper. If you're looking for a quick fix, skip down to "How to Rescue a Sunken Cake."
How to Prevent a Cake From Falling: Toubleshooting Guide
Incorrect oven temperature
Check your oven with a heat-proof oven thermometer.
Underbaking the cake
Test for doneness: A toothpick or skewer should come out clean.
Expired baking powder
Make sure your baking powder is still good.
Too much baking powder or baking soda
Measure your ingredients carefully.
Incorrect measurement of other ingredients
Measure all ingredients carefully.
Opening the oven door too early
Resist the urge to check on the cake until it’s at least 80% done.
Closing the oven door too sharply
Be gentle when you close the oven door.
Overbeating the batter in the last stage
When it’s time to combine the wet and dry ingredients, fold the batter until it’s just mixed… and no more.
Mixing the ingredients in the wrong order
Follow the recipe instructions exactly.
Incorrect moisture levels
If you live in a humid climate, take extra precautions.
Incorrect pan size
Make sure to use the correct pan size.
Cooling the cake too quickly
Don’t let the cake cool in a drafty spot.
Batter sitting too long before baking
After mixing the batter and pouring it into the pan, place the pan into the preheated oven right away.
How to Rescue a Sunken Cake
By the time a cake has sunk, it has normally cooled—so putting it back into the oven isn't an option.
How to Fix a Minor Sinkage
If the sinkage isn't too bad, i.e., it's more of a light depression than a crater, just change your design and cover it up. A slight depression means the cake is more or less cooked, so you won't get cake batter running out when you cut into it. Use butter icing, cream, cream cheese, or another sort of frosting—and so long as the top is level after you've applied the frosting, no one will ever know. If you're icing the cake with fondant, put extra buttercream in the depression to level it out before applying the fondant.
Note about brownies: For certain types of cakes, such as brownies, it doesn't matter if there is a bit of sinkage when it comes out of the oven—it just makes for a more gooey and luscious dessert!
How to Fix a Major Sinkage
For more serious sinkages, i.e., ones where the middle of the cake looks like it's had a boulder dropped on it, the only thing to do is remove the middle entirely. Remember that the only part of the cake that isn't cooked is the sunken bit; the rest is perfectly fine. Here's what to do:
- Cut out the middle of the cake using a chef's ring or cookie cutter that is slightly bigger than the sunken part of the cake. You can also use a spoon to dig out the middle. Once you've removed the uncooked part, you'll have a cake that resembles a ring.
- Fill the center with a mixture of fruit, frosting, icing, cream, and/or cream cheese.
- Decorate the top, sides, and edges of the cake with more fruit, frosting, etc.
Once you've finished, everything about the cake will look completely intentional—and it's quite likely you'll get asked to make "one of those great ring cakes" again.
Remember, many great recipes have their origins in mistakes!
Step 1: Scoop Out the Center
Step 2: Prepare Yummy Fillings
Step 3: Fill in the Empty Center
Shh! No One Will Ever Know!
More Ways to Save a Collapsed Cake
Maybe you don't want to try covering up the sunken middle or scooping it out entirely. Or maybe you think your cake is too far gone to be saved. Before you give up entirely, here are two more ideas to consider:
- Cake Pops - Take the cooked part of the cake and reduce it down to fine crumbs (you can use a food processor for this). Combine the crumbs with a little bit of frosting, use your hands to make balls, insert cake pop sticks, and dip into melted chocolate.
- English Trifle - Cube the cooked part of the cake. In a bowl, layer the cake with fruit, custard, and whipped cream. In a traditional trifle, the cake is often soaked in sherry or another fortified wine.
Nitty-Gritty: Why Did My Cake Fall?
We've summarized the most common reasons that cakes sink in the middle, but now let's look at each issue in more detail. In order to prevent this baking mishap from happening again in the future, it's important to understand how each of these factors affects the end result.
Reason # 1: Incorrect Oven Temperature
Some ovens run hot, and some ovens run cold. Whereas this might not matter so much for certain types of cooking, when it comes to baking it's very important that your oven temperature is accurate.
The only way to know for sure how hot your oven runs is to test it with an oven-proof heat thermometer. If you're having trouble with your cakes, I recommend investing in one of these thermometers (they can be purchased inexpensively). You may discover that the dials on your oven don't quite match the actual temperature inside.
Cakes bake from the edges inward, so the middle is the last part to cook. This is why it's possible to have a cake that's burnt on the edges and undercooked in the middle—a result that is due mainly to the temperature of the oven.
Reason # 2: Underbaking the Cake
If you take the cake out of the oven before the middle is done, the middle will sink as it cools.
Before taking your cake out of the oven, always check that it is fully baked. Don't just go by its visual appearance—although if the cake is pale and you can see the middle wobbling, you can go ahead and assume it isn't ready.
To check that it is cooked, insert a toothpick, skewer, or cake tester into the deepest part of the cake at the center. If the toothpick comes out clean, i.e., no batter sticks to it, the cake is cooked. On the other hand, if the toothpick comes out with batter still clinging to it, the cake needs to stay in the oven longer.
Another way to check if your cake is done is to gently press the top of the cake with your thumb. If it springs back immediately, it's cooked; if not, give it a couple more minutes, then test again.
If the cake needs more time in the oven, but the outside of the cake looks like it is in danger of burning, turn the oven down by at least 20°C (about 70℉). There will be enough heat to cook the cake, but it should prevent any further coloration.
How to Tell If Your Cake Is Done
Reason # 3: Expired Baking Powder
Baking powder is a leavening agent, which means that it helps the cake rise in the oven. When a cake is exposed to the heat of the oven, the leavening agents react with the other ingredients to create little air pockets that expand. The batter bakes around the air pockets and holds its shape, creating a light, fluffy cake.
If your baking powder has expired, however, it's not going to do a very good job of helping the cake rise.
Always check the expiration date on your baking powder before using. If you're not sure if it's still good, you can do a simple test: Place a teaspoon of baking powder in a cup of water. If it fizzes, it's still good. If there's no fizz, it's time to get a new container of baking powder.
Properly stored, baking powder should be good for at least six months to a year.
Reason # 4: Too Much Baking Powder or Baking Soda
Baking powder is the more commonly used leavening agent in cakes, but many recipes also call for baking soda, which is another leavening agent.
If you make any mistakes with your measurements (for example, using one tablespoon instead of one teaspoon), you can end up with a cake that rises too much in the oven—and then deflates dramatically. For this reason, it is important to be meticulous about correctly measuring your ingredients.
Note about self-rising flour: Check what kind of flour you are using. Self-rising flour, also called self-raising flour, contains baking powder, so if you are using this kind of flour you may have too much baking powder in your batter without even realizing it.
Reason # 5: Incorrectly Measured Ingredients
Cake recipes are very precise. Whereas if you're making a roast chicken that calls for garlic and rosemary but you don't have any rosemary, you can swap it for lemon and still end up with a perfectly good meal, you can't do that with cakes unless you really know what you're doing.
When it comes to cakes, being a couple of ounces short of flour or not having enough eggs can be the difference between success and failure. Without the correct quantities and proportions, the cake won't have the correct structure. It's like trying to build sandcastles with dry sand as opposed to wet sand—it just doesn't work.
Reason #6: Opening the Oven Door Too Early
It may be tempting to check on your beautifully baking cake while it's in the oven, but please, resist the temptation to crack open that oven door until the cake is at least 80% baked. The reason for this is that every time you open the oven door, the inside temperature can drop quite a bit—by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit. This may not seem like much, but it's enough to negatively affect the baking process.
Waiting until the final stage of the baking process, when the cake is at least 80% done, allows the cake sufficient time to set and rise evenly. At this late stage, the minor temperature fluctuation that occurs when you open the oven door won't have catastrophic results.
Reason #7: Closing the Oven Door Too Sharply
Even if you've successfully resisted the temptation to check on your cake until the final stage of the baking process, you still need to be careful about how you handle the oven door itself. Close it too sharply, and your evenly rising cake could suddenly sink!
Reason #8: Overbeating the Batter in the Last Stage
We all know we're supposed to beat the butter, sugar, and eggs until they're light and creamy, but when it comes time to combine the wet and dry ingredients, it's very important to not overmix the batter. Usually, recipe instructions will advise you to "gently fold" or "lightly mix" the wet and dry ingredients until they are "just combined." Some recipes may even emphasize, "Do not overmix." The reason for this is that beating or mixing introduces more air into the batter, and at this particular stage it's important not to incorporate any more air than necessary. Too much air in the batter can result in a cake that rises too much in the oven—and then falls.
Reason #9: Mixing the Ingredients in the Wrong Order
If you're making a soup or a stew, it may not matter all that much in which order you add the ingredients. Baking, however, is very different. If you forget to add the eggs until the very end, or if you mix everything together in one bowl rather than preparing the wet and dry ingredients separately, you may pay the price with a ruined cake. An evenly risen cake depends on certain chemical reactions occurring in the oven. If you don't follow the instructions exactly, those chemical reactions may not occur as planned.
Make sure you read the instructions carefully beforehand. Clear your workspace and set out all of your ingredients so that you don't forget to add anything.
Reason #10: Incorrect Moisture Levels
Baking can be very sensitive to moisture (either too much or too little), so if you live in a humid climate you may need to take extra precautions. It may be a good idea to store your dry ingredients in the freezer to keep moisture from naturally collecting in them. When you're ready to bake, measure your ingredients carefully. You may even want to use a scale to measure, as weight is more precise than volume.
Reason #11: Incorrect Pan Size
Make sure you are using the pan size that is specified by the recipe. You may think that a slightly smaller or slightly larger pan is close enough, but using the wrong pan size can easily lead to a cake that sinks.
Reason #12: Cooling the Cake Too Quickly
A cake can fall if it cools too quickly, so you should avoid placing it in a drafty spot. Some bakers even advise a step-by-step cooling method that begins with turning off the oven, opening the oven door, and sliding the rack partway out with the cake still on it for a few minutes before moving it to a wire cooling rack.
Reason #13: Batter Sitting Too Long Before Baking
Although it's okay to let the batter sit out for a brief amount of time if you're waiting for something else to finish in the oven, it's generally best to get the cake into the oven as soon as it's ready. As soon as the wet and dry ingredients combine, a chemical reaction starts to take place—and ideally, that process should take place in a hot oven. The heat facilitates the rising of the cake, and the countdown clock begins once all of the ingredients are combined.
Four Things to Check If Your Cake Isn't Rising Evenly
Lessons From My Kitchen to Yours
Nothing is more disheartening than spending an afternoon baking what's supposed to be a lovely cake—only to discover that the center has collapsed during the baking or cooling process. I hope you now see that this isn't a reason to hang up your apron and give up on baking forever. These mishaps happen to the best of us.
I hope that the baking tips I've shared here will give you a better idea of the reasons cakes sink, what you can do to prevent it, and how to salvage your cake if it has already collapsed.
More Baking Tips
- Baking Tips: How to Stop Cakes From Rising in the Middle
Want to know how to bake a cake that comes out of the oven flat on top rather than having to level it by hand? Let me tell you how! It's definitely easier than you might think.
- Cake Decorating Basics: How to Bake the Perfect Cake
In order to be able to decorate a beautiful cake, you need to start with a perfect base. A blank canvas, if you will. You wouldn't buy an actual canvas with a hole in it, would you?
- Cake Decorating Basics: How to Achieve the Perfect Buttercream Finish
Buttercream finishes can be just as smooth as fondant with tons of practice and patience.