Cake Decorating Basics: How to Bake the Perfect Cake
You Want a Perfectly Baked Cake Every Time, Right?
Do you remember that old saying our moms used to tell us? "Don't run in the kitchen, or you'll make my cake fall!" No? That was just my mom?
Well, it took me several years into adulthood to realize she was just tired of my rowdiness. Whenever I had the nerve to bake a cake, thinking the whole time they were these finicky beasts with a tendency to collapse at the slightest quake, I would tiptoe around, telling everyone not to go in my kitchen (lest they ruin my cake) and peek in on it a few times during baking to make sure the inevitable collapse didn't happen.
And you know what? A few times they did fall! But it had nothing to do with any movement in the kitchen. It wasn't because my husband has the tendency to stomp when he walks or because my boys were chasing each other with scissors. (Rowdiness runs in the family.) It was because I was constantly opening the oven door to make sure it was cozily resting with no disturbance.
The point is, if you measure your ingredients properly, prep your pans to the max, set your oven temperature correctly, and leave it alone—your cake will be fine. The only things that can happen are over-baking and under-baking, and that's just something you'll have to learn not to do when you learn your oven.
Step 1: Learn Your Oven
No oven is created equal. That's a fact. My mother and I have the exact same model, made in the same year, even bought from the same store. However, her oven bakes much slower than mine does. I'll have to leave a cake in her oven for 10 minutes longer than in mine to get the exact same result.
So what you want to do is learn how your oven cooks. Experiment! Do not be afraid to deviate from the recipe or the instructions to get your perfect result. My recipe directions say to bake at 350˚F for 35–40 minutes. If I followed that to a T, my cake would end up dry and likely a little burnt. The perfect temperature to bake my cakes at with my oven is 300˚F.
Play with your temperatures. If you find that when you bake to the recipe's directions, your cake or your cookies are overcooked—even a little bit—turn your oven down. Bake for a longer time on a lower setting. If your cake seems like it's taking a lot longer to cook than your recipe says, turn your oven up. Bake it for the specified time at a higher temperature.
If you bake a lot, you're already going to know whether or not your food gets done quicker or slower than the typical recipe says. If you don't bake often, it won't take long to figure out whether you need to go up in temp or down in temp, or whether you just need to leave it alone. Unless you're really lucky, you're probably going to have to adjust your temps. If your temps are already perfect, can I convince you to buy me a lottery ticket? I'll split it with you.
Step 2: Preheat
Preheating is a big deal! Do not skip this step. Now, I'm not calling any names (my mom), but someone I know (my mom) thinks it is fine to throw a cake into a non-preheated oven and let the oven come to temp. That is so far from the truth it's scary! Ok, maybe I'm being a little dramatic with the "It's scary" comment, but it really will ruin your final result to skip preheating.
All sorts of science starts happening when you throw batter into an oven and let it come to temp slowly. Giant air bubbles form, causing your cake to bake around them. Not only are you going to have huge pockets of air when cutting, but your cake is also going to rise entirely too high, could dent in the top and sides, and the texture definitely will change completely.
All the cakes I do are 4" tall. (That's a typical tier.) If one layer of cake was full of huge air pockets, a couple of not-so-great things would happen.
First, I'm not going to be able to tort the cake to fill with frosting or fillings without encountering giant air pockets. It's going to make the cake crumble while frosting, creating an ugly mess.
Second, the stability is going to be compromised! When stacking a cake that's more than 2" tall, you need density within your cake. I know this from experience. I've had several single-tier cakes collapse in on themselves when I first began because my cakes were not dense enough to hold the weight of the layers of cake and frosting above it. No one taught me this, I had to figure out why I was destroying cakes on my own . . .
Third, the texture is going to be awful. As I've explained before, I pride myself on the taste of my cakes. Not only do I want them to be attractive—I want them to be delicious. When you bring a batter to temp with the oven, it creates this chewy, weird, unappetizing texture that ruins the final product. It ends up more like a gross brownie than a delicious cake. Also, the addition of air from all the sciencey stuff that's going on is going to inevitably dry your cake out. No one likes a dry cake. And if they do, they're someone you need to be leery of.
Step 3: Add the Batter to the Proper Level
I'll never understand why there isn't more emphasis on this step, as it is a vital one. If you add too much batter, your cake is going to dome. If you add too little, your cake will not rise as high as you need. You need to add your batter without overfilling or underfilling. And this is going to take practice. I can do it perfectly every time now, but I've been baking cakes on a regular basis for almost 4 years now.
In the beginning, I always had excess cake to cut off because I had a habit of overfilling my pans. Also, there is a nice reminiscent smell of burnt cake in my curtains from the overfilled pans dripping into the bottom of the oven. It's kind of horrendous.
The perfect level of fill for any cake pan is about 1 inch from the lip of the pan to the batter. I have a picture from a video I did that gives a visual, but even still it's not a perfect picture. When you see about 2/3 full, that's too much. It's a little less than that, but only by a fraction. And I suck at fractions, so I'm not even going to try. Just look at the picture.
Step 4: Beat Your Cake Pans
Wait a minute, what?
That's exactly what I want you to do. Before you move your batter to the preheated oven, pick up your cake pans (with the batter in them, of course) and start popping them on the table. Only pop the bottom, though.
I will pick up my pans, gently shake them from side to side while holding them level, and drop them from about six inches high flat on the table. I do this about five times, rotating the pan a tiny bit each time after a drop. You're going to see air bubbles start rising to the top of the batter. Your goal here is to pop those bubbles.
After you drop them several times, you can lift one corner of a cake pan about a half inch and drop it, then the other side about a half inch and drop it. Do this quickly and all around the pan.
You're never going to be able to pop all the air bubbles, but definitely pop as many as you possibly can. Refer to Step 2 as to why removing air bubbles is important. And don't look at me like that, I'm not completely insane.
Step 5: Leave It Alone
So now you've learned your oven, preheated that baby, filled and beaten your cake pans, and you're ready to bake. Throw the batter in the oven—not literally though, lest you want your curtains to smell of burnt cake forever.
And walk away. Leave it alone! Do not disturb your cake for at least 20 minutes. I know you're going to have the urge to check on your precious, but I need you to be strong for me. Do you hear me? Be strong! Let it bake.
See, when you open your oven door to check the progress of the cake too early, you're letting heat out. Every time you let heat out, your oven has to come back up to temp. With your cake in there! So guess what's going to happen. Yep—air bubbles and shame.
Step 6: Is It Ready?
Now that 20 minutes is up, it's time to check your masterpiece to see if it is perfectly baked. How do you know it's ready?
One way is to use a toothpick. Stick the toothpick in the center of the cake and pull it out to see if there's any raw batter coming through. If not, you're good to go. If there is, leave it alone for five minutes longer and check it again until the toothpick comes out clean. Don't mistake moisture and moist bits of cake as raw batter, though. Because then you're going to end up overbaking.
The way I check to see if my cakes are done is by feel. I don't know if everyone can do this or if I just have superpowers. I'm going with superpowers. But I'm going to tell you about it anyway. First is the visual—your cake has risen, it is caramelized evenly, and it won't wiggle when you move it. If you tap the top lightly with your hand, it doesn't jiggle at all. I tend to tap in several places when the cake is larger than an 8 inch. If it's firm but springy to the touch, it's perfect.
One thing to watch for is your cake starting to pull from the sides of the pan. If this starts to happen then you've gone too far. Your cake is overbaked and is going to be dry. Once you notice the top caramelizing and it's risen enough, you can actually see when it starts pulling in away from the pan. Pull it immediately! Only you can prevent a dry, disgusting cake.
Step 7: Cool Your Cake
Now that your cakes are perfectly baked, you have to let them cool for frosting. Unless you're making a naked cake. But even if you're making a naked cake you still have to let them cool before you let anyone eat it. Unless you want a lawsuit for burning someone's mouth and throat out.
Sometimes I put my flaming hot cakes in the freezer. Directly from the oven. Sometimes I let them cool on the counter for 15 minutes before turning them out onto a cake board. It just depends on how much patience I'm working with that day.
Most people who bake will immediately turn their cake out onto a cooling rack. I do not have a cooling rack, therefore I do not have that option. So we're going to go with what I know.
Step 8: Remove Your Cake From the Pan
Once the cake has cooled down enough to pick up the pan without second-degree burns, you need to get it out of the pan. Don't leave a cake in a pan overnight. You're never going to get it out in one piece the next day. I know, I've tried.
Cardboard rounds are available at craft stores, online, and at places like Walmart and Target. I always get mine at the craft store, though, because there are more options. I like the cheap ones.
Anyway, once your cake pan is cool enough to handle, turn it out onto a cardboard round. The easiest way to do that is to put the round on top of the pan and flip the pan over. Lift the pan away from the cardboard and VOILA! You're done.
Now all you have to do is let it cool down the rest of the way completely so you can frost it and start making something incredible.
You Can Thank Me Later . . .
Or you can thank me now.
In all seriousness, this is my tried-and-true, never-fail, always-perfect way to bake my cakes. They're perfect for torting, perfect for carving, dense enough to stand up to stacking and transport, and above all else—they are delicious. It has taken me years to figure out everything that needed to work together in order to have a perfect cake every time. Now that I've figured it out, I wanted you to know. Save you some frustration, you know?
When you work out all the kinks along the way, baking actually becomes quite cathartic. But my favorite part of any of this is decorating. And I'm going to have some awesome decorating tutorials for you guys coming very, very soon—so stick around!
Questions & Answers
© 2016 Becca Hubbard-Woods