Cake Decorating Basics: How to Level Your Cakes (Two Ways)
Why Leveling Cakes Is Important
So you have a perfectly baked cake. It's cooled and you're ready to frost, right? Slow down, speed demon. We've one more step before you slather that sweet goodness all over.
I'm not going to call any names (my mom), but some people I know (my mom) will bake two or three layers of cake, let them cool, then just throw them together with layers of frosting. They're domed, uneven, and almost impossible to make attractive. They still taste amazing, but they do not look professional. If you're anything like me, you eat with your eyes first. There's nothing appetizing about a cake that looks like it's about to fall over.
Even though her cakes have their rustic charm, they could be perfect every time if she would just take a couple of minutes to level the cake before frosting. It's simple and easy, and if you follow my steps for pan prep and baking, you're not going to have much waste to deal with.
Step 1: Place Your Cake on a Turntable
I usually level my cakes immediately out of the oven. They're easier to cut and will cool completely flat regardless of whether I'm putting them in the freezer for faster cooling or letting them cool on a cardboard round on the counter for overnight cooling.
So let's say you want to level immediately out of the oven as well. That's awesome! All you need to do is use your cake pan as a guide when you level this way.
Place a potholder or several layers of paper towels on the turntable or lazy susan to avoid any damage from the heat. I have a cheap Wilton plastic turntable that I use, so I need several layers of paper towels or potholders to keep it from melting and warping.
Once you have your protection down, you can take your cake immediately from the oven directly to the turntable to level it.
And don't grab the hot cake pan with bare hands. It hurts. Trust me.
Step 2: Get a Bread Knife
I have two giant, serrated edge, sharp-as-sin bread knives that I use on the regular. These are the only knives I use when I simply want to level my cake.
The sharpness of your knives is key in creating a clean cut on the top. If your knife is dull, it's going to grab cake along the way and cause tons of crumbs. And if you're not new to cake decorating, you know crumbs suck. They can get in your frosting and make your cake look dirty and gross.
That's one reason why a crumb coat is also known as a "dirty ice." It traps all those tiny crumbs and keeps them from showing up in your final coating of frosting.
A successful crumb coat depends on a clean knife cut. And you can't get a clean knife cut with a dull knife.
Step 3: Time to Cut
I've been shown several ways to level the dome of a cake. But I'm going to tell you my go-to way. I use this method every time now because it has never failed me. I paid for a class with Joshua John Russell, and one of the first things he taught us was how he leveled his cakes. Compared to all other methods I've tried, his way is the best. I've never been disappointed with an outcome while using it.
So, you want to stand up. That's right, stand up and face that cake! You can't take this sitting down!
Anchor the elbow of your dominant hand to your side and grab your bread knife. Level it to the cake. The goal here is for the cake pan to move, not your hand or the knife. Can you see where I'm going with this?
Place your non-dominant hand on top of the cake. If the cake is still too hot to handle (like I am, from time to time), then you can use a glove or a paper towel to protect your hand. You want your non-dominant hand in the center of the cake. You don't have to press down much. All you're doing with this hand is guiding the pan around the knife. Check out the picture above for a better idea of what I mean.
Step 4: Spin the Pan
Now you need to spin the pan around the knife. Don't chop, don't saw, don't move the knife at all. You're letting the cake do all the work. This is easier if you leave the cake in the pan, but you can totally do this with the cake out of the pan as well. The lip of the pan will serve as a perfect guide, though, so I tend to leave them in the pan until I'm finished.
Spin the pan slowly! You don't want to try to rush this, as you're going to end up tearing chunks into the cake. If you do it slowly it'll cut smooth. Spin the pan against the knife several times, and you'll notice that the knife starts moving inward toward the center of the cake. After several spins, you'll get to the center of the cake, and you'll have successfully taken the dome off your cake.
An Alternate Method: Use a Cake Leveler
I'm gonna show you how to achieve the exact same result with a tool made specifically for cake leveling.
Now, personally, I think the cake leveler is a waste of money. I bought it when I first started out because it was on one of those "Must-Haves of Cake Decorating" lists. It is not a must-have. Matter of fact, the first time I've used this tool in the last 3 years was to do this tutorial today. And back under the cabinet it went.
But, I suppose it is pretty good for those who are just starting out and don't want to chance a wonky cake.
The cake leveler I have is a cheap Wilton cake leveler. I think it cost about $14 or so. It's simply a metal rod that's shaped for your hand to grip the top and the rest to go over the cake without hitting cake. The part that actually levels is a super-thin metal wire that's pulled taut from one side of the rod to the other. Most have rubber feet to help it glide along the table, but mine did not. There are notches up the sides so you can adjust the height of the wire to how tall (or short) you want to cut your cake. These things work well for torting a cake, too, but I still don't use it for that either.
My handy-dandy bread knife will always be my best friend.
Step 1: Remove the Cake From the Pan
You can't level with a leveler until the cake is out of the pan. So, you're not going to be able to use hot cakes. Which gives it another negative mark from me.
Remove the cake from the pan and flip it dome-side up onto a cardboard round or whatever you want to use to hold your cake.
Place a tea towel under the cardboard round to keep it from sliding around while you're moving the leveler.
Step 2: Start Making the Cut
Grab your cake leveler and grip it in your dominant hand. I suppose another pro to the cake leveler is that it is an ambidextrous tool. It will work the same regardless of which hand you use.
To start the cut, you're going to want to grab the edge of the cake board and push it backward, so the cake is being pushed against the wire. This initial cut is going to make it much easier for the rest of the wire to glide through the cake.
If you're having trouble getting the wire to start cutting, as I've had before with certain cake recipes, then you can start an initial cut with a bread knife. Just score the caramelized cake with the knife in a straight line. You don't need to cut deeply, you're just going to want to get it started.
Step 3: Wiggle Wiggle Wiggle
I'm not being funny. I don't think I have been this entire article. Sorry about that.
Wiggling is not a joke. You're going to be tempted to just pull the leveler straight through the cake and be done with it. You don't want to do this at all. If you pull the leveler through the cake, it's going to do the same as using a dull bread knife and cause tearing. So don't pull, wiggle!
Wiggle the leveler back and forth to begin, then you can start sawing back and forth slowly. You'll catch momentum and learn how to move it about mid-way through the cake, and then it'll just go through and you're done. Well, almost done. There's another reason I do not like the cake leveler, and I'll explain that next.
Step 4: Carefully Finish the Cut
Here's yet another reason why I don't like the cake leveler. When you reach the end of the cake, every single time, it tears the outside. Even if it's just a small piece, this matters! That will show up and turns into more crumbs you have to deal with and more Spackle-ing you're going to have to do to get a clean surface.
The only way I've been able to avoid the tears is by placing my hand on the outside of the cake to meet the wire. Push the outside caramelization against the wire all the way around, and it helps to keep the cake from tearing. Even then it will still tear because the cake is stronger than the wire on the outside.
You're just going to have to decide for yourself whether the cake leveler is worth the money and the pain of using it. I have decided that it's a worthless tool. But that's just my personal preference. I tend to like knives anyway, so that may have something to do with swaying my preference.
Simple enough, right?
The simple step of leveling your cakes after baking is super important to having a gorgeous cake. The recipe doesn't matter, the size doesn't matter, the shape doesn't matter. If you're going to have layers, you're going to want to level them.
You absolutely have to level if you plan on doing stacked cakes! There's no getting around it. I'll go into more detail about how to make sure that you have a perfectly level cake before stacking in another hub.
Say you're doing a sheet cake. You shouldn't have to level one of those, right? Well, yes! Uness you want your frosting to slide off the top and down the sides, you definitely want to level your sheet cakes! And the process is exactly the same with both the bread knife and the leveler. I have a giant sheet cake that I use mostly for weddings, and it's a beast to level. But as long as I stick to the method I use here it goes quickly and smoothly.
Don't be afraid to try this! I know we get in our habits and think "There's no need to change it now", but I guarantee you once you start doing this simple step, you'll find frosting so much easier that you're going to kick yourself for not doing it before. Also, the way your cake looks in the end will be a huge win! You're gonna impress everyone with your mad baking skills!
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© 2016 Becca Hubbard-Woods