Want to know how to bake a cake of any kind? Whether you're making a simple pound cake garnished with fresh fruit or spending days on an elaborate multilayered cake with multiple fillings and frostings, there are a few key tips that apply to all cakes. Cake baking is not necessarily difficult, but it does require a little organization and forethought—and these cake-baking tips will help you get your homemade cake right every single time.
1. Read through the recipe
This sounds obvious, but cakes in particular have certain requirements—such as the oven temperature, baking time, and ingredients—that cannot be altered. You don't want to realize too late that the butter you just mixed with sugar was supposed to be softened.
2. Assemble ingredients and ensure their correct temperatures
Get all of your wet and dry ingredients and equipment out on the counter before you begin and make sure that everything is at the proper temperature. This is especially important for butter and eggs: Soft butter makes for a smooth batter and a lofty cake, and room-temperature eggs keep the batter's temperature consistent.
To soften butter, leave it out for several hours; it should offer no resistance when you press on it. Or you can hurry the process using a microwave: Cut the butter into 1/2-inch cubes, arrange them in a single layer on a microwave-safe plate, then microwave on high for 3 seconds at a time, testing in between, until the butter is softened but not melted. Melted butter won’t hold the air you need for fluffy cakes, so keep an eye on it!
3. Preheat the oven before you make the cake batter
Before you begin, position the racks correctly: To avoid burning your cake, set a wire rack in the middle of the oven for cake layers or in the lower third for a tube cake, so that the top of the pan is not too close to the top of the oven.
Before preparing the cake batter, preheat your oven to the correct temperature. This might take awhile, and it’s best to use an oven thermometer to confirm; many ovens won’t report their temp accurately. You want to wait on mixing the batter because it will not react properly to heat if it sits at room temperature for 10 minutes waiting for the oven to get hot. Nor will your cake rise properly if the oven continues to warm up after the pan has been placed in it.
4. Prepare the pan
To ensure that your finished cake has the right shape, it's important to make sure that it will come out of the pan in one piece. The most common way to do this is to coat the pan with butter, but the specifics may vary depending on the type of cake.
For cake layers in general, you coat the inside of the pan with very soft but not melted butter using a brush. Follow that with a disk of parchment paper cut to the size of the inside of the pan. (Precut parchment paper sheets are a luxury we love to have on hand—get some to match the size of your cake pans.)
For a butter cake baked in a Bundt pan, coat with soft butter, and then coat the buttered surface with fine, dry bread crumbs (or finely ground nut flour), tapping the inverted pan to dislodge any excess. Follow with a quick coat of vegetable cooking spray for a guarantee that the cake won't stick.
Line a rectangular or square pan with foil by molding the foil first on the back of the pan, then pressing it into the pan. Butter the foil. This makes it easy to lift a cake that you don't want to invert, such as a crumb cake, right out of the prepared pan.
5. Prepare the batter
Instructions will vary depending on the type of cake: For butter cakes, ingredients will typically be combined using the creaming method; for sponge cakes the eggs will generally be beaten, then folded in. For the proper texture, be sure to follow the instructions closely, and then pour the batter into the pan or pans and bake.
6. Avoid undermixing or overmixing
It's easy to get carried away when mixing, but remember, the goal is to simply combine the ingredients. Overmixing will deflate necessary air from the batter and leave you with cakes that have a tough texture. On the flip side, of course, don't undermix. All the ingredients need to be fully incorporated.
7. Don't open the oven door
As tempting as it might be to crack open the oven door to sneak a peek at a cake in progress, resist the urge. Opening the oven door lets in cool air and significantly changes the temperature inside. That change in temperature can wreak havoc on your cake.
8. Test for doneness
To test a cake, plunge a thin knife, cake tester, or toothpick into the center (or halfway between the side and the tube if using a tube pan). When a cake is finished, you will find a few crumbs sticking to the knife or toothpick when you withdraw it. If the cake is not ready yet, wet batter will still cling to it.
9. Cool the cake
Most cakes are cooled on a metal rack for even air circulation. A recipe will indicate whether the cake should be cooled in the pan or unmolded immediately. Follow instructions carefully—leaving certain types of cakes in the pan for too long may cause them to stick. Angel food cakes and chiffon cakes need to cool suspended upside down in their tube pans or they will deflate and look squashed and unappealing when you cut them. Invert the pan over several inverted ramekins so that the edges of the pan are supported by them. It is best to figure out the system for doing this before you begin baking the cake by testing the empty pan over the ramekins to make sure your system will be stable.
10. Unmold the cake gently
When you are ready, gently run a sharp, thin knife between the edge of the pan and the cake. Then invert a rack or platter (as indicated in the recipe) over the top of the pan. Turn the pan over and lift it off the cake. You may be asked to finish cooling the cake upside down or instructed to turn it right side up again. Be sure to follow instructions, as each type of cake cools best in a different way.
11. Finish the cake
The options for finishing a cake are numerous. Some varieties, such as pound cakes and crumb cakes, are finished already when they come out of the oven and don't need any embellishment at all. For others, a simple dusting of powdered sugar or quick brush with a glaze may be all that's required. And some cakes, such as European-style layer cakes, can be filled with multiple fillings, frosted with a different frosting or glaze, and then adorned with elaborate decorations, such as piped buttercream or marzipan crafted into roses and leaves.
Essential cake baking equipment
Another important factor in how to bake a cake is having the right equipment on hand. With a couple of exceptions, baking equipment is not terribly expensive. Better-quality pans and other tools should last forever. If you are interested in baking cakes, you will want to have the following in your kitchen.