What’s a fun-filled celebration without cake?
I love any excuse to eat it: at birthday parties, weddings, graduation celebrations, or just a random weekday dessert splurge.
But before ripping off the candles and diving into a colorful pool of icing and sprinkles, let’s bring it back to the basics.
We’re going to share our favorite tips and tricks to help you make the most delicious cake possible.
With our guide to ingredients, tools and equipment, and baking and cooling advice, you’ll be making cakes like a seasoned pro before you know it.
Keep on reading for more!
Follow These Key Tips for the Best Desserts
I know from plenty of personal experience that baking can be complicated.
Especially when it comes to making cakes.
Sometimes, the perfectly fluffy, beautifully risen rounds of joy you were hoping to bake just don’t turn out.
Sometimes, you will find yourself crouched in the fetal position on the kitchen floor, rocking back and forth with zero hope left in your own abilities, because you realized midway through baking that you completely forgot to include the baking powder. And the sugar.
Even though you can still create delicious desserts with your cake failures, it’s best to go over some of the essential tips before you get started in order to minimize problems.
Looking for even more hacks and tips? I recommend consulting Foodal’s guide for improving your baking routine as well.
Here’s step number one, every single time:
Read through the entire recipe beforehand, so you know exactly what you are doing.
Make sure you have all of the tools needed, as well as all of the ingredients for the recipe. Check your refrigerator. You may need to make a quick grocery trip!
Oh, and one more thing: Don’t forget to preheat the oven before you start!
Once baking soda or powder mingle with any liquids in the batter, their leavening power is immediately triggered. And this continues after heat is applied.
You don’t want to lose any of the leavening, so you need to bake as soon as you pour the finished batter into the pans. Make sure the oven is hot in advance, so you’ll be ready to go.
Choose the Right Pans
The main goal is simple: bake a perfect dessert that actually comes out of the pan!
First, consider the type of pan you should use. Above all else, you should use light-colored metal pans for baking.
Without thinking, I used some dark-coated pans to make my first batch of vanilla cakes for this recipe.
I didn’t get the greatest results…
Dark-colored varieties absorb a greater amount of heat than light-colored types. As a result, the batter will develop a dark crust on the bottom very quickly, and may burn.
And that’s what happened with mine!
The photo below shows the bottom of two vanilla cakes. No, the top one is not chocolate.
These were both prepared with the same vanilla batter, and baked at the same temperature and length of time. Can you guess which one was baked in a dark pan?
As you can see, this one was burnt beyond recognition.
If you only have dark-colored pans, the general rule of thumb is to decrease the recommended baking temperature by 25°F.
This helps to promote more even baking, with less risk of a burnt bottom.
Properly Prep the Pans
There are a variety of ways to prep these, but I’m partial to a certain method. Follow my favorite technique below to ensure that your treats come out cleanly with no issues, every time:
1. Make paper liners for the bottom of the pans. To get the right size, outline the bottom of the pan on the parchment paper, cut out, and set aside.
2. Lightly coat the bottom and edges of the pan with nonstick cooking spray.
3. Line the bottom of each pan with one parchment paper liner.
4. Lightly spray the parchment with more nonstick cooking spray. Your pans are now nonstick, and ready to go!
Through personal experience, I have found that it is not necessary to coat the pans with flour after greasing – the nonstick cooking spray and paper liners are effective enough to prevent the finished cakes from sticking.
It’s one less step you need to take, and it’s less of a mess. No flour, no fuss!
I maintain the same rule of simplicity with my nonstick cooking spray – I have the best success with plain, oil-based cooking spray rather than the types that have flour added.
Cake or All Purpose Flour: What’s the Difference?
Do you need cake flour to make a cake? It makes sense, but is it necessary? And what exactly is cake flour?
Well, there are many styles of flour: bread, cake, all purpose, and durum, to name a few. You can learn even more about all of these different types in our guide to flour.
One of the main differences between types of flour is that the protein content level varies among different varieties of milled wheat.
The protein content determines the strength. Keep these simple equations in mind:
- Higher protein content = stronger flour
- Lower protein content = weaker flour
Baked goods that have a chewy, firmer texture need stronger flours that can produce stronger gluten networks. Breads, bagels, and pizza dough are all prime examples of products that often use stronger flours like bread flour.
Items that have a softer and more tender texture need weaker flours, which will prevent the gluten network from developing too much strength and elasticity. Cakes, cookies, and biscuits are tender products that often use weaker flours like cake flour.
Despite the crazy range of flours you could buy, there is one that is reliable for a variety of baking needs, and it remains true to its name.
The beautiful thing about all purpose flour is that…
It’s all purpose!
Because its protein content is in the middle of the spectrum between strong and weak flours, it is purposefully milled for use in all common baking products, from hearty breads to tender cakes.
While cake flour can be substituted in equal weights for the all purpose flour in this recipe, it is not necessary.
You can certainly experiment and taste for yourself the subtle difference of tenderness. But you have my blessing, love, and approval to use all purpose flour to make your cakes.
It’s totally fine. No one will yell at you.
Just be careful to avoid overmixing the final batter. While you want all of the ingredients to be fully incorporated, the cake can get tough if the proteins in the all purpose flour are given an opportunity to develop a strong gluten structure when mixed too thoroughly.
Keep your dessert tender by mixing only until the ingredients are all incorporated into a uniform batter.
And how do you create a uniform batter? Read below!
Create an Emulsion
A butter cake’s soft, moist, fluffy texture relies on a successfully emulsified mixture – a smooth blend of fats with the other ingredients.
Everything needs to be combined in a way that makes a smooth and uniform final batter that has not separated or curdled.
Emulsions are best formed when all ingredients are close to the same temperature, so you want your ingredients to be at room temperature for best results.
Chilled milk products, butter, eggs, or any other liquid ingredient should not be added to your batter straight out of the fridge. Before starting your recipe, take these products out of the refrigerator and place on the counter for about 20 to 30 minutes.
Another important factor for butter cakes is to gradually add the liquid ingredients to the batter.
The liquids must be added a little a time – if added too quickly or all at once, they cannot be properly absorbed and will cause the batter to curdle.
First, the eggs are added one at a time, and each one is thoroughly mixed before adding another.
Second, the other liquid ingredients are added gradually, alternating with the dry ingredients. Switching between liquid and dry slowly balances the batter and helps with the final emulsion.
Scrape the sides and bottom of the mixing bowl periodically as you stir the batter, to ensure that all of the ingredients are fully incorporated.
Remember, don’t overmix!
Bake Gently, Cool Thoroughly
For any kind of cake, baking and cooling are the final factors that need to be handled with care.
Position your rack in the very center of the oven to get the most even heat distribution, and make sure your pans don’t touch each other or the back or sides of the oven as they are baking. Again, this facilitates an even heat distribution all around the dessert.
Try not to disturb the cakes as they are cooking. The more the pans are jiggled or manipulated, the more of a chance there is that the delicate structure will be destroyed, resulting in a sunken bottom and other types of unevenness.
Avoid opening and closing the oven door – keep all that heat in the oven for the best results.
When done, remove the pans promptly from the oven and place on a cooling rack.
They need to cool significantly in the pans before they are removed. They are still developing their final structure as they are cooling, and are very delicate straight from the oven.
Let them cool in the pans for at least 30 minutes. Then run a paring knife around the edge to loosen, and invert.
Remove the parchment paper from the bottom, flip right side up, and place them back on the cooling racks.
At this point, they are still too hot for decorating, and the final texture is still developing as it gradually cools. Allow them to cool completely before using and storing.
Ignore them for awhile. Watch TV, play cards, read a book, drink a glass of wine… Anything that will keep you distracted!
Learn the Basics to Make the Perfect Treat
Keep our guide for basic cake baking close in the kitchen with you. Our advice, tips, and tricks will help you through the process to ensure a perfect cake – every time!
We also have a great paleo carrot cake recipe for you try!
After your fluffy mounds of joy have finished cooling, we’ll guide you through what comes next – decorating! Our recipes for frostings like cocoa fudge frosting, Swiss meringue and traditional American-style buttercream are delicious.
And our step-by-step cake decorating tutorial will definitely help you out!
Need some extra help with choosing the right tools for beautifying your baked treats? Read our guide on the best decorating tools every baker should own!
Do you have any of your own advice for baking perfect cakes? We’d love to hear it! Post in the comments below.
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Photos by Nikki Cervone, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details.
About Nikki Cervone
Nikki Cervone is an ACS Certified Cheese Professional and cheesemonger living in Pittsburgh. Nikki holds an AAS in baking/pastry from Westmoreland County Community College, a BA in Communications from Duquesne University, and an MLA in Gastronomy from Boston University. When she's not nibbling on her favorite cheeses or testing a batch of cupcakes, Nikki enjoys a healthy dose of yoga, wine, hiking, singing in the shower, and chocolate. Lots of chocolate.