10 Secrets to Baking Perfect Cakes
By: Text: Jason Horn
If all the measuring, sifting, and mixing involved in cake-baking seems more like science class than fun, then keep clicking. With our ten secrets to cake baking, you WILL conquer the cake, and have fun doing it.
A cake is essentially a chemistry experiment—a series of ingredients mixed in a specific order to cause reactions that produce specific effects. Butter cakes, like pound cakes and most layer cakes, get their soft, fine texture and moistness—called a crumb—by first creaming together fat and sugar, adding eggs, and slowly incorporating dry ingredients into the mixture while alternating with a liquid, such as milk or buttermilk. Angel food, sponge, and chiffon cakes get their signature airy, foamlike textures when whole eggs or egg whites (depending on the cake) are whipped until voluminous, then folded into the batter. The air incorporated by whipping the eggs gives these cakes volume, making them springy and elastic. So whatever cake you’re making, be sure to follow the recipe instruction closely. The order and method described really counts when cake baking.
To prevent an under- or overdone cake, get an oven thermometer—it’s the best way to be sure your oven is calibrated correctly. Bake the cake in the middle (too close to the top or bottom can cause overbrowning). Gently close the oven door—a hard slam can release air bubbles trapped in the batter. To check for doneness, lightly press the center of the cake; if it springs back, it’s done. Or insert a wooden pick; it should come out clean.
Your recipe calls for two 9-inch round cake pans, but you only have 8-inch pans. What to do? Go get two 9-inch pans. Pan size is specified in recipes because a cake increases in volume 50 to 100 percent during baking; if your pan is too small, the cake could overflow. Color is important, too; glass or dark nonstick pans usually require a 25-degree reduction in baking temperature versus silver-colored aluminum pans.
Different flours contain varying percentages of protein—the more protein, the more gluten. Cake flour has the least protein and yields extra-light baked goods, like angel food cake. Bread flour has the most and is used for denser items; all-purpose is in the middle and produces tender cakes.
If you don’t have a kitchen scale, it’s time to buy one. Weight is the only accurate way to measure flour. Depending on how tightly flour is packed into a measuring cup, you can end up with double the amount intended. That’s why we give flour measurements in ounces first.
The intimate chemistry among key ingredients delivers the foundation for good cake. Flour thickens the batter and provides gluten, a protein that gives the cake structure. It forms when flour is combined with a liquid and agitated. Don’t overmix, which can cause your cake to turn tough. Leaveners, like baking soda or powder, produce carbon dioxide bubbles, which are trapped by the starch in the batter and expand during baking, causing the cake to rise. Fats, like butter, shortening, or oil, help retard gluten formation while providing moisture for the cake. This ensures a tender texture. Sugar breaks up gluten, keeping the texture tender; it absorbs liquid, keeping the cake moist; and it caramelizes in baking, enriching flavors and helping the cake brown. Eggs firm up when cooked, helping cake batters set in the oven. Egg yolks contain fat, as well as lecithin, an emulsifier that allows fats and water to mix smoothly and ensures even texture.
Cool cakes in the pan on a wire rack for 20 minutes, then remove from pan. Once cooled, place a plate on top, invert the pan, and gently tap or shake it to release the cake. Angel food cakes are usually baked in tube pans, then inverted either on feet attached to the pan or over a bottle to cool upside down while still in the pan—gravity helps the cake keep its volume. When it has cooled, run a narrow spatula around the edges, and release onto a plate.
Put a small dollop of frosting in the center of the cake plate, and place the first cake layer on top. This will keep the cake from moving as you work. Use an offset spatula to frost the top, add the next layer, then coat the whole cake with a thin layer of frosting. (This “crumb coat” holds loose crumbs in place.) Place the cake in the freezer for 15 minutes, then remove and finish frosting, starting with the top, then the sides.
Rolled fondant—the smooth coating seen on elaborate wedding and reality-show competition cakes—is a combination of gelatin, glycerin, and sugar that forms into an easily molded dough. It doesn’t taste very good, though. Poured fondant is a cooked-sugar syrup that’s used as a cake filling, in candies, or to top petit fours—you might know it better as the center of a Cadbury Crème Egg.
Since there is less air pressure at higher altitudes, cakes rise more and can dry out because liquids evaporate more quickly. If you live above 3,500 feet, follow these guidelines: Increase the oven temperature to 375° and liquid by 2 tablespoons for each cup used. Decrease each cup of sugar by 1 tablespoon, each teaspoon of baking powder by ⅛ teaspoon, and the baking time by 5 minutes.