Cooking Light Test Kitchen professional Jan Moon has baked more cakes than she can count in the last decade. We asked her to share a few well-tested tips on achieving great results every time.
Start with the Right Equipment
Good-quality cake pans are important. Choose aluminum pans with a dull finish since this metal absorbs and conducts heat efficiently. Avoid shiny pans, which deflect heat, and dark metal pans, which cause the outer edges of the cake to cook more quickly than the center and overbrown, rendering the cake dry and tough. When preparing layer cakes, use a pan with tall, straight sides. According to Moon, three-inch sides are best since the depth allows the cake to rise to its maximum height.
A stand mixer is ideal for mixing most cakes since the powerful motor aerates the butter, sugar, and egg mixture, which in turn helps the cake rise nicely while it bakes. A handheld mixer works just fine, though you should mix the butter and sugar just a minute or two longer to incorporate as much air as the stand mixer does.
Your oven is another essential component in baking. It's important to know the oven's true temperature and know how it performs. Be aware of any hot or cold spots in the oven, and compensate by rotating the cake pans throughout the baking, if necessary.
Preheat the Oven
Preheat the oven so you can put the cake batter in as soon as it's ready. If it stands long after it's mixed, the air in the batter (a result of beating the butter and sugar, as well as the leavening) may escape, causing the final result to be tough and dense. Prepare the Pan(s)
Next, prepare the pans. Simply coat them with cooking spray, and dust with a bit of flour. As the cake bakes, the flour provides traction to help the cake rise to its full potential. It's often a good idea to line the bottom of the pan with wax paper as well, so the cake doesn't tear when removed from the pan. This is especially true if the recipe calls for cake flour, which is usually used in delicate cakes. Cakes baked in tube, Bundt, or other hard-to-line specialty pans are exceptions to this rule.
Mix the Batter
For best results, begin with ingredients at approximately room temperature (65° to 75°). Simply leave eggs, butter, milk, and any other refrigerated items out on the kitchen counter for about 20 minutes while you measure and gather all of the remaining ingredients and equipment. Softened butter accepts more air, which is desirable for a moist and light-textured cake. If you add cold ingredients, such as eggs or milk, later in the process, the butter can seize (clump), decreasing the volume of the batter and inhibiting the incorporation of the other ingredients. Place the softened butter and sugar in a large bowl, and beat with an electric mixer until thoroughly blended.
Measure flour carefully. This is especially important in low-fat baking because just a bit too much or too little flour can have a significant impact on the cake's texture. If you don't have a kitchen scale, it's best to lightly spoon the flour into dry measuring cups and level with a knife―never scoop flour directly from the canister with the measuring cup. This packs flour down and increases the amount in the cup.
Combine flour with all of the dry ingredients in a bowl, and stir with a whisk to evenly disperse any salt or leavening agent (usually baking powder or baking soda). With your electric mixer speed on low, add the flour mixture to the batter (the butter-sugar mixture) alternately with milk, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. This procedure allows the flour to be incorporated into the batter thoroughly and completely. But mix just until the ingredients are combined. Once liquid is added to the mixture, the flour and liquid combine to form gluten―a necessary element for the cake's structure. Overmixing after the flour is added increases the amount of gluten and causes the cake to be tough.
Bake the Cake
After it's mixed, place the batter in the oven as quickly as possible so the leavening will be fully active.Avoid baking cakes on different levels in the oven, if possible, and place them at least two inches apart in the oven and two inches away from the oven walls to promote even baking and allow maximum air circulation. (If you have to bake the layers on different racks, rotate the pans halfway through baking so they'll cook evenly.)
Once the cakes are in the oven, if possible, keep the oven door closed tightly because the temperature fluctuates each time the door opens, and these fluctuations can lead to a variety of problems. If the temperature in the oven drops, the cake will probably bake a bit more slowly, and it may sink in the center. Then, as the oven reheats to the required temperature, the edges of the cake will be exposed to more extreme temperatures and could possibly result in a dry, tough cake.
The best way to determine doneness for most cakes is the wooden pick test, performed after the time specified in the recipe. Insert a wooden pick in the center of the cake. If it comes out clean, the cake is done. If batter clings to the pick, the cake needs to bake one to three minutes longer. If you see the sides of the cake pulling away from the pan, this is another sign of doneness.
Let It Cool
Most cakes need to cool in the pan on a wire rack for a few minutes. If you try to remove a cake from the pan too soon, it may not be strong enough to hold together. This is especially true of cakes made with cake flour because they are more delicate. Turn the cake out of the pan after five to 10 minutes, remove the wax paper, if necessary, and cool completely on a wire rack before frosting, wrapping, or storing.
Bake Ahead, Save Time
Cakes are ideal make-ahead desserts for the holidays or any time of year. You can bake the layers up to a month ahead, cool them, wrap them tightly in two layers of plastic wrap, and freeze. Simply thaw frozen cakes at room temperature. Moon often frosts cakes while they're still partially frozen since this helps prevent stray crumbs from getting in the frosting, and she finds the cakes sturdier and easier to work with.