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Tips and tricks for the noob cake-baker
June 5, 2014 10:28 AM   Subscribe

What are some tips for an adequate baker trying to get into cakes and more advanced things? I made my first ever cake last night (cake, filling, and buttercream icing) and it came out fine, but was a little nerve-wracking because the batter took nearly twice as long as the recipe said to bake. Then I realized I didn't have a wire pan to cool it with, nor a "cake plate" so it would look nice for presentation, nor a means of covering it without messing it up. What other pitfalls can I expect in preparing, timing, or equipment? What are the vital tools and supplies for my new hobby?

My solutions to the above problems for tomorrow: the cake had a good consistency, so if it needs longer in the oven so be it. I'm going to cover a circular piece of cardboard in aluminum foil for presentation time, and have a big plastic salad container I can cover it with in the fridge. I *think* I've got this cake covered, but could use advice so next time I can just make the cake the first time and expect it to come out okay without needing a test-run like I did this time.
posted by DoubleLune to Food & Drink (39 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
You should get an oven thermometer and figure out if your oven temperature is accurate. Lots of ovens are a little (or a lot) off, and that can mess up your baking.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 10:39 AM on June 5 [9 favorites]


Do you want to bake good-looking normal cakes, or get into cake decorating as well?

For normal good cakes:

- If you don't have an oven thermometer, you should get and use one to prevent timing problems (I am going to guess your oven temp is lower than stated).

- Cake boards (and drums/bases for larger cakes) are very helpful for moving cakes around. The silvered posterboard ones are nice but DIY tinfoil-covered cardboard is fine too.

- Use parchment paper for clean decorating - put strips under the cake edges for frosting; remove for a clean board. Put a dab of icing on the board to anchor the cake. Learn to love the crumb coat.

- There are those fancy cake leveling things but a thin serrated knife and patience always worked for me. Get a good one with a thin blade.

- Get offset spatulas for frosting and spreading batter; they make SUCH A DIFFERENCE.

- Get more than one wire rack; they are always useful for all kinds of things.
posted by peachfuzz at 10:39 AM on June 5 [2 favorites]


Don't buy a cake tester. Use a skewer or toothpick. I can't believe people pay money for those.

Do get an offset spatula for icing/frosting. It's not the first thing you need, but it's pretty damn handy.

If you'll be transporting cakes, a cake caddy is a nice thing to have. (The one I linked was selected at random-- I don't have a recommendation, other than get one that's tall enough.)

If possible, get wire racks that can fit inside your sheet pans-- they make brilliant cooking or drip-drying rigs for baked goods, frosted things, fried foods, etc.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:41 AM on June 5 [2 favorites]


It sounds like you weren't using the right size pans and/or your oven temperature isn't calibrated.

I always trust reviews from Cook's Illustrated when it comes to equipment; their pick for 9" round cake pan is this Nordic Ware model which is $14.

You can test your oven temperature with a $5 thermometer (this one is CI's pick).

I'd also say that you need trustworthy, tested recipes. I like Rose Levy Beranbaum's Cake Bible which is a popular title that should also be in your local library.
posted by bcwinters at 10:46 AM on June 5 [2 favorites]


Don't freak about special "cake plates", if the cake isn't going anywhere (tonight's dessert, for example) you can just assemble it on any dinner plate. Your tinfoil-covered cardboard under the inverted salad container will be fine. For traveling though, yeah: a cake caddy with attached lid is nice; it'll transport the cake and protect the icing/decorations.

Other that that, peachfuzz and Sunburnt have it; all I can add is, use only real vanilla, never the artificial stuff!
posted by easily confused at 10:47 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


the batter took nearly twice as long as the recipe said to bake

This is unusual, so either your recipe was written poorly or something else was off. Were you using the same size, number, and fill level of baking pans that the recipe indicated (like, three 9" rounds filled half full)? Are you sure your oven is baking at the temperature it says it is? Get an oven thermometer.

A long offset spatula like this is invaluable for frosting spreading.

Get a cake caddy like Sunburnt links so that you have a cake-shaped (easy) airtight seal. Cakes don't need to be refrigerated, and really it just ruins them so better to leave them on the counter anyway.

Watch the Wilton decorating videos to get ideas. They have a lot of tutorials up, and they're all pretty informative as far as technique.

When you're ready to move up a level, give marshmallow fondant a try. Back when I had a lot more free time, I had a lot of fun with that stuff.
posted by phunniemee at 10:47 AM on June 5


I have the cake caddy that Sunburnt linked and like it. Something I like that my Wilton decorating teacher suggested is to get some of that grippy shelf stuff to put in the caddy - it'll prevent the cake board from slipping around. There are usually bunches of options at discount stores like Home Goods if you have those in your area.

Seconding the Cake Bible - if you end up liking it you can get a cheapish copy used online.
posted by brilliantine at 10:49 AM on June 5


Did you remember to preheat your oven?
posted by Hermes32 at 10:50 AM on June 5 [2 favorites]


Also, if you put your cake batter into 8" pans instead of 9" pans, you will notice that it takes a lot longer to finish baking.
posted by Lynsey at 11:02 AM on June 5 [2 favorites]


If you have gas burners, you can lift the grates off and put them on your counter & cool your cakes on them (at least if you're cooling them in the pan.) real cooling racks are necessary for cookies, though.
posted by needs more cowbell at 11:06 AM on June 5


Also, if you are using glass/Pyrex pans instead of metal, baking times need to be adjusted. Google or look in a cookbook for details (I just always stick with metal ones.)
posted by needs more cowbell at 11:08 AM on June 5


All good advice above. I'd add getting a digital scale with tare function and weighing your ingredients. If you want to geek out about it use the brilliant Mass-Volume Conversion Calculator for converting recipes.

I think the first thing you should do is test your oven temp. If it's accurate then I would try the recipe again. If it works, it was user error, but if it doesn't I'd avoid that recipe source in the future.

If possible, get wire racks that can fit inside your sheet pans-- they make brilliant cooking or drip-drying rigs for baked goods, frosted things, fried foods, etc.

bacon, meatloaf....
posted by Room 641-A at 11:09 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


This is a little more advanced, but if you want to mail someone a cake, making "cupcakes" in mason jars has become very popular. I'm going to be experimenting this coming weekend with baking a cake in a Lock & Lock heat resistant glass container; Lock & Lock can be found at Asian grocery and homewares stores.
posted by Juliet Banana at 11:10 AM on June 5


Use cake strips to help keep the tops even while baking. I DIY it with strips of towel that I wet with cold water and wrap around the pan before baking. This helps prevent the outside edges from cooking faster than the middle, which causes the doming.

Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper to prevent sticking.
posted by Safiya at 11:11 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


A rotating cake stand makes icing much easier.
posted by nicwolff at 11:16 AM on June 5 [2 favorites]


In terms of the actual mixing of batter and making of the cake - a friend of mine who bakes (and cooks) a lot says that "baking is like chemistry". In cooking, you can fudge the rules a bit and get away with it - swap out one vegetable for another in the soup, for instance - but in baking, for the best results, you really should try to follow the recipe really, really closely, or track down exact instructions for how to change things.

For instance: If the recipe says to use cake flour and you only have regular flour, it will make a difference if you use the regular flour in place of the cake flour. That's because cake flour "behaves" differently from regular flour, and the recipe was written with the rules of cake flour in mind. So 2 cups of cake flour and 2 cups of regular flour are not going to do the same thing to your batter. Not like it'd be inedible or blow up or anything, it just won't be as good - it may be too gooey, or too hard, or something else, depending on the other ingredients you're adding. However, it is possible to adapt regular flour so it'll work in the place of cake flour - usually you have to use a slightly different amount, or add a little baking powder, or something like that. But that's the thing, you're making up for the difference between regular flour and cake flour.

So you need to be a bit stricter about following the recipe when it comes to baking. However, you do not necessarily need to be as slavish when it comes to decorating, as such. I do not own, and have never owned, a special presentation cake plate or any other servingware like that - I use a regular old dinner plate. And as for frosting it perfectly? Feh. I actually tend to prefer glazes to fluffy frostings, because they're easier to deal with (they're a bit more liquid-y, so they can be poured on and they drip down the sides and even though they pool at the bottom a little who cares because omigod look at that gooey chocolate nom). A lot of times people don't use frosting at all - they sift some powdered sugar or cocoa powder on top and that's it. If you're making a cake for a fancy party, okay, but if it's just you at home and you're just going to be eating it with family? Who cares.

As for the covering-it-up-with-plastic issue - my mother used to stick a few toothpicks into the tops of her cakes before covering it with plastic wrap or whatever, and the toothpicks would hold the plastic away from the surface of the frosting. Me, I've invested in a $16 Tupperware "cake carrier" which has a handle on the top; it's tall enough to accomodate big cakes, it seals shut firmly to keep cakes fresh, and the handle is good if I have to bring a cake somewhere (or if I have to temporarily move the cake while I'm cleaning or something).

A general fun tip: you know the layer of frosting you put in between the layers of a multi-layer cake? Try something else instead sometime, like jam or Nutella. Just by doing that you can turn your chocolate cake into a chocolate-cherry cake or whatever. (And then you can get all fancy by putting cherries on top of the cake after you've frosted the top, which will look all decorative without you having to fuss too much.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:18 AM on June 5 [2 favorites]


Here is a round-up of "50 Tips for Baking Better Cakes" I bookmarked a while back. Several of them have been mentioned here already.
posted by dahliachewswell at 11:22 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


I find mise in place to be tripley more important when baking- making sure you have all of the ingredients, measured out and ready to go BEFORE you mix anything together is an utter life saver. (also you find out if you DO have enough flour/milk whatever and can go get it....
posted by larthegreat at 11:30 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


If you can find recipes that give you measurements in weight instead of cups for your dry ingredients, get a good kitchen scale and use the weight measurements. A scooped cup of flour can vary by several ounces depending on how packed the flour is, and that can easily change up the baking and consistency.
posted by telophase at 11:49 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


For smoother surface on your frosting, spread the frosting on the cake as usual. Then wet your knife/spatula with hot water and go over the areas that need smoothing.

I agree that cake strips are great because they keep the cakes from doming. I used to make them from damp paper towels wrapped with foil, but I was too klutzy to do a good job.

If your oven is hotter in one area than another, turn the cakes and/or switch their positions after about 2/3 of the baking time. If you have a convection oven, turn the fan on if the heat is very uneven.

When you're testing for doneness, it's okay if there are a couple of crumbs on the pick. For some recipes if you wait for the pick to be completely clean, the cake will be overdone.
posted by wryly at 12:15 PM on June 5


Unless the recipe specifies otherwise, plan ahead and get all your fridge ingredients (milk, eggs, butter) at room temperature before you get started.
posted by travertina at 12:20 PM on June 5 [1 favorite]


Thirding digital kitchen scale. Using a scale and using recipes with weights makes a world of difference.

King Arthur Flour's baking companion is a good starter baking book. Nigella Lawson's recipes always seem to work out, especially of you can find a British edition with the weights instead of volumes or get the weight version online.

Baker's Joy non-stick spray with flour, used liberally, is the only thing I've used that gets a Bundt cake to release perfectly every time.

Gridded cooling racks are way way better than the standard ones.

Chiffon cakes are so fun to make and look pretty impressive.

Citrus oils and a King Arthur Flour exclusive called fiori di sicilia are amazing flavorings that add a nice punch. See also: Buttery Sweet Dough flavoring in anything.
posted by monopas at 12:27 PM on June 5 [1 favorite]


Warning: the following is old-school take-a-cake-to-church-supper not new-fangled hyper-decorative technique. Here we assume that you don't care that the layers are slightly domed and that you'll be serving on a regular dinner plate. This is what my granny taught my mama, so I'm sure I do it for sentimental reasons as much as anything else...

To make the cake easy to remove from the pan set the pan on a piece of wax paper, draw around it and cut out the shape (excellent task for 5-year-old assistant!), then set that into the bottom of the pan. Grease and flour on top of that "false bottom". Pour the batter in and bake. When the cake's done, take it out of the oven, set it on the counter for about 2 minutes. The edges of the cake will be starting to pull away from the sides of the pan (that's an indicator of done-ness) but run a table knife around the edge just to be sure. Set your wire rack (or destination plate, cutting board or whatever) onto the top of the pan, then flip the two over and the cake dumps out easily because there's nothing stuck to the bottom of the pan. Pick up the pan, and your cake layer is cooling upside down on the rack. Gently peel the paper liner off the cake. voila!

Note, for a two-layer cake, take your second rack and invert over the first layer, and flip them, so that layer 1 is cooling right-side up. Single flip on Layer 2 means it will cool upside down. This works out, because it's easiest to assemble the cake with the top layer right-side up (domed top of cake can be considered decorative) and the bottom layer upside down (domed top fits into curve of plate) such that the filling/frosting layer is going in between the flat bottoms of the two layers. Yes, there'll be a small gap between cake and plate around the bottom edge, but that's better than in the middle; if the top layer is balanced on a big dome, it won't have enough contact surface and will want to slide off-center.
posted by aimedwander at 12:36 PM on June 5


If you don't have a sturdy enough piece of cardboard, and your dinner plates are too small, consider covering a cutting board in aluminum foil instead.
posted by aimedwander at 12:40 PM on June 5


To make the cake easy to remove from the pan set the pan on a piece of wax paper, draw around it and cut out the shape (excellent task for 5-year-old assistant!), then set that into the bottom of the pan. Grease and flour on top of that "false bottom". Pour the batter in and bake.
If you're a new-fangled baker, you do exactly the same thing, except you use parchment paper rather than wax paper. Also, I usually grease the pan, then put the parchment paper on top, then grease again.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 12:40 PM on June 5


iambaker.net has some crazy cakes/desserts on it. She tends to cheat by using store-bought cake mix (making your own is so much better) but she has some creative ideas, and tutorials on some lovely decorations.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 1:11 PM on June 5


My layer cakes greatly improved once I bought a rotating cake stand (mine is from Ateco - it's super heavy and sturdy), an offset spatula, and watched the How To series of videos on Zoe Bakes. Seriously. It made a huge difference to use the right techniques for cutting, filling and frosting, and being able to spin the cake while you work on it makes everything go smoother and faster.
posted by geeky at 1:40 PM on June 5


In cooking, you can fudge the rules a bit and get away with it...n but in baking, for the best results, you really should try to follow the recipe really, really closely, or track down exact instructions for how to change things.

Nthing this. Changing things in baking - size of tin, type of ingredients, etc - will really alter your final cake and should only be done once you are experienced. Something like doubling the recipe, for example, will not just change the cooking time, but larger cakes can sink easier, for example. Try to avoid melting your butter when you need it soft for creaming. Monitor your cake - don't just rely on stated cooking time as they can very a lot. Use online recipes with reviews/comments, so you can see if your experience is typical or not. Also be aware that flours can behave quite different, due to moisture content, ash content, gluten content - a whole lot of stuff that you can't necessarily control so you should alsys be prepared to tinker *slightly* if necessary by adding a little more or less.

I am by no means a cake expert, though I am a very good cook and very experienced bread baker, and for me, if I get a great cake on the first bake, I count myself very lucky. I usually accept that the first cake is really more of a 'test cake' to see if 1) it has the potential for greatness and 2) if I need to change something to achieve said greatness. I mean, sometimes I do get a great one on first bake, but it's no sure thing. Also, there are a lot of shitty cake recipes out there, in my humble opinion, which is why I try to stick to reliable cookbooks or websites with comments so I can tell if it's shite.
posted by smoke at 4:34 PM on June 5


Springform pans make depanning a cake a lot easier.

Also, when your cake, particularly a sponge cake, comes out of the oven, drop it from a height of about 1 foot onto a hard counter. As crazy as this sounds, it will prevent the cake from collapsing. During baking tiny bubbles of steam form inside the cake. As the cake cools, the trapped bubbles condense back into water, collapsing the cake. By dropping the cake, you break the bubbles and release the steam allowing in air and retaining the structure of your cake.
posted by chrisulonic at 4:39 PM on June 5 [1 favorite]


Cakes don't need to be refrigerated, and really it just ruins them so better to leave them on the counter anyway.

That depends on the frosting! There are buttercream frostings that are mostly Crisco and that can handle being out on the counter. If you want your buttercream frosting to also actually taste reasonably good, 50/50 butter/Crisco gives better results, but it will soften and melt into a blob at room temperature, so refrigeration is imperative. For the frosting, not the cake.

The tip I learned at my cake decorating class, to cut cakes horizontally (either for filling, or just to level off the top before frosting: unflavored dental floss, pulled across the cake, will cut it smoothly.
posted by ambrosia at 4:46 PM on June 5


the batter took nearly twice as long as the recipe said to bake

Different opinion here: I've baked for many, many years in multiple ovens, from dozens of recipes from a wide variety of sources, and I've found it's pretty common for 'cooking time' to be off in the recipe, and specifically, that the cooking time in the recipe is too short. Solution is straightforward: don't pay attention to the time in the recipe, test with a toothpick and you'll know when it's done.

Some basic tips:

Use ingredients at room temperature.

Egg whites should be beaten in a grease-free environment. Be sure any bowl they're in is clean and free of grease. Plastic can retain a grease film, don't use it for egg whites. If you've been handling anything greasy, wash your hands before separating eggs. Don't let any drops of yolk get in the whites.

Cake flour has less gluten, that's why you use it in cakes, cookies, etc. Mix/handle the flour as little as you can get away with.

Substitute 1/4 cup up to maybe 1/2 cup of ground almonds for an equal amount of flour for extra moistness and richness. Can also be done with hazelnuts or walnuts, which go especially well with chocolate.

Most importantly: use the best quality butter or margarine you can get. Cheaper products are cheaper because they have more water or other liquid content. This will throw off your recipe. "European style" butter is much more reliable--it's expensive, but worth it. Local farms may have good quality butter, too. Land O Lakes makes an 80% fat margarine that's marketed as being "better for baking"--this also works well. Too much water in the butter leads to too much steam in the cake batter, which can end up with the heartache of your cake sticking in chunks to the inside of a tube pan.

Finally, Baker's Joy--the spray shortening plus flour in an aerosol can--does feel a bit like cheating, but it works and it's super easy to use. Downside is that it can give the cake a kind of thick, crunchy crust that might not be what you want. If you're baking in regular round pans, lining the bottom of the pan with cutout circles of parchment paper (like others have said) will guarantee that the cake doesn't stick.

A shout out to two online suppliers that I use: Olive Nation in Massachusetts for all variety of flavoring and extracts (the strawberry and peach ones they have are unbelievable in frosting). Also, Fante's of Philadelphia has that Fiori di Sicilia other people are talking about, as well as every cake pan under the sun.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to rattle on about this. I'm eating a slice of homemade cake right now.
posted by gimonca at 9:17 PM on June 5 [5 favorites]


Oh, how could I forget?! Baking 911 is my favorite non-bread baking site.

Cake Baking Introduction

On preview, All about flour

Also, when your cake, particularly a sponge cake, comes out of the oven, drop it from a height of about 1 foot onto a hard counter. As crazy as this sounds, it will prevent the cake from collapsing. During baking tiny bubbles of steam form inside the cake.

Hmm. I was always taught that you should do this before you bake it, to get rid of the air bubbles first. Now I don't know what to think!

I am a very good cook and very experienced bread baker, and for me, if I get a great cake on the first bake, I count myself very lucky.

Yes! To paraphrase my mom: It's just cake. It will be okay.
posted by Room 641-A at 9:33 PM on June 5 [2 favorites]


Chrisulonic's tip about banging the cake (in pan) on the counter reminded me of another of my habits: if you bang the batter-filled pans on the counter before you put the cakes in the oven, that helps drive out any largish bubbles that would result in pea-sized air pockets in the cake.
posted by aimedwander at 6:45 AM on June 6


Wow, thanks for the great info everyone!

I love the idea of chiffon cakes -- especially as I'm not a huge fan of traditional cakes, I think I would much prefer the texture.

The recipe I'm using this time is this lemon cake with lemon filling. The only substitution I made was almond milk for regular milk, but I picked up some regular milk for the real thing. On the test run, the texture and flavor was decent, but the lemon frosting was too lemony for my bf's taste (his birthday cake I'm making). So I'll be making a plain buttercream icing instead - does anyone have a recommendation for the best buttercream icing?

The oven thermometer thing is definitely the key -- things tend to take a bit longer in my oven, which isn't entirely unsurprising because it's an old gas oven that I suspect is leaky.

I am planning on doing decorating. I love my cooking to look as good as it tastes :) I have some experience with decorating from my 6-month stint working at Baskin Robins, so we'll see how that part turns out...


If you have gas burners, you can lift the grates off and put them on your counter & cool your cakes on them (at least if you're cooling them in the pan.) real cooling racks are necessary for cookies, though.
I'm going to try this... maybe putting a sheet of parchment paper on top and poking a bunch of holes in it would work for cooling out of the pan?

Then I'm going to see what "extra" supplies my mom has before I buy anything... she's a wonderful resource for all the gadgets she's bought and never uses, and I'm a super appreciative recipient!
posted by DoubleLune at 7:11 AM on June 6


The only substitution I made was almond milk for regular milk, but I picked up some regular milk for the real thing.

This is the kind of substitution you shouldn't be doing without checking how it would affect the final product, so it's good that you did a test first. Fortunately almond milk and regular milk aren't that different, so you were fine.

In the future, though, I would either keep your habit of doing a "test run" first, like you did with this (which may not be a bad idea because yay lots of cake experiments around your house), or I would hit Google for a quick check first - fortunately there are a ton of "substituting [foo] for [baz] in baking" advice sites out there, so you'll easily be able to see whether you can indeed swap them out, or whether you need to tweak your recipe just a bit.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:00 AM on June 6 [1 favorite]


If you have gas burners, you can lift the grates off and put them on your counter & cool your cakes on them (at least if you're cooling them in the pan.) real cooling racks are necessary for cookies, though.
I'm going to try this... maybe putting a sheet of parchment paper on top and poking a bunch of holes in it would work for cooling out of the pan?


I don't think that will work. The burners have really wide spacing and they will support a pan since it has a very flat sturdy bottom. If you take the cake out of the pan and put it on parchment paper, the bottom is very flimsy and will droop and break if not fully supported.

Real cooling racks have a grid or parallel lines with fairly small holes. The surface tension of the cake is enough to support it across a half-inch or so, but not enough for large gaps.

Another tip: if you end up making cupcakes, the lid from a box of Xerox paper from your office makes a nice container to bring cupcakes to work or school. Line it with foil and then top it with plastic wrap, use a little tape on both if needed. It's been a while so I don't remember, but I think it will hold about 2 1/2 dozen cupcakes and you can throw it away when you are done (but I bring mine home and store it for next time).
posted by CathyG at 2:50 PM on June 6 [2 favorites]


If you really don't want to buy a cooling rack, use a packet of bamboo skewers. Use masking tape to hold the ends of the skewers in a 1/2 - 3/4" spacing (parallel skewers with a strip of masking tape on both ends) then set that mat over a plate with a rim, so that there's air space underneath it, and put your cake on top. Bonus, you can just roll it up and tuck it away to reuse a few times until it gets manky or falls apart.
posted by aimedwander at 6:03 AM on June 9


Best buttercream icing! It is my go-to.

Also -- consider investing the time into making a large bottle of your own vanilla extract. It's as simple as cutting some vanilla beans and submerging them in a bottle of vodka (or rum, or bourbon) for a few months, giving them a shake once in a while.
posted by alynnk at 6:49 AM on June 10


Thanks for the advice everyone, the cake was a hit! Here is the album from cooling to consumption. I used a plastic salad thing to cool -- it stuck a bit, alas. Unflavored dental floss was a miracle worker for getting an even cut. I used this recipe for buttercream and it was truly delicious -- the white is plain buttercream and the yellow is lemon, it balanced out the flavors nicely.

I also now have an oven thermometer and my oven is indeed off by 10-25 degrees.
posted by DoubleLune at 1:30 PM on June 25 [1 favorite]


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