As you've probably heard before, baking is a science -- and that's very true, especially for cakes. Everything must be just right to bake the perfect cake: the proportions, the temperature, the procedure. Getting just one thing wrong can often lead to many baking mishaps, like a burnt cake, a collapsed cake or one that doesn't want to come out of the pan. We're here to help.
The best instructions anyone can have is a recipe -- follow a well written one and you're bound to get good results, but veer off just a little and you've got a recipe for disaster. Follow the recipe you've chosen (see our terrific cake gallery for ideas) and take into account our tips below to create the perfect cake.
Almost every recipe calls for greasing, or greasing and flouring a cake pan prior to pouring in the batter -- in fact it's usually the first instruction right after the one about preheating the oven. It's really a step that shouldn't be skipped, because it makes all the difference whether a baked cake will fall easily out of the pan or stick right in -- there's no saving grace in that. Photo from <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/theatrical03/2374344245/" target="_hplink">TheatricAL 03, Flickr</a>.
Many people skip sifting because they think it's a waste of time, but actually sifting is very important because it can avoid many problems that may arise after the cake is baked. First, sifting removes lumps from the flour, ensuring your cake will be free of dry lumps. Second, sifting better incorporates the leavener (baking powder and/or soda) so you won't end up with cake that has a surface similar to that of the moon's. Photo from <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/chriswaits/6607823843/" target="_hplink">waitscm, Flickr</a>.
Undermixing is easily evident in chocolate batters where you'll see swirls of white and black in the finished cake -- unless you were going for the marbled look, it's definitely a mistake. Make sure to adequately combine the batter by folding the ingredients gently while being careful not to overmix either. It's a fine balance, but you'll know once a cake is well incorporated when nearly all the flour has been absorbed. Photo from <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/mishism/3139862276/" target="_hplink">MiiiSH, Flickr</a>.
Overmixing a batter is very easy to do especially since most people now rely on their trusty stand mixers. Too much air in a cake will likely result in a fallen cake. Once you've beaten in your sugar and butter, it's best to continue with a light hand and fold in the dry ingredients as gently as possible. Photo from <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/24013072@N05/6546583881/" target="_hplink">YoAmes, Flickr</a>.
Sometimes greasing and flouring isn't enough -- the best, most foolproof method to ensure your cakes come out of the pan every time is to use parchment paper to line the bottom and sides. This is especially so for dense, fudgey cakes, which would otherwise require you to spoon pieces out of the pan even if you did grease and flour it. Photo from <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/22995353@N08/3468532858/" target="_hplink">From Argentina With Love, Flickr</a>.
It's important to smooth out your cake batter once you've poured it into the pan. Not only does it help work out large air cavities, it also ensures the top of your cake will be evenly baked, smooth and free of mounds and valleys. Photo from <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/24013072@N05/6546595899/" target="_hplink">YoAmes, Flickr</a>.
Now that you've smoothed the surface of the cake batter, the next step is to tap the cake. This step removes any errant air bubbles that may have gotten trapped in the batter (this is especially so with thick batters). Getting out the air bubbles now ensures your cake won't fall later (that is unless you open the oven door to peek too much). You also will prevent the formation of any craters during baking, which would otherwise leave large holes on the surface of the baked cake. Photo from <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/quiddle/394838120/" target="_hplink">tquiddle, Flickr</a>.
Many of us are tempted to open the oven door while our cake is baking just to see how it's doing, but please, don't. Opening the door can create great fluctuations in heat, which can cause your cake to collapse. If you've got an oven door window, look through it instead. Otherwise, don't open the door until it gets close to the finish time (this is especially so with flourless cake and cheesecake). Photo from <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/peapodlabs/7109990343/" target="_hplink">peapod labs, Flickr</a>.
If you're baking a multiple layer cake, you may be tempted to bake all the layers at once, however, it's not a good idea to have more than two cake pans in the oven at one time. The temperature of the oven will be affected and the cakes won't bake normally because the air won't circulate properly. Instead choose to bake the cake in batches and always place the pan in the center of the oven. Photo from <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/lpolinsky/5179760149/sizes/z/in/photostream/" target="_hplink">lpolinsky, Flickr</a>.
If you've ever had a cake that's had a great big volcano-like hump in the middle, one reason why may be because the pan you used was too small. If a recipe calls for a 9-inch cake pan, don't use an 8-inch in a pinch -- your cake may end up with a hump in the middle -- or worst case scenario the cake will grow out of the pan as pictured. Photo from <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/cefeida/2122045779/" target="_hplink">Magic Madzik, Flickr</a>.
Maybe you opened the oven door too soon or you were just too eager and removed the cake ahead of its finish time, but you've got a fallen cake on your hands because you probably didn't test it. The best method for testing a cake's doneness is with a skewer or toothpick, inserted into the middle of the cake. If, and only if, the pick comes out clean is the cake done (unless you're making fudge brownies where you want a few crumbs attached to the pick). Even if you must bake your cake a little past the time the recipe indicates, it's better to do so than risk a collapsed cake. Photo from <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/whitneyinchicago/4048086798/" target="_hplink">whitneyinchicago, Flickr</a>.
Proper cooling of a cake is a very important step after baking -- you want the cake too fall right out of the pan especially if you've greased and floured or parchment-papered it. After removing your cake from the oven, let it cool slightly in the pan up until the top feels firm -- this gives the cake a chance to finish baking from within and acclimate itself to room temperature. Then turn it out onto a cooling rack to cool completely (don't frost until it's completely cool). Whatever you do, don't cool the cake too rapidly by placing it in a cold environment like a refrigerator -- the rapid cooling will shock the cake, making it stick to the pan, collapse or both. Photo from <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/yortw/5847573977/" target="_hplink">Yortw, Flickr</a>.
Expert Amanda Oakleaf presents the basics of how to make a cake, before you graduate to cake decorating.