Even the most experienced bakers make cake mistakes from time to time. For the novices among us, making the perfect cake with the right texture, shape, and rise can seem downright unattainable. To help clear up some of the mystery surrounding common cake failures, we’ve got tips that will help you avoid cake mishaps and gain confidence in your cake baking skills.
1. Butter Consistency Should Be Just Right
Butter is an important ingredient when it comes to baking, and it's used in many cake batters and different types of frostings. One of the most common cake mistakes is using butter that’s the wrong temperature. Many cake recipes call for butter at room temperature, but what does that really mean?
Room temperature can be different depending on where you live. If you live in a hot climate, your butter will soften more quickly. Instead of focusing on temperature, make sure your butter is the right consistency. It should be soft and yield to pressure, but not so soft that it’s melted and oily. Take your butter out of the fridge about an hour before beginning your recipe, checking frequently to test the consistency.
Avoid these common butter mistakes:
- Too soft and oily - If the butter yields too easily to pressure and appears melted and oily, it will produce a silky batter that rises too soon and collapses. Your cake will have big air pockets and an uneven texture.
- Too chilled and hard - Cold lumps of butter won’t incorporate into your batter, preventing the mixture from being whipped properly. Your cake will be dense and unfluffy.
2. Use the Right Mixing Technique
The method you use to mix your cake batter ingredients has a direct affect on the texture of your cake. Overworking the batter, especially if it contains gluten, will result in a tough, chewy cake. You’ll often see the instructions, “mix until just combined,” in cake recipes. This means to stop mixing as soon as you see that all ingredients are evenly incorporated.
Alternating between adding dry ingredients and wet ingredients to your stand mixer is a common technique that helps to prevent gluten fibers from toughening up. Folding in your ingredients by hand is another method that ensures your ingredients are well-incorporated without being overworked.
Avoid these mixing mistakes:
- Undermixing - If you don’t mix the batter long enough, the ingredients won’t be incorporated well. There will be less air whipped into the mixture, which yields less batter and creates a crumbly cake.
- Overmixing - Overmixing your batter will cause it to look very pale and fluffy, with a lot of air whipped into the mixture. Too much air will cause the cake to rise too soon and shrink as it cools. It will sink in the middle and have an uneven texture.
3. Scoop Flour Correctly
Did you know there’s a correct way to scoop flour? It's not dipping your measuring cup inside the bag of flour to pull out a rounded scoop of flour. Scooping like this, though it's quick and easy, will actually result in too much flour being packed into the cup. This greatly increases the amount of flour you add to your batter and changes the texture of your cake completely. Cake batter with too much flour will be heavy and dry.
Follow these tips for measuring your flour correctly:
- Never use a liquid measuring cup for dry ingredients like flour
- Use a sifter or fine-mesh strainer to sift flour before measuring
- Add sifted flour to the measuring cup one spoonful at a time
- Level off the flour in the measuring cup with a knife
- Skip the measuring cup completely and use a scale to weigh the flour (1 cup = 120-125 grams)
4. Weigh Your Ingredients
Some chefs like to get creative in the kitchen and add a pinch of this and a dash of that to their recipes. As many aspiring bakers can attest, this expression of culinary freedom doesn’t work out so well when baking a cake. The art of baking requires exact measurements and little to no deviation from the original recipe. If you want professional results, weighing your baking ingredients is the answer.
Instead of fussing with measuring cups, use a portion scale to make sure your ingredients are exact. If your recipe doesn’t list the weights of your ingredients, follow this guide:
- All-Purpose Flour / Bread Flour 1 cup = 120-125 grams (varies slightly between brands)
- Baking Powder 1 teaspoon = 4 grams
- Baking Soda 1 teaspoon = 6 grams
- Brown Sugar (packed) 1 cup = 213 grams
- Butter 1/2 cup = 113 grams
- Cake Flour 1 cup = 120 grams
- Cocoa Powder 1 cup = 85 grams
- Confectioners Sugar (sifted) 1 cup = 115 grams
- Granulated Sugar 1 cup = 200 grams
- Whole Wheat Flour 1 cup = 120 grams
5. Don't Use Old Ingredients
If it’s been a while since you tackled a new cake recipe, you should check to make sure your baking ingredients haven’t expired. In particular, old baking soda and baking powder can be the cause of a disastrous cake mistake. These two leavening agents can lose their potency over time and if used, will result in a cake with no rise. A good rule of thumb is to test your baking soda and baking powder if they’ve been in your cupboard more than 6 months.
Effective leavening agents will bubble immediately when mixed with the right liquids. Try these tests and look for bubbling:
- Baking Soda - mix 1/4 teaspoon baking soda with 2 teaspoons of vinegar
- Baking Powder - mix 1 teaspoon baking powder with 1/2 cup hot water
If no bubbling occurs when you perform the test, the leavening agents are past their prime for baking purposes.
6. Be Careful With Substitutions
When it comes to baking cakes, it’s not always possible to make an ingredient substitution in a recipe and achieve the same results. This is because different types of ingredients react uniquely during the baking process. Stick to the recipe unless you’ve done research on alternative ingredients and you’re prepared to experiment with some unexpected outcomes.
Gluten-free cake baking, in particular, requires a few adjustments to produce the same light, fluffy texture produced by wheat flours. If you’re playing around with gluten-free flour substitutions, keep these tips in mind:
- Instead of using one type of flour, try a gluten-free flour blend that combines rice flour, potato starch, tapioca starch, and xanthan gum
- Increase the moisture in the batter to counter the dryness of gluten-free flour
- Mix the batter longer than normal to incorporate more air bubbles and help the cake rise
- After mixing, let the batter sit so that all of the gluten-free flour is absorbed
- Cook the cake at a lower temperature setting for a longer period of time
7. Prep Your Pan
A cake that sticks to the pan is a common cake failure that can be easily avoided with a little bit of prep work. Take a few minutes to grease and flour your pans before pouring the batter and you shouldn’t have any trouble. First, apply a generous amount of butter, shortening, or cooking spray to the interior of the pan. Make sure the entire pan is covered. Then sprinkle a couple spoonfuls of flour into the pan. Hold the pan in your hands and tilt it back and forth to disperse the flour over the entire surface. Turn the pan upside down to shake out any excess powder.
You can go one step further and line the pan with parchment paper for the most professional results. Grease and flour the pan like normal, then add a piece of parchment paper to the bottom of the pan. Add a second layer of grease and flour over the parchment paper and pour your batter into the pan. Using this method, your cakes will release from the pan without sticking. Try a springform pan with a removable bottom and sides for the trickiest types of batters.
8. Oven Temperature
If you're following all the baking rules and your cakes are still not coming out quite right, your oven might be the cause. Every oven is different and the temperature of the interior cabinet can vary. Even if you've set the oven temperature to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, the only way to be sure the temperature is exact is by using an oven thermometer.
Test your oven temperature by hanging an oven-safe thermometer on the center of the middle rack. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and let it come to temperature. Check the thermometer periodically over a one hour time period to get a better sense of how consistently your oven is heating. Minor fluctuations are normal, but if the temperature swings too far from 350 degrees, you may need to recalibrate your oven thermostat.
Watch out for these temperature-related cake mistakes:
- Oven too hot - If the oven temp is too high, the top of the cake will heat up first, causing a hard crust and a dry texture
- Oven too cool - Baking at a lower temperature causes a soft, damp texture that crumbles
9. Don’t Open the Oven Too Early
It's really hard to resist taking a quick peek at your cake, but opening the oven door too soon is a big no-no. It's especially important to keep the oven door closed during the first 3/4 of the cooking time. If you open the door during this crucial baking period, cold air rushes into the oven and disrupts the rise of your cake. The rising batter could contract and collapse, producing a cake that sinks in the middle. Wait until the end of the cook time to check your cake and test it for doneness.
10. Let Cakes Cool Completely Before Icing
Everyone knows you should let your cake cool before trying to add frosting, but often the temptation to complete your creation as quickly as possible wins out. If you don’t let the cake cool properly, the frosting will melt away and you’ll have a drippy mess on your hands.
Not cooling cakes properly can also affect the texture. If you leave the cake to cool in the pan for too long, moisture will collect in the bottom of the pan and create a sticky texture. Follow these steps to cool your cake properly so it’s ready to be decorated:
- Remove the cake pan from the oven and place the pan on a cooling rack for 10 minutes
- Carefully remove the cake from the pan and continue to let it cool on the rack for the best air circulation
- It can take up to an hour or more for the cake to cool completely
- If the cake needs to be stored, wrap it in plastic wrap and place in the fridge overnight
Baking failures that produce bad cakes can be avoided by following our guidelines. With time and repetition, you'll find that many of these baking tips will become second nature. A combination of preparation, ingredients, and technique will come together to create professionally baked cakes with the perfect texture and consistency.