1. Follow the Recipe
Following the recipe is the most important cake baking tip you’ll ever hear/read. It’s also the most ignored. We often substitute ingredients in recipes based on what we have. Subbing out eggs, reducing sugar, using liquid sweetener instead of dry, all-purpose instead of cake flour, baking soda for powder, egg whites instead of whole eggs, etc. I do not recommend doing this unless the recipe suggests alternatives. Don’t sabotage your time, effort, and money. I’m guilty of this, too! Sometimes I’m in a rush and just not paying attention or I’m making a substitution because I ran out of an ingredient. But ingredients are needed for a reason and, more often than not, a cake fail is because the recipe wasn’t properly followed. I always recommend following a recipe the first time you try it, then making changes as you see fit the next time.
Likewise, make sure you’re using the appropriate size pan. Unless otherwise noted, don’t substitute a 6-inch cake pan for a 9-inch cake pan or a 9-inch round pan for a 9-inch square pan. You can *usually* get away with swapping 8-inch round cake pans for 9-inch round cake pans (and vice versa). 8-inch cakes will take longer since they’ll likely be thicker.
2. Room Temperature
“Room temperature” isn’t listed next to ingredients for fun. There’s science and legitimate reason behind it. If a recipe calls for room temperature ingredients, use room temperature ingredients like eggs, sour cream, butter, and milk.
To paint you a picture, let’s focus on room temperature butter in particular. Most cake recipes begin with creaming butter and sugar together. Butter is capable of holding air and the creaming process is when butter traps that air. While baking, that trapped air expands from the heat and produces a fluffy cake. Not only this, room temperature ingredients bond together easier and quicker since they’re warmer– thus reducing over-mixing. Simply put, cold ingredients do not emulsify together. Period.
Room temperature butter is about 65°F (18°C), which might be colder than your kitchen. It’s cool to touch, not warm. If your cakes are dense, you’re probably softening the butter too much. Allow the butter to sit out on the counter for about 1-2 hours before beginning your recipe. To test it, poke the butter with your finger. Your finger should make an indent without sinking or sliding down into the butter. The butter should not be shiny or greasy. It will be cool to touch, not warm. Sometimes our schedules don’t allow 1-2 hours for softening butter prior to beginning a cake recipe. Don’t take a shortcut and microwave the butter because it will not heat evenly. But guess what? I have a foolproof trick for softening butter quickly.
3. Measure Properly
This tip also sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s where we most often make mistakes. The difference between a recipe success and a recipe failure could lie within 1 mis-measured tablespoon of sugar. Measuring ingredients properly is imperative.
Flour is the most common mis-measured ingredient. When measuring flour, use the “spoon & level” method. Do not scoop the flour out of the container/bag with your measuring cup. In some cases, scooping the flour could give you 150% of the correct measurement. Disaster ensues. Rather, using a spoon, scoop the flour into the measuring cup. Do not pack the flour down and do not tap the measuring cup– both cause the flour to settle in the cup. After you’ve spooned the flour into the measuring cup, use the back of a knife to level off the top of the measuring cup. Now you have spoon & leveled flour.
4. Cake Flour
The more cake baking experience I have, the more often I reach for cake flour instead of all-purpose flour. You see, cake flour is a low protein flour that’s finely milled into a delicate consistency. This soft, tender texture directly translates into your baked cake. However, some recipes simply cannot withstand fine cake flour. Chocolate cake, for example, already has cocoa powder— which is a VERY fine dry ingredient. In my experience, the combination of cake flour and cocoa powder results in a flimsy chocolate cake. Likewise, spice cake, carrot cake, hummingbird cake, and banana cake contain additional wet ingredients (the fruits or veggies), so cake flour usually isn’t ideal.
These days, I stick to cake flour when making vanilla cake, white cake, red velvet cake, and other cakes where a fluffy texture is favorable. I’ve been successful substituting cake flour for all-purpose flour to create softer pineapple upside-down cake and funfetti cake. Make a 1:1 substitution with no other changes to the recipe.
5. Don’t Over-mix, Don’t Under-mix
Whether a recipe calls for mixing batter with an electric mixer or simply using a whisk, make sure you’re mixing the cake batter together *just until* the ingredients are combined. Over-mixing batter, whether that’s for cakes, cupcakes, breads, muffins, etc, lends a tough-textured baked good because you’re deflating all the air and over-developing the gluten.