KitchenTigress: Cake Dos & Don'ts

Cake Dos & Don'ts

My advice for cake newbies can be summarised in three words: follow the recipe. 

Experienced bakers may change anything they like because they know what works or probably works. Beginners, OTOH, can't tell if a seemingly insignificant detail is actually a critical part of the recipe. If you're one of these, I hope this post shows you why you may want to do everything the recipe says, and not do everything the recipe doesn't say.

What to Do Before Your Cake Fails:

a) Use an oven thermometer.  »
A lot of ovens aren't accurate. If the oven temperature is wrong, you have two problems. First, your cake may fail, or it may not as good as it could be. Second, if your cake fails, you have no idea what the problem is. It may be the oven temperature, or something else. If you know for a fact what the temperature is, you can at least eliminate the oven from your list of suspects.

Some recipes say "every oven is different". That may be true but one 180°C is the same as another 180°C. Whatever you're baking doesn't care what oven it's in. It only cares what the temperature (and humidity) is.

An oven thermometer measures the temperature in the oven; it can't tell where the heat is coming from. If the top heat is higher/lower than the bottom heat, your cake will fail. Fortunately, most ovens don't have this problem. If you think yours does, toast a slice of bread in the middle of the oven, on a rack at 220°C. If the top and bottom of the bread browns evenly, the oven is good.

b) Don't change the pan type.  »
Only round, square and rectangular "regular" pans made of the same material are interchangeable. The pan type goes with the recipe. It affects how quickly the batter heats up, how deep the batter is, and how much structural support the cake needs. These factors in turn affect how high the cake rises and whether it stays up there or comes back down after cooling down.

My recipes use aluminium pans. If you use dark coloured non-stick pans, your cakes will be different from mine.

c) Scale the recipe according to your pan size.  »
If your pan is bigger/smaller than the recipe's, you must scale the recipe proportionately. Of course, you could scale the recipe first, then find the proportionate pan size. How wide and long the pan is affects the depth of the batter. Deep batter rises more than shallow batter, all other things being equal.

If you don't know how to change the pan size or scale the recipe, please refer to question (i) and (j) in this post: Cake FAQ.

d) Don't replace any ingredient.  »
Once you modify the recipe, it's yours. If you like the final product, congratulations. If you don't? It's your recipe, so you fix it.

e) Don't leave out any ingredient.  »
Bad recipes are like germs and idiots – they are everywhere. If your cake fails, wouldn't you want to know if the recipe really works and is worth another attempt? The only way you'd know, if you don't know much about baking, is by sticking to the recipe.

f) Measure everything accurately.  »
The more exact you are, the higher the chances of executing the recipe correctly.

Accuracy is crucial for fluffy cakes. Why? Because fluffy cakes have very weak structures. When the measurements are wrong, the cake will collapse or it won't be as fluffy as it should be.

If you want to bake the lightest and fluffiest cake possible, one that doesn't collapse but is one the verge of collapsing, the balance of ingredients must be spot on.

g) Observe the eggs/whites/yolks you're whisking.  »
How long it takes to whisk eggs/whites/yolks to the stage required in the recipe depends on the speed and size of the whisk; the size, shape and material of the bowl, the atmospheric humidity and temperature; and the freshness, temperature, size and quantity of eggs being whisked.

For beginners, this is not the time to multitask because you need to watch what you're whisking, like a hawk. Your cake will fail if the eggs/whites/yolks are under- or overwhisked. The latter may happen in seconds, so go slow towards the end and keep testing.

h) Once you start whisking eggs, work quickly.  »
If kept waiting too long, whisked eggs/yolks lose their air bubbles and whisked whites lose their extensibility. If you have to check on your baby, go to the loo or read the recipe, do it before you start whisking or after the cake starts baking.

i) The cake is done when it's done.  »
The baking time in the recipe is a guide, not cast in stone. Why? Because it's difficult to whisk every batch of eggs/whites/yolks to the same level of thickness/stiffness. The stiffer the whites are, the faster the cake sets and browns. Yolks and whole eggs have the opposite effect as they thicken.

If you scale the recipe, the baking time may vary by 5-10 minutes. You should test if the cake is done as per the recipe whether or not the recipe is scaled.

j) Prep the cake pan as directed.  »
Some readers line/grease the pan when the recipe says nothing about lining/greasing the pan. And then they whine when their cake fails, insisting they've followed the recipe to a T. These people should relearn their alphabets.

There're two parts to "following to a T":
  1. Do everything the recipe says. 
  2. Don't do everything the recipe doesn't say.

k) Keep an eye on the cake in the oven.  »
Knowing how and when the batter rises, sets, browns and sinks (!) helps with the post-mortem.

l) Cool down as directed.  »
It ain't over till the fat lady sings cake cools down. Don't let your guard down at the last minute or your cake may shrink excessively or collapse.

What to Do After Your Cake Fails:

m) Retrace your steps.  »
Check if you have:
  1. The right ingredients.
  2. The right amount of ingredients.
  3. The right method for combining the ingredients.
  4. The right pan size.
  5. The right pan type.
  6. The right preparation for the pan.
  7. The right oven temperature.
  8. The right baking method.
  9. The right method for testing if the cake is done.
  10. The right cooling down method.

o) Don't ask me why your cake fails.  »
 Why not? Because:
  1. If the recipe works, then why your cake fails boils down to which part of the recipe you fail to follow. Which part is that? The best person to answer the question is you, not me. You know what you do. I don't.
  2. If you think the recipe doesn't work, the last thing you'd want is advice from the person behind the recipe.
  3. If the recipe really doesn't work, you're not going to hear it from the person behind the recipe.