Simply striking and strikingly simple. Recipes, crafts, home decor and general life hacks that are easy yet impressive.
I’ve been baking a lot of cake this week. A Lot. During the entire process, even though some of the recipes were ones I have never tried before, I was quite confident that the cakes would all turn out well. Over the years I’ve gathered a compendium of tips and tricks that I utilize with every bake to ensure the best quality.
I know, I know some of these suggestions you will say to yourself that you do not have time for. I was that person once upon a time. But once I realized that by taking some extra time at the top end of the bake you will save yourself a lot of time once the cake is baked and you need to make adjustments, or maybe even have to make a new cake because it didn’t turn out. Secondly, by investing a little extra time at the pre-bake stage, it will increase your chances of a successful, tasty, moist cake almost all of the time. I went from a 75% success rate and hoping that in the end it all worked out, to being confident that 99% of the time my cakes are moist and delicious. Considering cake is almost always shared with others, that is chance I would rather not take.
So many variables affect the quality of your cake, from the ingredients, technique, equipment, and measurements. Every step you make affects the final outcome. That is why people describe baking as scientific. In some ways it is, which is a great segway into my first point.
1) Learn about the science of ingredients. Each ingredient in a recipe serves a purpose and it would be wise to know why that particular ingredient is included. Is it for flavour, texture, or both? Until you know why ingredients are included, I would advise against substituting ingredients in a recipe. Often times ingredients affect the texture and the ability for a cake to rise, and not just there for flavour. Eggs, sugar, types of fat, and types of flour all affect how moist or how high a cake rises. Yes some recipes do use alternate ingredients and they do work, but you will notice that different ingredients are used to help compensate in the exchange. For instance, baking powder makes cakes rise. Sometimes you will see baking soda instead, but you will almost always see an inclusion of an acidic ingredient such as vinegar, lemon juice or buttermilk because baking soda needs an acid in order for it to work.
Eggs are an integral ingredient that affects a cake’s texture. Whole eggs ensure flavour and fluffiness. Eggs are comprised of both protein and fat, the protein exclusively in the egg whites while the fat is exclusively found in the yolks. Recipes that call for egg yolks only are richer, denser, and develop a more yellow colour. Recipes that call for only egg whites are lighter in texture, flavour and colour. Some recipes call for you to whip the eggs white prior and then fold it in, which will result in a much more delicate type cake.
Sugar is another ingredient to be mindful about. Sugar actually affect how fluffy and high a cake rises. Particularly when you notice a recipe calls for you to cream sugar with butter, which helps include air and adequate mixture to prevent the sugar from weighing down the cake. Therefore, substituting one type of sugar or sweetener for another will not work.
Flour is not just flour. Each type of flour such as all purpose, cake, bread, self-rising, whole wheat, etc. all will drastically affect the quality of your cake. Each of these flours contain a different gluten content. Gluten is a protein compound found in grains that determine the rise and chewiness factor in final products. The more you work a dough or batter, the more gluten it develops and the chewier the result. That is why you need bread dough to develop the gluten but you minimize overworking cake batters so that a cake is less chewy (more on that in the techniques section). All purpose flour will generally have 8-12% gluten, cake flour has 8-10% but if a finer texture, and bread flour has 12-14% gluten content. Each type of flour also have a different weight and texture which affects your cake. Whole wheat is much heavier than all-purpose while cake flour is lighter. Therefore if you are thinking about substituting one type of flour for another, whether it be for convenience or health, you must adjust the quantity that goes into your batter. For instance, if a recipe calls for cake flour but you wish to use all-purpose, you will need less flour than what the recipe calls for. Which leads to my next point…
2) Weigh your ingredients. Yes, weigh your ingredients. I cannot state this enough. I used to be too lazy and followed the volumes rather than weight but I soon became a complete convert when I realized that this was the most influential variable in a well turned out cake. Kitchen scales these days are compact, affordable, and all will reset to 0 weight to accommodate your vessel of choice making this task much easier. I was also sold when I realized I didn’t always need to re-wash my measuring cups between ingredients and I could use any bowl or plate. The reason behind using weight vs. volume is that the measurements are far more accurate. In baking using too little or too much of a particular ingredient not only affects taste but can drastically affect the total outcome of the cake. So ensuring that you have the exact amount correct is important. Most recipes are created using weight and then converted to volume for the mass market. Secondly, not all kitchen equipment are equal, and you can never trust you measuring cups and spoons to actually give you the correct measurement. Even if your measuring equipment is accurate, how do you properly measure? When it calls for 1 cup of brown sugar is it loose, packed, a level cup? Which leads into my next point. I am on a roll with segways today!
3) Follow instructions with proper technique. If a recipe calls for sifted flour, sift the flour. If it calls for you to cream the butter and sugar, cream the butter and sugar. The order of instructions are important and is laid out in a way so that you are combining the ingredients properly. Mixing all your dry ingredients together ensures that there is even distribution of baking powder. If you add baking powder to the wet ingredients, you risk it clumping which will prevent your cake from rising evenly.
Creaming butter and sugar or butter and eggs means that the final result is lighter, fluffy, and almost like a whipped cream consistency. That will take a minimum of 5 minutes beating with an electric mixer. Do not mix until combined and think your job is done. Creaming is a very important step and therefore you should take the extra time to complete this step.
If you are required to fold in egg whites, gently mix the egg whites in by using a flat spatula or large spoon. Do not excessively mix the egg whites in. Patience is the key. Folding helps prevent the egg whites from falling, which is required to keep a cake light and fluffy.
Ensure that your ingredients, unless otherwise stated, are all room temperature. Yes, it takes extra planing to take out your milk, butter, and eggs ahead of time but an even temperature ensure that all the ingredients are integrated and well mixed together.
Lastly, do not over mix your batter once you have added your dry ingredients to the wet. Remember my point about gluten content in flour? This is where it plays in. The more you mix, the chewier the cake will be and no one wants a chewy cake. When mixing the dry ingredients with the wet, I prefer to not use a mixer at all and do it by hand with a spatula. I gently mix the batter and if there’s still light streaks of flour that is ok. You do not have to mix until it is thoroughly combined. Over beating the cake and developing the gluten will also cause cakes to rise too high and you will have that dreaded hump in the middle of the cake, or worse it may not rise properly and it will divot in the middle.
4) Oven temperature. There are two main points I want to discuss about oven temperature. 1) Pre-heat your oven! Do not put your cake into a cold oven and set the temperature. That will affect the way the cake rises, will bake unevenly, and how long you must leave it in. 2) If you can invest in an oven thermometer to give you an accurate temperature reading. Not all ovens are made equally and although it says it is 325 degrees, it may not always be right. Some ovens vary in temperature + or – 20 degrees which will have a huge effect on your cake. Also, please do not crank up the temperature thinking you are saving time, you’ll just wind up with an overdone exterior and a raw middle.
5) Miscellaneous tools. There are a couple of kitchen tools and gadgets that I use to help me along the process. For one, I always use baking strips around my pans to ensure an even bake. Baking strips, such as ones sold by Wilton, are lengths of fabric that you wet with cold water and wrap around the cake pan as it bakes. This keeps the exterior of the cake that is most exposed to the oven heat cooler allowing the batter in the middle to reach the same temperature. This will allow the cake to rise evenly. I cannot stress to you the amazing results you will get. The cake comes out so even and flat that I do not need to cut off the top to even it out before decorating (hence my point about using little time in the process to save time later). Not having to shave off a top reduces the crumbs, helps keep a cake stay moist since the outer layer acts as a protectant, and saves time.
When making square or rectangular cakes, I prefer to invest in aluminum pans with straight corners. Pans with sharp corners look prettier and makes it much easier to decorate to get that professional look.
My very last tip is to wash your eggs. Yes, you heard me. Wash your eggs. Especially if the recipe calls for separating eggs and you prefer to use the shells to do so, and even more importantly if it calls for raw egg whites such as meringues or tiramisu. Salmonella actually grows on the outside shell of the egg, not the inside. Therefore by washing the eggs, you minimize the risk of contaminating your batter.