Take The Cake! Baking Tips From A Pro Chef

From the lecture series: The Everyday Gourmet — Baking Pastries and Desserts

By Chef Instructor Stephen Durfee, The Culinary Institute of America

Whether it’s a humble pound cake or the most show-stopping wedding cake, all cakes are made with just a few basic mixing methods. Professor Durfee shows you how to master these mixing methods and provides other tips and tricks to help you perfect your cake baking.

cake baking

For many people, the excitement in cake baking lies in the different types of cakes. But whether it’s a humble pound cake or the most show-stopping wedding cake, cake baking always starts with just a few basic mixing methods:

The creaming method of mixing—used, for example, in making pound cake—incorporates air into butter. When that air is exposed to a hot oven, it expands and causes the cake to rise in the pan. This is called leavening. A pound cake doesn’t really leaven much because, ultimately, not that much air is incorporated into the butter. Even a properly made pound cake will be fairly dense; for light and airy cakes, a different mixing method is necessary.

This is a transcript from the video series The Everyday Gourmet: Baking Pastries and Desserts. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

cake mixer

With the combination method of mixing, some form of chemical leavener, such as baking powder or baking soda, is moistened with either water or milk, resulting in a chemical reaction: the formation of carbon dioxide bubbles. When those bubbles are exposed to heat, they expand, causing the cake to rise. Devil’s food cake and muffins or quick breads are made using this method.

The foaming method of mixing is the most complex of the three mixing methods for cake baking. Here, eggs (either whole or separated into yolks and whites) are whipped to incorporate air, then folded into other cake ingredients. Again, when exposed to heat, the air in the eggs expands and causes the cake to rise, resulting in a light and delicate cake.

Learn more about the art of baking and experimenting with puff pastry

General Tips

When it comes to cake baking, the dry ingredients can often make or break your cake.

Put dry ingredients that tend to become lumpy, such as cocoa powder, flour, confectioners’ sugar, baking powder, or baking soda, through a sifter, a fine-mesh sieve, or a tamis (drum sieve) before you use them in making a batter.

Cake flour
Place the tamis, or drum sieve, on a piece of parchment paper or wax paper. Then, push dry ingredients through the fine mesh with your hand to ensure that no lumps remain.

Cake flour is a low-gluten flour that is perfect for cake baking. Because it’s high in starch, cake flour is less likely to develop an elastic quality when it’s mixed, giving the cake a better texture. The high starch content, however, means that cake flour has a tendency to become lumpy; again, make sure you sift it before preparing your batter.

 Measuring Ingredients

Probably the biggest obstacle to getting consistent results in cake baking is making proper measurements. Most recipes call for measuring ingredients in terms of weight, and weight measurements are the most accurate.

measuring cups

Note that volume measurements are based on water. If you measure out 1 cup of water and put it on a scale, the water would weigh 8 ounces. But if you measure 1 cup of flour and put it on a scale, the flour won’t weigh anywhere near 8 ounces. This is a point of confusion for many people.

Lumps in your ingredients, such as sugar and flour, can affect the weight and, thus, the volume in measuring. If your ingredients are lumpy, sift them before measuring.

If you’re analyzing a finished product to figure out what went right or wrong in your cake baking, the first question to consider is: Did you measure the ingredients correctly

Learn more about the sometimes tricky art of baking with eggs on the stovetop or in the oven

Preparing Your Pans

If you’re using a flat-bottomed pan, such as a loaf pan or a ring pan, it’s helpful to put a piece of parchment paper on the bottom of the pan to ensure that you can tip the cake out without difficulty.

You can then grease and flour the pan or use the pan without grease or flour. You can also use pan spray, but butter tastes better. 

If you’re using butter, soften it in the microwave until it reaches a mayonnaise consistency; then brush the butter on top of the paper in the bottom of the pan.


After you’ve buttered the inside of the pan, tip a spoonful of flour into it, turning the pan as you do to coat it with a light dusting. You need just enough flour to form a grip surface on the inside of the pan; the object here is to give your cake a little bit of a handhold to climb up the walls of the pan. If you grease the pan only and don’t flour it, the finished cake may pull away from the sides of the pan and shrink a little.

Testing for Doneness

Cooking Chocolate cake

Just as an accomplished chef can test the doneness of a piece of meat with his or her hand, a baker can test doneness by gently pressing on the top of a cake and watching for it to spring back. 

You can also insert a toothpick or a bamboo skewer into the center of the cake and lift it out. If the skewer looks wet, that’s an indication that the center of the cake hasn’t baked all the way through. Of course, you insert the skewer into the center of the cake because that’s the part that cooks last.

Finally, you can use a thermometer to test for doneness. Insert a thermometer into the center of the cake and look for a reading of 195° to 205°.

Learn more about several basic techniques and methods you can then expand on to make a wide range of unforgettable desserts

Removing Cake from the Pan

Allow the cake to cool for about 30 minutes inside the pan before you try to take it out. If you let it cool any longer, it will likely get moist on the inside and some pieces of it may break off.

To remove the cake from the pan, use an offset spatula or a paring knife. Press the spatula against the inside of the pan and turn the pan counterclockwise.

If the cake sticks to the bottom, give the pan a gentle tap.

 Once you’ve gone all the way around the pan, turn the cake upside down onto your hand or a plate.

Peel off the parchment paper and transfer the cake to a plate. If you’re planning to freeze the cake, leave the parchment paper on to make the cake easier to wrap.

Devil’s Food

Baking Devil’s Food Cake

Ingredients

  • 2 1/2 oz Cocoa powder
  • 14 oz sugar
  • 14 oz boiling water
  • 5 oz canola oil
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • pinch salt

Cooking Instructions

To begin making a devil’s food cake, put the cocoa powder through a sifter, then whisk it with a little bit of hot water to make a mixture that is similar in consistency to chocolate syrup. Make sure the mixture is completely smooth.

Set it aside to cool for a few minutes before adding the eggs; otherwise, you’ll end up with chocolate scrambled eggs!

Next, blend the dry ingredients—regular granulated sugar, salt, and baking soda. 

Don’t confuse baking soda with baking powder!

Baking soda is an alkali and must be mixed with some form of acid in order for the required chemical reaction to take place.

In a devil’s food cake, the acid to be mixed with the baking soda is cocoa powder. When these two are blended together, an immediate chemical reaction takes place, which means that the ingredients can’t be combined in advance. The chemical reaction will start as soon as the acidic mixture and the alkaline mixture are combined—bubbles will be created inside the batter. At that point, you need to get the mixture into the oven as soon as possible. 

Sift the all-purpose flour into the other dry ingredients. This step eliminates lumps in the flour and aerates it somewhat. Then mix the dry ingredients well.

Chocolate cake batter

To the cooled cocoa mixture, add the oil, vanilla flavoring, and eggs. Again, make sure the cocoa mixture is cool enough (room temperature) so that it doesn’t cook the eggs or become gummy when added to the flour.

Stir the wet mixture into the dry and blend until the two are thoroughly combined. Remember that flour, especially all-purpose flour, has the tendency to become somewhat elastic in texture. If you mix it too much, the batter could get stretchy. Don’t beat the dry and wet ingredients; just mix them until the flour is thoroughly distributed and you don’t see any lumps.

Divide the batter into two pans and put it into the oven immediately. The cake is done when it springs back from a light touch and has a glossy sheen on the surface. Remove the cake from the pan after about 30 minutes, and allow it to cool completely before frosting.

Common Questions About Cake Baking

Q: What are the main ingredients used to bake a cake?

There is a long list of ingredients for baking each type of cake, but they all contain at least some ratio of flour, eggs, sugar and usually milk or butter.

Q: Is there a correct temperature to bake a cake?

Different cakes require different temperatures in the oven, but for general box mix cakes, the temperature is usually 350°F.

Q: What is the ingredient that makes cakes fluffy?

Fluffy cakes have usually been made exactly according to recipe. They have either been made with a sponge method or include a leavener such as baking powder and have not been over-baked or mis-measured.

Q: How long can cake batter be kept before baking?

A leavened cake batter should be cooked within 15 or 20 minutes or it will lose its leavening power.

This article was updated on 1/22/2020

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