From red velvet to German chocolate to a classic white birthday cake, many of our favorite cakes are variations on the same method: The batter begins by combining butter (or shortening) and sugar. Here's how to make the best cake.
Step 1: Start with the right baking pans
A simple, sturdy, single-wall aluminum pan, with or without nonstick coating, is a great way to go. Here are some tips for using other types of baking pans:
Shiny baking pans: These pans reflect heat, producing cakes with delicate, golden crusts.
Dark- or dull-finish pans and glass dishes: These pans absorb heat, increasing browning. If your cakes brown too quickly, reduce oven temperature by 25 degrees F; check doneness 3 to 5 minutes early.
Round pans: Many recipes call for either 8x1-1/2-inch or 9x1-1/2-inch round pans. You can use them interchangeably, but cakes baked in 8-inch pans generally require 5 to 10 minutes longer baking time.
Rectangular pans: Many butter- or shortening-based cakes may be baked in a 13x9x2-inch baking pan instead of two round cake pans. Follow the timings given in the recipe. If no timing for a 13x9x2-inch pan is given, the baking time should be approximately the same as for 8-inch pans, though can it vary by 5 minutes more or less. Start checking 5 minutes before the minimum baking time given for 8-inch pans.
Step 2: Allow ingredients to reach room temperature
Many recipes require some ingredients, such as eggs and butter, to stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. This extra time allows the butter to blend more easily with other ingredients; eggs at this temperature will give your cake more volume. (For food safety reasons, don't leave the eggs at room temperature for more than 30 minutes).
Never use melted butter when softened butter is called for -- it will ruin the texture of your cake.
Step 3: Prep the pans
If your recipe calls for greasing and flouring the pan, use a paper towel or pastry brush to evenly spread shortening or butter (or nonstick cooking spray) on the bottom, corners, and 1 inch up the sides of the pan. Sprinkle a little flour into the pan; tap the pan so the flour covers all greased surfaces. Tap out any extra flour into the sink.
If a recipe calls for lining the pan with waxed or parchment paper, place the pan on the paper and trace around its base with a pencil. Cut just inside the traced line; line the bottom of a lightly greased pan with the paper, smoothing out any wrinkles or bubbles. Unless otherwise specified, grease and flour the lined pan as directed. When using a 13x9x2-inch baking pan, there's no need to use waxed or parchment paper, as these cakes are not removed from the pan in their whole form.
Tip: For chocolate cakes, use cocoa powder instead of flour to coat the pan. Cocoa powder prevents sticking and enhances the cake's flavor, and traces of it won't be obvious after the cake is turned out of the pan.
Step 4: Preheat oven to the correct temperature.
A cake that bakes too fast can develop tunnels and cracks; one that bakes too slowly can be coarse. Let your oven preheat for at least 10 minutes, and use an oven thermometer to make sure the proper temperature is reached.
Step 5: Stir together the dry ingredients
These usually include flour, baking powder and/or soda, salt, and sometimes cocoa powder and/or spices.
Step 6: Beat the softened butter or shortening
Using an electric mixer on medium to high speed, beat butter about 30 seconds. Generally, a stand mixer requires a medium speed for this step, while hand mixer requires a higher speed.
Step 7: Gradually add the sugar
Add the sugar in small amounts, about 1/4 cup at a time, beating on medium speed. Scrape the side of the bowl as needed. Adding the sugar little by little incorporates more air into the mixture.
Step 8: Beat the butter and sugar
Beat the mixture on medium speed until it is combined and has a light, fluffy texture. Scrape the bowl occasionally while beating.
Step 9: Add the eggs, one at a time
Break one egg into a custard cup; discard any shell fragments that may have dropped into the cup. Add the egg to the butter-sugar mixture and beat well. Repeat with remaining eggs, beating well after each addition.
Step 10: Alternately add the flour mixture and liquid
Alternate between adding some of the flour mixture and some of the milk (or other liquid) to the butter/egg/sugar mixture, beating on low speed after each addition just until combined. Begin and end with the flour mixture. Do not overmix at this stage, as this can cause elongated, irregular holes in the finished cake.
Step 11: Pour cake batter into prepared pans and bake
Bake cake according to recipe directions.
Step 12: Check cake for doneness
Start checking the cake for doneness after the minimum baking time to avoid burning or overbrowning it. Insert a wooden toothpick near the center of the cake. If the pick comes out clean, the cake is done.
Step 13: Cool the cake and remove from pan
Let cake cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes.
For 8- or 9-inch layer cakes, place a wire rack over the top of the cake and flip the cake and the pan. Lift the pan off the cake, being careful not to tear the edges of the cake. If you used waxed or parchment paper, gently peel the paper off the cake.
For a 13x9x2-inch baking pan, leave the cake in the pan on the wire rack and allow it to cool completely.
Step 14: Frost the cake
Cool cake layers completely before frosting. Allow about 1 hour for the cake to cool.
Learn How To: