How to Make a Cake from Scratch as Delicious as Your Favorite Bakery
A freshly baked cake smothered in frosting makes an irresistible homemade dessert. Intimidated? Start here. Whether you need a birthday cake for someone special or an over-the-top holiday cake, we'll teach you how to bake a cake that's moist and mouthwatering every time. We'll even show you how to frost a cake so it looks picture perfect.
Light, fluffy, and covered in frosting. Whether it's a classic vanilla cake or fit for chocolate lovers, a deliciously moist cake is a staple centerpiece for any special occasion. Many of our best cake recipes start with the same method: beating butter or shortening with sugar until it's fluffy. These cakes are sometimes called creamed cakes because the fat and sugar are creamed together. Using our Test Kitchen's tried-and-true methods, we'll teach you how to make a homemade cake that's so good everyone will think you bought it from a fancy bakery.
How to Bake a Cake
Before we can get to the steps to make a cake, choose a recipe to get you started. You can keep it simple with a yellow cake (pictured above), or you can choose a slightly showier recipe, like a chocolaty devil's food cake or a vibrant red velvet cake recipe. If you're not a fan of frosting, try a German chocolate cake. We also a have a few birthday cake recipes for celebratory occasions. The possibilities are almost endless, but avoid angel food, pound cakes, sponge cakes, and chiffon cakes because they require a different method.
Step 1: Prepare Baking Pans
Nobody wants their cake to stick to the pan, so it's important to prep your pans before pouring in the batter. With the exception of angel food and chiffon cakes, most recipes call for greasing and flouring the pan or lining the pan with waxed or parchment paper.
As for knowing what type of baking pan to use, our Test Kitchen prefers shiny pans for achieving a golden appearance. If you use a dark or dull-finish pan, reduce the oven temperature by 25°F and check doneness 3 to 5 minutes early to prevent overbrowning.
Step 2: Allow Ingredients to Reach Room Temperature
Many recipes require ingredients such as eggs and butter to stand at room temperature. This allows the butter to blend easily with other ingredients and the eggs will yield a higher cake volume. (For food safety reasons, don't leave the eggs at room temperature for more time than specified in the recipe.)
Test Kitchen Tip: Never use melted butter when softened butter is called for. It will ruin the cake texture.
Step 3: Preheat the Oven
When a cake bakes too quickly it can develop tunnels and cracks, too slowly and it can be coarse. Let your oven preheat for at least 10 minutes, and use an oven thermometer ($7, Target) to make sure it reaches the proper temperature. If you're using dark cake pans, you'll want to reduce the oven temperature called for in your recipe by 25°F.
Step 4: Stir Together Dry Ingredients
Dry ingredients usually include flour, baking powder and/or baking soda, and salt. Rather than adding each dry ingredient individually to the batter, whisk ($8, Crate & Barrel) them together in a bowl beforehand. That way you know the ingredients are equally distributed throughout the batter.
Step 5: Combine the Butter and Sugar
Wondering how to make a cake with a light, airy crumb? Creaming butter and sugar is the most important step. Here's how:
- Using an electric mixer ($50, Bed Bath & Beyond) on medium to high speed, beat the butter for 30 seconds. Generally, a stand mixer requires a medium speed for this step and a hand mixer requires a higher speed.
- Add the sugar (and vanilla if the recipe calls for it) and beat the mixture on medium speed until it is combined and has a light, fluffy texture. This will take 3 to 5 minutes. (DON'T cut this short). Scrape the bowl occasionally while beating. Tiny bubbles will be created as the butter and sugar are combined, which will give your cake that dreamy, light, fluffy texture.
Step 6: Add Eggs One at a Time
Add eggs (or egg whites) one at a time, beating well after each. Their protein creates structure around air bubbles to maintain texture.
Test Kitchen Tip: Break eggs individually into a custard cup or small bowl first. This way if you get shell fragments, you can easily fish them out of the cup rather than try to get them out of the batter.
Step 7: Alternate Adding Dry and Wet Ingredients
Alternate between adding some of the flour mixture and some of the milk (or other liquid specified in the recipe) to the butter-egg-sugar mixture, beating on low speed after each addition until combined. Begin and end with the flour mixture. This is because when liquid is mixed into flour, gluten begins to form. Too much gluten makes for a tough cake, so be sure to start and finish with flour, and not overmix once you add liquid.
Test Kitchen Tip: Be careful not to overmix at this stage or else you might get elongated, irregular holes in the finished cake.
Step 8: Pour Batter into Pans and Bake
Divide the batter evenly between the baking pans. Use an offset spatula ($16, Target) to spread the batter in an even layer. Be sure to spread it to the pan edge. Bake your cake according to your recipe's directions.
Step 9: Check Cake for Doneness
Overbaked cake equals dry cake and no one wants that. Start checking the cake for doneness after the recipe's stated minimum baking time, avoiding opening the oven door until it's time to prevent letting the heat escape. For creamed cakes, insert a wooden toothpick near the center of the cake. If the pick comes out clean (with only a crumb or two on it), the cake is done. If there is any wet batter on it, bake the cake for a few minutes more and test in a new spot with a new toothpick.
Step 10: Cool the Cake
Let the cakes cool in the pans on a wire rack ($15, Bed Bath & Beyond) for 10 minutes maximum. To remove from the pans, run a knife around the edges of the cake to loosen it from the sides. Place a wire rack over the top of the cake and flip 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.
Allow the cake to cool completely (about 1 hour). This is a key step to letting the cake firm up, making it less likely to break apart as you frost it. (And it keeps the frosting from melting as soon as you spread it!)
Step 11: Assemble the Cake
To avoid crumbs in your frosting, brush the cake layers with a pastry brush ($8, Williams Sonoma) before assembling. Spread about ½ cup of frosting over the first layer, then carefully top with the next layer. Repeat until the cake is assembled.
Test Kitchen Tip: It takes about 2½ to 3 cups of icing to generously fill and frost a two-layer 9-inch cake. For a three-layer cake, plan on using 3½ to 4 cups.
Step 12: Add the First Coat of Frosting
The secret to knowing how to frost a layer cake is a crumb coat. To do this, spread a very thin layer of frosting over the sides and top of the cake. This initial coat doesn't need to look perfect; it's another way to keep the crumbs out of the frosting. Let the cake stand for 30 minutes so the frosting sets up.
Step 15: Frost and Decorate
Using an offset spatula or table knife, generously spread the remaining frosting over the top and sides of the cake, swirling as you go. Once the cake is completely covered, go back and add more swirls as desired. Serve the cake within 2 hours or refrigerate to store.