From classic white and yellow cakes to German chocolate, devil's food, and red velvet cakes, many of our most beloved cakes are variations on the same method: The batter begins by beating butter or shortening with sugar until fluffy.
These cakes are sometimes refered to as creamed cakes (because the butter and sugar are "creamed" together). Creamed cakes are often layer cakes -- tall beauties showy enough for celebrations.
The tips here will help you perfect a creamed layer cake. If you want to know how to bake a cake that's not a creamed cake, skip to the links at the end of this article for how to make angel food, pound cake, sponge cake, and cheesecake.
Simple, sturdy, single-wall aluminum pans, with or without nonstick coating, are perfect cake pans. Other points to keep in mind:
• Dark or Shiny? We prefer shiny pans for cakes with delicate, golden crusts. If you use dark or dull-finish pans, reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees F and check doneness 3 to 5 minutes early to prevent overbrowning.
• Sizes and Shapes. 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. Square and round pans may be used interchangeably as long as they're the size called for in the recipe.
Many recipes require some ingredients, such as eggs and butter, to stand at room temperature for a specified time. 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 time than specified in the recipe).
Tip: Never use melted butter when softened butter is called for -- it will ruin the texture of your cake.
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.
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.
When a cake bakes too fast, it 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 it reaches the proper temperature.
These usually include flour, baking powder and/or soda, salt, and sometimes cocoa powder and/or spices.
Wondering how to make a cake with light, tender texture? A crucial step is to make sure the butter (or shortening, if specified in the recipe) and the sugar are perfectly combined. Here's how:
• 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 a hand mixer requires a higher speed.
• Add the sugar in small amounts, about 1/4 cup at a time, beating on medium speed. Scrape the sides of the bowl as needed. Adding the sugar little by little incorporates more air into the mixture.
• Beat the mixture on medium speed until it is combined and has a light, fluffy texture. Scrape the bowl occasionally while beating.
Break one egg into a custard cup; discard any shell fragments that drop into the cup. Add the egg to the butter-sugar mixture and beat well. Repeat with remaining eggs, beating well after each addition.
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 just until combined. Begin and end with the flour mixture.
Tip: Do not overmix at this stage, as this can cause elongated, irregular holes in the finished cake.
Divide the batter evenly between the baking pans. Use an offset metal spatula to spread the batter in an even layer. Be sure to spread it to the edge of the pan.
Bake cake according to recipe directions.
How do you bake a cake that's moist, not dry? Avoid overbaking it. 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.
Let the cake cool in the pans for 10 minutes.
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 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.
Allow the cake to cool completely (about 1 hour). This is a key step when you make a cake, because it helps the cake firm up, making it less likely to break or tear as you frost it. It also prevents the frosting from melting as you spread it.
To avoid crumbs in your frosting, brush the cake layers with a pastry brush before assembling. Spread about 1/2 cup of frosting over the first layer, then carefully top with the next layer. Repeat until the cake is assembled.
Add a "crumb coat" by spreading 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 merely a way to keep the crumbs out of the finishing layer of frosting.
Let the cake stand for 30 minutes to set up before adding the final layer of frosting.
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 frosted, go back and add more swirls as desired. Serve the cake within 2 hours, or refrigerate to store.
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