Room Temperature Ingredients: Unless a recipe states otherwise, your butter, eggs, milk, or other liquid ingredients should be at room temperature. Leave them out on the counter if you know you’re going to bake something that day. If you forget, you can place eggs in a bowl and run warm water from the tap over them until they come to temperature (be sure to dry them off so no water gets into them when you crack them open). For butter, place in a microwave safe dish, and heat on 1/2 power for intervals of no more than 10 seconds until it becomes soft to the touch. I use the same method for other liquid ingredients.
Preparing Pans: I like to save butter wrappers, folded and left in my butter drawer, to take out and use to grease my cake pans. They are the perfect amount, and that way I don’t have to waste a tablespoon of butter and a ziploc bag. Follow up with a bit of flour (whatever type the recipe calls for) and roll around the pan and tap out. For my cake recipes, I like to use parchment cake rounds (you can buy online or in specialty stores) or just cut them out from a roll of parchment. I follow the same rules- grease the pan, place in a parchment, grease and flour on top. That way, you ensure easy release when the cake comes out of the oven. A lot of people use baking sprays that have flour in them to cut down on a few steps, but I find that they leave a brown residue that is super-annoying to clean and can build up on your pans. Apparently, King Arthur Flour’s brand, found here, does not do this, but I haven’t yet had a chance to give it a try, so I can’t really comment.
Butter: I loved using Plugra in school- it’s really a fabulous product, but it’s so expensive! So for my cakes, I’ve always trusted Land O’Lakes unsalted butter. I buy it from Costco and store a couple packages in the freezer until I’m ready to use. And by the way, always check to make sure it’s unsalted. One taste of buttercream made with salted butter and I promise you will always check the label.
Oil vs. Butter Cakes: Oil yields a moister cake, but butter has better flavor. So far, I’m trying to work on combinations of both butter and oil and seeing how it goes. Stay tuned.
All-Purpose vs. Cake Flour: Okay there’s a lot of info on this topic but the basics are as follows. All-purpose is just that- meant for a lot of different recipes- it’s a combination of hard and soft wheat and is usually around 9-10% protein (this can range between brands). Cake flour is just soft wheat and has a lower protein content- between 7-8 %, which means there will be less gluten formed and thus will produce a lighter, more tender crumb. However, you can still overmix the batter, which will still make gluten form and thus you’ve screwed it up anyway. So, you know, method still matters. In a lot of the cake recipes, I’ve started to switch to cake flour, but in other recipes (banana bread, pound cake, etc) an all-purpose will provide something stronger. Again, it all depends on what you’re baking.
Test your Baking Powder & Baking Soda: If you’re anything like me, your baking powder and baking soda have remained in your cupboard since the dawn of time. A combination of one or both of these ingredients are responsible for the leavening in your cakes, and thus should really be tested so they don’t go off. For baking powder- place a few teaspoons in a container with a few teaspoons of white vinegar (volcano test anyone?). If it does not bubble rapidly, it’s time for a new container. For baking soda- place a few teaspoons in a container with a few teaspoons of warm water (cold won’t work) and watch for fizzing. In both cases, the more bubbles the fresher the product.
Creaming vs. Two-Stage Mixing: Creaming is the standard method in most cakes, and requires butter & sugar creamed together first, then eggs, then dry ingredients alternating with additional wet ingredients. Basically, creaming the butter and sugar first creates little air pockets (which is why you cream it until it’s light and fluffy) to help the cake rise. When you alternate the dry and the wet ingredients, gluten in the flour becomes activated by the presence of water (from the wet ingredients) and agitation (mixing). This is also why most recipes say ‘don’t overmix’ because if you do, too much gluten will develop and create a chewy, dense cake. This is pretty much the standard mixing method, and the way I always baked my cakes, until I started to notice that a lot of my favorite cookbooks mentioned a different method- the two-stage mixing method. Essentially, you put all the dry in the mixer, add softened butter (fat), which coats the flour and inhibits gluten formation once the wet ingredients are added. The result is an incredibly tender cake, which in fact, I was concerned would tear when I frosted it. Surprisingly, it did hold up, and now I’m a convert.
1. Unless otherwise stated, move your oven racks to the middle when baking to ensure everything is evenly cooked.While your at it…
2. Rotate your pans: This just means literally turning a cake pan or muffin tin 180° to ensure there is even cooking. Ovens can often have hot-spots or cold spots, so this just ensures everything is baked properly.
3. When you insert a toothpick into the cake and it comes out clean, the cake is done. Don’t fuss and don’t open the oven a million times- you just let the hot air out. I love these from Berea College for testing my cakes. Also, if you gently press on the top of your cake and you hear a bit of a soft crackling, it’s done. (This is a challenging one to explain, but start trying it and I think you’ll understand what I mean.)
4. If you want things even, bake your cake in layers, instead of having to cut them in half afterwards. I recognize this can be annoying, as it requires more pans, but it does help to keep your final cake moist.
5. If you have problems with your oven, or your cakes come out domed and with a hard crust, consider baking strips. Basically, they insulate the pan to ensure that it bakes evenly, so that the outside doesn’t overcook before the inside is done. They also make the cake completely level, which can be incredibly handy. I make my own by taking a damp tea towel and wrapping it around the pan and securing with a safety pin. America’s Test Kitchen recommends Rose Levy Beranbaum’s silicone cake strips, so perhaps I’ll give them a try soon and let you know the results.