Cake Baking Basics

Whether you're making an angel food cake or an Easter bunny cake, it helps to remember that baking is both an art and a science. Success with any recipe depends on carefully following the instructions and using the right equipment.

Below you will find some basic instructions and definitions that will make it easier for you to bake a cake.

Types of Cakes

Cake recipes are divided into two categories according to what makes the cake rise. Butter cakes rely primarily on baking powder or baking soda for height. Sponge cakes depend on the air trapped in the eggs during beating.

Butter Cakes include pound cakes and the yellow, white, spice, and chocolate cakes used in everything from towering wedding cakes to traditional layered birthday cakes. These cakes use butter, shortening, or oil for moistness and richness and are leavened with baking powder and/or baking soda.

TIP: Before mixing the cake batter, soften the butter so that it mixes easily with the sugar.

Sponge Cakes achieve their high volume from beaten eggs rather than a leavening agent like baking powder. Sponge cakes do not contain butter, shortening, or oil. Angel food cakes are the most popular and are literally fat-free since they use only egg whites, not egg yolks. Yellow sponge cakes are prepared with whole eggs. Chiffon cakes are also lightened with beaten eggs, but they are not true sponge cakes because they contain vegetable oil.

TIP: When preparing sponge cakes, be sure to beat the eggs to the proper stage; do not overbeat or underbeat. Handle the beaten eggs gently when folding them into the other ingredients or they will lose air and volume.

Eggs separate more easily when cold, but egg whites reach their fullest volume if allowed to stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before beating. Plan ahead.

Choosing a Baking Pan

There is very little "wiggle room" in baking! Always use the baking pan size specified in each recipe. The wrong size baking pan may cause your creation to overflow, burn around the edges and bottom, or sink in the middle.

Read the recipe carefully to make sure you have the type of baking pan that is called for. You also should be aware of the baking pan material, because it can affect the outcome. For beginners, a metal cake pan would help to produce tender crusts and this is because the metal helps to reflect the heat away. In general, glass baking dishes require a 25-degree reduction in oven temperature. Some recipes may actually specify which material, metal or glass, will get the best results.

Often, you can determine what type of baking pan and what material will work best by carefully noting the description used in the recipe method. These general definitions usually apply:

  • A baking dish is a glass utensil.
  • A baking pan is a metal utensil.
  • A pie plate is usually glass.
  • A pie pan is usually metal.
  • A baking sheet is a sided pan (15 x 10 x 1 inch); sometimes called a half sheet pan.
  • A cookie sheet has no sides and is used for cookies only.
  • A springform pan features two pieces: a bottom and a rim with a buckle for releasing cakes or tarts.
  • A tube pan is a deep, round metal pan with a hollow center tube.
  • A Bundt® pan is a shallow tube pan that is curved and fluted for baking a specific style of cake.
  • A tart pan is usually metal. Unlike a pie pan, it has straight sides (some fluted, some not) and many have a removable bottom.
  • A silicone baking pan -- the newest type -- is made of highly flexible polymer. The material is non-stick; can withstand oven temperatures up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit; and is safe for use in the freezer, microwave, and dishwasher.

Preparing Baking Pans

Greasing a cake pan is very important to prevent the cake from sticking to the bottom. Some cakes require greasing and flouring the baking pan and some call for using parchment or waxed paper. To assure the best results from every baking recipe, always prepare baking pans as instructed in the recipe or in the manufacturers' directions. Common preparation steps include:

  • Greasing a baking pan: Use a pastry brush, paper towel, waxed paper, or fingertips to apply a thin, even layer of butter, margarine, or shortening to bottom and sides of the baking pan, as directed. As an alternative, coat the baking pan with non-stick cooking spray.

    Note: Softening shortening, butter, or margarine slightly in the microwave makes it easier to use a pastry brush.


  • Greasing and flouring a baking pan: Use a pastry brush, paper towel, or waxed paper to apply a thin, even layer of butter, margarine, or shortening to bottom and sides of the baking pan, as directed. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons flour to each baking pan. Tilt the baking pan slightly. Gently tap and rotate the pan until bottom and sides are evenly coated with flour. Invert the baking pan and tap bottom gently to remove excess flour.

    Note: Gently tapping the sides of the greased baking pan helps distribute the flour.


TIP: When a recipe for chocolate cakes calls for greasing and flouring the baking pan, use cocoa powder instead of flour. No more white spots on the surface of the baked cake!

  • Lining a baking pan with paper: Invert baking pan; place a sheet of parchment (or waxed paper) on top. Press all around the edge of the baking pan to form a crease in the paper. Cut out the paper along the crease. Grease the baking pan, but do not flour it. (Coating the bottom with non-stick cooking spray is another option.) Press the paper into the bottom of the greased baking pan. Continue with the recipe, greasing and flouring the paper if so directed.

    Note: Use fingertips to press paper firmly around bottom edge of the baking pan and make a crease.


  • Preparing a springform pan: Tear off a piece of heavy-duty foil that is at least 2 inches larger than the pan, all the way around. Line the bottom section of the pan with foil, tucking the edges under the bottom. Attach the rim, making sure it fits securely in the groove around the edge of the bottom. Untuck the excess foil and bring it up around the side of the pan; trim if necessary. Grease the foil-lined bottom and side of pan.

    Note: All springform pans leak a little bit. Wrapping with foil prevents the batter from spilling out.


  • A Bundt® pan: To prevent sticking, be sure all the creases and flutes of the pan are well greased (and floured, if recipe calls for it) before pouring in the batter.

    Note: A pastry brush works well for greasing all the creases and curves of a Bundt® pan.


Cake Baking Basics

When it comes to dessert recipes, nothing beats the tantalizing aroma and luscious flavor of a home-baked cake. Whether it's a carrot cake with cream cheese frosting or a light, lemon pound cake, many of the preparation principles remain the same.

1. Cake baking is based on scientific principles and requires the interaction of very specific ingredients in exact proportions. Before you begin, make sure you have the ingredients called for in the cake recipe.

2. Measure all ingredients carefully and accurately. Keeping all the ingredients at room temperature unless otherwise mentioned in the recipe is appropriate for cake making. To measure flour, spoon it lightly into a dry measuring cup and level it off with a straight edge metal spatula. Do not shake it down or tap it on the counter.

Note: Sifting dry ingredients helps distribute them throughout the cake batter.


3. Use the right baking pans and prepare them according to the instructions given in the cake recipes.

Note: Proper preparation of the baking pan will prevent the cake from sticking.


Beating Egg Whites

1. For best results, use a copper, stainless-steel, or glass bowl. Check to make sure bowl and beaters are completely clean and dry. (The smallest trace of yolk, water, or fat can prevent the whites from obtaining maximum volume.)

2. Beat the whites slowly until they are foamy, and then increase the speed. (If using egg whites for a savory recipe, add a pinch of salt and cream of tartar at this point to help stabilize them.) Do not overbeat or they will become dry and clump together.

Note: If you overbeat your eggs they will clump together and your recipe will suffer.


3. If recipe instructs you to beat egg whites until stiff peaks form, you can test by lifting beaters straight up from egg whites. Peaks should remain on top of the egg whites, and when bowl is tilted, mixture should not slide around.

Note:If you need beat the egg whites until stiff, test by lifting the bowl to see if the mixture moves.


4. If adding to another mixture, immediately fold beaten egg whites gently into the mixture so volume is not lost; never beat or stir.

Baking the Cake

1. Preheating doesn't really matter if you're making a casserole, but it is very important for getting the best baking results. Always preheat the oven (according to the cake recipe directions). Starting the oven 1 minute earlier and placing the cake even before the oven is heated through is not accepted. It will only throw the correct cake baking time off-balance.

2. Place the baking pan(s) in the center of a preheated oven. Oven racks may need to be set lower for cakes baked in tube pans. If two racks are used, arrange them so they divide the oven into thirds and then stagger the baking pans so they are not directly over each other. Don't allow pans to touch each other or wall of oven.

3. Check for doneness using the test given in the cake recipe. Test for doneness 8 minutes prior to recipe directions for doneness. Use a toothpick to prick the center of the cake. If the toothpick comes out with just a few dry crumbs, the cake is done. If the toothpick is wet, continue to bake, checking at 2 minute intervals.

A butter cake is done when it begins to pull away from the sides of the baking pan, the top springs back when lightly touched, and a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean and dry. A sponge cake is done when it is delicately browned and the top springs back when lightly touched.

TIP: Oven temperatures may vary depending on the oven brand and model, so watch your cake carefully during baking.


Cooling a Cake

The steps you take after you bake your cake can affect the ultimate outcome just as much as the ingredients you use. Removing a cake from the pan too soon or too late can drastically change the appearance and texture of your cake.

  • Cooling butter cakes:After removing butter cakes from the oven, let them stand in their baking pans on wire racks for 10 minutes, or as the cake recipe directs. Run a knife around the edge of the cake to loosen it from the sides of the baking pan.

    Using oven mitts or hot pads, place a wire cooling rack on top of the cake and baking pan. Turn cake over so wire rack is on the bottom. Gently shake the cake to release it from the baking pan. Remove the baking pan and peel off the paper liner from the cake, if one was used. Turn the cake right side up onto a second rack to finish cooling.

    Note:Wear oven mitts or use hot pads to carefully turn the cake out of the baking pan onto a wire rack.


  • Cooling sponge cakes: Invert a sponge cake baked in a tube pan onto a heatproof funnel or bottle immediately after removing it from the oven. If it is cooled top side up, it will fall. Do not remove a sponge cake from its baking pan until it is completely cooled.

    Note: Inverting a tube pan onto a funnel or bottle keeps the cake from falling in on itself as it cools.


How to Frost a Cake

Simple cakes served right from the baking pan can be easily finished with a generous layer of your favorite icing recipe. Make sure the cake is completely cooled and brush off any loose crumbs from the cake's surface before frosting. Layer cakes should also be completely cooled and brushed free of crumbs prior to frosting.

Splitting a cake layer: Most layer cake recipes are for two-layer cakes, but if you want to create a fancier dessert with four layers and more filling, you can split each cake layer in half. Use a ruler to measure the height of the cake layer. Insert wooden picks halfway up the side of the cake layer at 2-inch intervals.

Note: Use a ruler to measure the height of the cake layer and insert wooden picks.


To split the layer in half, place a 15- to 18-inch length of thread at the far side of the cake. Pull the ends of the thread together through the cake, following the line at the top of the wooden picks. Gently separate halves.

Note: A length of thread makes a clean cut through the center of the cake layer.


Frosting a layer cake:To begin frosting a layer cake, place the bottom layer on the serving plate. Place small strips of waxed paper under the edges of the cake to keep the serving plate clean during frosting; remove the strips after you finish all your cake decorating.

Tuck strips of waxed paper under the edges of the cake to keep the plate clean while frosting.

frosting a cake

Spoon a mound of frosting, about 1/2 cup, on top of the bottom cake layer. Spread it evenly over the cake with a narrow metal spatula. Place the second cake layer on top. If you split the layers, repeat the process.

Note: Don't worry about crumbs getting mixed into the frosting between the layers. It won't show!

frosting a cake

You will achieve a more professional look and finish on your cake if you apply the frosting in two coats. First place about one-third of the remaining frosting in a small bowl and thin the consistency with a small amount of milk. Spread in a thin layer over the entire cake as a base coat to seal in any remaining crumbs and smooth the surface. Let the base coat dry for about 15 minutes.

Note: A thin base coat of frosting gives the cake a smoother, cleaner finish and makes frosting the cake much easier.

frosting a cake

Spread the sides of the cake with a thicker, finishing layer of frosting, working from the top toward the bottom as you rotate the cake. Wipe the spatula with paper towels before dipping it back into the bowl of frosting, and keep it well coated with frosting so it doesn't pick up any crumbs.

To frost the cake top, spoon a mound of frosting in the center and spread it outward to all edges. Hold a narrow metal spatula under hot running water, shake off the excess water and use the damp spatula to quickly smooth a section of frosting with long strokes, moving in one direction. Repeat until the frosting is smooth on the cake top and sides.

Note: A dampened metal spatula is the perfect tool for creating a smooth finish.

frosting a cake

How to Store a Cake

Whether you're simply saving your cake to serve later in the day or you're saving the leftovers for tomorrow, storing it right will keep it fresh, tasty, and looking good.

Store one-layer cakes in their baking pans, tightly covered. Store multilayer cakes in a cake-saver or under a large inverted bowl. If the cake has a fluffy or cooked frosting, insert a teaspoon handle under the edge of the cover to prevent an airtight seal and moisture buildup. Cakes with whipped cream frostings should be stored in the refrigerator.

Unfrosted cakes can be frozen for up to 4 months if well wrapped in plastic. Thaw in their wrappers at room temperature. Frosted cakes should be frozen unwrapped until the frosting hardens, and then wrapped and sealed; freeze for up to 2 months. To thaw, remove the wrapping and thaw at room temperature or in the refrigerator. Cakes with fruit or custard fillings do not freeze well because they become soggy when thawed.

Information and photos courtesy of HowStuffWorks.