“Cooking may be an art, but baking is a science.” ~ Maria Elizabeth
When it comes time to bake a cake for an occasion, most people will head out to the baking aisle of their local grocery store and buy a box of cake mix, along with a couple of simple ingredients to mix in.
There is certainly nothing wrong with making a cake from a boxed mix, and you can even make improvements to boxed cake mix to make it look and taste more homemade. However, if you are into baking, you may want to try baking a cake from scratch instead.
Baking a cake from scratch is not too difficult, but there are some important things you should know before you start if you want to avoid baking mistakes and disasters.
Even if you’ve been baking from scratch for a while, you may have that one issue that you can’t seem to get over each time you make a cake.
With this in mind, I’ve put together this helpful list of 13 Must-Know Cake Baking Tips for Beginners. I think that the non-beginner will appreciate some of these tips as well!
13 Tips for Baking a Cake
TIP #1: Let All the Ingredients Come to Room Temperature
- Batter will mix best when all of the ingredients are at room temperature.
- Melted butter and softened butter are not the same. Cold butter will not mix well in a cake mix and melted butter can have its own problems. Softened butter means that the butter is not melted, but it is soft enough to mix in with the other ingredients easily.
- When it comes to eggs, you don’t want to leave them out for too long before using them, but letting them adjust to room temperature before mixing will help them blend with the other ingredients well.
TIP #2: Don’t Skip Steps in the Recipe
- Each step has its purpose and is in the recipe for a reason – make sure to follow all of them.
- Read the recipe before you start so that you don’t find yourself missing key ingredients or required steps in the process.
TIP #3: Gather Your Ingredients and Prep Your Kitchen
- Take a look at the recipe and bring your ingredients out to your counter before you start. This will help you assure you have everything you need, as well as allow your ingredients to reach room temperature.
- Having your ingredients, cake pans, bowls, and everything else you need sitting out in front of you will make the whole process much more efficient as well.
Missing something? I have a lot of helpful hints on how to substitute for key ingredients, tools, and bakeware.
TIP #4: Move Your Oven Rack to the Center Position
- The center rack will provide the most even heat distribution for your cake.
TIP #5: Preheat the Oven
- A lot of people question whether or not they really need to preheat the oven before putting food in.
- If you don’t preheat, your cake will be baking at a lower temperature for the entire time your oven is heating up. This will change the results of how your cake turns out.
TIP #6: Use the Right Pan
- The pan may be the second most important part of successfully baking a cake, after the batter itself. With a wide variety of pans available it can be difficult to choose the right one (here are my suggestions).
- High-quality nonstick bakeware can help your cake turn out so much better than you have ever gotten from a cheaper alternative. Higher quality, nonstick or silicone pans not only mean easier release but also more even baking for your cakes (check out our post comparing the best bakeware sets you should consider).
TIP #7: Non-Stick Your Non-Stick Surface
Even with a nonstick pan, there is still a chance your cake will stick in a few spots. To make sure that your cake comes out whole and clean, use these techniques.
Traditional butter and dusting
- Grease the bottom and sides of your pan with either softened butter or non-stick cooking spray. A pastry brush can be helpful in getting an even coating of butter in your pan.
- Dust the buttered pan.
- Traditionally flour is dusted on top of the buttered pan.
- Alternatively, to prevent tasting flour on the bottom of the cake layer, dust the buttered pan with a bit of your dry cake mix ingredients.
Line with parchment paper
- With parchment paper rolled out on your counter, trace the bottom of your cake pan, then cut inside of that line to create a parchment paper liner that will fit perfectly into the bottom of your cake pan.
- You will still need to butter and dust the sides of the pan, but the bottom will release perfectly and you can simply peel the parchment paper from the bottom.
Non-stick baking mats
- For a more long term solution to parchment paper, you can buy specially designed silicone mats.
- These mats never need greasing and can also provide a prep area for other baking tasks such as cookies, pie crusts, and more.
If you forgot to follow this step, here are my tips on how to get a stuck cake out of a pan.
TIP #8: Scoop Dry Ingredients
It’s important to remember to scoop the dry ingredients out of the bag with a spoon and into the measuring cup rather than using the measuring cup to scoop out your ingredients.
- This helps to make sure you get exactly the right amount of each ingredient for your recipe rather than compacting your dry ingredients, which can cause you to get much more than you actually need.
- You can use the flat side of a butter knife to scrape the excess back into the container.
When it comes to flour, it is essential that you use a sifter rather than simply dumping the flour into the mix. A sifter allows the flour to be spread evenly throughout your batter and prevents clumping.
TIP #9: Fill Cake Pans Only 2/3 Full
- We have probably all made this mistake the first time we baked a cake. If it’s your first time, trust me, don’t fill the cake batter to the top of the pan!
- Filling the cake pan to about 2/3 full will allow room for the batter to expand and rise, without overflowing. If you’re left with extra batter, don’t worry! There are all sorts of unique ways to repurpose leftover batter.
TIP #10: Separate and Rotate Your Pans in the Oven
Place your pans as close to the center of the oven as possible.
- If you are using more than one pan, don’t let the pans touch each other or touch the oven walls.
- If you can’t fit more than one pan on a shelf, stagger the pans one shelf apart from each other so that the heat reaches each pan as evenly as possible.
Rotate your pans during the baking process.
- This helps to ensure even baking.
- Wait until around two thirds of the way through the baking process, when your cake has set, before rotating the pans.
- Any time you open the oven door, pay attention to how long the door is open. The temperature will be lower while the door is open, so add that time back on to your total baking time.
TIP #11: Do the Toothpick Test
- The toothpick test is how you know if your cake is done.
- All you need to do is stick a clean toothpick into the middle of your cake when you think it might be ready. When you pull the toothpick back out, you want it to come out clean. If it is clean, the cake is done cooking. If it comes out with batter stuck to it, it’s not ready to come out of the oven yet.
TIP #12: Let It Cool
- Leave your finished cake in the pan on a cooling rack for 5 to 10 minutes after it comes out of the oven.
- After the 5 to 10 minutes are up, turn the pan upside down to release the cake onto the cooling rack upside down.
- Cooling the cake upside down actually flattens the top and makes it easier to stack, frost, and decorate.
TIP #13: Apply a Crumb Coat
Before frosting your cake, it is important that the cake is fully cooled.
- If you’ve ever frosted a cake and the frosting pulled up cake crumbs into the frosting, you’ve basically made a crumb coat, you probably just didn’t know that there’s a next step! The key is to just use a thin layer of frosting on this first coat so you have room to add a better looking layer of frosting on top later.
- A crumb coat acts to seal in any crumbs. It is also known as “dirty icing”.
- By creating this crumb coat or dirty icing, you actually prevent those same chunks of cake crumbs from ending up in the final layer of frosting or icing that others will see.
- Once you’ve applied your crumb coat, place the cake into the fridge or freezer to chill the frosting.
- When your crumb coat has fully set, you can go ahead and apply your final layer of frosting to cover up the crumb coat.
Follow these simple cake-baking tips and you’re on your way to baking beautiful cakes just like the pros!
Don’t forget the frosting ingredients when you are prepping for your cake. Learn how to make frosting without key ingredients here.
If you’re ready to take your baking even further, check out this list of baking tips for beginners as well!
Sarah is the founder of Baking Kneads, LLC, a blog sharing guides, tips, and recipes for those learning how to bake. Growing up as the daughter of a baker, she spent much of her childhood learning the basics in a local bakery.