Simple Cake

How to Bake a Simple Cake from Scratch (for Beginners)

Like balancing a check book or changing a tire, learning how to bake a cake from scratch is an indispensable life skill. Okay, maybe it’s not as high on the list as the first two, but it’s still important. Understanding what goes into what we eat is essential to becoming a good baker or cook.

Besides, who doesn’t love cake!!!

How to Bake a Simple Cake from Scratch (for Beginners)

Baking is all about carefully measuring components according to a recipe to create delicious chemical reactions.

A few general tips for baking that you should keep in mind as you bake your cake are:

  • Don’t scoop dry ingredients with a measuring cup. This can compact the ingredient or leave air pockets. In either case you won’t get the precise amount of that ingredient that the recipe demands. Scoop the ingredient with a spoon and pour it into the measuring cup. Better yet, get a scale and weight your ingredients like the pros do.
  • Bring all the ingredients to room temperature before you add them to your batter will make them blend better and result in a tastier final product.
  • There are assorted sizes of eggs. Most recipes call for large eggs so unless your recipe specifies another size egg, this is the best choice.
  • Make sure you have the right tools for the job. Check out our post Things Every Baker Needs.

STEP ONE: Prep

This is a crucial step in any baking endeavor and an essential one in making a cake from scratch. Read the recipe, gather the ingredients, preheat the oven, and prep the pans. Do everything that needs to happen before you can make the mix or put the cake(s) in the oven.

#1 Read the Recipe

There seems to be some urban myth that good cooks don’t need to measure ingredients. They simply feel when they have added enough.

You can’t see it right now, but I am rolling my eyes. Nothing could be farther from the truth!

Following a recipe closely with precision is essential to achieving consistently successful results. Adding a dash of this or a smidgen of that is great for Gordon Ramsey. You are not Gordon Ramsey.

Make sure that you read the recipe and understand all the steps before you begin. Moreover, make sure you have all the ingredients. Don’t fall prey to the “substitution error.” Get exactly what your recipe says to use.

#2 Preheat the Oven

Even before you gather your ingredients, turn on the oven and make sure that it is set to the right temperature. That way it can be warming up while you gather and assemble your ingredients into a batter. Plus, letting your mixture sit for too long while your oven is heating can potentially lead to the cake falling.

It takes 20 minutes or more for your oven to reach the desired temperature – most often 350-400 – depending on your oven. Thus, when you finish with the gathering step, the oven will be at the necessary temperature.

Invest in an oven thermometer to make sure that your oven is really the temperature you need it to be. The temperature displayed on your oven is only the temperature it is supposed to be at, not an exact assessment of what the temperature truly is. You can find a nice oven thermometer for about the cost of your lunch on amazon.com.

#3 Gather the Ingredients

Ingredients

The standard ingredients you will need for most cake recipes are:

  • Dry Ingredients:
    • Leavening agent: This is the baking powder and/or soda. Remember, these are not interchangeable so don’t try to substitute one for the other.
    • Flour: It is best to use a cake flour. Not all types of flour are the same. That is why they gave them different names. The all-purpose flour that most people have on hand is for breads and rolls, but for cakes, you want a more refined flour.
    • Sugar: Standard granulated sugar is fine unless the recipe calls for something special. That is why reading the recipe carefully is the first step to baking.
    • Salt: Unless the recipe calls for something specific, basic table salt is fine.
  • Wet Ingredients:
    • Softened butter: If you have brought your ingredients to room temperature then your butter is already softened. Softened simply means that while it keeps its shape, if you press on it you will leave an impression.
      • DON’T melt the butter. This will alter the way it blends into your batter … and not in a good way.
    • Eggs: If you listened to our earlier advice, you have room temperature, large eggs ready to add to the batter. You can crack these into a small bowl and set to the side.
    • Milk (heavy cream, buttermilk, sour cream): The dairy liquid can vary from recipe to recipe so make sure you did step one and read yours carefully.
    • Vanilla extract: For flavor’s sake, use real vanilla, not the imitation stuff. If you want, you could replace some of the vanilla with another flavor extract like lemon or orange. Just make sure you measure carefully, and you should be safe.

#4 Pick Your Pans and Get Them Ready

The choice of size and style is simply a matter of preference. Most basic cake recipes – including the one we are using here – can use cupcake tins, a Bundt pan, a 9×13 inch pan, or two 9-inch round pans. Check out our cake pan guide for our recommendations. There are several considerations when choosing the material of the pans itself.

These include:

  • Glass pans keep an evenly divided, stable heat. However, they take longer to heat up and you will need to add extra bake time – up to 10 minutes – and keep an eye on the cake(s).
  • Shiny metal pans also afford evenly-baked cakes and they heat up quicker making the bake time your recipe says perfect for them.
  • Dark metal pans heat up extremely quick and often don’t bake evenly. It may be necessary to lower the temperature of the oven by as much as 25 degrees from the recipe.

Investing in quality bakeware makes sure that you will receive deliciously consistent results with your baking. Remember, non-stick and silicone are a baker’s best friends. Check out our post about our recommended bakeware sets.

Pan Prep

Now that you have chosen a pan, it is time to make sure that your cake does not stick. A stuck cake can ruin the whole thing no matter how well you followed these steps. Even non-stick pans need a little help.

To that end, there are several options at your disposal.

  • Butter and Flour: Rub softened butter – or spray cooking spray – on the bottom and sides of the pan and then dust with flour, making sure to get all buttered areas covered. To do this, shake the pan and tap the sides and bottom of the pan to get the flour covering evenly. Dump the excess flour into the drain or trash. Too much could ruin the flavor of the cake.
  • Parchment Paper bottom: Trace around your pan on your roll of parchment paper and cut inside the line to make a liner for the bottom of your cake. You can also buy pre-cut parchment liners in a variety of sizes. You still must butter and flour the sides of your pan and the parchment paper, but it adds an extra level of protection against sticking.
    • An added benefit is that if you cut your parchment paper longer at opposite ends you create handles to lift your finished cake out of the pan.
  • Silicone Baking Mats: These little non-stick beauties ended the need for buttering the bottom of the pan – you still must do the sides. These innovative mats have other uses as well but that would be an entirely separate article. Find out why I like them so much.

STEP TWO: Mixing Your Batter … The Foundation of Your Cake

If baking reminds you a little of high school chemistry, that is because it is chemistry. Just follow the recipe, add the ingredients in the order given, and watch the liquids become solids through the application of heat … Chemistry.

Mixing Ingredients

The Dry

This is the flour, salt, sugar, and leavener. Add these ingredients with a sifter for two important reasons. First, sifting these ingredients ensures that there won’t be any clumps to ruin the flavor of your cake. Secondly, sifting spreads the dry ingredient evenly throughout your batter.

The Wet

Your recipe may tell you to “cream together” the sugar and butter. That term can seem daunting to a beginning baker but all it means is to mix together your sugar and butter until they are well blended and leave a light fluffy yellow mix.

This may seem like a pointless effort since you will be mixing them together when you add them to the batter anyway. However, creaming together your butter and sugar aerates the mixture creating a light, fluffy, creamy mixture. Those traits transfer to your final product and thus are essential if you want to bake a cake that will wow your family and friends.

If you have a stand mixer, then you are in luck, because this next step will be easier. If not, you might need to ask somebody for a little help.

Putting It All Together

Add all your ingredients as instructed in the recipe. Keep the mixer spinning while you add the ingredients slowly and are scraping the sides of the bowl continuously.

It is important to keep folding the batter on the sides back into the mix of the batter so that it is all mixed evenly. Just make sure you don’t overmix your batter.

Now you are ready to fill those pans you got ready earlier. Make sure that you don’t fill any pan more than two thirds full or you will be baking a large muffin. If you end up with more batter than you need, try one of these fun and creative ways to put that leftover batter to good use.

STEP THREE: Get Baking

Slice of Cake

Now that you have a well-mixed batter, it is time to get it baking before those delicious chemical reactions happen without the heat needed to make them come out delicious. That is why it is so important to preheat your oven. Leaving your batter sitting around will slowly ruin the flavor you worked so hard to blend into this cake.

Make sure you position your rack in the center of your oven – don’t forget your oven mitt. If you have two pans, make sure that you don’t put one directly above the other or they won’t get even heat or bake evenly.

Half way through your baking time it is smart to rotate the cakes. Again, remember a high-quality oven mitt.

Although convection ovens offer even heat throughout, we don’t recommend trying to bake with one as a beginner. Making the necessary adjustments to the recipe’s baking time and temperature adds a level of difficulty you don’t need right now.

Time to Take It Out

Although your recipe gives you a time that your cake should cook for, that time means nothing. Due to differences in oven effectiveness and power, differences in types and sizes of pans, altitude considerations, and other factors, baking times may differ from what the recipe says.

Still, the time on the recipe is a good guideline. Use it as a rough estimate and set your timer for 10 to 15 minutes before the recipe says so that you can watch the last stages of baking and make sure that your cake comes out baked to the perfect temperature.

The Toothpick Test

Toothpick Test

You will know when the cake has finished baking when it is firm to the touch and springs back when pressed down on it lightly. You should also notice that the cake has pulled away from the sides. The Toothpick Test is the surest way to know you have baked your cake, cupcakes, or even brownies completely.

Simply insert a toothpick into the center of the cake. If it comes out clean, then your cake is done. Watch the cake closely the last 10 minutes of baking and use this test repeatedly until you get a toothpick that comes out clean.

It is essential that you take your cake out at the perfect time. If you take it out too late it will be dry and if it is too early the cake will sink in on itself. The texture and taste will suffer in both cases.

STEP FOUR: Time to Cool Down

Sand Timer

Now that the deliciousness has finished baking it is time to take it out of the oven and let it cool. Never let a baked good cool in the pan.

They design baking pans to hold heat. If you leave the cake in the pan it will continue to bake and may get overbaked.

If you used parchment paper and left handles you can lift the cake out of the pan and set it on the tray. If not, you can just dump the cake out onto the cooling rack.

Make sure you allow the cake to cool completely before you move on to the next step: Frosting.

STEP FIVE: Frosting

Now that you have allowed your cake to cool completely, you can place it on a cake stand, cake board, or a plate and get ready to frost and/or decorate as your imagination desires.

Frosting

#1 Making Your Frosting

While the idea of making frosting seems daunting to many, it is easier than you may think. Moreover, homemade frosting will add texture and flavor to your baked goods.

Simply find a recipe that you want and then follow that recipe. Buttercream is the most common frosting type due to its easy spreading and ability to hold its shape for decorating.

If you don’t have the right ingredients at home, learn how to make frosting without them.

#2 The Crumb Coat

The first step to a beautifully frosted cake is the crumb coat. This is a base coat of frosting that you apply to seal in any loose crumbs that would ruin your smooth frosting. This coat is also known as “dirty icing” due to the small chunks of cake and cake crumb it holds.

Take the time to allow this coating of frosting to set before you begin your final layer of frosting. Otherwise you will have defeated the purpose and end up with crumbs of cake in your final layer of frosting.

#3 Frosting

Make your frosting as you did the cake itself.

  • Read the recipe and make sure you know what everything is and that you have everything you will need.
  • Prep your area with everything you will need to make the frosting.
  • Mix it together as the recipe instructs.

STEP SIX: Decorating

Decorating Tips

The basic tools for cake decorating are pastry bags, pastry tips, and various spatulas.

We recommend disposable pastry bags as reusable ones are a huge pain and if not cleaned, dried, and stored correctly could harbor mold and/or mildew. Disposable pastry bags are affordable and convenient.

Next, choose a piping tip and push it through the hole in the piping bag. The choice is up to you, but a simple star tip is the easiest to use.

We suggest doing a few tests on wax paper before doing it on the cake itself.

Wrapping It Up

Making a cake from scratch may seem like it is a challenging task, but all it takes is a dedication to confection. If you love what you are making, you will do well.

It is simple. Follow the recipe, take your time, and bake on.

How to Bake a Simple Cake from Scratch (for Beginners) was last modified: January 8th, 2019 by Baking Kneads, LLC

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