Whether you’re baking a cake that uses a leavening agent – such as a sponge cake – or one without, all cakes rise when they bake. Well, at least they should…
One of the worst things that can happen when you are trying to bake the perfect cake – whether for your family or for a function – is having it sink after it cools.
There are steps that you can take throughout the course of making and baking a cake to limit the chances that your cake will sink. Creating a light, fluffy treat with perfect structure and uniform shape is both an art and a science. As such, you must know the minute details of the process to achieve the proper result.
There is a plethora of reasons why cakes sink. The problem can come during the mixing of the batter or while the cake bakes. Knowing how to avoid those problems is essential to baking the perfect cake.
Why Cakes Fall & How to Avoid It
Every cake starts with its base ingredients. As with any chemistry project, the state of these ingredients and how you combine them can drastically alter the end result. There are several areas within the initial preparation of the cake batter where a simple mistake can result in a sunken cake.
Creaming the Eggs and Butter
It’s important that you allow the eggs and butter to warm to room temperature before you blend them together. Cold eggs don’t blend well with other ingredients and can cause pockets of unblended batter that will cause your cake to collapse.
In addition, butter that is room temperature is ideal for blending. Too cold and it won’t blend with the other ingredients, too warm (melted) and the butter will break down causing the consistency and texture of the cake to change.
Follow the Recipe Closely
Keep the analogy of a science experiment in mind when mixing a cake batter. Each ingredient has a specific effect within your cake. If you make adjustments or inexact measurements – even minor ones – there is a good chance your cake will sink.
For example, if your cake batter has too much moisture it will rise too rapidly and then sink as it cools. On the other hand, if it has too little then it will harden and fall in the center.
Often the problem lies with a mistake in the adding of the leavening agent. There are a few key tips to remember when adding Baking Soda and Baking Powder to your batter.
- Measure carefully as too much will cause too much air to develop in the cake resulting in a weakened structure.
- Baking Soda and Baking Powder are not interchangeable.
- Make sure your Baking Powder is not too old. If it is, it won’t do what it’s supposed to… add air to your batter. You can check the viability of your Baking Powder by performing a simple five second test: add a teaspoon to a half cup of hot water, rapid bubbling indicates freshness.
- The average ratio of baking powder to all-purpose flour is 1 to 1.5 teaspoons per cup.
Keep Geography in Mind
Hot and humid areas can pose issues for your ingredients. The elevated level of humidity can add moisture to your dry ingredients and condense them. Storing them in the freezer can help avoid this problem and weighing them out can make sure you get the right amount.
Areas of high altitude present their own host of issues for baking. In regions over 3,000 feet above sea level, there may be changes in the recipe, oven temperature, and/or bake time needed. In areas of high altitude, there is less atmospheric pressure and oxygen and baked goods lose moisture faster and rise more easily.
How you blend the dry and wet ingredients together is as important as proper measuring, condition, and ratio. Mistakes in this step can cause your cake to fall flat as well.
Do Not Over Mix/Beat the Batter
This is the most common reason that cakes fall, and it’s understandable why. It seems like beating the batter until it is smooth and creamy is the right thing to do. However, that is simply not true.
Too much mixing creates an excess of air in the batter. It’s better to use the creaming of the wet ingredients to add air to your batter. Surplus air in your cake escapes during the baking and cooling process causing it to drop in the middle.
When you add the dry ingredients, you need to fold them into the batter rather than beat or whisking them in so as not to add too much air. If you must use a mixer, leave it on low and keep it under three minutes.
Timing is Essential
As soon as you combine your wet and dry ingredients, their chemical reactions begin. The ideal is to get your batter baking as soon as possible after those reactions start. If you’re baking a cake with several layers and you have to cook them in stages, make sure you can get your batter in the oven in under 20 minutes or mix a new batter.
If you’ve made it through the batter creation without hitting any of these pitfalls, you then move on to baking the cake. This is just as treacherous of a time for the structure of your cake.
Preheating is Not Optional
This can take up to 30 minutes and as we’ve already pointed out, your batter can’t wait that long. So, make sure that you have your oven up to full temperature before you begin mixing your batter. Starting your cake too low will almost certainly lead your cake to collapse.
Leave Your Masterpiece Room to Rise
The consensus stands that you shouldn’t fill your cake pans more than two thirds of the way to the top. This leaves your cake room to rise within the supportive confines of the pan. Overfilling leads to cakes that rise too high and then collapse.
Again … Timing is Essential
Cakes bake from the outside in towards the center. You must make sure that you give your batter the time it needs to become the cake you want. Under baking leaves a soggy center that nobody wants but overbaking can leave a cake dry. Set your timer for the minimum bake time and then toothpick test it every five minutes.
Keep the Temp Right
The temperature you set your oven to may not be the temperature that it is inside. To know for sure, you need an over thermometer, like this one. They’re cheap and readily available, so there’s really no reason not to have one. You should also make sure that you keep the door closed for, at least, the first three quarters of the bake time. Every time that you open the oven door, warm air escapes and the temperature inside drops at least ten degrees, affecting the chemical reactions going on in your cake.
- If your oven is too hot, then the cake will rise higher in the middle – in a dome-like shape – that will collapse when the cake cools.
- If your oven is not hot enough, then the middle won’t bake all the way. This might be okay for brownies, but not for a cake.
Don’t Overcrowd Your Oven
Freely circulating heat is vital to even baking of your cakes. Place your oven rack in the center of the oven and your cake pans in the center of the rack. Don’t put any above or below. It may take longer to make your four-layer cake, but your layers will be evenly baked and delicious.
For more solutions to common cake baking problems, check out our post covering the most common issues you’re likely to face.
How to Brighten Up a Depressed Cake
If you did your best and the cake has sunken anyway, it’s not the end of the world. There are steps that you can still take to save your cake. Exactly what depends on certain factors, such as:
- Is the cake still hot or warm?
You can do a toothpick test and assess if the middle is still under baked. If that is the problem, then you can put the cake back in the oven and try to get the center to finish baking, and hopefully rising. Try putting it in at a lower temperature to keep the edges from burning while the center bakes.
- Has the cake cooled?
Putting it back in the oven is out of the question but there are still solutions.
If it’s slightly depressed in the center of your cake you can simply fill that area with extra frosting to make the cake appear even. If you’re using fondant, you can fill the cavity with buttercream before applying the fondant so that it is even as well.
If the cake is undercooked in the center, then you need to cut that part out. Just continue removing cake until you reach fully baked yumminess. Then fill the empty area with frosting mixed with fruit. Decorate the outer ring to tie it in with the center and you have a beautiful cake that may become an accidental favorite.
Wrapping It Up
Physicist Peter Barhan wrote the book The Science of Cooking. In it he suggests that you drop your cakes from a height of roughly a foot onto a solid surface as soon as you pull it from the oven. He claims that this will open up connections between the little bubbles that formed during baking and letting more cool air into the cakes structure to “set it” before the hot air condenses and the cake has a chance to sink.
Whether or not this will work remains to be seen. Some swear by it and others call bull. Regardless if it works or not, the other suggestions above will. So, get baking and keep those cakes light, fluffy, and even.
For more cake baking tips, check out our post listing some of our favorite cake-baking tips for beginners.
Do you have any cake falling horror stories? How did you recover? Let us know in the comments below.