Creating the perfect cake is both an art and a science.
Sometimes when we bake, the smallest mistake can create a big mess. In this case, we are talking about the little things that can cause you to end up with a cake that sinks where it should be rising.
Believe it or not, there are several steps in the cake baking process that can lead to a falling or sinking cake. These can include how you mix your batter, the ingredients themselves, or how you bake the cake.
In order to fix a sunken cake or prevent it from sinking in the first place, let’s take a look at the different things that can cause a cake to fall.
Once we know what the issue is, we can work to fix our mistakes and make sure they don’t happen again.
What Makes a Cake Fall & How to Avoid It
Let’s start at the beginning – the ingredients.
There are basic ingredients to any cake. Of course, there are various ways to substitute key ingredients in any recipe, but when our cake is falling, the ingredients we use and how they are prepared can be our first clue into what went wrong.
There are a number of things that can happen to the ingredients in the mixing and baking process that can alter our end result.
So, what should we look for if we have a sunken cake?
Creaming the Eggs and Butter
Allowing your butter and eggs to warm up to room temperature is a critical step that many may miss.
Cold eggs do not blend the way that room temperature eggs do. Using cold eggs in your cake batter can result in pockets of batter that are not properly blended. These unblended pockets can cause a cake to collapse.
Butter is another ingredient which we should allow to reach room temperature. Room temperature butter is soft and easy to blend, unlike cold butter. If we go too far and melt the butter, that can cause the texture and consistency of the cake to alter.
Watch this short video from the Rachael Ray Show to see the effects of blending cold ingredients:
Read the Recipe & Follow it Closely
Think of mixing cake like it’s a science experiment. Each ingredient has a specific effect within your cake.
Making adjustments to the ingredients or not measuring them properly can be causes of a sinking cake.
A cake batter can fall in the center if the batter is either too moist or too dry.
A batter that is too moist will rise rapidly, then sink as it cools down.
A batter with too little moisture will harden and fall in the center.
Another problem often lies with a mistake in the leavening agents (baking soda and baking powder). When adding Baking Soda and Baking Powder to your batter, keep these tips in mind.
- Measure the leavening agents carefully. Too much will cause too much air to develop in the cake, which results in a weakened structure.
- Baking Soda and Baking Powder are not interchangeable.
- If your baking powder isn’t fresh, it won’t do what it’s supposed to, which is to add air to your batter. You can check the freshness of your baking powder by performing a simple five second test: add a teaspoon to a half cup of hot water. If you see rapid bubbling, then your baking powder is still good.
- The normal ratio of baking powder to all-purpose flour in a cake mix is 1 to 1.5 teaspoons baking powder per 1 cup of flour.
Keep Geography in Mind
The geography you bake in can be a factor in how your cake turns out.
Issues can develop in both hot and humid environments, for example.
High humidity can add moisture to your dry ingredients and cause them to condense. If you are in a humid area, consider storing your dry ingredients in the freezer to help avoid this problem.
Measuring the ingredients by weight can also help you make sure you get the right amount of each.
Areas of high altitude present their own host of issues for baking. High altitudes have less atmospheric pressure and oxygen, which can cause baked goods to lose moisture faster, for example.
In regions at more than 3,000 feet above sea level, you may need to make adjustments to the recipe, oven temperature, and bake time.
See my 7 Practical Tips for Baking in High Altitudes for help with how to make these needed adjustments.
Be Careful to Not Over-Mix the Batter
How you blend your ingredients is just as important as everything we have discussed above.
It’s easy to see why over mixing the batter can be the most common reason that cakes fall. Over mixing creates too much air within the batter that later escapes during the baking and cooling process. This will cause the middle of the cake to drop in the end.
Rather than beating the batter until it is completely smooth, you should fold the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients in order to not add this extra air to the mix.
If you need to use a mixer, the best way to do this is with a low speed and mix for less than three minutes.
Timing is Essential
The chemical reaction begins as soon as you combine your wet and dry ingredients. At this point, you will want to get the batter in the oven as soon as possible.
Preferably, you will get all of your batter into the oven in less than 20 minutes after folding the wet and dry ingredients together.
Now that we have got the ingredients, mixing, and timing down, we move on to the actual baking of the cake. A lot can happen to the structure of your cake here too.
You Must Preheat the Oven
Preheating the oven can take up to 30 minutes. Since the batter should be in the oven within 20 minutes of mixing, it’s important to start preheating before you start mixing your batter.
Putting your cake in before the oven is up to heat will almost certainly lead your cake to collapse.
Leave Room to Rise
You shouldn’t fill your cake pans more than two thirds of the way to the top. This allows your cake room to rise within the pan.
Overfilling the pan can make cake rise too high, then collapse.
Again … Timing is Essential
Cakes bake from the outside in towards the center. Without the right timing, the center of the cake can suffer.
Under-baking will leave the center of the cake soggy, but over-baking can leave a cake dry.
Set your timer for the minimum bake time and then do the toothpick test each additional five minutes until the toothpick comes out clean. When the toothpick comes out clean, the cake is ready to come out of the oven.
Keep the Temp Right
The actual temperature of your oven may vary from what it is set to. To know the true temperature, you need an over thermometer, like this one. They’re cheap and readily available, so it’s easy to have one on hand for when you need it.
- If your oven is too hot, the cake will rise higher in the middle in a dome-like shape, which will then collapse when the cake cools.
- If your oven is not hot enough, then the middle won’t bake all the way through.
Also remember that each time that you open the oven door, warm air escapes and the temperature inside drops. This temperature drop can be at least ten degrees each time, and that can definitely affect the chemical reactions going on in your cake.
Because of this, you should make sure that you keep the door closed for, at least, the first three quarters of the bake time.
Give the Cake Space in the Oven
There needs to be room for the heat in your oven to circulate to achieve even baking of your cakes. Place your oven rack in the center of the oven and place your cake pans in the center of the rack.
Don’t put any cake pans above or below your centered pans. It may take longer to make your four-layer cake, but your layers will be evenly baked and delicious if you bake them in the center of the oven.
For more solutions to common cake baking problems, check out our post covering the most common issues you’re likely to face.
How to Fix a Cake That is Already Sunken
If you did your best and something still went wrong, it’s not the end of the world. There are still steps you can take to save your cake. Exactly what these steps are depends on certain factors.
Is the cake still hot or warm?
If a toothpick test reveals that the middle is not done, then you can put the cake back in the oven and try to get the center to finish baking, and hopefully rising.
If you are putting it back in, try putting it in at a lower temperature to keep the edges from burning while the center bakes.
Has the cake already cooled?
Putting it back in the oven is out of the question if it has already cooled, but there are still ways to fix it.
If it’s only slightly falling in the center of your cake, then you can simply fill that area with extra frosting to make the cake appear even. Easy, right?
If you’re using fondant, you can fill the cavity with buttercream to create a flat surface for the fondant to sit on.
If the cake is already cooled, but you find that the center isn’t fully cooked, you will need to cut that part out. You can fill the empty area with frosting mixed with fruit for a tasty center.
You can decorate the outer ring of the cake with your fruity concoction and you will have a beautiful and flavorful cake that may become an accidental favorite.
Wrapping It Up
Baking is a science that has been crafted over the years. Bakers have played with ingredients, techniques, temperatures, and timing until they came upon what gets the best results. Each of these factors can vary from one recipe to the next, but if you’re not following the recipe exactly, you could end up with poor results.
While there are many factors that can cause a cake to fall or sink in the center, you should be able to find which one (or maybe more!) is your problem by seeing what you are doing differently from the recipe.
And if in the end your cake still sinks, at least know that there are some very tasty ways to fill the gaps!
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.
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.