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Why Cakes Crack (& How to Prevent It)

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Today in the test kitchen, we made a cake we'd been eyeing ever since Yossy Arefi wrote about it: All-Natural Red Velvet Cake.

When it came out of the oven, the color was on point (thanks to the fresh beet purée that gets added into the batter), but the top was cracked. Really cracked.

Our cake cracked—not under pressure, but under heat.
Our cake cracked—not under pressure, but under heat.

According to Mary Berry, of Great British Bake Off fame, cakes crack when the oven temperature is too high (or, similarly, when the pan is placed on an incorrect rack. For a refresher on how to arrange your oven racks for optimal baking, refer to Alice Medrich's rules).

In an oven that's too hot, the outside of the cake cooks at a much faster rate than the inside. A crust forms early on, but as the inside of the cake continues to cook and rise, this crack crusts. You might experience the same problem if the cake recipe has too much leavener or if you've used a pan that's too small.

Naturally-Dyed Red Velvet Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
Naturally-Dyed Red Velvet Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

In the case of our red velvet cake, we veered away from the original recipe: Instead of baking the cake in two 8-inch pans, we poured all the batter in one 10-inch springform pan. This meant that the cake batter was deeper in the pan, which increased the chances that the crust would form before the insides of the cake were even close to being cooked.

So what can you do the prevent this problem?

  1. Make sure your oven is at the right temperature. Get a thermometer; make sure it's accurate.
  2. Use the appropriate-sized pan.
  3. To encourage even cooking (let's say you are adjusting the recipe to a different size pan, you daredevil), some bakers recommend adding another pan, filled only with water, to the oven along with your cake. The water will steam and cause the cake to cook more evenly.
  4. If your quick breads are cracking (...and aren't they always?), you can create a shallow furrow in the batter with a spoon before sending the loaf into the oven. You'll end up with a more orderly line down the center of the loaf.
  5. Avoid opening and closing the oven during baking, as this can cause the temperature to fluctuate.

And if you do end up with a badly cracked cake, take assurance in the fact that it will probably still taste good (our red velvet did) and that you can always make a trifle:

How to Make a Trifle without a Recipe
How to Make a Trifle without a Recipe

Tags: Bake, Tips & Techniques