Whether you’re making a single-layer sheet cake or a multitiered tower, you want a fluffy, blemish-free bake. Good news: If you can follow directions, you’re golden. Unlike the little-of-this, little-of-that freewheeling of cooking, baking’s a science of exact ratios, heat, and tools. But sometimes—even when you follow directions to a T—your cake fails to rise to your expectations or cracks (maybe under the pressure). Never fear, we’ve got some answers for common cake conundrums:
Cakes crack when the oven temperature is too high, baking the outside of the cake much faster than the interior. As a result, a crust forms too early and cracks as the cake rises. To keep everything smooth, make sure to test your oven temperature with a thermometer. Also refrain from opening and closing the oven door to check the progress—it’ll cause the temperature to fluctuate.
Another cracking culprit could be the cake’s pan size. If you decide to use a bigger or smaller pan, you’ll need to adjust the temperature accordingly. Some bakers recommend adding another pan filled with water into the oven with your cake, too; the steam should help the cake cook more evenly.
Check your oven racks. According to baking extraordinaire Alice Medrich, when baking one cake on one rack, position that rack in the lower third of the oven (just below the center). That's the spot where air circulates and the heat sources are evenly distributed.
You probably didn’t cream your butter and sugar enough. You might think this step is just to combine ingredients, but the real purpose is to beat air into the butter, consequently leavening your baked good. When a recipe says “until light,” you should get it as light as you can. Otherwise your cake will be very dense.
It’s possible you need to replace your baking powder or soda. While it’s tempting to just breeze past the use-by date, aging leaveners can impact your baked goods. Alice has this to say: “While I am very careful with my baking powder, because I know it can go dead, I’m quite cavalier with my soda! All of these years I’ve been leaving the open package unsealed in the cupboard, and I’ve never had a problem with performance. Ever.”
Did you line the bottom with parchment paper? "It ensures that your cake will always come out of the pan without sticking," Alice says. You don't have to grease under the paper unless your parchment is too crumpled to lie flat, and there's never a reason to grease the parchment itself (unless told otherwise).
Alternatively, did you let it cool? It’s important to follow the recipe instructions when cooling cakes and unmolding cakes. Alice says that most cakes that are baked in parchment-lined pans can be cooled entirely in their pans on racks. However, there are a few cakes (like decorative Bundts or upside-down cakes) that should be unmolded hot to keep them from sticking.
Do you have a cake conundrum? Share in the comments and we’ll brainstorm together!