Cake

The Only Tool I Use to Test Cakes (Is Not a Toothpick)

May 21, 2018

Toothpicks and cake testers are the standard tools to, ahem, test cakes. But I don’t like either of them.

I realize this isn’t the most popular opinion. A few years back, our contributor and baking expert Alice Medrich wrote an ode to the toothpick:

Different types of cakes require different kinds of “doneness.” For some brownies and gooey chocolate tortes we might want the cake tester to come out with moist crumbs or a bit of thickened (not too runny) batter, for other cakes we may be looking for a clean dry tester or a moist-but-clean tester. Moisture shows, and batter and moist crumbs are more likely to cling to a straw or wooden tester. Metal testers are too slippery—they don’t reveal as much of what is really going on inside the cake as a toothpick, or bamboo skewer, or (probably) a clean broom straw!

And I agree with her critique of the metal testers—they don’t reveal enough. And they are slippery, but, beyond that, they’re slim and lanky, like a stretched-out needle. Which is to say, they’re too dang small.

Just like a toothpick.

Two bones to pick here: 1) They aren’t reusable. 2) While the wood encourages crumb-clinging, toothpicks are short and stout, which can become problematic with tall bundt and loaf cakes. A bamboo skewer, as Alice mentioned, is a good workaround here, but do I always have those around? No.

What I do always have: a long, thin, serrated knife.

During my years as a baker, this tool became a trusty ally. It seems crazy at first—cutting into the cake? What did the cake do to you?! But if you look at a knife with the flat side facing away from you, you get an idea of the incision. It’s razor-thin and, often, less noticeable than a toothpick. That wider surface area, meanwhile, becomes your secret weapon.

Like any baked good, cakes continue to cook outside the oven from carryover cooking. Sometimes a little. Sometimes a lot. It all depends on the recipe and the pan and how hot the kitchen is and where you cool the cake and how long you wait to turn it out. Which makes the guessing game, Is it ready? all the trickier.


Not a cake, but still sweet

So instead of trying to micro-analyze what is or is not on a toothpick (is that raw batter or melted chocolate chip? moist crumb too moist or just right?), the knife tells you what you need to know. Holds nothing back, puts it all out there. And this little extra intel can make all the difference.

What tool do you use to test a cake? Tell us why in the comments!

14 Comments

Sharon R. May 22, 2018
Exactly what kind of knife are you using -- my first thought was a steak knife, but then I thought you might mean a bread knife.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. May 22, 2018
Not a bread knife—it's more of a "tomato knife." But really, any long, thin knife works just as well.
 
Joanna S. May 22, 2018
growing up, my mom had the largest bundle of bamboo skewers that never seemed to get smaller (it's still there), so I always used those. but now i use a cake tester! don't @ me
 
Valerio F. May 22, 2018
i literally know exactly what you're talking about.... do they... ever go away?
 
Katy O. May 22, 2018
I think I have moved a bundle of bamboo skewers and a roll of tin foil from house to house for over 20 years.
 
witloof May 21, 2018
I use my finger. I lightly touch the surface of the cake and can tell everything I need to know about doneness by how it springs back. For cheesecakes, a visual cue is sufficient.
 
Robyn May 21, 2018
Growing up I watched my mother and grandmother test all of their cakes this way. Years later it has remained my go-to for the exact reasons you listed. I don't think I will ever switch to a toothpick or skewer, even if i have a drawer full (which I commonly do, haha).
 
Smaug May 21, 2018
The problem is obvious- you SHOULD always have bamboo skewers around, it is impossible to run a household properly without them.
 
Ron M. May 21, 2018
Personally, I like to use an instant-read thermometer. I think it is the most reliable way of cooking a cake to the exact same doneness each time. The problem is figuring out the desired temperature which I generally do by trial and error, and careful notes in my recipes.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. May 21, 2018
Interesting! What temperature range do you usually look for in cakes and quick breads?
 
Ron M. May 21, 2018
I've just started using this technique, and I've mostly used it with cheesecakes so far. For cheesecakes, I have found around 70-80ºC works well (160-175ºF). For traditional bread it works very well, and I use about 90ºC. I have a thermometer with a needle thin probe, so it leaves no discernible mark afterwards.
 
Tamara S. May 22, 2018
Cakes and breads baked to 195 deg. F always turn out beautifully for me! I use my instant-read digital thermometer.
 
Stacey May 21, 2018
Can you clarify if you are inserting the knife and looking what adheres to the knife itself, or making an incision from which you peer into the cake top to bottom?<br /><br />I always use wooden chopstick for testing, since my kitchen has 20+ and I never run out before the next dish cycle.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. May 21, 2018
I look at what adheres to the knife. Just like a toothpick—or chopstick!—in and out. If it's a cake that develops a natural crack—say, a banana bread—I insert the knife in that crack, so any mark is less noticeable.