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.
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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!
Emma is a writer and recipe developer at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing articles about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's cooking column, Big Little Recipes, all about big flavor and little ingredient lists. And see what she's up to on Instagram and Twitter at @emmalaperruque.