How to Make Your Cake Baking Foolproof

We all have disasters when we are baking cakes – that’s how we learn to bake. There are a few tips and tricks to reduce the number of times that things go wrong from reading the recipe first (obvious but critical) to not combining metric and Imperial and cup measures. Here’s our hard-won advice.

READ THE RECIPE BEFORE YOU BAKE
We once gave a recipe for our Parmesan Scones to someone who decided to make them using the muffin method. Instead of rubbing the butter with the flour first to create a flaky scone, they split the ingredients into wet and dry, dumped one into the other and then wondered why each scone had a brown burnt bottom. So read the recipe first, check you have all the ingredients, weigh everything and then re-read the recipe, step-by-step, as you follow the instructions. If a recipe is complex read it aloud – you’ll be amazed at how your eye can trick you into missing a step.

MAKE SURE THAT THE INGREDIENTS ARE AT THE CORRECT TEMPERATURE
– Eggs should be at room temperature for baking unless the recipe says something different.

– Egg whites for meringues should not be chilled or they won’t whip to fullness.

– Unless your recipe says not to, have your butter at room temperature so that it is soft to the touch when you bake cakes (pastry and scones however need chilled butter). Use the defrost (30C) function on your oven to soften the butter and keep checking on it or defrost it in the microwave, checking it regularly.

CHECK WHAT SIZE EGGS YOU ARE TO USE
– Most recipes use large eggs so use those if the recipe doesn’t stipulate it. On gréatfood we test recipes with medium and large eggs and the recipes are tolerant of both. However we’ve noticed recently that some supermarket brands of free-range eggs are offering what we would call ‘small’ eggs as ‘medium’ so keep an eye out for that. Check the size of eggs from one pack to another.

USE THE BEST INGREDIENTS
– Use cane or unrefined caster sugar if possible. It’s a natural sugar – and while all sugar is 100% sugar – we like to buy more natural products for their flavour and to encourage people to eat better quality unadulterated ingredients.

– Use the best quality butter. We use salted butter because it lasts longer in the fridge than unsalted butter and we find that the salt adds to the flavour of the final cake. The reason that bakers say to use unsalted butter is so they can control the salt in the final recipe, but that only really mattered in the old days when butter was salted heavily to preserve it. That’s no longer the case so use salted butter wherever you see unsalted butter in a recipe.

OIL THE TIN!
Non-stick doesn’t mean non-stick! You still have to oil the tin, and line it to make sure that your cake emerges in one piece. To measure up the base of the tin place it on a piece of baking paper and draw around it. Cut out the paper to fit.

MAKE SURE YOUR OVEN IS PRE-HEATED
It takes about 20 minutes for an average oven to pre-heat to the correct temperature unless you have a fast pre-heat (ours does and it takes about 10 minutes). Place your shelves in the correct place (the middle shelf is fine for one cake) before you heat the oven. Shelves can swell in old ovens and they can be hard to remove once they become hot.

PUT YOUR CAKE IN THE OVEN ASAP!
Once you add a raising agent to liquid it begins to work so you need to get your cake in the oven quickly so that your cake doesn’t fall flat (the exception is when you are making madeleines where leaving the batter overnight in the fridge delivers that wonderful bump in the middle of the cake). Tap the cake pan gently on the counter to remove air bubbles, then place it gently in the oven. Close the door gently and don’t open the oven door until you are at least three quarters of the way through the baking time or it may collapse.

HOW TO KNOW IF A CAKE IS DONE
– Use a wooden or metal skewer, sharp knife or toothpick to poke the middle of the cake. If it emerges with wet cake mixture on it, place the cake back in the oven for another few minutes before checking again. Repeat if it is still not done. If we run out of skewers we often use a stick of raw spaghetti instead and it works fine.

– Leave the cake to sit in the tin for five to 10 minutes (follow the recipe instructions), then gently remove it to a baking rack where the air can circulate and cool the cake quickly. Leave it to cool completely before cutting, icing or filling it.

OUR CAKE BAKING TIP
Buy ready-made parchment liners – it saves so much trouble cleaning the cake tins and you are guaranteed that your cake will emerge from the tin intact. We buy oblong liners for making pound cakes and madeira cakes and circular ones for Victoria Sponges.

DON’T MIX MEASURES
If a recipe gives you instructions in ounces, don’t convert part of the recipe into grammes (eg the sugar that you weigh) and then use an ounce value for the butter (eg 4oz = 100g of butter, that’s half a block, I’ll check it by eye). Stick with the one type of measure, converting everything either into ounces or grammes.

BUY A SET OF CORRECT MEASURING SPOONS
A tablespoon is not the same as 2 dessertspoons – using a proper tablespoon measure will make all the difference when you bake a cake especially when measuring baking powder. Always use a level measure not a heaped spoonful unless the recipes says to. Buy a ‘correct’ set of measuring spoons, eg a set that actually contains the correct amount, 5ml for a teaspoon, 15ml for a tablespoon. Those sets that you find in dinky designer shops are great for hanging on the wall as a decoration but not for actually measuring ingredients.

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