Baking cakes from scratch is a commitment to turning out the finest food you possibly can make, and I’m always open to any tips that help accomplish this. I’ve learned a lot of practical advice from the women in my family and others, and while I’ve never written down my favorite tips, I thought it might be interesting to share them. I’d love to hear your baking tips as well! In no particular order here are some things I’ve learned over the years that are helpful to my cake making:
It goes without saying that your finished product is only as good as what goes into it. That goes for pretty much everything in life, and certainly in the world of baking cakes. When was the last time you checked the expiration dates on the baking powder and baking soda in your pantry, for example? It’s easy to overlook, but expired ingredients such as these can have a negative impact on your baked goods.
Sift. Sift. Sift Again.
I know – some recipes will tell you sifting such things as flour, confectioner’s sugar, and cocoa powder before adding it to the mixing bowl is not necessary because your mixer will take care of it. I couldn’t disagree more. My KitchenAid stand mixer makes as good a cake today as it did 15 years ago when I bought it, but I still don’t trust any mixer to get out every little lump that could cause a less than smooth batter or silky frosting. Sure, it takes a little more time, but it’s so worth it. Enough said!
Weighed Ingredients and Batter
This is something I didn’t always do, but I’ve found it makes a huge difference in my cakes. I use a digital kitchen scale made by OXO to weigh dry and some wet ingredients before they go into my cakes, and I’ve seen very positive results. For example, one thing I don’t enjoy with baking cakes is when your layers come out of the oven uneven and then when they’re cooled, you try to perform an exacting, leveling surgery with a long, serrated knife. My results are marginal at best. But, by weighing the cake’s ingredients – and also the actual batter in the pans before they go into the oven for baking – the odds of uneven and inconsistent layers are significantly decreased.
Mini Tester Cake
When you’re baking a cake for someone and you know you’re not going to be eating any of it, who knows what could happen and what you might end up giving the person?? That makes me uncomfortable so years ago I started baking a mini tester cake alongside the real cake layers. I use a little baking tin that’s about 3” diameter and less than an inch tall. It’s made with the same batter as the big cake, and in the unlikely event something’s gone wrong in the mixing or baking, you’ll know before gifting a cake you’ve painstakingly baked and decorated – all the while not knowing how it actually tastes or if there are any problems. (And besides, shouldn’t the baker get to eat a bit of cake too?!)
Ovens are notoriously inconsistent in their actual heating vs. displayed temperatures. You can place an oven thermometer inside with your baking cake, but I’ve never liked that approach. Once I had a small oven thermometer that hung (and swung) from a baking rack, and it always seemed moments away from landing in the middle of my cakes! I use a Thermapen ONE digital thermometer (made for all foods including meats) for an instant and reliably accurate temperature check of the cake layers so I know when they’re truly ready to come out of the oven.
Standing Piping Bags
When you’re going to pipe decorations made of frosting for things like flowers and leaves, preparation is key. I used to fill my piping bags without a supporting structure, and even though I would “tie them off,” it often made a mess and sometimes I’d even lose part of the frosting. After I learned this tip, I no longer dislike preparing piping bags. Take a tall glass, and with the selected piping tip in place, drape the top half of the piping bag over the perimeter of the glass. This makes it easy to spatula fill the bag with frosting. After pulling up and securing the part that was draped over the glass, I leave the filled bag standing in the glass and work from it this way. If it’s a cream cheese frosting that needs a bit of thickening before use, it’s easy to just pop the piping bag and glass all together into the refrigerator until it’s ready. (For this first one, I used a mix of colors in the piping bag to create multi-colored, piped flowers.)
Frosting Crumb Coat
I swear by doing an initial crumb coat frosting on cakes. You just do a quick frosting and don’t have to worry about covering every square inch. This is NOT the pretty part of a cake! After the crumb coat frosting, I place the cake in the refrigerator (covered) for a couple of hours, and then you have a nice surface on which to do your actual frosting – without a bunch of moving crumbs messing up your smooth frosting. This small extra step makes all the difference in the look of a finished cake.
So, while not rocket science, these little tricks of the trade really help with my cake baking. What are some of your favorite tips and tricks? Which ones do you swear by? Please share in the comment section below – we cake bakers have to stand together!