Don't take a shortcut you'll regret.

By Margaret Eby
Updated: April 17, 2019
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Photo: Aaron Kirk; Prop Stylist: Sarah Elizabeth Cleveland; Food Styling: Sarah Epperson

Pastry has never been my forté. I can put together a batch of chocolate chip cookies or one-bowl blondies pretty well, but I have had a series of disasters with cakes, pies, and other sweets that made me trepidatious of the whole endevaor. Two Thanksgivings ago, I overfilled a cake pan with batter and ended up with an overflow situation and a lot of burned cake bits at the bottom of the oven. Needless to say, when we got to the cake portion of the culinary techniques program I took, I had some anxiety going in. But cake doesn't need to be scary. Sure, it might not turn out exactly the way you were hoping the first time, but odds are good that it'll taste good. And your success rate is going to be a lot higher if you follow a couple tips. 

Butter Your Pan and Line It With Parchment and Butter the Parchment

This sounds annoyingly finicky because it is annoyingly finicky. I hate buttering pans and I hate cutting parchment paper. In a former life I would just spray the cake pan with cooking spray and hope for the best. But if you're investing time and care into make a really good cake, you want to make sure that you can actually extract the cake from the cake pan. And butter is better for that purpose than cooking spray, hands down. Parchment paper and butter acts as a double layer of insurance. If you're really not up for it, you can skip one, but really make sure to do it right—a crumbly cake isn't the end of the world, taste-wise, but it can be a frustrating end to a day of baking. 

Get An Oven Thermometer

Cakes are really sensitive to temperature differentials, and, as it turns out, home ovens can be all over the place. Invest in an oven thermometer, which shouldn't cost more than $6-8, and you can more accurately regulate the temperature your oven actually is, rather than what it says on the dial. Another thing? Push your cake to the back of the oven, where it's hottest, rather than putting it in towards the door, which can be cooler. 

Weigh Your Ingredients

Measuring by volume—teaspoons, tablespoons, cups, and so forth—is a convention of American baking, but it often leads to frustrating results. That's because depending on how you pack a cup measure you can end up with a drastically different amount of sugar or flour than the recipe calls for. Since precision really pays off in pastry, cake included, you'll get more consistent results from using a digital scale rather than cup measures. If you don't have a scale, or the instructions are just in cups, then measure a cup by spooning the substance into the cup with a spoon and leveling it off, rather than scooping. 

Don't Worry About Nice Butter

I'm all about fancy butter, believe me, but it isnt always worth it to use it for your baking projects. Stella Parks, an award-winning baking whiz at Serious Eats, has done extensive testing and found that using upscale butter not only isn't worth the expense in terms of taste, it can also alter to the recipe. European butter and Amerian butter have different butterfat contents, which can make a difference in something as delicate as cake batter. Save your money and use grocery store butter rather than splashing out on something nice. 

Pay Attention to Ingredient Temperature

When a recipe calls for eggs to be added cold from the refrigerator or at room temperature, or for, say, melted butter to be cooled before adding it to the batter, it's a step that seems tempting to skip. In many cases you can get away with it, but others, you're going to get a suboptimal result. That's because the way that the ingredients in a batter react to each other is partly due to temperature. You don't want raw eggs turning into scrambled thanks to melted butter that's too hot. 

Don't Skimp on Creaming the Butter

When you're creaming butter and sugar together to make a fluffy batter, it often feels like you can stop once the two seem well enough incorporated. But creaming isn't just about combining butter and sugar, it's about introducing air into the mixture that helps with the cake's crumb. So if the instructions are to cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy, do that—it'll make a difference in the final product. 

Adding in Gradually or All at Once Matters

Have you ever just dumped a lot of dry ingredients into a stand mixer? Did you find yourself and everything around you covered in a fine film of flour and baking powder? Yeah, me too. But aside from avoiding a potential mess, adding dry ingredients gradually, when it's called for, allows them to fully incorporate into the batter. That means you can avoid things like big unappetizing packets of raw flour in your cake batter. And that's always an improvement.

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