Cake Baking 101

Cake Baking 101

It's a piece of cake

Baking is a delicate undertaking: Mix your batter too vigorously, and you wind up with a gummy mess; use too much baking powder, and the cake collapses; forget to grease your pan, and you’ll be scraping your baked good out of it in pieces.
It’s no wonder so many shy away from baking cakes when the process seems so unforgiving. But all that baking asks is that you follow a few simple rules to find success.
The first being to read the recipe all the way through before you start. Like any culinary endeavor, it’s important to always be aware of next steps. Do you need to let the butter sit out for a bit to soften? Do your egg whites need to be chilled? Should the oven be preheated? By reading through the whole recipe first, you’ll save yourself from scrambling later.
When it comes to ingredients, make sure that they are at the right temperature, that they’re fresh, and that you measure them out before you get started. It will make for a cleaner, more efficient process.

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Set up the oven in advance according to your needs. If you’re only using one rack, it’s best to place it in the bottom third of the oven; if you’ll be using two racks, be sure that they are positioned in the top and bottom thirds of the oven. This will allow for better heat circulation and more even baking. If your oven doesn’t distribute heat well, be sure to rotate your cakes halfway through baking so that they get equal time in its hotter and cooler zones. For good measure, remove any extra racks or pans from the oven that could draw heat away from your cake.

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Always abide by a recipe’s baking temperatures (if you want to be especially sure that your oven is at the right temperature, place an oven-proof thermometer inside as a gauge), but not necessarily times. Every oven is different, so check the status of your cake often, but try not to open the oven unless you feel certain it might be done. Your nose and eyes are much better indicators of doneness than a timer—trust them. Is the cake set in the middle? Does a toothpick inserted into the center come out clean or with a few moist crumbs? Is the kitchen filled with sweet aromas? Bingo, your cake is done.

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Here are a few other hard and fast rules: Never overmix flour (fold gently and just until incorporated!). Prepare your pan as directed so that the cake doesn’t stick, and let the cake cool completely unless instructed otherwise. But the most important rule is also the simplest: Enjoy the process and don’t take it too seriously. After all, a botched cake is better than no cake at all.