Baking a cake can be pretty easy, but if you aren’t careful, things can quickly go awry. If you’re having problems with your layered confections, you’re most likely making one of the mistakes below. Usually you won’t notice it until the cake comes out. Other than cutting up it up to turn into cake pops or using extra frosting to even out a crooked surface, there aren’t many ways to “fix” a mistake that’s already been made. The goal is to learn from your mistake and understand what went wrong, so you’ll never pull a sad, cracked cake out from the oven again.
The biggest cake-baking mistake is failing to follow the recipe. Using less or more of an ingredient, or a different ingredient, than what the recipe calls for won’t always cause a problem. But if the cake turns out weird, you won’t know whether it was the ingredients or your mixing method. So until you’ve verified that the recipe turns out properly as written, don’t make any modifications to it. And even then, only alter one item at a time. That way, if it worked when you followed the recipe, and then you changed something and it didn’t work, you’ll know what exactly caused the issue.
Not Weighing the Flour: The next biggest mistake is failing to measure the flour properly. This isn’t necessarily your fault—many cake recipes still list flour in cups rather than by weight, even though cups are a notoriously inaccurate way to measure flour. Scooping a measuring cup into a bag of flour can result in up to 30 percent extra flour than what a “cup” actually means. That extra flour can definitely throw off a recipe, making the cake turn out hard, dry, and crumbly.
Instead, for every cup of flour the recipe lists, weigh out 4.58 ounces or 130 grams of flour. This also applies to recipes that call for cake flour. That’s the beauty of weighing your flour rather than scooping it: 130 grams is 130 grams, whether it’s cake flour, all-purpose flour, or bread flour.
Using Old Baking Powder and Baking Soda: Chemical leavening agents like baking powder and baking soda are what give your cakes their rise and, like every ingredient in your pantry, they eventually go stale. These products have an effective life of about six months. They’ll still work after that, but not as well. If your baking powder is old, it won’t matter how scrupulously you follow the recipe, your cake still won’t turn out quite right.
The solution: Get a new container of baking powder and a new box of baking soda and mark them with the date six months in the future. When that date arrives, toss whatever’s left and replace them.
Mixing Improperly: This is yet another “mistake” you might make if the recipe you’re following offers only vague or ambiguous instructions, which you might see in recipes for blended cakes like carrot cake or yellow butter cake.
Mostly, though, you’ll use the creaming method, which calls for combining the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. But when is that exactly? Much of this is a matter of experience—the fastest way to gain experience is to bake a lot of cakes, by which time you’ll already know what you’re doing.
Using Cold Ingredients: Cake batter is an emulsion, which means it’s a blend of ingredients—wet and dry, fat and liquid—that ordinarily would not combine. (Think of mayonnaise as a good example.) And one of the reasons an emulsion might fail to come together is if its components are too cold.
Which makes sense: solid chunks of butter won’t blend with anything. In batter, those chunks of butter will translate into a crumbly-textured cake that won’t rise well. When it comes to a flaky biscuit or pie crust, big lumps of butter are exactly what you do want, but for a cake, the opposite is true.
Therefore, when you’re baking a cake, let your butter, eggs, milk, and any other refrigerated ingredients come to room temperature before you start mixing. Half an hour on the counter is better than nothing at all, but you really should shoot for at least an hour.
Not Calibrating the Oven: No peeking! Keep the oven door closed while baking
Here’s a shocker: setting your oven to 350 F does not necessarily mean it’s actually 350 F inside your oven! Over time, your oven can become miscalibrated and the actual temperature could be 25 to 50 degrees higher or lower than that. This can cause all kinds of problems when you’re baking a cake—anything from sunken middles to cracked tops.
The solution: get yourself an oven thermometer and place it on the shelf, or hang it by a hook from one of the racks. Then, set your oven to 350 F and see what the thermometer reads. If it’s off, adjust accordingly.
Cooling Cakes Improperly: If your cake has a soggy bottom or a sticky top, it means it was cooled improperly, either because you left it in the pan to cool all the way, or you removed it from the pan and then wrapped it up in plastic while it was still warm.
A freshly baked cake needs air circulation and even if you’re planning to refrigerate or freeze it and then frost or serve it later, you still need to let it cool completely before you wrap it. After letting a cake chill in its pan for 10 minutes, you should pop it out and let it cool the rest of the way on a cooling rack, so air can circulate all around it.