9 super useful tips for baking cakes

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It's one of the oldest adages in the kitchen - cooking is an art, baking is a science. This is quite true, as the measurements need to be exact when baking and a close eye needs to be kept on things at all times. But this old adage can also intimidate people from baking altogether. After all, you're not a scientist, you just want to bake!
But truthfully, anyone can bake a cake that's light and airy and while there is definitely science involved, that doesn't mean it needs to take over. The next time you get a hankering for baked goods, or want to fill your home with the wonderful scent of vanilla and butter, follow these simple tips and get results that will leave you feeling like a pastry chef!
1. Cream your sugar and butter better
Creaming butter and sugar together is often the first step in making a cake batter. And most recipes call for the butter and sugar to only be creamed together for a couple of minutes. But that's a big mistake. There are many times that something can be over-mixed in baking, but this is not one of them. The longer you cream the butter and sugar together, the lighter and fluffier it becomes; and that lightness and fluffiness translates directly into the finished product. Cream butter and sugar for at least five minutes, but you can really go even longer than that. Remember, you can't over-mix here, so keep at it for as long you want or need to.
2. Whip your eggs better
Cakes like sponge, chiffon and pound cake all get their light airiness from whole eggs or egg whites, but those eggs need to be really worked first. When you whip eggs, regardless of whether they're whole or just the whites, you incorporate a lot of air into them and again, that air goes directly into the cake. Here too, it's difficult to over-whip them so just keep going until you're certain lots of air has been whipped into them. This will give them the more volume and give you that perfect spring you're looking for in your cake.
3. Get familiar with your oven
While many cooks use a thermometer when making candy or cooking meat, they've never thought to check the temperature in their oven. After all, you set it to a certain heat so that's the temperature the oven is, right? Well, maybe.
Truthfully, most ovens have hot spots and cool spots. While those cool spots will still be hot, they may never reach the set temperature. And while the hot spots will in fact be hot, they may actually be hotter than the rest of the oven because it's working so hard to heat up those cooler spots. So what's the fix?
Invest in an oven thermometer long before you go to bake and set your oven to an average temperature such as 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Let the oven preheat and then place the thermometer inside. After a few minutes, use oven mitts to remove the thermometer and read it. Record the temperature, and where the thermometer was at the time, and then place the thermometer back in, placing it in a different spot. Take it out, read and record, and then repeat these steps using a different part of your oven every time.
This will help you see where your oven is hotter and where it's cooler. This will let you know where a cake is baking more, and where it's not getting quite the cook on it that you want. You can then use that information to turn the cake during cooking time so it cooks evenly through and you don't end up with one burnt edge and one that's barely cooked.
4. Use the right pans
We've all been there. You're looking at a recipe that calls for two nine-inch pans, but you only have eight-inch pans. So they're a little smaller. You can still use them, right? Well, you shouldn't.
Pan size is very important in baking cakes. Cakes can rise anywhere from 50 to 100 percent during the cooking process and they'll need enough room to be able to do that. If your pan is too small, the batter could overflow causing it to spill and possibly even catch on fire. If your pan is too big, the batter will spread too thinly and your cake will be much flatter than you hoped it would be.
5. Use the right flour
It's no surprise that most cake recipes call for cake flour; and there's a reason for this. All-purpose flour and bread flour contain far more protein, which means more gluten, than cake flour. When they're used in place of cake flour, it can result in a tough cake. If you know you'll be baking a cake, look at the recipe well beforehand and then make sure you have the right flour for it.
Need a cake right away for that bake sale but don't have the cake flour the recipe calls for? That's okay, as long as you have all-purpose flour. Measure out what you need and then remove two tablespoons from it. Replace those two tablespoons with cornstarch and you'll get the light and fluffy cakes you're looking for; cornstarch acts like flour but doesn't have any of the gluten flour does.
6. Use a scale
As we've already mentioned, measuring is a big part of baking; it's of huge importance. But even if you use a measuring cup and level it off to get just the right amount, your measurement still might not be quite that accurate. Flour, sugar and other baking ingredients aren't always packed into a measuring cup the same way. Sometimes you may have it piled loosely in there while other times you may have inadvertently used your hand to pat it down; and this will greatly affect how much of an ingredient you've actually measured. Instead, invest in a kitchen scale and use measurements like ounces and pounds to measure your ingredients.
7. Cool the cake properly
It can be tempting to take a cake out of the oven and want to remove it from the pan right away. Maybe you just can't wait for a piece, or you're running short on time to frost it. Whatever the reason, it's not worth ruining your cake to do it; and if you remove a hot cake from a pan, that's exactly what you're going to do.
Cakes need time to set when they come out of a hot oven. That helps firm them up and give them the stability to be moved from one place to another - even from the pan to a plate. Additionally, if you try and frost your cake too soon the heat from the cake will melt the frosting, making it essentially useless.
Give cakes a good 20 minutes to cool in the pan before trying to turn them out onto a plate or on the counter. And another 20 minutes before you try to frost or decorate them. That will ensure the cake is completely cooled and that it won't be ruined.
8. Divide cake batter evenly
Many cakes call for the batter to be divided between two pans. This is mostly true in layered cakes that start with two or three small cakes that can then be stacked on top of each other with a layer of frosting in the middle. This can make for a truly impressive presentation, but only if it's done right.
If you simply pour batter into each of the pans and hope that the batter has been equally divided, you'll likely end up with one cake that is taller than the other, and one that is shorter. Because of this, you'll also end up with one cake that is overcooked and one that isn't fully cooked through.
To keep this from happening, you need to actually measure your batter when dividing it between pans. This is the only way to get exact amounts and ensure your cake is as beautiful as you want it to be.
9. Don't over-mix your batter
This may be the last on our list, but it's probably the most important thing a person can do when baking a cake. All cake batters have to be mixed, but it's important that they're not over-mixed. When they are, the ingredients become tough and so will your cake. Yes, it's still true that you can't over-mix individual ingredients but when it's time to bring it all together, mix it just until all the ingredients are combined. More than that, and it will likely wreck your cake.
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