26 July 2013

30 Tips for Baking Perfect Cakes

Baking is just in my DNA.  I can't really fathom not baking.  I've been doing it my entire life.  I know people who are afraid to make cakes from scratch -- they're intimidated or afraid of failure.  I can't imagine, but I can sympathize.  We all have something in our lives that's intimidating or scary.

I have been working on this list for a while now.  It's culled from experience, old cookbooks, cooking shows, etc.  The list is not comprehensive and no matter how comfortable I feel in the kitchen I still learn something every time I make a new cake, pie, or other dish.  I hope you enjoy and maybe learn something, too.

1.  All your ingredients need to be at room temperature.  Leave your butter, milk, eggs or other cold stuff out on the counter for about an hour before the mixing commences.  Eggs that are at room temperature make for a fluffier cake than one made with cold eggs.

2.  Ingredients should be as fresh as possible.  If your eggs float in a bowl of water that means they're old.  Go to the store and buy new ones.  Spices and flavorings also lose flavor over time.  If can't remember the last time you needed that ground ginger, chances are good you should go buy a fresh batch.

3.  Most cakes are made from either all purpose flour or cake flour.  Typically "flour" in the ingredients list means all purpose flour.  I never seen cake flour not listed specifically when it is called for.

4.  If you don't have cake flour, you can substitute all purpose flour.  Use 2 tablespoons less all purpose flour per cup than the amount required.

5.  Regular whole milk, when used as the liquid in your batter, makes for the most tender cakes. Skim milk will make for a tougher cake when used instead.

6.  Recipes calling for eggs usually mean Grade A large eggs.

7.  Use unsalted butter for cakes unless salted is called for.  The amount of salt in salted butter is not uniform so using unsalted butter makes for more consistent results.

8.  Follow directions.  This may be stating the obvious, but most published recipes have been tested multiple times.

9. The one exception to the follow directions rule applies to flavoring.  Adjust it to your own taste.  I almost always double the amount of vanilla or almond extract called for in recipes in magazines or cookbooks.

10.  There's not really a big need to sift your flour for most recipes.  Back in the day flour was not the light, clump free stuff we get today.

11.  To de-clump and lighten up your dry ingredients, combine them with a whisk before adding them to the wet ingredients.

12.  Most cake batters need the wet and dry ingredients to only be mixed until just combined.  Overmixing will result in a cake that is tough and dense.  A cake that contains a lot of sugar needs more mixing than cakes with less sugar.

13.  Did you know that sugar is considered a wet ingredient?  That's because sugar becomes liquid when heat is applied.  I just think that's a neat-o thing to know.

14.  If your cake calls for milk, juice, or another wet ingredient, alternate adding said wet ingredient with adding the dry ingredients -- i.e. flour, milk, flour.  You always want to start and end with the dry ingredients.  This method leads to less mixing in the long run.

15.  If you get some eggshell in your batter, use rest of the shell from the same egg to scoop it out.  Only the shell from that egg will attract it and make it easy to scoop out; anything else will actually repel the little bits of shell.

16.  Always use salt.  Even if it's only a little smidge.  Salt enhances flavor -- it's a scientific fact.

17.  When beating egg whites, be sure your bowl and whisk are clean.  The smallest trace of fat will prevent your egg whites from reaching their full voluminous potential.

18.  Never fill your pans more than 2/3rds full.  Most recipes will specify how full your pan should be if you are not putting all the batter in one pan.

19.  Preheat your oven.  Putting your batter in an oven that is not preheated leads to uneven baking and, typically, a tougher cake.

20.  If you can smell it, your cake is probably done.

21.  A cake is done when it is springy to the touch -- it bounces back when you lightly press on the top.  I don't even bother with a tester for cakes.  This is really a better indicator.

22.  Let cakes cool in the pan for a few minutes before turning them out onto wire racks to cool completely.  If you don't let the cakes cool a little, you might end up with half the cake in the pan and the other half on the wire rack.  Cupcakes should be removed to a wire rack as soon as you can possibly get them out and not burn the devil out of your fingers.

23.  Use a decent pan.  Stained or warped pans can cause uneven browning.  Lower your oven temperature if you are using a glass pan, unless that's what your recipe calls for.

24.  Sugar is the root of tons of cake problems.  Too much sugar can cause your cake to be gummy, soggy, humped in the middle, or a sticky top.  Too little sugar can cause your cake to be dry or not properly browned.  Be sure to measure as accurately as possible.

25.  Too much baking powder will make for a dry cake, too little makes for a cake that won't brown.

26.  To make sure that fruits and nuts don't settle to the bottom of the cake, toss them in a little flour before adding them to the batter.

27.  An offset spatula is your new best friend if you are frosting your cakes.  Go get one now if you don't already have one.

28.  You can smooth bumps in icing with a damp fingertip.

29.  Put your cakes as close to the center of the oven as possible.  This ensures even baking.

30.  Beat the butter and sugar at least as long as the recipe calls for and longer if possible.  This adds tons of air and lightness to the finished cake.

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