Decorating cakes is an art, but baking cakes is a science. And it's true that the science of cake baking can be tricky to master. The pitfalls that can befall the cake maker are many: deflated or shrinking cakes, cakes that are too dry, too wet, or too crumbly.
Many common cake baking issues can be resolved by learning proper basic baking techniques. Still, sometimes a baker does encounter a problem with a cake. Since baking is a science, these common pitfalls typically do have an explanation, and more often than not, an easy solution.
Photos and illustrations via CakeSpy
Here's a brief overview of some of the common cake baking problems, and suggestions for how to remedy them.
Problem #1: Cake falls in the center during or after baking
This means that you might not have added enough wet mixture to the ingredients, or (more common) you added too much flour. Be sure to properly measure your flour and to sift it.
A cake may look done, but when you take it out of the oven, the middle sinks and is slightly sticky inside. To ensure doneness, insert a cake tester or skewer in the center of the cake before removing it from the oven. If it comes out mostly clean, you're done.
You opened the door of the oven early in the baking process:
You shouldn't open the door of the oven until the cake is more than halfway baked. And even then, it's problematic if you keep opening the oven door every couple of minutes to check. (It's tempting, we know!) By opening the oven door, you can interrupt the reactions that are kick-started by heat, which cause a cake to rise correctly.
Too much moisture:
If your cake rises rapidly in the oven, has been tested for doneness, but then falls a few minutes after being removed from the oven, it could be a result of too much moisture. This is a common problem in humid conditions, where the flour may pick up excess moisture from the air before it's added to the mix. Keep flour in an airtight container if you live in humid conditions.
Note: If the cake falls in the center but is completely baked through, you may still be able to use it by leveling the cake to the lowest point.
Problem #2: Your cake is too coarse or tough in texture
Follow the mixing times specified in the recipe. In general, once the flour is added to your batter, you want to mix the batter only as much as needed to incorporate ingredients and achieve a lump-free texture. Over-mixing can cause the gluten in the flour to overdevelop and give the cake a coarse grain.
Wrong type of flour:
You only had half a cup of cake flour left, so you figured it would be fine to substitute all-purpose or even bread flour. Wrong! The amount of protein in each type of flour can vary quite a bit, making for a very different result. While the coarse grain that bread flour imparts is great for a crusty artisan loaf, it's not so great for a delicate decorating cake.
See also our guide to the different types of flour for tips on making substitutions.
Improper measurements can throw off the texture of a cake. Be sure to properly measure all of your ingredients and sift your flour.
Your batter is aged, but not to perfection:
It might seem tempting to prepare a batch of batter and then refrigerate it overnight so you can bake in the morning. But resist the temptation, as this can cause the baked cake to have a coarser texture.
Problem #3: The cake looks fine, but is too tender to handle
If you've added too much sugar, shortening or leavening, it could cause your cakes to crumble too easily. Ensure that you measure ingredients correctly. If you added too few eggs, this could also be to blame.
You may not have mixed the ingredients sufficiently to help them hold together. Follow the recipe's instructions, which should indicate either how long to mix or what texture to look for in the mixing process to tell you the batter is ready.
Problem #4: The cake is cracked on top
The temperature is too high:
Raising the temperature may make a cake bake quicker, but it may not bake correctly, and will bake in an unbalanced way.
Your pan is too small:
Read the recipe to see what size pan is called for. Using a pan that is too small may result in uneven baking.
You've added too much leavening:
This can cause the cake to rise too much and affect the overall texture of the cake.
Problem #5: The cake won't come out of the pan
The pan wasn't greased:
A cake pan almost always needs to be greased, unless specifically noted in the recipe.
Even if a pan is greased, some cakes can be difficult to remove:
Lining the bottom and even sides of the pan with parchment paper and dusting it with flour is a huge help in removing cakes from pans.
The pan is dirty:
Are you re-using a pan with multiple batches of cake batter? That's fine, but wash it out very well. Those small bits of crumb left behind can make the new cake stick to the pan.
Tip: When a cake comes out of the oven, immediately run a sharp knife along the perimeter of the pan to help loosen the sides of the cake. As they cool, it can be more difficult to loosen the sides and you might have flaking.
Problem #6: Sometimes, the equipment is faulty
Sometimes, even if you do everything correctly, a cake can still come out wrong.
A common cause of cakes coming out incorrectly is incorrect oven temperature:
Check your oven with a thermometer every now and again to ensure that when the temperature gauge reads 350 degrees, it really is the case.
Old or insufficient ingredients can also be to blame:
If you can't even remember when you bought your baking powder, for instance, chances are it's old. Ingredients can lose their potency with age, so be sure to use fresh, good quality ingredients.
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