Learning how to bake the perfect cake comes down to far more that just following the ‘perfect’ recipe. By noting the following points, the likelihood of a successful outcome will be far greater, resulting in a successful cake time after time.
Practice makes perfect
As with learning any skill, experience is golden. Enthusiasm plays an important role, especially on those occasions when things don’t always work out as you would have hoped for. Patience is another essential trait required to learn the skills necessary to bake successfully on a consistent basis. However, the single most important element is to practice, practice and practice and learn from your baking failures. Try to be systematic and review what could have gone wrong. In most cases, the cause will be due to one or more or the following points.
A good workman knows the importance of using good tools
Although there is truth in the proverb ‘A bad workman blames his tools’, it is also true that a good workman understands the importance of using good quality tools. Using the correct tools in the proper way certainly makes cooking and baking more likely to succeed. This is especially true for beginners, as they will not have the experience to adjust on the fly should problems arise from inferior cookware (used on a stove or range cooktop) or bakeware (used in an oven).
The most common problems concerning this aspect include:
- Using the wrong sized pan. Although a slightly smaller or larger cake pan can be used, it will have an effect on the baking time. An experienced cook will have the experience to adjust cooking times or temperatures, whereas someone inexperienced will not. The size of the pan will determine the surface area of the cake being baked which, for a given temperature, will affect the cooking and browning time.
A larger pan will have a larger surface area and will therefore tend to cook quicker resulting in the possibility of burning the crust or baking a cake that is too dry. Conversely, if one were to fill a smaller cake tin with the ingredients meant for a larger tin, the mixture will have a greater depth than anticipated in the recipe and a smaller surface area. If adjustments are not made in cooking time, the middle of the cake will most likely be undercooked. Therefore, it is always advisable to use the correct sized tin for a given recipe to increase the chance for a successful outcome.
- Using the wrong shaped pan. One should always aim to use the type of pan specified by the recipe, although it is possible to use a square tin for a round cake tin or visa versa as long as you take note of the relevant conversion factor.
- Poor quality tins, though cheap to purchase initially, will have a short life expectancy, tend to rust easily and will lack the thickness required to cook evenly. This principle also applies to cooking equipment in general; you pay for what you get.
- Weigh out the ingredients properly using a set of scales or a measuring jug for liquids. Sure, you can see programs whereby the cook throws in a bit of this and bit of that but you have to realize that they can do this only because they have a wealth of experience cooking. They have an empathy and feel for cooking that only comes with years of practice. Most people do not and if they want success, will need to stick to the measurements indicated in the recipe.
Before cooking, always make sure that you have carefully read through the recipe and have all the required ingredients and correct baking equipment at hand. If the recipe requires a 6″ tin, use the correct size and if you don’t own one, go and buy it! Why waste all that time and money buying and preparing the ingredients then baking the cake for the result to be a flop because you used the wrong sized pan. In most cases, a person who cut corners will spend more money on repeated failures than in getting the correct equipment in the first place. Remember, that a good quality cake tin will give years of happy baking.
Check and recheck that you are using the correct type of flour. There are numerous types of flour e.g. plain, self-raising, wholemeal etc. with each type having its own specific properties and suited to a particular types of baking.
For best results, always use fresh ingredients and not those that have been stored inappropriately or past their shelf life.
Patience and checking
Make sure the ingredients are mixed properly to avoid inconsistency in the final baked product. Be patient at this stage and you will be rewarded many times over with the final result. Using an electric mixer or beater can help ensure that this problem does not occur.
Check and recheck the temperature of the oven and set a timer in case you forget when the cake is ready. Temperatures and cooking times vary depending on the recipe. Cupcakes and Muffins take 20 minutes or less to bake whereas an 8″ (20cm) Victoria Sponge will take approximately 25 minutes. In general, most cake layers take between 25-45 minutes to bake at an oven temperature of 350°F (180°C or Gas Mark 4). Be aware though that many variables can come into play, such as the thickness of the batter, size of the tin or the type of oven used. For example, fan assisted ovens tend to bake quicker, so recipes may suggest reducing the temperature by around 20C (50F) but keeping the cooking time the same.
Nothing is more frustrating than taking the time to bake a lovely cake only for it to end up a mess when trying to free it from the cake pan. Therefore, make sure the cake tin has been properly prepared by greasing or lining it so that the cake can be released easily once baked.
Test the cake to ensure that it is baked correctly and this can be done through a combination of touch, sight and using a simple tool. From a touch perspective, you should be able to press gently on the cake surface using your fingers and the indentation should spring back and disappear. Visually, the cake will have pulled a little away from the sides and should be nice and evenly browned on top. The tool of choice of many cooks is the simple toothpick! If you insert a toothpick into the center of a baked cake it should come out relatively clean, with possibly a few crumbs on it and certainly not be sticky… the exception to the rule being for those cakes that are meant to have a gooey or liquid center.
Scientific studies have shown that although sight is not technically part of taste, it certainly has a significant influence on the way a person perceives taste. For our purposes, the appearance of the finished cake can make a huge difference on the way it is received and enjoyed. Therefore, decorating and garnishing the cake, aside from being a fun and creative process, should be considered an integral component when baking. Taking your time to give the cake a nice appearance will pay rich dividends and although it will not, as the saying goes ‘turn a pig’s ear into a silk purse’, it will certainly make people feel that what they are eating is more enjoyable.
Recipes are designed to produce an outcome that appeals to the majority of people. However, you may find that even when you follow the instruction precisely and produce the expected result, the taste or texture may not be 100% to your liking. This is where experience comes in to play and why it is always advisable to try baking a recipe at least once before a special occasion. You may find that with your equipment and oven, or simply due to your taste preferences, that the cake turns out too bland, too sweet, too dry etc. Therefore, taking into account all the above information and having tested out a recipe first, knowing how to bake the perfect cake may also involve you be prepared to make small adjustments to the recipe so that you and your family can sit down and enjoy the fruits of your labors to the full. Bon Appétit!