Baking a layer cake isn’t rocket science, but if you’ve never made a layer cake before, it can seem daunting. Here are 5 tips that will give you a great-looking layer cake!
Tip #1: Measure your ingredients with a kitchen scale
Nearly every professional baker and pastry chef says to bake with a scale, and for good reason:
Measuring cups (which measure by volume) can vary slightly in size and produce different flour amounts depending on how you measure.
- If you dip a measuring cup into the flour and then sweep across the top (the dip and sweep method), you end up with a denser measured cup, somewhere between 140 to 150 grams of flour.
- If you spoon flour into a measuring cup (the spooning method), you get somewhere between 120 to 130 grams of flour.
- If you manually fluff the flour before spooning (the method we recommend), you end up with an even lighter cup of flour!
But, measure the flour and other ingredients with a scale and you know the exact amount you’re adding. Yes, you certainly can make an excellent cake with just measuring cups, but if consistency is a concern, using a scale is just one more way to take the guesswork out of the end result.
A kitchen scale also comes in very handy when it’s time to divide the cake batter evenly between pans. Divide the weight of the batter by the number of pans/layers you are using, and you’ll have even height cake layers that bake up at the same rate.
Eyeballing the amount of batter in each pan can lead to variable cake heights when you assemble, as well as some cake layers over-baking or under-baking in the same oven – so use that scale!
Tip #2: Use parchment paper
I strongly recommend lining the bottom of your pans with parchment paper to ensure the cake comes out of the pan easily. If you don’t buy pre-cut parchment rounds, you can easily make one from a rectangular piece of parchment: Place the cake pan on the parchment paper, draw a circle around the pan with a pencil, fold the paper into quarters, then cut the circle out.
PRO TIP: Don’t throw away the outer part of the parchment paper! Use that leftover paper to line the bottom of the cake platter or stand so when you frost the cake, the frosting goes on the cake and not the plate. Cut the parchment paper into two or three pieces, insert it under the bottom layer, and once the cake is frosted, gently remove the parchment paper.
Tip #3: Monitor the temperature at every stage
It’s important to preheat your oven to the right temperature before baking. (That much should be obvious!) If you find that your oven is consistently baking too fast or too slow, get an oven thermometer and check to see what the actual temperature of the oven is after it’s done preheating. Get a professional to adjust the oven temperature if necessary.
It’s just as important to pay attention to temperature while you are making the cake batter. Many cake recipes call for butter and eggs to be at room temperature. If the ingredients are too cold, your batter might not emulsify and come together in a uniform manner. Cold butter in particular is problematic because it doesn’t cream properly and you can end up with a dense cake.
If you’ve forgotten to pull the ingredients out of the fridge ahead of time, submerge the eggs in warm water for a few minutes and cut the butter into small chunks to more quickly bring them up to room temperature.
And yes, temperature is important even after the cake has finished baking. Make sure the cake is completely cool before you start frosting. A warm cake means the frosting will start to melt and you’ll literally have a hot mess in front of you.
Finally, if your kitchen runs hot (or it’s the middle of summer), chill the cake layers in the fridge before frosting. In fact, even if your kitchen isn’t particularly warm, you may want to chill the layers anyway! A cool cake is less fragile than a room temperature one, so it’ll be more forgiving when you start frosting it.
Another note about frosting: if at any point you notice the frosting is getting a little too loose and runny, just stick the entire cake in the fridge for 15 to 20 minutes (or longer, if necessary) to help it firm up.
Tip #4: Even out those domed layers
No matter how great the recipe, cake layers sometimes bake unevenly and develop a dome. If it happens, it’s not the end of the world. Just trim the dome!
I use a long, serrated knife (the kind used to cut loaves of crusty bread) to cut off the domed piece and create a flat, even cake top. This makes frosting the cake layer easier and lends a prettier slice when you cut and serve. No uneven mounded cake layers!
Bonus: Save the cake tops for another purpose like cake pops, cake truffles, or sprinkling on sundaes.
Tip #5: Don’t skip the crumb coating
It’s tempting to frost the cake right away with a thick layer of frosting, but this can lead to pulling part of the delicate crumb off the cake as you layer on the frosting. The result? Frosting with crumbs stuck on it, a less than pretty result.
Instead, frost the entire cake with a thin layer of frosting first to scrape off any stray crumbs and “seal” the cake. Chill the cake for anywhere from 15 minutes to overnight to let the frosting firm up and then layer on the finishing frosting. Crumbs won’t be an issue and frosting the cake will be a dream!