15 mistakes everyone makes when baking a cake

So you're setting out to bake a cake from scratch. Bravo! Maybe you're making a cake to win over your co-workers. Bribery works best where sugar and butter are involved. Or perhaps you've been tasked with bringing dessert to a potluck. Be the hero amid all the bland dips and stale chips. Whatever your reason, you'll want to avoid these common pitfalls.

Choosing the wrong pan

It turns out one pan doesn't fit all when it comes to baking cake. As important as it is to wear the appropriate shoes for the sport you're playing, it's just as crucial to choose the right pan for the cake you want to bake. If you plan to bake cakes frequently, you might want to start building a collection of useful bakeware to suit your various needs. Pay close attention to the type of pan the recipe calls for, and stick as closely to that as you can. More than likely, the entire recipe is crafted around a cake of a certain size and shape, and veering too far off that path throws everything off.

Forgetting about parchment paper

Parchment paper is your best baking companion. Treated for use in the oven, this type of paper is resistant to grease and moisture. In order to prevent deep and painful cake removal scenarios in your kitchen, be sure to line the bottom of your cake pan with parchment paper. Doing so will allow your cake to easily release from the pan without breaking into pieces. You can find parchment in most grocery stores sold in rolls, sheets, or pre-cut to fit round cake pans.

Neglecting to grease and flour your pan

For extra sticky cake batter, you'll want to take the extra step of greasing (with unsalted butter or baking spray) and flouring your pan on top of lining it with parchment paper. This will provide you with ease of mind as your cake bakes away in the oven. Freely flit around the kitchen with the knowledge that it will most definitely release easily from the pan.

Using expired leaveners

Let's talk about leaveners since commercial baking soda and/or baking powder are common components of cakes. If you don't frequently bake, you'll discover that a box of baking soda or a container of baking powder can last a long time. Even though it's all still there, that doesn't mean it's good to use (for a cake). Using past-due leaveners can prevent your cake from achieving maximum lift, producing flat results. Be sure to check the expiration dates! Save that older stuff for deodorizing and cleaning.

Not releasing air bubbles

Cake batter needs air in order to bake up into a light and fluffy delight. That said, you don't want too much air in the batter because it will create holes and cracks in the finished product. To help get rid of air bubbles, tap the pan on the counter a few times after filling it with batter. Doing so will bring the bubbles to the surface and level out the top of your cake, too.

Leaving your batter out for too long

Most cakes contain leaveners such as baking soda, baking powder, or both. Once the dry ingredients make contact with the liquid ingredients, the rising agent becomes activated. At this point, you'll want to transfer the batter to the oven to bake immediately. Leaving it out for a long time causes the batter to begin deflating. To avoid this problem, I always prep my pan or pans beforehand so I'm ready to transfer the batter right away.

Playing it fast and loose with measurements

Unlike general cooking, baking requires a heightened level of precision, which is part of why I love it and what makes it so satisfying. Even if you think you can eyeball the measurements, it's always better to use measuring cups and spoons to be exact. The smallest errors can change the makeup of your cake since baking recipes are created based on the ratio of ingredients working together. Too much flour and your cake is a dense dud. Too much baking soda and it tastes metallic. Play it safe: measure.

Not waiting for ingredients to get to room temperature

Many cake recipes will call for using dairy ingredients (usually butter, eggs, and milk) at room temperature. When I first began baking, my impatience would get the better of me and I found myself creaming cold butter and mixing chilled eggs. I just couldn't wait for these things to reach room temperature! These acts of hubris resulted in dense treats that baked unevenly. When the dairy components of your recipe are at proper room temperature, they emulsify to capture air. The heat in the oven causes this trapped air to grow, achieving a light and fluffy texture that you definitely want in your cakes.

Not mixing your batter enough

When you are mixing your cake ingredients, you want to make sure all ingredients are evenly incorporated. Every few strokes, use your spatula to scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl to re-incorporate any chunks of unmixed ingredients back in with the rest. There shouldn't be any chunks of butter or sugar left anywhere in your batter, as these will cause pockets of caramelization in the finished cake.

Mixing your batter too much

Don't go too easy on your cake batter, but don't overdo it, either. You'll see that many recipes tell you to mix "until just combined." The reason for this cautiously worded phrase? Over-mixing makes for a dense cake that lacks the tender crumb we all strive for. The act of mixing works the flour in the batter to help develop gluten. The more gluten that develops, the tougher the cake will be.

Baking at the wrong temperature

Temperature is a crucial point in baking. Most recipes will state what this temperature should be, and you should take heed. Preheat the oven before you get started to give your oven plenty of time to get up to that temp. To ensure that your oven heat is at the right level, I strongly suggest hanging a small oven thermometer on one of the racks inside since ovens tend to run a little hot or cold.

If a recipe does not state what the temperature should be, keep in mind that cakes, which are high in sugar content, are generally baked at low to moderate temps between 325° F and 350° F so they don't burn. Yeasted breads, which usually have less sugar, can bake at 400° F to develop a dark golden crust. For yeasted treats that are also loaded with sugar — cinnamon rolls and the like — you should set your oven to 375° F.

Frequently opening the oven door to peek

Ovens are sensitive machines. It may be tempting to open the door every few minutes to check in on your cake, but don't. Each time you open the oven door, you'll be letting out some heat, creating a change in the temperature and causing uneven baking. Try to leave the door closed until the minimum time stated on the recipe. When you do check on your cake, simply use an oven mitt to pull out the rack instead of removing the cake from the oven — in case it's premature.

Taking the cake out of the oven too soon

You want to avoid removing your cake from the oven before it's finished cooking. Doing so causes the center of the cake to collapse. It's very sad, of course, and even placing the undercooked dessert back in the oven at this point won't fix the caved-in middle portion. Be sure the cake has fully risen and the center is set first.

Not rotating your cake

Even the best ovens tend to distribute heat a little unevenly. The back of the oven tends to be hotter than the front. In some ovens, the top or bottom is hotter. To work with these inherent heat discrepancies, be sure to rotate your cake halfway through baking.

Not taking into account all the signs of doneness together

The best way to check if your cake is done? Use various techniques in conjunction. Take a look. Your cake should look set all over and slightly domed in the center. Non-chocolate cakes should be lightly golden in color. Touch it. When you press your index finger gently on the surface, the cake should spring back. Poke it. Why not? Using a toothpick or cake tester, poke the center of the cake. The toothpick or tester should come out cleanly with only a few crumbs clinging to it.