Everyone experiences a cake mistake now and then.

Sometimes bad things happen to good cakes, little flaws and uh-ohs that we hope to avoid next time. Here are three common cake mishaps and suggestions on how to avoid them.

Baking is creative, but it's precise. The best advice for having cakes turn out perfectly is to follow the recipe. It's tempting to skip or rush certain steps when time is tight, or make substitutions on the fly, but each step, ingredient, and measurement in a well-written cake recipe has a purpose. 

Cake Baking Woes
Credit: Emma Darvick

Why did my cake crack or dome at the top?

Cakes can crack and/or dome (way beyond a gentle curve on top) when the outer edge crust sets too quickly and gets done before the middle, forcing the center to heave up as it rises. Possible culprits are:

The oven temperature was too high.
If you suspect your oven thermostat is inaccurate, double check the temperature with an oven thermometer.

The oven door was opened too often.
Heat escapes each time the oven door opens, which can trigger the preheating function to come back on, causing the temperature to fluctuate. There's no need to test a cake for doneness well before it could possibly be true.

The cake baked in the wrong size pan.
Follow the recipe. There's more to doubling a cake recipe than simply pouring twice the batter into a larger pan. Doubling a recipe changes its chemistry, which affects how the ingredients interact, not just the baking time. When you must increase the quantity, it's wiser and more reliable to stick with the original recipe and make it twice.

The cake pan was on an oven rack too close to the heat source.
Heed any instructions on rack positions, but most cakes do best on a rack in the lower third of the oven, just below the center. Cakes that have a long baking time at a relatively low temperature (such as some old-fashioned pound cakes) can benefit from placing a large pan filled with water on the rack below the cake to create a little steam inside the oven. 

There was too much leavening.
Cakes won't tolerate inaccurate measurements.

Why did my cake sink?

Cakes can look fully baked and even on top only to sink in the middle as they cool. Possible causes include:

The cake wasn't done in the middle.
A toothpick or slender skewer inserted into the center of the cake should come out clean or with a few clinging crumbs, but never with wet or sticky batter. Make sure the tester reaches the center of the cake, which might be deeper than the length of a standard toothpick when a cake is baking in a deep tube pan. In that case, use a long wire cake tester or a strand of uncooked dry spaghetti for testing. The top of a cake that's done will spring back when lightly pressed and its edges will have pulled away slightly from the pan.

The cake didn't cool properly.
Follow the instructions on how long to cool a cake, and use a wire cooling rack when told to do so. A rack lets air circulate underneath the pan or baked good.

Why is my cake dense or flat?

Some cakes never rise enough, or at all, and turn out dense with doughy sad streaks. It might be because:

The leavening was old or expired.
Always check the date on baking powder and self-rising flour. If there is no date and you cannot recall when it was purchased, buy fresh.

The oven wasn't preheated and/or the cake pans were prepared in advance.
Once mixed, cake batter can't sit around and wait.

The batter was over- or under-mixed.
Follow the instructions on how long to mix ingredients and to the mixer speed settings. Mixing does more than simply combine ingredients.