How to Bake a Moist Cake
One of the hallmarks of any great home baked cake is a moist, tender crumb. We want our cakes to be memorable because they're spectacular, not because they turned out disappointingly dry or dense. Baking doesn't have to be hard, but it must always be thoughtful. These tips and hints are smart strategies for moist cakes.
Use Your Ingredients Wisely
Choose fresh leavening
Because baking powder and baking soda last a long while, it's easy for their expiration to sneak up on us, especially if we don't bake often. Most of these products now come labeled with freshness dates, and it pays to take a look each time. A cake stays flat as a bad pancake when the leavening can't do its job. Similarly, cake batter needs to go into the oven as soon as it's assembled so that the leaveners can do their job in the oven instead of fizzling out on the countertop.
Opt for full-fat dairy
Unless the recipe specifies otherwise, most cake recipes turn out best when made with full-fat dairy products, such as whole milk instead of skim and regular cream cheese instead of reduced fat. When preparing a cake mix that calls for water, try replacing the water with whole milk. When a recipe calls for buttermilk, use buttermilk. Milk curdled with vinegar or lemon juice cannot replace the culinary magic of the cultures found in real buttermilk, no matter what you've read or been told.
Reach for the right flour
If a recipe calls for cake flour, use cake flour. It's lower in protein than all-purpose, which helps cakes turn out light and fluffy with a fine, close crumb. On the other hand, while replacing all-purpose flour with cake flour in all cake recipes sounds like a great idea, it isn't an even swap and might not improve all cakes. To substitute one for the other can affect the ratio and proportion of the other ingredients in the recipe and change how the cake turns out.
Select sugar instead of sweetener substitutes
Sugar does more than make a cake sweet, it impacts the structure. Sugar substitutes cannot replace cane sugar in a cake recipe without the risk of compromising the texture of the cake. For that matter, using liquid sweeteners, such as honey or maple syrup, instead of dry sugar also makes a difference.
Stick to the Recipe
Don't double down
If you need a double batch of cake, make the recipe twice rather than doubling the batter, or tripling, or even higher multiples. It's too easy to incorrectly mix a huge batch of batter, but more importantly, leavening doesn't increase at the same rate as the other ingredients, so you'll almost always wind up with under- or over-leavened cakes that are dry, tough, and full of holes with a bitter aftertaste.
Let eggs and butter come to room temperature
It's some of the oldest advice in the cake baking world because it's true. Cake batters work best when the eggs and butter (and any other ingredients specified in the recipe) are at room temperature when they go into the batter. They'll blend in better with less risk of over-mixing. Although we wish we could hurry the process along when we forget to sit things out, such as microwaving the butter or putting the eggs in a bowl of hot water, we often wind up melting the butter or partially cooking the eggs, which changes how they work in the recipe, so the best way is to let them sit at room temperature to warm up on their own.
Measure, Mix, and Bake With Care
Baking can be creative, but it's persnickety, especially when it comes to accurate measurements, leading some people to say that baking is more of a science than an art. While baking can be quite creative, it's true that the proportion of each ingredient matters, especially the amount of flour, sugar, and leavening, so a key to a moist cake is to measure carefully. (For example, spoon dry ingredients into measuring cups with level tops and sweep away the excess with the flat edge of a knife. Measure wet ingredients in cups with pouring spouts. ) Leave any eyeballing and random pinches to a pot of soup or other recipes that you can taste and adjust throughout the cooking process. It's hard to assess the success of a cake until it's all done, and too late.
Mix enough, just enough
Stirring and beating cake batter longer than necessary and instructed in the recipe can make the cake turn out tough and dense. Be thorough, but gentle. On the other hand, don't skip or combine steps to speed up the process. Each step and technique in a reliable cake recipe, such as adding eggs one at a time or sufficiently creaming sugar and butter, has a purpose and makes a difference. When using a stand mixer, use the paddle attachment instead of the wire whisk attachment to blend cake batter.
Avoid over baking
Even the best recipe writer in the world has never used your oven, so the baking time should be considered smart, reliable advice, but it's no substitute for using your own senses to determine when a cake is done. Always check with a toothpick or thin metal skewer inserted into the thickest part of the cake, near the center. If the cake is deep (such as in a large tube pan), a short toothpick might not reach the center, in which case a thin wire cake tester or strand of uncooked spaghetti comes in handy. Other cues are a cake that springs back when gently tapped on top and begins to pull away slightly from the side of the pan.
Be Smart with Your Equipment
Always pre-heat the oven
The term "preheat" harkens back to when that was once a setting on most ovens, one that triggered a burst of high heat designed to warm the oven box. (On most ovens we now simply select "bake" and let the oven take it from there, including an automatic preheat period.) The term might be archaic, but the practice is as important as ever. We should always make sure the oven is hot and ready well in advance of preparing the batter, which is why this step comes first in most cake recipes. Putting cakes in before the oven is hot often browns them on top too quickly, resulting in tough cake edges by the time it cooks through to the center.
Choose the right pan
Most cakes bake in metal pans instead of glass baking dishes, and most of them do best in a lightweight, light-color metal pan. Heavier, darker pans (especially those with intricate designs) can make an attractive cake, but result in thicker, chewier cake crusts and edges. Similarly, disposable paper or foil pans that are popular choices for baking gifts can lead to dry, over-baked cakes unless you keep a close watch on them. Pan size matters too, so it's best to stick with the size specified in the recipe. It's tempting to double or triple a recipe and reach for a huge pan when you need a lot of cake (instead of making two or three regular-size cakes), but changing the size, shape, and depth of a pan introduces a whole host of tricky variables that can wreck a reliable cake.
Cool and Prep the Cake
Cool it correctly
Most cake recipes call for letting the cake cool on a wire rack so that air can circulate underneath the pan, minimizing the chance that the hot cake will sweat in the pan and turn it tough or soggy on the bottom. We should also heed the time the recipe tells us to leave the cake in the pan before turning it out onto the rack to finish cooling. If the recipe doesn't say how long, then 10 minutes works for most cakes.
Brush with simple syrup
Many professional bakers turn to simple syrup (made from equal parts water and granulated sugar heated and stirred until the sugar dissolves, then set aside to cool) to help keep cakes moist until they are assembled and iced. Simply brush the cooled syrup over the top and sides of the cooled cake and let it seep in, using only enough syrup to moisten the cake without turning it soggy. Use a clean, soft-bristled pastry brush that won't rough up the outside of the cake.