Perfect cake layers
The baking step can be the most nerve-wracking when making a cake because every oven is a little different. Following these best practices can help ensure that your cake has evenly baked, uniform layers, with maximum oven-spring and a soft crumb, despite oven issues.
Prepare the oven
When preparing to bake a cake, begin by evaluating your oven space with the aim of baking the cake layers evenly. If you are baking just one pan, arrange your oven racks so the pan can rest in the dead center of your oven. For multiple layers, you may need multiple racks. Ensure that there is enough space between the racks to move the pans around for rotating with ease.
Preheat your oven to the starting temperature specified in the recipe, and do not put any pans in the oven until the oven has come up to temp. Otherwise, you risk having your cake sink in the center.
Distribute batter evenly
To get layers that are exactly the same size, use a scale to distribute the batter evenly between each of the pans. You can either begin by weighing the total amount of batter and dividing that number by 3, or you can pour a little batter in each pan, weighing as you go, until all three pans contain the same amount (ensure that your pans weigh the same amount for this method).
Soak protective strips
Many bakers swear by the use of protective strips for baking cakes that are less crusty on the sides and crack-free tops. These are nice to have, but by no means necessary for baking. If you choose to use them, submerge them in cold water for five minutes and wring out before using.
Secure protective strips
Once the strips have been soaked, they should be snuggly wrapped around the pan and secured with velcro or sewing pins. If you are using an extra tall pan, double up on the strips.
Center pan(s) in the oven
To encourage even baking, do your best to center the pans in the oven. If you need to use multiple racks, try to center the pans on each level, and be prepared to rotate the pans from rack to rack, in addition to 180 degrees.
Set a timer
It's important to use a timer to help you keep track of rotations for even baking. I like to set mine at the first point of rotation, a second point if the oven I'm using has very uneven heat, a third time when I think it should be done, and a fourth time, if additional baking is needed. I rotate each time for good measure.
Most butter cake recipes will call for at least one rotation of cakes during baking, and I often add more rotations, especially if the oven I'm using has obvious hot spots. If you're only baking one pan, simply rotate the pan 180 degrees and keep it centered in the oven. With multiple pans on the same rack, rotate each pan where it is sitting 180 degrees, and then also swap the pan positions. For multiple racks, rotate each pan 180 degrees, then move each cake down one rack and move the cake on the bottom to the top. When rotating pans, move slowly and carefully. Try not to jostle or thump the pans, which can cause the layers to be uneven.
Testing for doneness with a tester
One sign that the cake is fully baked is when a tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.
Testing for doneness by looking at the sides
Also, when the cake is fully baked, it will just slightly pull away from the sides of the pan, and the height of the cake will reduce slightly from its highest rising point in the oven.
Testing for doneness by gently pressing
If a cake feels springy to the touch when you apply slight pressure to the center, it's done.
Cool in the pan
Most recipes for fat-based cakes call for cake to be cooled a bit in the pan before unmolding. This allows the cake to stabilize and settle a bit, which will help it hold together once it is removed from the pan.
Removing the cake from the pan
For easy unmoding, place an inverted cooling rack on top of the cake pan. Place one hand under the pan and the other on top of the rack, both directly in the center of the cake. Hold the pan tightly to the rack and flip the cake over. Place the rack down on the tabletop, and pull the inverted pan off the top of the cake.
Cooling for use
Once the cake is unmolded, remove parchment (if using) and allow the cake to come to room temperature inside and out before cutting or decorating.