Before even beginning to mix a batter, most cake recipes instruct us to prepare our pans for cakes that will come out in one gorgeous piece. There are a variety of methods bakers use to make unmolding pain free, but have you ever looked at a cake recipe and wondered exactly what the author means when he or she instructs you to "grease and flour the pan" or "make parchment rounds"? Are you sure that you're doing it correctly? And why is it that different cake recipes call for different methods?
Fat-based cakes, those made with butter or oil, need greased pans to ensure a clean release after baking. For these cakes, it's my preference to grease with butter because I like its flavor and the way it evenly coats the pan. I've also seen folks use non-stick sprays, clarified butter, shortening, or oil. In addition to greasing, some recipes call for "flouring" the pan in order to create a barrier that keeps the fat from melting directly into the batter when introduced to a hot oven. Others call for the use of parchment, to provide extra insurance. I've seen recipes for extremely sticky cakes that call for both, along with a double dose of grease.
People often want to know if it's best to flour or use parchment for fat-based batters; a topic on which many bakers disagree. I'm a parchment girl, because I like the extra insurance that it provides, but I've had success with flouring too. To borrow a really gross saying from restaurants: there's more than one way to skin a cat (as long as you do it properly).
Foam-based cakes, such as angel food, sponge, and chiffon cakes, rely upon the air trapped in egg foams or meringues for their volume. For these cakes, we rely upon parchment liners alone, without grease, for two reasons. First, the delicate egg foams that make these cakes big and airy deflate easily when exposed to fats. Also, these cakes actually need to stick to the sides of the pan for additional support and structure as they bake. Bakers use a knife to release the sides after cooling, and the parchment at the bottom helps the cake slide out with ease.
Click here to browse through the slideshow of best practices for all of the different techniques for making sure that cakes come out of the pans exactly the way we expect them to. Then get out your butter, parchment, and pans for a little practice with my recipe for buttermilk cappuccino cake. It's perfect celebration cake for coffee fiends.