Cake: The Basics

Baking, Cook, Learn, Tips & Techniques

This post comes courtesy of Williams-Sonoma Culinary Expert Natasha Gandhi-Rue.


A cake is a welcome sight at nearly any get-together, large or small, elegant or casual. Some home bakers may be tempted to use a cake mix, but most cakes — from pound cake to cheesecake to cupcakes — are easy to make from scratch once you’re armed with some basic knowledge on mixing and baking batters. In fact, you probably have most of the necessary ingredients in your pantry right now.


Cakes are mixed, shaped and baked in various ways, but a few basic principles apply to the preparations of nearly every cake (read about common cake styles here). These easy-to-follow steps will help you master all of them.

Pan Prep

To butter a pan, place a small amount of soft butter on a piece of waxed paper and then spread the butter over the bottom and sides of the pan.


To flour a pan, add 2 tablespoons of flour to the buttered pan and tilt and shake so the flour adheres to the butter. Turn the pan over, tap it on a work surface and discard the extra flour.


To line a pan with parchment paper, fold a piece of parchment that is a little larger than the cake pan into quarters. Place the point of the parchment into the center of the pan, then press the paper into the edge of the pan so it forms a crease. Cut along the crease and unfold. Grease the pan with butter, then press the cut parchment into the bottom of the pan. Some recipes specify to butter the top of the parchment after it’s in the pan.



Creaming Butter and Sugar

Creaming together butter and sugar creates a light, airy mixture that helps the cake to rise in the oven. The butter should be at “cool” room temperature:  too cold and it is difficult to cream and aerate; too warm and the finished cake will be dense and greasy.


Place the butter and sugar in a bowl. With a mixer on medium speed, or using firm strokes with a spoon, cream the butter and sugar. The mixture should be pale yellow and fluffy. Use a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl a few times when mixing.


Creaming Yolks and Sugar

Creaming egg yolks and sugar, like creaming butter and sugar, is a way to add air to your cake layers. Sugar can “burn” your egg yolks, forming granular lumps, so never add sugar to egg yolks until just before you are ready to use the creamed mixture.


In a sturdy bowl, using a regular or balloon whisk, a handheld mixer or a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat together the egg yolks and sugar vigorously.


Continue beating until the mixture is lighter in color. It is ready when you lift a bit of the mixture with the whisk and it falls back into the bowl, forming a ribbon that slowly dissolves on the surface.


Smart Baking

Set the pans on the center rack in a preheated oven. Use an oven thermometer to check the accuracy of your oven. If baking more layers than will fit on one oven rack, place the racks as close to the center of the oven as possible.


Do not open the oven door during baking until it’s time to check for doneness. A considerable amount of heat escapes every time the oven door is opened. Also, banging an oven door shut can cause a cake to fall. Begin checking 8 to 10 minutes before the cake is supposed to be done.


Cool Down

After removing the layers from the oven, set the pan on a wire rack and let cool about 5 minutes. Then place the wire rack on top of the cake and carefully invert the cake in its pan.


If the pan doesn’t lift easily from the cake, give it a slight shake. The cake should fall from the pan. If necessary, before inverting the cake, loosen the sides of the cake with a table knife or tap the bottom of the pan, or both.


Peel the waxed or parchment paper from the bottom of the cake and discard. Let the cake cool completely if frosting but if you are using a glaze, pour it onto the still-warm cake.


Did your cake not rise? Top was too hard? Check out our tips for solving the cake-making blues to discover what went wrong.


These cake recipes from will sweeten any gathering:


About the author: A graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York City, Natasha is the Williams-Sonoma Culinary Expert for the Wichita, Kansas store. She is the mastermind behind the in-store technique and cooking classes and is often on the road training other Williams-Sonoma Culinary Experts.

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