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Why won't my cake rise?

Have you ever found yourself on your knees screaming to the baking gods: “Why won’t my cake rise??!!” after an afternoon of measuring, mixing and nervous peeks through the oven door?


Don’t worry, you’re not alone.


The thing is, and I know you’ve heard this before, baking is a science. It doesn’t have to be the dull science of your school days, but it does serve you to know a teensy bit about what’s going on when you make a cake. It’ll stop you from having a full on existential melt-down as you ponder why you can’t even bake a simple cake. I promise.


Basically, the thing that makes a cake rise is bubbles, and lots of tiny little ones. You get the bubbles in there with a chemical raising agent like baking powder or by whisking up egg whites. Most recipes will use a chemical raising agent because it’s a lot more predictable and a lot less hard work than whisking for 3 years.


So what do you think happens if anything affects the little bubbles that are on a mission to lift up the other ingredients? That’s right, sinking cake syndrome.

Sunken Cake Syndrome

 Sunken Cake Syndrome, Source: Party Animal Online


Unfortunately, there are quite a few factors that affect these bubbles, so you do need to take care when baking, in a way you just don’t need to with most conventional recipes. The good news is that if you think you’re hopeless at baking, you’re most definitely NOT, you just need to know what’s going wrong...


Sinking cake syndrome troubleshooting


OVEN TEMP

I’d be willing to wager a fair few quid that most baking disasters stem from oven temperature or a rubbish heating element. The correct heat will raise your cake batter up in the first two thirds of baking, before ‘setting’ and become stable enough to take out of the oven. The problem is, almost all home ovens aren’t very accurate and their temp can be out by a catastrophic number of degrees. Do yourself a huge favour and buy an oven thermometer (less than £10) and adjust the oven dials accordingly until they match the temperature in the recipe.

Oven Thermometer

Oven Thermometer, Source: Zyliss

CAKE TINS

OK, if you’re having trouble with your cakes rising, you probably don’t have a whole cupboard of differently sized cake tins, I get it. So if the recipe says use a 20cm round cake tin and you only have a 26cm rectangle tin it’ll do won’t it? WRONG! The volume of cake batter in a tin has a huge impact on how it rises. Spread it too thinly and it’ll overcook in the time and turn out more like a biscuit. Pile it into a tiny tin and the batter will struggle under its own weight, causing a dense and soggy cake. If you don’t have the right size of cake tin stated in the recipe, either buy the right one (for a few quid it’ll be worth the investment) or think about doubling or halving the quantities to suit your tin. Although that is an option for the more confident/adept at calculating volume!

Overmixed Cake

 

Overmixed Cake Batter, Source: King Art

BAKING POWDER

I’ve talked about the tiny little bubble heroes that raise the cake batter up and the majority of them come from baking powder or bicarbonate of soda. This powdery stuff should be sifted in with your flour to ensure it gets mixed through evenly. If it isn’t? You’ll get little volcanic pockets of super charged bubble power and an uneven cake rise. This stuff also loses effectiveness over time, so if you’re using that tub at the back of your cupboard from 1999, it’s time to buy a new one. One more thing: think of this as cake fairy dust and only use as much as the recipe states. Too much will cause your cake toover-riseand sink back down on itself while in the oven.

Sunken Cake

Sunken Cake, Source: Veronica Tang

MIXING

One of the most important things to take care with when making your cake batter is how you go about mixing it. When you’re dealing with things like butter and sugar, they actually like a bit of a beating, it softens them up. But flour needs a little bit of gentle encouragement or it tenses up. Once you’ve added the flour to your mix, you need to gently fold or mix it in and then stop as soon as it looks combined. If you keep mixing, it develops the gluten bonds in the flour which is great for a chewy loaf of bread, but terrible for a fluffy cake and the little bubbles trying to pull the stringy flour up. Undermixing is also abad thing, as lumps of flour will affect how evenly the whole thing rises. So basically, you’ve got to get it juuuust right.

Lumpy Cake Batter

Lumpy Cake Batter Source: Flickr

TIMING IS EVERYTHING

If you think you can set the timer on your oven to whatever your recipe says and walk away, you are doomed to never make a good cake! Dramatic, I know, but each cake and oven is slightly different so you’ve got to take it on a cake by cake basis. EvenI have to sometimes give the cakes a bit less or longer in the ovens we’ve been using for years. As a guide, check on the cake 5 minutes before the recipe states (looking through the door, not opening it). If you can smell delicious cake and it looks nice and golden, you can use a toothpick or end of a knife inserted in the middle to see if it’s ready. If it comes out with batter on the end, it needs another 5-10 minutes. If you take it out too early, the centre won’t have set and you’ll get sinking cake syndrome.

Toothpick Cake Test

Toothpick Cake Test, Source: The Hungry

 

INGREDIENTS

This one is a bit of a general baking rule, but it is also particularly relevant to cake rise issues. Make sure your ingredients are all at the same temperature, or more specifically, room temperature. This will help them to combine easily with each other, but if they’re too cold then ingredients like butter will stay in chunks and ruin your rise. Sifting flour is all in the name of even distribution throughout the mix and in my experience has little to do with ‘adding air into the mixture’ and more to do with slaying lumps. Finally, always bake with the best ingredients you can find. This means nice fresh eggs, proper butter with plenty of fat in it and finely milled flour. It won’t save your cake if you’ve overlooked the other areas, but it will give you better flavour and better rise.


If you’ve just binned yet another flat cake- don’t get in a pickle- we can make and deliver birthday cakes, wedding cakes and ‘just because’ cakes so you can enjoy the best bit without the stress!

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11 Responses

Jackie

Jackie

May 24, 2021

I’ll make a Bundt cake I use a Duncan Hines cake mix with pudding eggs water and oil and it was always rising to the correct height.. Now only half of the cake rises could it be an over mixing and following the directions to blend for 30 seconds and beep for two minutes does anyone know? The cake is still good but it’s very small. Could it be the heating element in my oven?

David Huq

David Huq

May 02, 2021

I think it’s the voltage, and it’s affecting the heating elements, that’s why it say keep an eye on temperature gauge,
If the heat fluctuates ie up down up then the result is an ac curve and the ingredients won’t climb upward and build on the next assault.

Stacey

Stacey

October 31, 2020

I used to live in western New York always had nice hi fluffy cakes. Now I live in Florida and it doesn’t matter what brand cake I make it always comes out thin and heavy even though they still taste good. But when I want to make a layer cake I actually have to bake two cakes just to get the height. Someone told me it’s the water replace the water with milk so I’ve tried that that doesn’t work. Is it humidity? Sea level? What can I do to get my box mix to rise?

Roxanne Nelson

Roxanne Nelson

October 27, 2020

No matter what I do make box cake mix doesn’t rise like my mothers use too. Is there a trick with a box cake mix that I missed out in learning?

Barbara  Butler

Barbara Butler

September 28, 2020

I’ve made home German chocolate cakes every year for my husbands birthday ,50 years .In the beginning they turned out perfect but now the cake is very thin and looks good when it comes out of oven but then falls.Same recipe ,same pans ,recipe is on the Baler’s German chocolate package from way back.It taste really good but they use to be higher layers. What do you think I’m doing wrong? Thank you Barbara Butler

James

James

February 15, 2020

I just made a red velvet cake, the same way I have for years, this time it is thinner and the middle didn’t rise. Of course this happens when company is coming

Ruksana Frosh

Ruksana Frosh

October 20, 2019

made a butter cake and followed all ingrediants and method and its cooked perfectly but flat as when i put it into the oven

Pete Hickman

Pete Hickman

August 14, 2018

Method not recipie.

Warm your fresh eggs in the microwave on a 30 setting for 11/2 mins mix well with the sugar and a table spoon warmed milk, while you are doing this your flour and butter has been turning in your mixer into breadcrumb consitency, add the sugar egg and milk mixture with a little more milk untill you have a thick creamy mix. Just dripping slowly off the whisk. I have my gas oven at gas mk 1 to 2 for an hour checking at about 40 minish. For some reason the amount of milk varies, so i usually add the milk in small amounts at a time untill i’m happy. Hope this works for you.

Darlene Wagner

Darlene Wagner

July 24, 2018

I just took to 9in cakes out of the same oven, same rack and one rose perfectly, the other at a horrible slant. Everything was mixed correctly and both pans were sitting even during the baking process. Didn’t open the door, checked the racks and they were ok too. Thinking it’s time to get a new stove/oven. This is the 2nd heating element for this stove and I’ve never had this problem before.Grrrrr

Nathan Wong

Nathan Wong

June 25, 2018

Watched a Tasty video and saw that you can bake a cake without flour, butter and sugar. Spread too thinly and now it’s burnt.

mrs s pritchardd

mrs s pritchardd

April 26, 2018

have just made a coop packet sponge and its terrible its as thin as a biscuit, in all the years of baking this as never happened before, my eggs were fresh. so frustrating

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