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, 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
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.
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!
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 to over-rise and sink back down on itself while in the oven.
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 a bad 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 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. Even I 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, Source: The Hungry
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.