Cake ABCs

Here are some CAKE ABCs that may be helpful:

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Preparing to bake:

Always preheat your oven.

Once the batter has been made, the longer it sits on the counter, the less likely it will rise properly. So have your oven ready.

Greasing pans:

I don’t grease and flour my pans anymore. Instead I use use cooking spray and parchment paper. I have never had any issues, my cakes never stick and it’s much easier.

Lining pans with greased parchment paper:

– To line your pans with parchment paper, just set your baking pan on a large sheet of parchment paper, trace around it and cut.
– After you have sprayed the pan with cooking spray, lay your cut-out parchment paper lining in the pan, making sure it has made complete contact with the bottom of the pan.
– Then flip the parchment paper lining over. Now it is greased as well.

Set out all your ingredients and measuring tools:

To avoid scrambling for a measuring spoon while you’ve got butter browning on the stove or realizing after you’ve melted that expensive chocolate for your cake that you have no baking powder, get all your tools and ingredients out and ready:

  • If you have butter that needs to be softened or eggs and cream that need to be brought to room-temperature, do that first.
  • Set out all your ingredients and check to make sure you have enough.
  • Have measuring spoons and cups, hand-mixers and scales ready and easily accessible.


Always use the type of flour that is specified in your recipe. The type of flour you use will greatly affect the texture of your cake. If no type of flour is specified, use all-purpose flour.

All-purpose flour: AP flour is the most readily available. It is softer than wheat flour, but sturdier than cake flour.

Cake flour: Cake flour is softer than all-purpose flour. Cakes made with cake flour have a fine and more delicate crumb than cakes made with all-purpose flour.


– If you want to substitute AP flour for cake flour:

  • For every cup of cake flour, use 3/4 cup AP flour plus 2 tablespoons cornstarch. Sift twice.

– If you want to substitute cake flour for AP flour:

  • For every cup of AP flour, use 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons cake flour.
Measuring flour:

When I bake, I use volume measurements as opposed to mass measurements, not because it is better, but because that is what I am used to. Honestly, in baking, mass measurements are more precise and will give more consistent results.

But for those out there who either don’t own a scale, or are just more comfortable measuring by volume, here is my method:

  • When I measure out flour, I “fluff” up the flour a bit first with a spoon or whisk. I then scoop or spoon the flour into the measuring cup and level it off with the flat side of a butter knife.

A cup of “unfluffed” flour can weigh about 16 g more than a cup of flour that has been stirred up a bit with a whisk. In a recipe that requires 3 cups of flour, that’s more than 1/3 cup of additional flour.

And too much extra flour can make a cake heavy and dry.


Sifting is not always necessary…

– I don’t always sift. If it’s just flour, a quick stir with a whisk should be enough to aerate and remove clumps.

– Also, if a recipe asks for an amount of sifted flour (i.e. 1 cup sifted flour), normally, you would scoop out some flour, sift it, then measure it. Fluffing up the flour first by stirring it up a bit with a whisk (even right in the bag or canister) does almost the same work as sifting in terms of aerating it. You should be okay measuring right out of the bag then.

But it’s a good idea to sift sometimes.

– But if there are other dry ingredients like baking soda or cocoa powder, I sift, especially if my ingredients have been sitting in the cupboard for awhile. Most of the time, there are no issues. But every once in a while, I have sifted out little rocks of baking soda and cocoa powder. I was glad I sifted then.

Baking soda vs baking powder:

Baking soda and baking powder are chemical leaveners. They make cakes rise.

Always use whichever one is specified in your recipe. Baking soda and baking powder work differently in recipes and affect not only the rise, but the color and taste of your cake.

Baking soda requires an acid to activate. Recipes requiring baking soda usually have something like buttermilk, yogurt, lemon juice, natural cocoa (as opposed to Dutch-processed cocoa), vinegar or cream of tartar. Some recipes favor baking soda because it promotes browning.

Baking powder has baking soda in it, along with cream of tartar. So recipes using baking powder don’t need an acidic ingredient to work.


– If you want to substitute baking soda for baking powder:

  • For every teaspoon of baking powder, use 1/2 teaspoon baking soda plus 1 teaspoon lemon juice, vinegar or cream of tartar.

If you use baking soda without an acidic element, your cake may still rise, but it may also have a metallic taste.

– If you want to substitute baking powder for baking soda:

  • For every teaspoon baking soda, use 2 teaspoons baking powder.

But be careful if your recipe requires a lot of leavening. A large amount of baking powder can make your cake taste bitter.

Make sure your baking soda and baking powder are fresh.

– Always check the expiration date. If still unsure, here is how you can check if your baking soda and baking powder are still good:

1) Baking soda: Pour a tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar over a little bit of baking soda, maybe 1/8 teaspoon. If it fizzes and bubbles, it is still good.

2) Baking powder: Pour about 1/2 teaspoon baking powder into 1/4 cup boiling water. If it fizzes and bubbles, then it is good.


Natural vs Dutch-processed:

When cocoa beans are processed into cocoa powder, Dutch-processed cocoa, as opposed to natural cocoa, is also treated with an alkalizing agent to lower its acidity. This affects not only its color and flavor, but also how it reacts to the baking soda and baking powder in your cake.

Color and Flavor:

– Natural cocoas tend to have a lighter color than Dutch-processed cocoas. Its chocolaty flavors tend to have bitter, sharp or fruity notes.

– Dutch-processed cocoas are darker than natural cocoas, some almost black. Its flavors tend to be darker and more mellow than natural cocoas.

Cocoa and chemical leaveners:

Baking soda and baking powder are chemical leaveners that are used to make cakes rise. An acidic ingredient is needed to activate baking soda and also to neutralize metallic or soapy flavors. Baking powder does not have any such requirement.

– Natural cocoa is acidic and is therefore usually used in recipes that have baking soda. However, if the recipe also contains other acidic ingredients such as brown sugar, coffee, lemon juice or buttermilk, Dutch-processed cocoa can then be used as well.

– Baking powder does not have the same requirement for acidic ingredients as baking soda, therefore either natural cocoa or Dutch-processed cocoa can be used without any further considerations.

So which to use?

– Always use whichever type of cocoa is specified in the recipe. But if the recipe just says “unsweetened cocoa powder”, the safe bet is to use natural cocoa.

– However, if you want to know whether you can interchange natural and Dutch-processed cocoas in a recipe, here are some rules to go by:

1) You CAN ALWAYS use natural cocoa.

2) You MUST use natural cocoa if:

  • the recipe uses baking soda and contains no other acidic ingredients such as buttermilk, coffee, fruit juice, yogurt or vinegar.

3) You CAN used Dutch-processed cocoa if:

  • Only baking powder is used in the recipe.
  • The recipe uses baking soda and has an acidic ingredient such as buttermilk, coffee, brown sugar, yogurt or vinegar.
  • Both baking powder, baking soda and an acidic ingredient are used in the recipe.
  • The recipe uses no chemical leaveners at all.
So many brands of cocoa to choose from….

You do not need to buy an expensive brand of cocoa to make a delicious cake. You DO need to buy a brand that you like. It is worth trying different kinds of cocoas for different recipes until you find one that you love.

Hershey’s, Ghirardelli and Callebaut are three popular brands of natural cocoa. Hershey’s Special Dark, Droste and Valrhona are three popular brands of Dutch-processed cocoa.

Many brands will offer both natural and Dutch-processed cocoas. If a brand of cocoa doesn’t specify if it is natural or Dutch-processed, it is probably natural.

Butter (& Friends):

Softened butter:

– Butter actually needs to be just slightly cooler than room temperature. The butter should still feel cool to the touch, but be soft enough that you can make an impression with your finger with only slight pressure.
– However, the butter should not be soft, look glossy or feel greasy.

The goal is butter that is pliable. If you can pinch the butter between your fingers and it will give, but won’t turn into a greasy smear, then the butter will have enough structure to hold air during the creaming process with the sugar.

How to soften butter:

1) Let refrigerated butter sit at room temperature for about 1 hour. If the butter is frozen, it may take 2 to 3 hours.

2) To speed things up, slice the butter into thin pats. The refrigerated butter should be ready in about 15 minutes. Frozen butter should be ready in about 30 minutes.

3) If you feel the butter is close, but not quite there, cream the butter with a mixer for a few extra minutes until the butter is smooth and creamy.

4) I will never advise using a microwave. This shortcut isn’t worth the risk.

Using oil instead of butter:

There is no real substitute for butter. But cakes made with oil are actually lighter than cakes made with butter. They are also more moist. The only thing they really lack is the flavor.

  • I like to use half butter and half oil in my recipes. But if you have no butter, you can use 3/4 cup of oil in place of 1 cup of butter.
Using margarine instead of butter:

Whether you can use margarine instead of butter in cakes depends on the margarine and how its fat content compares to butter. Butter is 80% fat with about 12 g of fat per tablespoon.

  • If the margarine has an equal amount of fat as butter, it can be used as a substitute. Most of the time, this type of margarine will be found in stick form.
  • If the margarine has less fat than the butter, it should not be used as a substitute as it may affect the texture of the cake. Most tub margarines fall here.

Creaming butter, sugar & OIL:

When making cakes, creaming the butter and sugar until it is light, creamy and fluffy is one of the most important steps. It is the step that incorporates air into the batter and makes the cake light and soft.

There are three main things needed for proper creaming:

1) Make sure the butter is softened.

– Butter: Cold butter is too hard for pockets of air to be formed during the creaming process. Warm butter is too soft structurally to hold onto any air pockets being formed during the creaming process. In both cases, the result will be a cake that will have a coarse texture.

– At the proper temperatures, the butter will have the perfect texture for holding air while being creamed with the sugar.

2) Spend the proper amount of time creaming the ingredients.

– If all the ingredients are at the proper temperatures, creaming butter and sugar should take about 3 minutes on medium speed with a standing mixer (paddle attachment, please) or 5 to 7 minutes with a hand mixer.

– The creamed butter and sugar should be just about double in volume, pale yellow, fluffy and should feel whipped. There will still be some grittiness from the sugar.

Do not over-cream the butter and sugar.

– Over-creaming the butter and sugar will actually deflate the batter. The results will be similar to a batter where the butter was too warm, soft and unable to structurally hold on to the air that was achieved from the beating.

– Over-creamed butter and sugar will look soft, a little greasy and almost white instead of pale yellow.

3) Adding oil to the mix doesn’t change the rules:

– All the rules of creaming still apply even if oil is getting creamed along with the butter and sugar in a cake recipe.

1) The butter still needs to be softened
2) Enough time still needs to be spent creaming everything together.

– Always cream the butter with the sugar at least 3 minutes before adding the oil. Depending on how much or how little butter is being used, it may look creamy or it may look like wet snow, but it is still necessary to fully incorporate the butter into the sugar. Otherwise, there may be little chunks of butter floating around in your batter after adding the oil.

– Then spend up to 2 minutes creaming after adding the oil.

– The creamed butter, sugar and oil will look light, whipped and almost white in color.


Use large eggs:

– Most recipes, including mine, use large eggs.

The difference in volume between a small egg and a large egg is a whole tablespoon (15 ml). That much difference can affect a recipe. For example, a recipe calling for 4 large eggs would need almost 5 or 6 small eggs to achieve the same volume. So, whatever size eggs you have available to you, adjust accordingly.

– The average egg sizes are approximately as follows:

small egg – 2 1/2 tablespoons (38 ml)
medium egg – 3 tablespoons (45 ml)
large egg – 3 1/2 tablespoons (52 ml)
extra-large egg – 4 tablespoons (60 ml)

Use room-temperature eggs:

Eggs need to be at room temperature before being added to creamed butter and sugar.

– Adding cold eggs to creamed butter and sugar might chill the butter, causing it to solidify into little chunks. Adding eggs that are too warm may melt the butter and make the batter loose. In both cases, the result will be a cake that will have a coarse texture.

– Eggs at room-temperature will incorporate smoothly, resulting in a light and soft cake

Bringing eggs to room temperature:

1) Bring out the eggs when you bring out your butter to sit at room temperature.
2) To speed it up, let the eggs sit in a bowl of warm water (not hot) for about 10 minutes.

A little tip:

– Break your egg into a small bowl before adding it into the batter to ensure no eggshell falls in.

adding in the flour & liquid:

Avoid overworking the batter when adding in the flour and whatever liquid you are using in your cake.

1) It is important to be gentle and quick when adding in the flour and whatever liquid, if any, is being used. Overworking the batter can make the cake bready. And the harder and longer you mix, the more likely the cake will be tough.

  • In making cakes, I like to use a whisk and stir in the flour and liquid by hand. It can be too easy to over-mix when using a machine.

2) Alternating between adding in the flour and whatever liquid is being used will help to avoid lumps. (So will using a whisk.) It also makes it easier to incorporate the ingredients and avoid overworking the batter.

  • I usually start by stirring about half of the flour into the batter first. I then alternately add the liquid and the remaining flour in two additions, starting with liquid, ending with flour.

How to Fill the pans evenly:

Filling the cake pans evenly with batter ensures both cakes will bake the same. Eyeballing it is one way. It usually works just fine. But for those who desire more precision for an even bake:

1) Use a scale. (You really can’t beat a scale.)

2) If you don’t have a scale, try measuring the side of the cake pan from the surface of the cake batter to the top of the pan.

How to tell when a cake is done:

1) Instant-read thermometer: The surest way to tell if a cake is done is with an instant-read thermometer.

instant-read thermometer - cake basics

  • Cakes are done when the internal temperature reaches 190°F (88°C).

2) Baking times: Baking times given in recipes are only a reference. Ovens vary. Start checking the cake at least 5 minutes or so before the indicated baking time.

3) Aroma: No matter what baking time is given in the recipe, once the aroma of the cake starts to waft through the house, it is a good idea to start looking in on it.

4) Touch: Cakes are usually done if, when gently touching the cake, the top springs back.

5) The cake just starts to pull away from the sides of the pan: The cake is probably done when it just begins to pull away from the sides of the pan. If the cake has completely pulled away from the sides of the pan, take the cake out right away.

6) Color: Color is always a good indicator if a cake is done. The ingredients, the types of leavening used, the amount of sugar in a recipe, along with other things will determine the color of your cake and may vary from recipe to recipe. Get to know the color of doneness for each of your recipes and make note.

7) Toothpick or skewer test: If an inserted toothpick or skewer comes out clean, or maybe has a few crumbs attached, but no signs of any wet batter, the cake is done.

Avoid opening the oven door until the last minutes:

– Opening the oven door when the cake is still very underdone may result in the cake sinking sadly in the middle. So use all other indicators first before opening the door to tap the cake or stick a toothpick into it.

Storing Cakes:

– Cakes can usually stay covered on the counter for about 3 to 5 days, but then should be refrigerated.

– Any cakes with cream or custard-type fillings or frostings should always be refrigerated.

– To keep optimum moisture, I like to cover and seal any cut or exposed cake with plastic wrap or parchment paper.

Keeping cake moist - cake basics
Wrap cakes securely before freezing.

– Cakes usually freeze well, too. After the cakes have fully cooled, wrap each layer tightly in plastic wrap and then place in a freezer bag. Freeze up to one month. When ready to use, allow the cakes to thaw completely before unwrapping.


Here are some really good sources of information for baking cakes and all things related. These sites have detailed information, scientific explanations and lots of good pictures.

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Coming soon:

Dark Chocolate Cake

Rich Yellow Cake