A fallen cake has an extra-special way of ruining your day. After you've whipped up a seemingly perfect batch of cake batter, poured it carefully in your pan and slid it into the oven, you have every right to expect a beautiful cake to come out. But sometimes that just doesn't happen. Sometimes you've got a sunken cake on your hands.
Cakes fall for lots of different reasons, but with a little baking know-how, you can understand the common culprits and learn how to deal with them. And if you still end up with a fallen cake every now and then? You can still usually salvage it so it doesn't go to waste (because a fallen cake is still a cake, right?).
Why Cakes Fall and How to Fix 'Em
Too Little or Too Much Moisture
If your cake isn't moist enough, it can sink in the center. But too much moisture can also ruin a cake. This happens most often in humid climates, where extra moisture can collect naturally in ingredients like flour — causing cakes to rise quickly and then crater during the baking process.
So what can you do about this? Follow the recipe carefully, and when possible, weigh your ingredients rather than measuring them using cups. If you live in a humid climate, keep your dry ingredients in the freezer so they stay dry.
If you forgot to add the eggs at the right time and then mixed them in later, figuring, "Eh, it'll be fine," you might pay the price with a fallen cake. Make sure to read the recipe first so you're ready to go. Create a clean work area with all your ingredients pre-cut, prepared and measured. Having everything organized ahead of time will help you keep calm and follow the recipe.
Wrong Oven Temperature
Cake caved in? Your oven could be to blame. Even if the temperature is set correctly on the dial, it doesn't necessarily mean that's the actual temperature inside your oven. Check your oven periodically with a heatproof thermometer to make sure that your dial is accurate.
Note: Most cakes bake best in the 350 F range (give or take 25 degrees in either direction). If your recipe calls for something much higher or lower, it should explain why.
Your cake may look puffy and golden on top, but when you take it out of the oven it sinks and turns gummy in the middle. You probably didn't bake it long enough.
Don't depend on visual cues to figure out whether the cake is done. To make sure, test it by inserting a skewer or cake tester. If it comes out mostly clean, that means your cake is fully baked.
Not Enough Emulsification
The term sounds more complicated than it is. Emulsification, in baking, basically amounts to combining and binding two substances that normally wouldn't adhere: for instance, butter and liquid. If you haven't creamed your butter mixture enough, then it may curdle when you add in the other ingredients. Unless the recipe specifies that batter "should look curdled," it probably shouldn't. If it's "weeping" butter or liquid, the mixture is poorly emulsified, and chances are your cake will fall.
Too Much Leavening
You need leaveners if you want your cake to rise, but you can also end up with too much of a good thing. Baking soda and baking powder, we're looking at you. Be careful when measuring your baking soda and powder quantities, and make sure not to get them confused: It's easy to accidentally add a tablespoon of one when you should've added just a teaspoon. You might end up with a cake that rises super-fast in the oven, and then tragically falls.
Are you in a hot, humid climate? Or at a very high altitude? These conditions can make a big difference in how your baking turns out. High-altitude baking, for instance, can make your cakes come out flat even if you follow the recipe word for word. Check to see if your cookbook or recipe source has special instructions for high-altitude baking.
Yes, You Can Salvage a Fallen Cake
The good news is that as long as your cake is baked all the way through, you can rescue it. But if it's under-baked and still batter-like in the middle, you might be dealing with risky food-safety issues. In that case, it's best to throw out the cake (sad!) and start from scratch. Even if your cake is fully baked, taste it to make sure that another issue, like too much baking soda, hasn't messed up the flavor.
If your cake has fallen but is otherwise fine, you can try leveling it. You'll end up with a slightly thinner cake level, but at least you'll have a cake.
If the cake has dropped way too low to work as a layer, don't fret. You can still repurpose it. Meet your new ice cream topping, your filling for homemade cake pops or your still-tastes-good-even-if-it-fell treat. Fine, you wouldn't feed it to guests, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy all the deliciousness your sunken cake still has to offer.