On the Level: How to Bake a Flat Cake

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Feeling flat? With cake, that's a good thing. A cake that comes out of the oven nice and level is like a perfect canvas; smooth and primed for whatever you want to create. Bakers swear by several tricks to achieve this feat of flatness, but some are definitely more effective than others. I put a few to the test to help ensure that your next cake is flawless.

Ground rules

Box mix

I almost always bake my cakes from scratch, but I didn't want the recipe to be a factor for this experiment. The mix companies know their stuff, so one box is pretty much guaranteed to act like the next. I made three boxes of mix all in the same bowl at the same time.

Temperature

Here's where I know I'm going to catch the most heat. Many, many bakers swear by baking lower and slower to achieve a flat baked cake. But temperatures vary from oven to oven and from recipe to recipe. If you ask me (and it seems like you are), a lower temperature coupled with one of the following methods is the most successful way to go. Finding your temperature "sweet spot" is something you'll have to work out with your own oven and recipe (usually somewhere between 300-325 F).

All pans are created equal

All of these cakes were baked in the same kind of pan, sprayed with pan spray, then dusted with flour. It's what's recommended on the box, and I agree that it's the best way to pre-treat pans.

External methods

The theory is that cakes dome because the outer edges of the cake cook faster than the center of the cake does. So there are any array of external strips that claim to keep the edges cooler longer, preventing the sides from baking lower than the center. Let's see how they work!

Wilton Bake-Even Strips

I got a 2-pack of strips at my local craft store for $9.99 — so far so good. The directions were clear and the strips were easy to use. One small issue when it came time to soak the strip: it floats! I kept my cool and submerged the strip by placing a plate on top; no biggie. It also helps to fit the strip to the pan before you fill it with batter. Otherwise, you might spill some while fiddling with the loops to tighten the strip.

Foil and paper towels

Another method is to soak paper towels in cold water and wring them out just a little. Lay the paper towels on a piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil and fold the foil up and over the wet towels into a long strip. Then wrap the pan with the strip and pinch the edges of the foil together to secure. 

Dish towels

Here's the last variation on a theme: Cut an old towel into strips, soak for 5 minutes in cold water, then pin the strip in place around the sides of the pan. If I'm being honest, pinning the towel wasn't the easiest thing to do. If you plan on doing this regularly, you might want to break out the sewing machine for a more permanent strip.

Internal methods

A new school of thought! The theory here is that placing something metal into the center of the pan while the cake is baking will help distribute the heat more evenly and stop it from doming. 

Heating core

Another craft store purchase for $9.99. Not bad for one, but this would obviously get pricey if you need to bake lots of cakes at once. I also realized after purchasing that this is usually used for larger cakes, but decided to give it a whirl anyway. The core needs to be sprayed and floured, just like the pan. Place it in the center of the pan and fill it with batter level to the batter in the pan. 

 

Floral nail

Floral nails cost about $1-2 at the craft store, and I'm pleased to say that I already had one on hand for this experiment. Spray and flour the nail just like you would the pan. Place the flat side down in the center of the pan, then fill with batter. 

The results are in! 

Check out these side-by-sides of the methods above compared to an untreated control cake. Not bad.

The good

Wilton Bake-Strips and plain old dish towels were the clear winners! Both had flat, level tops. And an unexpected bonus — the cakes baked with the same color all the way through without any dark edges. 

The bad

You can see that foil and paper towels were outperformed by the other strip methods. Not only were Wilton Strips and towels both easier to use, but they're also reusable (+1 for Earth).

The floral nail was honestly a shocker. I know many bakers swear by this method, but it did nothing for me. I was SO surprised that I baked a second cake to see if there was any difference. None. If a flat cake is what you're after, any of the external methods are a better bet. 

The ugly

Heating core. Hmph. I know, I know, it's meant for larger cakes. But even when it's used exactly as intended, it's still a flawed method. I split most of my cakes and really don't want to have to deal with little bits of cake floating around. I also don't like how the holes left behind by the core create instability where dowels would likely go in a tiered cake. For the same price, I'd rather pick up a pack of strips and call it a day.

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