The most frustrating problem that bakers struggle with when assembling and frosting a layer cake are domed or uneven cake layers. Applying frosting across an uneven surface or on layers that look like the leaning tower of Pisa is hardly ideal. Fortunately, there are ways to prevent this situation. Here are my tips for baking cake layers that stand strong and proud, ready to be frosted.
Measure your dry ingredients properly
The main reason for wobbly layer cakes is layers that bake into domes. One cause of domes is excessive flour in the batter, which absorbs too much liquid and creates a thicker, heavier batter. (Other causes include improperly calibrated, overly hot ovens and dark cake pans.)
Too much flour in the batter is usually more a result of improper measuring than a bad recipe. Measuring by weight will give you the most accurate results, but if you need to measure by volume (either because you don’t have a scale or because your recipe only gives volume measures), this is the method I recommend: Spoon the flour into dry measuring cups—liquid measures can’t give you an accurate reading—and then level the flour by dragging a knife sideways across the top of the measuring cup. Never pack the flour down and never measure by dipping the cup into the flour. Dipping packs the flour, getting more in the cup, and skewing the balance of dry to wet ingredients in a recipe.
To sift or not to sift?
While the labels on flour bags often state that the flour has been presifted, that sifting took place when the flour was manufactured, and you really have no idea how long ago that was. Flour compacts as it stands, so if you’re measuring by volume, I urge you to aerate the flour by straining or sifting it before measuring. If you’re measuring by weight and the recipe also calls for a leavener like baking soda or powder, weigh the flour first and then sift it with the leavening three times to thoroughly blend the ingredients.
Grease the pan liberally
A properly greased pan allows the cake to rise evenly as it bakes and release easily from the pan after baking. For most layer cake batters, I prefer to use very soft butter (not melted) for greasing pans. The butter coating, which should be very visible, can be applied with a pastry brush or a piece of waxed paper, plastic wrap, or paper towel. Don’t flour the pan for creamed butter layer cakes or the surface of the baked cake will harden.
For a truly trouble-free release, I recommend lining the bottoms of the greased cake pans with parchment circles. These are available in packages of eight-inch disks that are fine to use for eight- or nine-inch layers. Or, you can make your own disks by tracing the bottom of a layer pan. The parchment, most of which comes treated with silicone these days, usually doesn’t need to be buttered.
Weigh your layers to ensure they’re even
To get cake layers of even thickness, you need to have an equal amount of batter in the cake pans. The most accurate method to determine this is to weigh the filled pans. If you don’t have a kitchen scale, insert a toothpick or the tip of a knife into the batter to see if the height of the batter in each pan is equal.
When dividing the batter among your baking pans, fill them no more than two-thirds full. Spread the batter in a circular motion using the back of an oversize soupspoon, applying pressure toward the tip while smoothing the batter across the surface. Don’t use a rubber spatula, as it is too awkward for this job.
Cool the layers on round racks with thin wires. Cakes are more apt to stick to racks with wide wires, and damage might occur when it’s time to lift them off. Wide wires can also create large indentations on the surface of the cakes when the hot layers are inverted—not a big deal if you’re using a thick icing, but they can show through a dusting of confectioners’ sugar or a thin glaze. I prefer round racks as opposed to square or rectangular ones, because they make transferring the layers for assembly less awkward.
Let the layers cool in their pans on the wire racks for eight to ten minutes before attempting to turn them out. Because they’ll shrink a bit as they cool, they’ll release from the pans easier.
Spray the racks with nonstick coating before inverting the layers onto the racks to keep them from sticking. Carefully lift the hot pans from the inverted cakes, peel off the parchment, and let the layers cool thoroughly before frosting them.
Size up your cake before frosting
Before assembling your cake, look at the layers to judge the order in which they’re to be placed. If all went well, the layers should be even. Occasionally, though, odd-shaped layers can result from oven racks that aren’t level or from an oven resting on an uneven floor. If your layers still aren’t flat, level the tops by slicing off the uneven portion with a long serrated knife.
When you’re ready to frost the cake, always choose the tallest and most level layer for the bottom. If the bottom is lopsided, the remaining layers will tilt or slide. For a two-layer cake, start with the bottom layer placed top side down. After applying frosting across the surface, position the top layer right side up so that two level surfaces meet in the middle.
For a three-layer cake, position the bottom and middle layers top side down and the third layer top side up. If the layers are uneven, place the thinner side over the thicker side of the cake beneath.
When a cake layer must be split into multiple layers, always place the crumb or cut side of the layer in the middle, never at the top or bottom. This way, no crumbs are visible on the outside of the cake, and the surface to be frosted will be smooth and even.