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The light at the end of the (cake) tunnel – update

Getting there - the tunnel is gone, but it's still a little fallen in the center.

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Recipes for baked goods can be hard. There’s a lot of chemistry going on in baking, and when a recipe doesn’t perform that well in the test kitchen, the solution to the problem isn’t always obvious. Take this pound cake for example. The first time we made it, it tasted great but developed a gaping tunnel down its center.

When something like this happens, we have two options: Ask the recipe’s creator for help, or turn to our library of food science reference books. In this case, we did both. The author mentioned that tunneling is often caused by overmixing, so rather than mixing in the dry ingredients by machine, we should gently fold them in by hand. That change helped a lot – the tunnel was much, much smaller, but it was still there.

Next we turned to Cookwise by Shirley Corriher. This book should be in every cook’s library – answers to most kitchen mysteries lie within. In Cookwise, we learned that oven temperature is also a big factor in tunneling. We were baking our cake at 350 degrees, but deep cakes baked in bundt and loaf pans often need a lower temperature so the center of the cake can cook before the outside sets and overcooks. We tried two more cakes, reducing the oven temp to 325 and 300 degrees. At both temps, we had a mixed measure of success: the tunnel was gone but the cake was fallen in the center. The texture of the cake baked at 300 degrees was a little grainy, so we decided to stick with 325 degrees. But what to do about the fallen center? It’s not the end of the world – as I said, the cake has always tasted great – but the perfectionists in us want it to look better, too.

When a cake appears to be rising fine during baking but then suddenly falls, the culprit might be too much baking powder or soda. Overleavened cakes develop big air bubbles that run into each other, float to the top, and pop. So for our next experiment, we’ll be trying different amounts of baking powder. Do you think that’ll solve the problem? Stay tuned to find out.

Update: Eureka!  Just 1/4 tsp. less baking powder, and the cake looks perfect without any noticeable difference in texture. So in the end, very minor-sounding adjustments – a tad less baking powder and an oven temp 25 degrees cooler – made a really huge difference. Isn’t that amazing?



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  • user-231958 | 10/11/2021

    This is terrific. Today I encountered this problem for the first time. This is the best troubleshooting aid I have found on the internet. Thank you for publishing it.

    The loaf cake I was baking used olive oil, flour, yogurt, orange juice and other ingredients including both baking powder and baking soda. I'll try using less rising ingredients.

    I am wondering whether a lower protein content flour would help. And would switching to a self-rising flour help?

  • User avater
    TheFoodGeek | 07/23/2009

    I think that reducing the leavening has a good chance of solving the collapsing center problem. Out of curiosity, how much flour and leavening are you using for this recipe?

  • User avater
    BasementBaker | 07/23/2009

    I have also run into this same problem and found that too much sugar can also cause the middle to cave in. That is what happened to the cupcakes in my blog post Multiplication Frustration. I also have had problems with pound cake and baking temps and found that lowering to 325 helped. You might also have to bake it a little longer.

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