Many home bakers have been told— by Food Network, by cookbooks, by their grandmothers — that the best way to check the doneness of a cake is by piercing the center with a toothpick. If it comes out clean, the cake is done. However, baker Mandy Merriman says that “if the toothpick comes out clean, your cake is most likely overbaked.”
I first came across this warning from Merriman when reading through her new cookbook, “I’ll Bring The Cake: Recipes for Every Season and Occasion,” which was released on Wednesday. In the introduction to the book, Merriman, who is also known for her hit blog “Baking with Blondie,” writes:
A common method for testing cake doneness is to insert a toothpick in the center, and if the toothpick comes out clean (a.k.a. with no crumbs), then the cake should be done. But I’ve found that this method actually leads to overbaking and makes for drier cakes.
I’m admittedly not much of a baker, but the “toothpick trick” was one of those cooking tips — much like adding salt to a pot of water before boiling, or poking holes in a potato before baking — that I’d never really questioned. It just seemed like an agreed-upon best practice. So, naturally I reached out to Merriman to better understand her tip.
“I love that there’s a lot of different methods that can help us learn how to make a moist cake,” Merriman told me via email. “For me, I’ve learned that when I lean more into how I’m preparing the cake batter — by not over-mixing once I’ve added in my dry ingredients — and the time and temperature I’m baking my cake layers (check your oven temperature to make sure it’s actually baking at the temperature it’s supposed to be), that my cakes come out moist and the texture is exactly what it should be.”
Merriman continued, saying that opening and closing the oven lets the warm air out, which can affect the way your final product looks and tastes. Think about old-school cartoons in which a character is making a delicate souffle; inevitably someone bangs the oven door closed and the dish dramatically sinks, folding in upon itself. It’s a common enough comedic turn that it’s become a trope, and while the result won’t be quite as cartoonish, opening the oven to stick in a toothpick can risk a sinking cake if it’s not ready.
“So I ditched that tip, and stick to focusing more on the mixing, temperature, and time in the oven instead,” Merriman wrote. “My cakes have been great ever since!”
While not as cut-and-dry as the toothpick trick, what I like about Merriman’s advice is that it enables home bakers (like me!) to better understand the hows and whys of making sure a cake turns out. This can help cooks spot potential problems before their cake even gets into the oven. Let’s break the new steps down:
The first time it dawned on me that cake batter could even be overmixed was when I was attempting to make a very amateur version of Chrstina Tosi’s Milk Bar birthday cake. To prepare, I (forgive the pun) devoured every interview I could find that featured her discussing the baking process. When I found this great 2012 article from Texas Monthly, I printed it out and it still lives in a vanilla extract-stained folder in my kitchen.
In her conversation with journalist Layne Lynch, Tosi said that she believed most people over mix their batters and doughs without even realizing.
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“Same thing with biscuits,” she said. “It’s all about adding the dry ingredients, mixing it just enough, and then letting it be. When you introduce any sort of flour into your baked goods, you’re introducing gluten, and gluten is great for bread, but you don’t want it in your cookies and you don’t want it in your cakes… I do a lot of it by hand just to make sure I’m not over mixing it.”
Since reading that, I also tend to avoid mixing cake batter and cookie dough by hand — though I still gladly take the help from my KitchenAid mixer and dough hook when making bread. That’s one of the easiest ways to prevent overmixing. Pay attention to how your batter looks, too. Is it getting elastic or stringy? That’s a sign that gluten is developing and it’s time to ease up on the stirring if you don’t want a gummy or heavy cake.
Tip: One of the things that I like most about Merriman’s new book, “I’ll Bring The Cake: Recipes for Every Season and Occasion,” is that she emphasizes augmenting boxed cake mixes. This is a great way to take some of the guesswork out of mixing when you’re learning how to make a new type of cake at home.
As Merriman writes in her book, unfortunately “not all ovens bake at the temperature you set them at.” The easiest way to make sure yours is accurate? Pick up a simple oven thermometer to test the real temperature of your oven. Most supermarkets have them in the aisle with kitchen tools or in the baking aisle and the most basic models start at around $6.
Set your oven to a variety of temperatures and compare what the oven indicator reads to what the temperature shown on the thermometer. When I’ve tested in new apartments, I tend to set it at 100, 200, 300, 400 and 500 degrees and check at each milestone. Each oven I’ve owned has been a little different.
If your oven is off by just a few degrees — say ten degrees in either direction — you can note that and adapt your baking temperature. If it’s more than that, your oven may actually be in need of a tune-up.
Time in oven
Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the biggest contributors to relative cake doneness is how long the pan of batter spends in the oven. If you pull it too early, you’re left with a gooey center. If you pull it too late, it’s crumbly and overdone. Most cake recipes offer a range for the recommended cooking time. Take a look at your cake through the oven window at the earliest point. Paraphrasing some recommendations from King Arthur Baking Company, use your senses to answer the following questions:
- Are the cake edges slightly pulling away from the pan? If yes, this is a sign the cake is fully baked.
- If you are baking a yellow or white cake, has the top turned golden brown? If yes, this is a sign the cake is fully baked (this is a little harder to tell with chocolate or red velvet, admittedly).
- Is the cake fragrant? Your cake should smell like cake! If the scent isn’t wafting from the oven quite yet, your cake may still need a few minutes.
If the visual and scent cues indicate that the cake is ready, Merriman recommends a different test. “I take my cakes out once the center of the cake springs back when I touch it.” King Arthur Baking Company recommends this method as well. “If your fingers leave little indents, your cake isn’t done baking,” they write. “Return it to the oven for at least five minutes before checking it again.”
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