What’s wrong with my cake?!

Enjoy those rice cakes, won't you.

At this time of restraint and edamame beans it might seem cruel of me to be bringing up cake, but I’ve been making a lot of them recently (plus ça change…) so I thought I would write down a guide to what can go wrong, and the reasons behind it. Because from long experience, I know there is absolutely nothing more irritating than watching your beautiful cake rise, become fragrant and golden…then sink into a big flat pancake before your eyes. There have occasionally been tantrums…

The Leiths Bible, which, for baking and patisserie is still my Good Book has a very useful section entitled, somewhat primly, ‘Reasons for failure in cake making.’ Unfortunately, a lot of their reasons are to do with cakes that you or I will almost never think about making (Genoise Commune, anyone?!), so I’m going to aim for a more practical guide here. And then, just because I like to share my enthusiasm with you, I’m going to give you some hints on how to avoid them…

Your cake has sunk

This is probably the most common problem and is so easily avoidable!

  • Did you open the oven door too early? Tut tut tut. Leave the oven door alone! Blasting cold air into a warm oven will automatically cause your cake to sink if it isn’t set enough. If you must open the oven – if you need to cover the top to stop it burning for instance, try and wait until the cake has been in for at least 30-40 minutes – it will usually have risen enough that it won’t be a problem. Don’t throw it open and bang it shut either – opening and closing gently and smoothly will stop the rush of air and keep the oven temperature more accurate. Gordon Ramsay might kick them shut, but that doesn’t mean that you should.
  • Was your oven too hot? An over-heated oven will cause a thick crust to form on your cake before the middle is set, making you think that it’s cooked before it is, so you bring it out and two minutes later you have a cracked top crust and a load of dough on the inside. Buy an oven thermometer to be sure your oven is running at the correct heat – you’ll be surprised by how much they vary. Our testing ovens run 10 degrees low, but our photographer’s oven is high, and my oven just does its own thing most of the time. We can never be completely accurate in our timings for recipes as everyone’s ovens are different, so it’s worth checking that yours runs to temperature. Another neat trick if you’re making a big cake (over 10”) and you’re worried about it rising is to start it 10C higher than you need and after 10-15 minutes turn it down to the correct temperature. The high heat will kickstart the rise and form a crust (which stabilises the cake), and the correct temperature will make sure it stays moist.

Your cake has dried out

We’ve all done it – you’ve forgotten about the cake in the oven and now it’s burned/dry/crusty. It’s still salvageable! Try one of these…

  • If it’s burnt – Dark edges are easy to deal with – wait until it cools then shave off the burnt bits with either a sharp veg peeler or (more preferably) a sharp grater or microplane. Stop when you get to lighter sponge, and no one will ever know..
  • If it’s dry – If you’re worried it’s going to be dry in the middle, prick holes all over it while still hot, then either pour over some appropriate booze (I once used a whole bottle of PX sherry for a friend’s chocolate wedding cake), or a fruit syrup made with fresh orange/lemon juice, and a couple of tbsp sugar. There’s an orange drizzle cake recipe here with an excellent syrup. Abracadabra, problem solved and everyone will be saying ‘ooh, isn’t it moist, isn’t it just so moist!
  • If it’s crusty – A bit of crispiness is delicious, but if it’s a little too crunchy, either leave it in the tin to cool (it will somewhat unappetisingly, sweat, but it will soften the crust a bit), or turn it out and cover it with a damp tea towel to cool. This works a treat with bread too.

 Your cake is too dense

I’m afraid this one’s just down to laziness and heavy-handedness. When we say to beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy we really do mean it. And that bit about gently folding in the flour isn’t just to fill our word count. Your cake’s fate is sealed the minute you mix butter and sugar together – part of the rise is formed by steam coming from these two melting, so the more you beat it, the more you break it down and increase the surface area, so the more steam you get which means…a lighter cake. And you fold in the flour rather than beating it so you don’t knock all the air out and ruin your hard work. Most recipes will tell you to use a metal spoon – we prefer a balloon whisk – it’s more efficient and has a smaller surface area to bash the mix with.

 Of course, there are hundreds of other things that can go wrong, but I think these are the Big Three. And remember baking really isn’t scary, you just have to follow the recipe, and use a little bit of intuition. God, I sound like Mary Poppins. Oh well, very happy baking to everyone and a jolly marvellous weekend…



Filed under Baking, Musings, Recipes, Sweet

14 responses to “What’s wrong with my cake?!

  1. I’ve been cooking cakes for years but lately they’ve been sinking in the middle.
    I don’t open the oven door
    Till they’ve finished cooking
    What’s going on ?

  2. Pingback: Any questions answered | Truefoodie

  3. Sara

    I am really keen to crack the baking this year as previous years my bakes have been more like biscuits or very leaden and not light at all. what initial tips could anyone give me before launching on what could be a very expensive learning curve!!

    • I think the best advice I could give you is to buy a set of measuring spoons, a decent electric beater, some metal springform cake tins, a set of digital scales and an oven thermometer! Once you’ve got these basic bits of kit, you should be fine. Try starting with someone like Nigel Slater’s cake recipes, or Delia. They’re always simple and they always work. Good luck!

  4. Tonia Wight

    Hi I just wanted to add that I think this is a great post!

    And to help pipkinera; 1decilitre is 100mililitres, so just multiply everything by 100 and pop it on the scales. And as truefoodie pointed out for water-based liquids 1g is very very very close to 1ml (the official definition is that at 4C (yes it depends on temperature) 1kg=1000g of PURE water is 1000ml).

    • Blimey Tonia, I bow to your scientific knowledge! I’ve always measured liquids on the scales and never had a problem, so I think very small differences in weight don’t make too much difference to the finished cake.

    • Thanks Tonia! That’s a great help for me 🙂


      • Tonia Wight

        No problem! Glad I can help.

        And truefoodie, I hide my head in shame, because I am indeed a scientist (but a love of baking too!!). And yes the difference in measurements is so small you wouldn’t be able to tell on even the most accurate of kitchen scales!

  5. AMAZING post !!!! I think this is my favourite of all your posts so far. (I’ve actually printed it out) I love to bake but don’t understand the science behind it. This is so useful. Thanks. I’ll be putting it into practice on Sunday.

  6. Maureen

    Sounds good TF. I think I have had all of those problems at some time!

  7. Kate

    It’s reassuring to hear that even baking pros can have baking failures. I attempted woman&home’s salted caramel millionaire’s shortbread last weekend and it was an unmitigated disaster! It TASTED lovely, but it just didn’t set properly 😦 I have since consulted with the woman&home gurus who explained that I didn’t cook my caramel for long enough (hence the melted chocolate simply sinking into the mixture, rather than layering on top). So for anyone who shares the same experience, keep cooking your caramel until it is properly thick… Here ends the lesson!

  8. I’ve just started baking and have been quite successful. However the last cake I made came out too *wet*. I had used another recipe and when I had finished mixing all the ingredients together it felt too runny…I continued to bake it anyway and had to leave it in 10 minutes longer as it just wasn’t setting.

    I have no idea what was wrong :-/


    • It sounds like your recipe wasn’t quite right, unless you weren’t accurate enough with your measurements? For baking, we always use digital scales, even for liquids (grams and millilitres weigh the same), so we can be sure that we have the right volumes. Some measuring jugs can be quite inaccurate!

      • Here in Sweden we use decilitres and they are measured in a scoop thing. I haven’t got the hang of converting the measurements yet to use scales. Maybe I should try an english recipe instead of Swedish! LOL

        Thanks for the help 🙂

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