How to Bake a Cake: The Ultimate Guide

Learn how to bake a cake with our collection of from-scratch recipes, baking tools, cake decorating tips and more.

As Julia Child once said, “A party without a cake is just a meeting.” And how true! Learning how to bake a cake, even a simple one, is your gateway to making any gathering—whether it’s a birthday, graduation party or just a weeknight dinner—into a celebration.

You can make cakes at home easily. Just check out our essential techniques, cake recipes and must-have gear to get started. Soon, all your get-togethers will turn into occasions to celebrate.

How to Bake a Cake

Taste of Home

At Taste of Home, we have hundreds of cake recipes in our library. These cakes require various techniques. However, the steps below outline how most classic cakes are made. Use this as a guide when you’re getting ready to make a birthday cake or other special occasion dessert.

Step 1: Prep the cake pans

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Start your cake by preparing your baking pans. For layered cakes, that means greasing and lining round cake pans.

To do this, use baking spray, butter or shortening to coat the inside of the pan. Then add a round parchment paper to the bottom of the pan and give that a quick coat of cooking spray.

This process ensures that the cake doesn’t stick to the pans once it’s baked. And, yes, our Test Kitchen recommends this step even with nonstick pans.

Step 2: Cream ingredients

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To start the cake batter, pull out your stand mixer (a hand mixer works, too). Add the sugar and room-temp butter to the bowl and cream until light and fluffy—about 5 minutes.

Then add in the eggs one at a time, beating until well combined. If your recipe calls for extracts, this is the time to add them.

Taking your time at this stage allows your batter to achieve the right airy consistency later.

Test Kitchen Tip: Be sure to use room-temperature eggs and softened butter. Room-temp ingredients blend together much easier.

Step 3: Combine dry ingredients

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Next, combine your dry ingredients. These will typically include flour or cake flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and sometimes extras like cocoa powder or baking spices.

Step 4: Alternate wet and dry ingredients

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It’s time to start adding the dry ingredients to your creamed mix. Alternate adding the dry mix with any remaining wet ingredients until you have a smooth batter.

Wet ingredients can include milk, buttermilk, sour cream, yogurt or water.

Step 5: Portion out

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With your batter finished, it’s time to add it to the pans you prepared. For layer cakes, you can divide the batter by eye or use a kitchen scale to make sure the batter is split between the pans perfectly.

Whatever method you use, know that it is important for the amount of batter in each pan to be as equal as possible. This makes baking the cakes evenly much easier.

Step 6: Bake and cool

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After dividing your cake into individual pans, pop the pans into the oven and bake for the minimum recommended time according to the recipe.

When the time is up, check if the cake is done. You can do this by tapping the top of the cake. If the cake doesn’t spring back to your touch, it needs more time. If it springs back when tapped, it’s baked. You can also test the cake with a toothpick. The cake is fully baked when the pick comes away with a few moist crumbs or no crumbs at all.

Once baked, remove the pans from the oven and allow them to cool on a wire rack for 10 to 15 minutes. Then invert the pans and lift them away from the cakes. Peel away the parchment and allow the cakes to cool completely before frosting.

Step 7: Frost

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When the layers are finally cool, you can frost the cake. There are plenty of types of frosting out there to choose from, but our Test Kitchen suggests you try a classic American buttercream for your first batch. This frosting is simple to make and exceptionally delicious.

To frost, first add a generous scoop of frosting on top of the first layer of cake and smooth with an offset spatula. Repeat until you’ve stacked all the layers.

Then give the whole cake a very thin coat of icing. This is called a crumb coat and it helps to contain crumbs. Chill the cake in the fridge or freezer for about 10 minutes, then finish frosting by adding swoops of buttercream with a spatula.

How to Decorate a Cake

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One of the great joys of decorating a cake is that you can do as much or as little as you like.

For sheet cakes and single-layer cakes, all you have to do is swirl your favorite frosting on top with an offset spatula. Then you can scatter sprinkles, chocolate curls or even crushed cookies over the top.

Layer cakes require a bit more effort. Be sure to make plenty of buttercream to sandwich between each layer of cake. Stack the layers and cover in icing. You can then use a piping bag fitted with different pastry tips to create intricate designs. If that’s not your style, try a ganache drip, edible flowers or just a very festive cake topper.

Types of Cake

There are lots of kinds of cake out there—and we’re not just talking about flavor! Cakes vary widely in the techniques used to make them, ingredients, proportions and presentation. Here are some of our favorite types of cake.

Layer Cake

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These are the cakes we know and love. A tall, layered cake is what makes birthday parties so special. Layer cakes are simply cakes that are stacked high and sandwiched with frosting or other fillings.

Layer cakes can be frosted and decorated on the outside or even kept naked (minimal frosting on the outside reveals the layers inside). These cakes are the ultimate celebration desserts and can be made in any flavor combination.

Sheet Cake

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Not every celebration calls for a towering layer cake. That’s where sheet cakes come in.

Sheet cakes are baked in a sheet pan or 13×9 pan and topped with a single layer of frosting. They are equally delicious as their stacked counterparts but take less time and are easier to decorate. Like layer cakes, sheet cakes come in all sizes and flavors.

Pound Cake

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Pound cakes get their name from the traditional weight of ingredients used to make them: equal parts butter, flour, sugar and eggs.

Pound cakes tend to be dense and moist. You’ll often see pound cakes baked up in loaf pans or decorative fluted tube pans. Since these cakes tend to be light on decoration, they make for great everyday bakes. Make one for dessert and have it the next day for breakfast.

Bundt Cake

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Bundt cakes are named for the type of pan used to bake them. Bundt pans, also called fluted cake pans, are decorative molds that typically have a hole in the center.

To make these molded cakes, you can use a variety of cake recipes. Our Test Kitchen recommends opting for recipes specifically formulated for these decorative cake pans or cake recipes with heavier batters like pound cake. Avoid recipes for angel food cakes, chiffon cakes or boxed cake mixes.

Perhaps the best part about baking Bundts (other than that they are absolutely delectable) is that they don’t require a lot of fuss to finish. Once you remove a Bundt cake from its pan, decorate it with a simple glaze or a bit of confectioners’ sugar. Learn how to make chocolate glaze for doughnuts in your kitchen.

Angel Food Cake and Chiffon Cake

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If you’re searching for a light and airy cake, look for angel food cake and chiffon cake recipes. These cakes get their light texture and volume from whipped egg whites. These cakes are also baked in a tube pan, giving them a distinctive shape.

Because these cakes are so delicate, they’re often served up simply without much frosting. Fresh fruit and homemade whipped cream heaped on the side is optional but highly encouraged.

Cake Roll

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Cake rolls are a great way to serve cake a little differently. Cake rolls are made up of a light sponge cake and rolled up with the filling of your choice—jelly, frosting or even ice cream. You can leave cake rolls plain, dust them with a bit of confectioners’ sugar or frost them—it’s all up to you.

Mastering the swirl can seem tricky, but if you follow our guide for how to make a cake roll, you should have no trouble.

Coffee Cake

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Coffee cakes are, simply, cakes intended to be eaten alongside coffee or tea. They’re commonly made in tube pans or fluted cake pans (though you’ll see them made in 13×9 pans and even round cake pans at times).

These cakes are served unadorned—no frosting needed! Also, they tend to be a bit less sweet since they’re meant more as a snack or breakfast than a dessert.

Cake Baking Tips

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Whether you’re a master baker or just have a favorite boxed cake mix (hey, we do!), there are always some tips to brush up on before baking so you get the best possible results.

How do you make cake moist?

Cakes get moisture from all sorts of ingredients. Some cakes, like our Test Kitchen’s favorite vanilla cake, rely upon sour cream for moisture. Other recipes may call for buttermilk, yogurt or even applesauce. All these ingredients add moisture to your cake, so be sure not to scrimp on them. If a cake calls for a full cup of sour cream, be sure to add it.

Also, don’t overbake your cake! All the moisture-adding ingredients in the world won’t do you any good if you leave the cake in the oven for too long.

How do you fix dry cake?

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, your cake ends up dry. You might end up with a dry cake if you accidentally add too much flour or overbake it.

You can fix a dry cake by adding a simple syrup wash or milk soak the way Christina Tosi does. Consider transforming a dry cake into a trifle, too. Adding creams, fruits and more can add moisture and flavor to a dry cake.

How can you tell when cake is done?

The toothpick test is the easiest way to test a cake. Insert the pick into the center of the cake. If it comes away sticky or covered in batter, the cake needs more time in the oven. If the toothpick comes out of the cake with a few moist crumbs, it’s baked through.

If you can’t find a toothpick, get creative! Try a bamboo skewer or a sharp paring knife. If you don’t have anything to pierce your cake with, try pressing the top of the cake. If it springs back, it’s ready to come out of the oven.

What oven rack should you bake cakes on?

Just like when baking cookies, you should use the middle rack to bake your cakes. You don’t want the cake too close to the heating elements on the bottom or top of the oven. Using the middle rack ensures your cake will be cooked evenly.

How do you cut a cake?

To cut a cake, dip your knife in hot water, then wipe it dry. The warm blade will cut cleanly through all the layers to reveal a gorgeous slice. Be sure to wipe it clean between slices.

How do you store cake?

After you’ve enjoyed your cake, you might find yourself with some leftovers. Cakes are best eaten within a week and stored in a cake keeper or cake dome. If the frosting is heat-sensitive (think Swiss meringue buttercream, cream cheese or whipped cream), keep that cake in the fridge.

You can freeze cakes as well—frosted or unfrosted. Just be sure to wrap them tightly in plastic wrap or seal them in an airtight bag or container.

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Lisa Kaminski
Lisa is a former Taste of Home editor and passionate baker. During her tenure, she poured her love of all things sweet (and sometimes savory) into Bakeable, Taste of Home's baking club. Lisa also dedicated her career here to finding and testing the best ingredients, kitchen gear and home products for our Test Kitchen-Preferred program. At home, you'll find her working on embroidery and other crafts.