In baking, it's not always clear whether (or even how) you should grease your pans beforehand.
If you're lucky, every recipe you encounter will specifically instruct you to grease, not grease, grease plus flour, grease only the sides and use parchment on the bottom, or whatever the case might be.
That's because there are simply too many variables, and you shouldn't be expected to figure it all out yourself. This is why the easiest course is always to follow the recipe's instructions.
Still, while a recipe might say to grease the pan, it might not specifically explain how. We'll describe a few techniques below.
With that said, cakes, quick breads, and brownies are the only baked goods you should even consider greasing the pan for. Don't bother greasing the pan for cookies, and by no means should you ever grease a pan for baking a pie or a pizza.
To Flour or Not to Flour?
In general, flour is almost always unnecessary. To begin with, the whole purpose of greasing a pan is so the cake doesn't stick. And flour itself doesn't prevent sticking—quite the opposite, in fact.
With certain cakes, like sponge and angel food that don't contain any leavening agent other than whipped egg whites, a coating of flour helps the batter cling to the sides of the pan so that it doesn't collapse. Therefore, there's never any reason to flour the bottom of a pan. Still, if the recipe says to flour the pan, do it. (We'll describe how below.)
Likewise, if you're using baking spray, with the oil and flour combined, simply spray the whole pan and be done with it. (Don't worry about just spraying the sides.)
Otherwise, you're generally fine to just grease the sides and use a piece of parchment on the bottom. Parchment paper is great for the bottoms of flat pans, like round cake pans and loaf pans. Obviously you can't use parchment on molded pans like Bundt pans, but we'll talk about those in a moment.
When Not to Use Flour
Because flouring the pan can leave a floury residue on the surface of the finished cake, you might not want to use flour if the finished cake will be served naked (or with some sort of clear glaze or a simple dusting of powdered sugar). This won't be as much of an issue if you're planning to frost the cake.
Another case where you might not use flour, even if the recipe directs you to do so, is when you're baking brownies. For brownies, grease the pan as directed, and if the recipe calls for greasing and flouring, feel free to substitute cocoa powder for the flour. Not only will the cocoa powder add flavor, it will prevent the unsightly white crust that can form when greasing with flour.
The cocoa powder trick works with chocolate cakes as well.
Butter, Shortening, or Cooking Spray?
The thing to remember about butter is that it contains water and milk, neither of which is particularly useful in preventing your cake from sticking. Indeed, milk can actually act as glue.
On the other hand, butter tastes wonderful, and the caramelized milk proteins can add a lovely, golden-brown crust to the edges of your cake. The verdict: Use butter if you want to.
But if you have extreme concerns about your cake sticking, by all means use shortening (which is pure fat with no water), cooking spray, or baking spray. Coconut oil or bacon fat will also work. (So would clarified butter.)
How to Grease a Pan
- Apply your chosen grease generously to the entire inside of the pan. Fingers almost always work best for this, since you can feel any spots you may have missed.
- Optional: Sprinkle a small handful of flour across as much of the pan's interior as you can. Shake the loose particles of flour across the pan to distribute, tilting it to make sure you get the sides, then invert the pan, tap out any excess flour, and you're done.
- Cut a piece of parchment paper to fit the bottom of the pan. Grease only the sides of the pan, then insert the parchment paper.
- Optional: After greasing the sides, treat with flour as described above, then place the parchment on the ungreased, unfloured bottom.
You don't need to grease the parchment, but if you're using baking or cooking spray, go ahead and insert the paper, then spray the whole thing and call it a day. There's certainly no point in spraying underneath the parchment.
Some bakers recommend using a pastry brush to paint the melted shortening onto the inside of a pan. This method is more useful when using a molded pan like a Bundt pan, with its myriad corners and crevices.
Using a nonstick pan will also help.
Another tip: It's best to grease just before you add your batter. Doing it too soon gives the oil or fat time to drip down the sides of the pan and pool at the bottom, especially if your kitchen is warm.
How to Grease a Bundt Pan
Spray the entire inside of the pan with baking spray, making sure to spray the tube as well as the sides and bottom.
Alternately, paint with melted shortening or grease by hand, then sprinkle flour as described above.