Cake Failures: Troubleshooting Problems

Get the 411 on what can go wrong

Removing the wedding cakes from the oven
Colin Weston/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

Those gorgeous-looking cakes you see in bakery shops are the ideal you want to make yourself. But what you are admiring is their professional-quality decoration. That takes skill to master. The cake under the decorations is more important to the enjoyment of eating it, and most cooks can make spectacular ones with a little knowledge and good recipes.

Baking might take place in your kitchen, but it is like a science that relies on many different ingredients combining in a precise manner to create the desired texture and denseness. Substituting ingredients, for instance, can cause a reaction that ruins your cake; sometimes it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what went wrong.

Common Cake Baking Problems and Causes

The following are some of the most common problems home bakers experience when baking cakes. Whether you've experienced the issue or just want to learn how to avoid it, we've got you covered.

  • Dry Cake: Causes include baking too long or at too high a temperature; too much flour, baking soda or baking powder was used; or there was too little sugar, butter or shortening.
  • Tacky Top Crust: Causes include a too-low oven temperature; too short baking time, humidity, too much liquid, or the cake was covered before it was completely cooled.
  • Coarse Texture: Causes include not enough liquid ingredients, the sugar and butter were not sufficiently creamed, or the mix contained too much baking soda or baking powder.
  • Tunnels or Holes: Causes include mixing the cake batter either too much or not enough or the temperature in the oven was too high.
  • Flat: Causes include over- or undermixing the batter, using a pan too large for the cake or the oven temperature was either too high or too low.
  • Peaked in the Center: The cake was mixed too much, or the oven temperature was too hot.
  • Fallen Cake: Causes include using too small of a pan; mismeasuring the wet ingredients; using expired baking soda or baking powder, or the oven temperature was too low or the time too short, resulting in a cake that is not done.
  • Shrinks From Edges of Pans: Causes include over-greasing pans, crowding pans in the oven, underfilling pans, not enough liquid, the batter was mixed too long, or the cake was baked too long or at too high a temperature.
  • Uneven Browning: Causes include crowding pans in the oven and hot spots or poorly circulating heat in the oven.

Making the Right Substitution

Sometimes it's necessary to make a substitution in a recipe. If you do not make the correct substitution in a cake recipe, it can destroy the fantastic result you want. Here are some common cake batter substitutions.

  • 1 large egg equals 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
  • 1 cup milk equals 1/2 cup water, and 1/2 cup evaporated milk
  • 1 cup salted butter equals 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 cup shortening
  • 1 cup buttermilk equals 1 cup milk plus 1 teaspoon lemon juice or white vinegar
  • 1 ounce unsweetened chocolate equals 3 tablespoons cocoa and 1 tablespoon butter or shortening
  • 1 tablespoon flour equals 1/2 tablespoon cornstarch plus 2 teaspoons tapioca
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch equals 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour