You need more than just a cake mix and the additional ingredients listed on the box to make a flawless cake. Turning out a delicious and beautiful cake takes some basic equipment.
If you're sure you'll be baking, go ahead and buy the highest quality equipment you can afford. If you're relatively new to baking, you don't have to spend a lot of money on equipment. Big box and discount stores sell equipment at low prices. Also, secondhand stores and yard sales can be great places to pick up quality bakeware for spare change.
For even baking, a thin aluminum, stainless steel, or tin cake pan is best. These metals reflect heat and allow batter to bake evenly. Thicker, darker metals, nonstick metals, and glass pans can absorb heat and cause outer edges of your confection to overcook quickly. For best results when using a pan like this, set the oven 25 degrees lower than the temperature listed in the recipe.
It's possible to bake a beautiful cake using almost any pan — the trick is to understand the personality and function of your particular equipment. Manufacturer's instructions and websites often include helpful information.
Wonder what size pan to use? Refer to pan size and shape instructions detailed on the cake mix packaging. The manufacturers pay close attention to batch volume and loft and will steer you in the right direction every time. The only exception to this rule is if you're trying to achieve an unusual shape. Then refer to recipe instructions or instructions on the pan itself.
In Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World, author Vicki Myron describes a library with a collection of cake pans that library patrons could check out. This is highly unusual, but it's a great idea. Perhaps your local library would like to gather pieces and start a collection. Another option might be to loan and borrow equipment among friends who are bakers.
Cookie sheets are often made from stainless steel, tin, or nonstick metals. They are flat. Jellyroll pans are similar but have a one-inch lip around the outer edges. Many people use them interchangeably, but the lip around the edge of the jellyroll pan can keep cookies from baking evenly.
Cookie bakers will need more than one cookie sheet. Having two will usually work; having three is a luxury.
Because many basic ingredients are already measured out in the mix, there is usually little measuring when you bake with a cake mix. But because balancing the grains, sweetener, fats, and binders is so important, it's crucial to measure all additional ingredients exactly. All it takes is the proper equipment and a little attention to detail.
Measuring Dry Ingredients
Making sure you have exact measurements of dry ingredients requires measuring cups and measuring spoons. Measuring cups for dry ingredients often come in a set of differently sized, clearly labeled cups. Simply fill the cup or spoon marked to hold the correct amount and level it off with a table knife or spatula. The only exception to this rule is if a recipe calls for “tightly packed” ingredients, in which case you press ingredients into the cup with a spoon or other rounded object to pack as much into the cup as possible. Brown sugar usually needs to be packed into the measuring cup.
Measuring cups for wet ingredients are usually glass or plastic and are printed with levels for various measurements. Because liquids shift easily, exact measurements can be difficult to read. In order to get the best possible reading, fill the cup and then set it on a level surface. Adjust your stance so that you are at eye level with the measuring line. This assures that you're not adding too much or two little due to a slant, tilt, or another shift of the level line. Newer liquid measuring cups are often designed so that you can get a correct reading from above, eliminating the need to bend over.
About Fluid Ounces
Fluid ounces are a popular notation of measurement for wet ingredients. When this amount is listed, it is generally because the ingredient is a store-bought item with a measurement marked on the package. The marking generally exists to let you know what size package to buy in order to fill the recipe's requirement. For example, in an ingredient list, the amount of milk you need will be listed in cups, but evaporated milk will be listed in ounces. This is because you'll probably buy a gallon of milk and only use part of it for your cake, but you'll buy the exact amount of evaporated milk and use all of it to bake your cake.
You can also measure out ounces. A general rule of thumb is that 1 tablespoon is equal to ½ fluid ounce, 1 cup of liquid is equal to 8 ounces, 2 cups is equal to 16 ounces, and so on.
Measuring Butter and Shortening
Butter and shortening are often sold in sticks. Simply slice off the amount called for according to the measurement line given on the package. If you buy margarine or shortening in a tub, you can simply spoon your ingredients into a dry measuring cup. Pack ingredients in with a spoon to eliminate bubbles, holes, or other inconsistencies that could throw off your measurement. Take care to level off the top of the cup using a knife or another utensil with a sharp edge; you don't want to use too much.
Baking requires basic utensils: wooden spoons, flat-edged knives for measuring, a rubber scraper for transferring ingredients, and spatulas for lifting baked cookies from sheet to wire rack. Most bakers have favorite utensils that serve them well in a variety of cooking projects. These utensils are usually among the standard favorites and are easy to find in almost any discount store.
Tools for Mixing
Mixing thoroughly is a crucial step in most cake recipes. It's a simple step, but it does require appropriate equipment.
A set of mixing bowls is essential for almost any cooking project. Cake batters are fairly easy to mix and do not generally leave colors or odors behind in porous bowls, so mixing bowls made of almost any material will do. Still, a stainless steel or thick glass set of mixing bowls is a fantastic investment. Neither is porous, so they're safe from cross-contamination, and you'll be able to use them for a variety of cooking projects. They are also sturdy enough to stand up to the power of an electric beater.
Multiple mixing bowls are a good idea, even for those who wash as they go. Some recipes call for you to use bowls of different sizes.
The taste and texture of a cake rely on the beating of the batter. If you beat it too little, your batter might taste like flour or contain lumps. If you beat it too much, the resulting cake is tougher. There was a time — and it wasn't long ago — when home bakers could achieve the perfect texture with a wooden spoon and elbow grease, but the cook who does that these days is tough to find. Most home bakers use either a tabletop mixer or handheld electric beaters. For most cake batters a hand-held mixer does the job admirably. But if you do lots of baking or think you might graduate to breads and other thicker batters, a tabletop mixer is a better fit for the job.
A cooling rack is simply a wire rack that lifts cooling baked goods off a solid surface like a table or countertop so that they can cool. It can be tempting to skip this finishing step. Don't! Baked goods that remain in hot bake ware continue to cook. Skipping this last step can mean overcooked edges and baked goods that stick to the pan.
To successfully remove a cake layer onto a wire rack, remove the pan from the oven and put it directly onto the wire rack. Allow it to cool for about 10 minutes. Loosen the layer from the side of the pan by running a knife or spatula around the edges.
Place a clean linen towel or thick paper towel over the top of the layer. Place the wire rack on top of the towel. Flip the rack and the pan over at once so that the rack rests on the counter and the cake pan is upside down on top of the rack. This supports the cake while you flip it. Gently remove the pan.
Once the cake is resting on the rack and free of the pan, let each cake layer cool completely before continuing with the recipe instructions. The process is tricky, but it can result in a perfect, tender layer of cake if it is approached with patience and care.