Plus, learn how to use your judgement to tell when a cake is baked through. Once you master this skill, you'll be able to make a perfectly baked cake every single time, even if the oven isn't running perfectly or you don't have the right pan.

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No matter how much we may know about measuring ingredients, setting up our mise en place in an organized way before we begin baking, and creaming our butter and sugar until properly fluffy, baking a cake can feel like a leap of faith. Once the batter is poured into the pan and you pop it in the oven, there's no going back. Recipes are certainly helpful roadmaps, but when it comes down to it, we can only follow the steps up to a certain point; ultimately, we need to use our judgment to determine if the cake is done.

When baking a cake, there are few things to consider that can affect the cooking time. Here, we'll explain the most common reasons why your cake isn't done in the amount of time your recipe says it should take and outline what to look for to indicate that your confection is baked through.

The Oven

The main factor in managing the cooking time of your cake is the oven temperature. It's not unusual for an oven to run below temperature, often by at least 25 degrees, and some ovens run hot; if the sides of your cake brown before the center is set, you will need to lower the temperature. If you notice that this is the case, consider having your oven recalibrated by a repair person. In our test kitchen, visits from Wolf repair service are fairly routine. They assure our ovens are running as they should. With time and daily use, every oven will need this. To see how your oven bakes, buy an oven thermometer and insert it on the center rack. Turn your oven to the desired temperature, and when the oven tells you it's reached it, check the thermometer to see what the actual internal temperature is.

Your oven rack should be in the middle of the oven (unless otherwise specified in the recipe). Always bear in mind that there should be air circulation around the pan for even cooking, so if you have other pans in the oven, they may slow down the cooking. Each item will give off steam and affect the circulation of hot air. This is one reason why many professional bakers prefer to use convection ovens. Another thing you can do to assure even cooking is to rotate the pan approximately halfway through the allotted baking time. This is a good habit to adopt because many ovens have hot spots. Often, the back of the oven is hotter than the front. Opening the door often during cooking will lower the oven temperature, too, which can prolong the cooking time.

Chocolate Swiss Meringue Buttercream Frosting
Credit: Yuki Sugiura

Cake Pans

Pan size and dimensions will affect the baking of a cake. If you don't have a pan of exactly the dimensions a recipe calls for, accept that you will need to pay extra attention during the baking time. (And check out this baking pan conversion guide.) If, for example, you are using a slightly larger pan, then it stands to reason that your batter will not come up as high—and a one inch-thick cake will cook more quickly than a 1 1/2 inch-thick cake. Pay close attention to smells and use the tests below to see when the cake is done.

In addition to all these points, if the recipe gives a range of time (35-45 minutes, for example), then use the earlier time as your starting point. It's a good idea to begin checking for doneness about five minutes before that to be safe.

These Are the Signs That Your Cake Is Fully-Baked

Learn to use your senses to tell you when a cake is finished; when an oven has an unreliable temperature, you'll be able to identify a fully-cooked cake rather than rely on timing. Look closely at the center as well as edges, then check for the four surest signs your cake is baked. The first sign? The center of the cake doesn't wobble when you shake the pan. Next, reach for a cake tester or skewer. Once inserted deep into in the center, it should come out clean, without any batter coating it. (One note: Some recipes may specify a moist center with a few crumbs clinging to the skewer, so be sure to read the description). Third, see if the sides of the cake are just beginning to pull away from the pan; this is a sign that the cake is done. If they pull firmly away, however, the cake may be overbaked. Fourth, consider the top of your cake. The surface will be slightly springy when pressed if the cake is baked through.

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