Praise the autumnal gods: it’s finally cool enough to get reacquainted with our ovens. (Perfect timing, since it’s also GBBO season!) But even the most seasoned home bakers run into the occasional baking snafus, particularly when it comes to cakes.
Lately, I’ve been a bit flummoxed in the layer cake department. My favorite Instagram bakers whip up perfectly uniform cake layers with ease; meanwhile, all of my layers come out looking like the Pantheon, with impossibly domed tops that leave me hacking away with a serrated knife into the wee hours. Sure, cake scraps are fun to eat, and domes can be managed with the help of a steady hand and a turntable. But domed cake layers can also lead to all manner of mishaps, including uneven frosting distribution and cakes that look like sugary replicas of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
With this in mind, I checked in with a few experts, including independent Instagram chefs, casual home bakers, and trained pastry chefs. My question is this: How do you bake flatter cake layers?
Slow your rise
“Bake your cake 25 degrees lower than the temperature the recipe calls for. A lower temperature will slow down the rise of your cake in the oven and will result in a flatter top. This will add five to 15 minutes on your bake time (depending on the size of your cake round), so keep an eye on it. As soon as you take your cake layer out of the oven, put a kitchen towel over it and push down lightly with your hands to flatten the top. This only works when the cake is very hot—pushing down lightly will allow you to shape the cake, but pushing too hard can ruin the texture. I tend to use this trick with cakes that don’t need to be airy/light; it’s perfect for something like a carrot cake.” —Srishti Jain, home cook and baker, Srishti’s Supper Club
“To get a flatter top usually depends on the temperature that you bake your cake. In a restaurant oven, I typically bake around 250F with a low fan. In a typical home kitchen oven, I bake my cakes around 300F. It takes longer to bake, but the layers are more even and rise beautifully.” —Briana Riddock, pastry chef at Rock Steady Atlanta
Weigh your batter
“I do like even levels, and for me that includes weighing batter. I didn’t think it was a crazy thing to do, but I know many home bakers that don’t weigh batter and always complain about uneven layers.” —Alessandra López-Szekely, pastry chef and home baker
When in doubt, grab a sleeve
“My trick is to use Wilton pan sleeves. You wrap it around the pan to help it bake evenly with a flat top! Also, try not to over-mix your batter, and make sure to measure all of your ingredients properly on a food scale. I also water bathe my cheesecakes for a nice even top.” —Houda Afra, home baker, Baked by Houda
Try the Milk Bar method
“I struggle with flat top cakes quite a bit. I have a serrated knife for the occasion, but I’m still imperfect at cutting the tops off evenly. It’s something I’ve been trying to tackle via the Milk Bar method. For those that may not know, Milk Bar cakes consist of layers cut out with a cake ring. I bake a cake in a standard 9 x 13 pan and then, using a 9-inch cake ring, I can cut two even layers and stack them. It’s definitely circumventing the issue, but I’ve found it works in a pinch!” —Kevin Porter, home baker, Kevin Bakin
Smooth tops need smooth icing
“It’s important to make sure the icing is even between the layers of the cake. Same with the icing on the outside. And a big tip that’s helped me is to start smoothing the icing from the top first; get that flattened out, then do the sides. That will give you little lifts of icing on the top edge, and then you can gently smooth that for crisp corners/edges.” —Olivia Bacon, home baker
Embrace the dome
“My honest advice? Embrace the dome. Use a cake leveler and save those cake tops in the freezer for emergency dessert. Thaw them out in the fridge for a few hours before you’re ready to eat. I like to sear mine in a pan with butter and top with a scoop of ice cream.” —Francine Tamakloe, home baker