THE WASHINGTON POST – Anyone who has ever baked a cake knows the despair of trying to turn it out of the pan, only to see it stick or break into pieces. I’ll never forget the first-ever birthday cake I baked for my then-boyfriend, now-husband, more than 15 years ago, when I somehow thought that baking in a nonstick pan meant I didn’t have to grease and flour it. You can imagine how that went.
Thankfully, frosting can hide many flaws. But most of us would rather not have to put Humpty Dumpty back together again if we can avoid it.
Cakes are full of ingredients prone to sticking – sugars and proteins, particularly. During baking, these compounds undergo chemical changes, individually and together, that make them more likely to bond to the pan. Older pans with scratches or other surface damage provide even more of an opportunity for sticking, as do pans with crevices or intricate patterns, such as Bundts.
Thankfully, with the right preparation, you can ensure your next cake comes out in one piece. First, here are the layers of protection that will help guarantee success.
Whether your cake pan is nonstick or not, you’re almost always going to want to grease your pan (see below for a few exceptions).
Whatever you use, make sure to apply an even, not excessive, coating.
A go-to for many bakers is vegetable shortening (what you’ll find at the store is trans-fat-free, other than the legally permissible trace amounts).
“Shortening has no taste, it’s inexpensive, it won’t brown or burn, and it’s always spreadable,” cookbook author Molly Stevens writes in Fine Cooking.
“Butter gives a sweet, rich flavour, but since it can brown or burn at a relatively low temperature, it makes a darker” crust with a toastier flavour than shortening does.
In a piece about Bundt cakes, PJ Hamel at King Arthur Baking noted that “milk solids in butter can act like glue, encouraging cake batter to stick to the pan”.
Not everyone agrees about oil as an option, either, as it, too, can burn and generate off-flavours. If too much is applied, it can pool at the bottom of the pan.
Non-stick cooking spray is often not recommended by manufacturers, especially in the case of non-stick cookware, because of the potential for gunky buildup over time.
Cookbook author Stella Parks confessed on Serious Eats to using cooking spray on her Bundt, with a few key steps: She wipes away excess spray on the rim of the pan with a damp towel before baking and then soaks the pan with hot, soapy water after turning out the cake before washing it completely a few minutes later.
For butter, I cut a tablespoon off the stick, let it briefly sit on the counter and then rub it around the pan, with the warmth from my hands softening it. You can apply almost-melted butter with a pastry brush, a strategy that works well with oil, too.
An exception: Do not grease pans for foam cakes, or cakes such as angel food and chiffon, that rely wholly or mostly on beaten egg whites for leavening. Fat can deflate these foams, Shirley O Corriher says in CookWise, though she notes that génoise is one style of sponge cake that should still use a greased-and-floured pan.
As Stevens explained, when dusted over a greased pan, “flour creates a smooth, thin, sealed crust on baked goods that helps them slide from the pan without resistance”.
Flour also provides resistance, otherwise batters may slip down rather than climb up the sides of a pan that has only been greased. For chocolate cakes, you can use cocoa powder, which will prevent white or grey streaks from marring the dark colour.
To flour a pan after greasing, add a tablespoon or two of flour and then spin, rotate and tap the pan to get even coverage. Tap out any excess flour over the compost or trash, or over a bowl or sheet of wax or parchment paper to re-use on another tin.
You definitely don’t want clumps of flour, which is one reason Parks also recommends sifting the coating into the pan.
Not everyone loves flour. King Arthur’s Hamel calls out its potential for gunk, instead preferring finely ground nut flour or granulated sugar. If you use sugar, you need to use a sufficient amount and remove the cake before it has cooled completely.
“While warm, sugar is still semi-liquid, and your sugar-coated cake should slide right out of the pan,” Hamel said. Cook’s Illustrated recommends coating a Bundt with one tablespoon vegetable oil and then one-third cup sugar.
You can achieve the convenience of fat and flour in baking spray with flour. You can also make your own coating.
In her lemon Bundt cake for The Washington Post, cookbook author Cathy Barrow recommends a paste made with equal amounts flour and shortening. Stevens offers a variation made with equal amounts flour, shortening and vegetable oil, which can be refrigerated if you make a bigger batch (let it soften to room temp before using).
For the ultimate safeguard, consider using parchment where possible, though it doesn’t work with all shapes of pans. At least greasing underneath parchment can help the paper stay in place, though in many instances, you’ll still want to grease and flour the pan to keep the sides of the cake from sticking.
Greasing and flouring the paper will ensure it releases without pulling off any of the cake crust. If you are planning to brush a cake with syrup, says Rose Levy Beranbaum in The Baking Bible, you can skip treating the paper since exposing the inside of the cake will make it easier to apply the syrup.
Parchment helps when you want to invert a cake from a pan or when you want to lift it out, forming a kind of sling so long as you have excess hanging over the edges. For round cakes, you can buy parchment liners with tabs that let you lift the cake out.
It’s important to pay attention to the specifics called for in a recipe, but in general, most cakes are best removed from the pan after cooling for 10 to 20 minutes. Try it too soon, and it may fall apart. Wait too long, and it may stick.
A BRIEF RUNDOWN OF BROAD ADVICE
– Round cake pans. Grease and flour, or use baking spray. Line with parchment on the bottom or use a parchment round with tabs for lifting. Make a parchment collar for the sides of the cake, if desired.
– Square cake pans. Grease and flour, or use baking spray. Line with parchment, leaving an inch or two of excess on two sides to serve as a sling for lifting the cake out. If desired, use two sheets of parchment placed perpendicular to each other so that the whole pan is lined.
– Bundt pans. Grease and flour well, use baking spray or apply a flour paste. Use a brush to ensure even coverage. Pay attention to all the crevices and the centre tube, where sticking is likely.
If the cake sticks put the pan over a medium burner on the stovetop very briefly to help melt the fat and assist with the release. If it doesn’t work the first time, try warming the pan a bit more.
Other strategies: return the cake to a 325- or 350-degree oven for three to five minutes, or cover a bath towel in the sink with hot water and setting the pan on it for 10 seconds.
– Loaf or rectangular pans. Grease or grease and flour. Line with parchment, leaving overhang on the long sides of the pan to serve as a sling. Use oven-safe clips to secure the parchment to the sides of pan to prevent the paper from flopping into the batter.
– Tube pans. Do not grease or flour for angel, sponge and chiffon cakes. To prevent the cake from collapsing while it cools, flip the pan upside down to cool, using the built-in feet or setting the tube over something for support.
– Springform pans. Grease, flour and use parchment for traditional cakes. Grease for cheesecakes and line with parchment. Serve directly from the pan base or slide off or invert from the base. For cheesecakes, heat can help with removal. Set the pan over a burner set to low, or briefly apply heat with a kitchen torch, warm and wet towel or shallow water bath.
– Sheet pan. Grease, or grease and flour to serve sheet cakes straight from the pan. Or grease and line with parchment. Cut notches in the corners so that the paper sits more flush rather than popping up around the curved edges.