Cake is a complex thing. Even when you start with a flawless recipe, factors ranging from creaming technique to ingredient temperature can affect how the cake turns out. I used to work full time at a wedding-cake boutique in Greenwich, Connecticut, and I continued making wedding and special-occasion cakes for the restaurants where I worked long after I transitioned into that world. Which is to say, I know my way around cake.
In my experience, one of the most important factors in success is a good cake pan. One that conducts heat to the batter steadily so the cake can rise even and flat; one that's large enough to give the batter room to grow, and light enough to keep the crust delicate and thin. You're not gonna find a pan like that at a grocery store, but nor should you shell out some exorbitant amount at a specialty store in the mall. Great cake pans can be purchased on the cheap at restaurant- and baking-supply stores, or online for a little bit more.
My Favorite Cake Pan: Fat Daddio's 8- by 3-Inch Anodized Aluminum
I'll cut to the chase: This eight- by three-inch anodized aluminum pan from Fat Daddio's is far and away my favorite. It's the brand we kept at the cake shop where I used to work, what I've always ordered when stocking a new restaurant kitchen, and the only thing I use at home. Not too expensive, either; a set of three will cost you about 36 bucks.
Not only will the extra depth benefit any cake (more on that below), it makes the pan more versatile, so it can be used in a broader range of recipes and take the place of many specialty pans. (In my restaurant days, I lined them with plastic to use instead of large ring molds for molded desserts.) The unusual depth makes this pan perfect for thick sponge cakes that are meant to be split into thin layers, such as génoise or chiffon, as well as for charlottes, mousse cake, and even cheesecake, too.
A Guide to Common Cake Pan Types
But what if you're not ready to invest in a new set of pans? Or what if you're attached to the ones you have? Knowing how each type will behave can help you adapt recipes to your particular circumstances, ensuring better outcomes with your cakes at home.
With that in mind (and before my cake-laden cookbook is delivered to your door), I wanted to lay out a guide to some of the most common types of cake pans. To ensure we're comparing apples to apples, almost all of them are eight inches across, which, given the same amount of batter, helps produce thicker layers than a nine-inch pan (though I've tested those here, too).
This is the style of cake pan most of us grew up with, readily available at most any supermarket. The sides of the pan are angled, allowing one pan to rest inside another, a "feature" that can make it rather tricky to frost the sides of a layer cake.
At first blush, you might think these pans produce a perfectly excellent cake, but let me draw your attention to a few problem areas: the dark and wrinkled crust along the top, the thick brown crust along the bottom, and a slightly darker band of cake just above it.
These are all signs that the batter got too hot, too fast—the inevitable result of using thin, dark pans. A nonstick coating may be nice for developing a tasty crust in muffins (more on that here), but cake is another story. Next to thick muffin batters, cakes have a higher proportion of sugar, fat, and liquid ingredients, which makes the batter comparatively thin.
When heated too rapidly, thin cake batter can't retain the air bubbles trapped inside, resulting in a layer that's gummy and dense beneath a fluffier layer where the batter was better insulated from the too-conductive pan. The same conductivity leads to cakes with an overdeveloped crust—one that's thick, tough, and dry. Dark and shallow pans cause the surface of the cake to bake too fast, leading to the sort of shrinking that can create a wrinkled surface. Naturally, when cakes bake too fast, they're often over-baked as well, which makes them crumbly and dry.
If this is the kind of pan you're stuck with, problems can be mitigated by placing an empty sheet pan on the bottom rack of your oven to help diffuse the heat. And, of course, use an oven thermometer to make sure you're baking at the proper temperature in the first place. Cake strips, which are bands of cloth that can be soaked in water and wrapped around the pan to provide insulation, can help, but for the cost and hassle, I'd rather invest in better pans than sink time and money into a stopgap solution.
For those who prefer nonstick pans, a better option would be aluminized steel (I tested some from USA Pans). In contrast with the thin, dark nesting pans you find at grocery stores, these pans use a much thicker gauge of metal and a reflective aluminum/silicone coating, two factors that slow the conduction of heat to the batter. They're more expensive and less versatile than my favorite pan, but I recognize that for some folks, nothing can beat nonstick.
I can't really argue with the results, either. In an aluminized-steel pan, my cake baked up with minimal wrinkling, a lighter crust, and a crumb that wasn't dry or crumbly at all. Its straight-sided design means the edges of the cake form a right angle, making layer cakes much easier to frost around the sides.
Anodized aluminum is one of my favorite baking materials because it's nonreactive, so you don't have to worry about funky flavors developing in acidic batters—which are fairly common, thanks to our preference for acidic ingredients like lemon juice, buttermilk, natural cocoa powder, and brown sugar.
It keeps the bottom crust nice and light, with minimal wrinkling compared with what you get in darker pans.
Straight-Sided, Anodized-Aluminum, Extra-Deep
As I've said, my favorite type of pan isn't just made of anodized aluminum; it's also ultra deep, like this eight- by three-inch cake pan from Fat Daddio's.
Those super-tall sides shield the cake in the oven, allowing it to bake up smooth and pale, which means the top crust will be delicate and thin above the moist and fluffy crumb. The added protection offered by a tall-sided pan is especially helpful for folks with ovens that can run a little hot, or those whose electric ovens have a powerful top coil.
Beyond the realm of layer cake, as mentioned above, these deep pans are fantastic for turning out molded and layered desserts, and, with a parchment lining, can also take the place of springform pans for deep-dish cheesecakes. (Once the cheesecake has chilled overnight, place the pan in a few inches of hot water for about five minutes, after which you can flip it right out.)
Straight-Sided, Anodized-Aluminum, Extra-Deep, 9-Inch
Most boxes of cake mix include directions for baking with eight- or nine-inch pans, leading lots of folks to believe those two sizes are virtually interchangeable. But they're really not: When you're working with a cylinder, an extra inch of width represents a huge increase in volume. So, when you're using the same amount of batter, not only will the cake be much thinner by nature, a new problem will arise: under-filling. Without sufficient batter in the pan, a cake doesn't rise as well or as evenly; the change in surface area means the batter will set faster than it can rise, leading to weird bubbles, cracks, and blemishes in the crust.
So when a recipe calls for eight-inch pans, don't plow ahead as if a nine-inch pan were just as good. Instead, try splitting a three-layer cake between two nine-inch pans, so each will have sufficient depth for a good rise, or increase the recipe for a two-layer cake by 50% to ensure you have enough batter for those nine-inch pans. (If a recipe calls for nine-inch pans, there's no issue with baking the layers in eight- by three-inch pans instead, but you'll risk doming or overflow if your pans are too shallow.)
Remember, in all of these examples, we're talking about a well-formulated recipe that wants to bake up fluffy, light, and level; with good technique and an oven thermometer to ensure the right temperature, my cakes can perform fairly well even in less-than-ideal pans. But the more variables you have to contend with, the more negative effects will be magnified in a crummy pan.
With ovens that run hot, using a nonreflective, nonstick pan will only exacerbate the problem of a tough and dark bottom crust. Without sufficient creaming, using a pan that's too large will reduce the cake's volume even further, turning it flat and gummy. With a wonky recipe and batter that's too thick, nesting pans will create even more severe doming on top.
If upgrading to a more reliable set of pans isn't an option, take steps to minimize the risk in other areas: Use proper creaming, confirm your oven temperature, use the right ingredients, take time to follow the recipe as closely as you can, and keep a watchful eye on the cakes as they near the end of their suggested bake time. There are a lot of variables to keep in mind when it comes to cake, so make sure your pans are working for you, rather than against you, along the way.
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