The first step to cake success
One of the most important steps when making a cake is effectively preparing the pans for baking. Recipes instruct bakers to do this in a variety of different ways, but often omit specifics about exactly how to "grease", "line with parchment", or "flour the pans". Here, you'll learn exactly what each of these terms mean and get step-by-step instructions for a variety of popular methods.
Greasing with butter, brush method
When recipes instruct you to grease the pans with butter, one very effective way to do this is to warm a little butter (use a small saucepan or the microwave) just to its melting point, when it's pliable and easily smeared. Use a pastry brush to spread the butter in a thin, even layer over the sides and bottom of the pan. Get into all the nooks and crannies (especially important when greasing irregular molds and bundt molds) and be sure to grease high up on the sides to account for cake rise. I especially like using the brush method when I have large pans or lots of small pans to grease.
Greasing with butter, smearing method
If the brush method seems too fussy, you can always use the smearing method instead. This entails taking a small piece of very soft, pliable, nearly-melting butter and rubbing it all over the interior of the pan. Use a paper towel or, in a pinch, a bit of the waxed paper that the butter was wrapped in. When using this method, take some extra time to ensure that there are no thick patches of butter or lumps, which can cause the cake to have unsightly lumps or divots and uneven browning.
Greasing with non-stick cooking spray
Lately, I've been seeing more recipes call for greasing with non-stick cooking spray. In testing, I found that it's easiest to get a thin, even coating if you spray a bit further away from the pan than the 6 inches directed by the manufacturer and work in quick, rapid movements with an even stream of spray. If you miss any spots, try spot correction with a quick blast, or try using a paper towel to even out particularly heavy spots.
I personally prefer butter for greasing, partially because I work in a tiny space where spraying can be messy (or cause asphyxiation), but mostly because I like the taste and smell of real butter.
Flouring a greased pan
Many cake recipe instructions will call for the baker to "grease and flour" the pan. Applying a very thin layer of flour after greasing creates a dry barrier between the batter and the grease, preventing it from melting directly into the batter and allowing it to effectively prevent the cake from sticking.
To begin flouring the pan, place a small handful of flour (this is extraneous to the amount called for in the cake recipe) in the center of the pan. If you are baking a dark colored cake, such as gingerbread or chocolate, use cocoa powder to prevent streaking.
Flouring a greased pan
Roll the pan around and tap the edges to coat the bottom, then gather the flour to the edge and slowly rotate the pan 360 degrees to evenly coat the sides. A fine layer of flour will stick to the grease that you have applied.
Flouring a greased pan
Once you are satisfied that the pan is evenly coated, invert onto a piece of parchment or waxed paper and tap with force to dislodge excess flour. This will help you ensure that there is no excess flour, which can cause dry spots and divots, and help conserve flour, which you may use for additional pans.
Lining pans with parchment, trace
Often recipes instruct bakers to "line the pans with parchment." This is very often the case with cakes that cannot handle greased pans, such as angel food, sponge, or chiffon cakes. These can deflate if they touch any fats and actually rely on sticking to the pan in order for them to rise.
To line a pan with parchment, trace the bottom of the pan, staying as tight with the side of the pan as you can, and then cut out the round.
Lining pans with parchment, cut twice
Once you have the rough round, it's bound to be a little too big for the pan. Place the parchment circle over the pan to estimate adjustments, and then shave off the edge of the parchment round with your scissors for a perfect fit.
Lining pans with parchment, placement
The parchment should lie flat on the bottom of the pan to ensure a smooth cake surface.
Lining pans with parchment, push into corners
Be sure to smooth out the parchment by running your finger along the edges. This prevents batter from getting underneath and causing divots in the edges of the cake.
Greasing sheet cakes
When greasing large, rectangular sheet trays for cutout cakes, I find that the brush method is by far the most effective. If the recipe calls for greasing without parchment, brush butter over the entire surface. If it does call for parchment, a simple brush along the edge and an X through the middle will suffice to hold the parchment in place. Do not worry about greasing the sides, because punched out cakes require trimmed edges.
Applying parchment to large sheet cakes
Trace and cut the parchment to fit the pan in the same manner as a round cake. Use the grease on the bottom of the pan to adhere the parchment to the bottom of the pan. Smooth the parchment and run your index finger along the edges to avoid divots and wrinkles, just as you would with a round cake.