Whether you’re interested in making a towering frosted layer cake that will impress people or a simple loaf to snack on at home, there are certain tools that are indispensable when it comes to baking a cake. A good spray, for example, will ensure your cake doesn’t stick to the sides of a pan. A proper set of pastry tips will keep you from making a huge mess when frosting. A bench-scraper can lift and smooth and level. We talked to several experts about these must-haves and more, so read on for all their recommendations. And if your fall and winter baking goals go beyond cake, you can find our guide to baking cookies here and our guide to baking pies here.
Two of our baking pros, recipe developers Claire Saffitz and Samantha Seneviratne, say that straight-sided cake pans are a must. “Certain cake pans have slanted or rounded edges,” Seneviratne says, “so when you go to layer them, you can’t lay them nicely. That’s not something you want to realize when it’s too late.” Saffitz suggests buying anodized aluminum instead of untreated aluminum. Either type “heats quickly and evenly,” she says, “but the fact that the metal is anodized makes it super-nonreactive. Sometimes standard aluminum pans change color over time, and you can get funky flavors.” And if you happen to be tempted by nonstick pans, don’t be, Saffitz says. “They’re terrible. You get a burnt outside with a huge dome that is undercooked in the center.”
If you want your finished product to look a little different from your standard cake, cookbook author Odette Williams suggests this small, high-sided cake pan. “It makes the most darling cake you could ever imagine — so stinking cute that people have a visceral reaction whenever they see a cake I’ve made in it,” she says. “You can ice it as is or cut it in half to make a layer cake.” If you do go this route, Williams notes one important thing: Use a thicker batter and line the pan, since it’s a springform and you don’t want any leaking. She says that many recipes will create more batter than you can fit in the pan, but instead of wasting it, she recommends making cupcakes.
You can of course go super-simple with your Bundt cakes, but baker and cookbook author Vallery Lomas is partial to these decorative Nordic Ware pans, which come in a myriad of beautiful designs. “They’re so well made,” she says. “They distribute heat evenly so that you get an even bake throughout, no matter how intricate the pattern is.”
You may already have a serrated knife in your kitchen for cutting bread, but if you don’t (or if yours is a little small or old), both Saffitz and baker and cookbook author Melissa Funk Weller agree that you definitely need one. “The best thing you can do to set yourself up for success when baking a layer cake is to make sure all your layers are even,” says Saffitz. “I prefer a 10-inch knife, perfect for slicing off the rounded domes of the cake, which are just about that same size in diameter when you’ve made standard cakes.” (Standard cake pans are generally 9 or 10 inches.) She notes that there is such a tool as a designated cake-leveler (it basically looks like a saw) but doesn’t think it justifies itself as a single-use tool when this multiuse instrument will come in handy time and time again.
Saffitz says a pastry brush has two main purposes. First off, you can gently brush away crumbs from the top of the cake layers as you work, ensuring a clean surface for frosting. Second, you can use it to soak your layers (meaning brush them with a liquid — whether a flavored syrup or coffee or even just milk, if you don’t want to impart flavor) in order to add moisture. “That step makes a big difference, especially if you’re making said layers ahead of time,” says Saffitz. “Just be sure you get a brush with natural bristles, so that the little hairs don’t fall off. And when you’re done, wash it thoroughly with hot, soapy water, so it doesn’t dry stiff.”
Saffitz uses this indispensable tool for lifting layers, smoothing out frosting around the sides and top of the cake, and — with the ruler edge of this one in particular — getting a sense of whether each layer is relatively even. Seneviratne says it’s also useful for leveling out scoops of flour if you’re using measuring cups instead of a scale.
“These are the best tools in the world,” says Seneviratne. “I like that this set has two sizes, because I generally use the shorter one for the top of the cake and the longer one for the sides. But it’s whichever one feels comfortable in your hand. Along with spreading frosting, they’re useful for getting into the corners of pans to loosen the cake and to press down crumb crusts.” Saffitz agrees: “These are often the only tools I use for decorating a cake. You can make frosting look smooth or swirled. The smaller one gives you a lot of precision if you’re not a pro.” If you know which size you want, you can buy these individually.
Lomas says every baker needs baking spray with flour in it because it’s a quick and effective way of coating a pan so that your batter doesn’t stick to the sides after it’s baked. “Unlike regular cooking spray, there’s flour already mixed in,” she explains, “which means it nets similar results to buttering a cake pan and then dusting with flour, which is a whole extra step and much more cumbersome.” This spray is especially useful with intricate cake pans, where it can be difficult to get softened butter into every nook and cranny — and that is crucial to getting your cake not to stick.
Williams believes a sieve is a must. Along with using it to sift flour (a designated sifter being another one of those single-use tools that is not actually worth the money or space it takes up), she also uses it for “dusting the tops of cakes with confectioners sugar or cocoa and straining curd for cakes or syrup for naturally colored dyes.”
Building and frosting your cake on top of a cake board is a must if you’re going to transport it, as it gives the whole construction a sturdy base (just imagine trying to lift a finished cake without any bottom support). But that’s not the only thing they’re useful for: If you buy boards that are the same size as your cake pan, they can also serve as a handy reference for how much frosting to add. Because the batter contracts ever so slightly as it’s baking, you’ll be left with a skinny ring around the base of the cake that will help guide you.
If you are going to frost directly on a cake stand, Seneviratne likes this one from JK Adams, which rotates “really smoothly,” she says, “but is also pretty enough to serve off of.”
Weller prefers a fixed cake stand. “I just ice directly on mine,” she says. “If frosting gets on the edges, I just wet a paper towel with warm water and carefully wipe it off.”
If you want to get fancy with your decorating, Seneviratne says a huge set of pastry tips is the move. “Just make a bunch of frosting and play with them,” she advises. (If you like that idea but want fewer tips, Saffitz recommends this smaller set for decorating cookies from the same brand.) Whatever number you go with, make sure you have a coupler too. “That’s the little piece that connects the pastry bag to the tip,” explains Seneviratne, “which means that you have more control, and if you want to change the design or size to a new one, you can do so without having to empty the entire pastry bag.” For her part, Weller says she uses disposable pastry bags. “It might not be the most environmentally friendly, but I don’t have a dishwasher at home and these save me a lot of trouble,” she says. If you do want a reusable one, you can find various sizes here.
“Sprinkles and edible flowers are your friends,” says Weller. They hide imperfections. We have a ton of sprinkle recommendations in our roundup of the best tools for baking cookies, and while Weller usually picks up dried flowers at her local farmers’ market, you can also find them online.
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