Sometimes when you're baking cakes, the cake rises in the middle more than the edges. It can have a dome shape on top. Find out why and how to bake a flat cake.
There are a lot of common problems that bakers run into when making a cake. Sometimes, cakes sink in the middle or they have big holes, but what about why cakes rise in the middle, but not on the sides, creating a dome on top that you have to trim to make a flat layer cake? Wouldn't it be great if you could make a cake rise evenly to bake a flat cake? The good news is you can!
Why cakes rise in the middle
The heat on the edge of the cake, the part that is right up against the edges of the pan is much higher than the heat in the middle of the cake. The edges heat up faster so they bake faster, which means the structure of the edges set quickly.
On the other hand, the middle and the top take longer to heat up because they aren't in direct contact with the pan. The pan is a good heat conductor, bringing lots of heat directly to the edges. The top of the cake can only get heat from the edges of the cake or from the air of the oven.
Air is a poor heat conductor so it takes longer for the top and middle to bake. This means that the leavening agents, baking soda and/or baking powder, have more time to react before the top sets. The cake rises in the middle, but the edges can't rise as much because they heated up so quickly that the crust has set. The cake is probably browning on the edges when the middle begins to rise.
All the gases are funnelled up the middle and driving the cake batter up, leading to a dome that you will have to trim off to make a flat layer cake.
How to bake muffins with a bigger top
A domed top isn't ideal for cakes, especially if you are stacking them to make layer cakes. But in some recipes, bakers go to a lot of effort to achieve a domed top: when baking muffins and madeleines!
People love the muffin top, more than the stump of the muffin. Madeleines must have a hump on top. The hump is a sign of a good madeleine. If you want to bake madeleines or muffins with a bigger muffin top, try the following:
- start baking the muffins in a hotter oven: preheat the oven to 400 ºF or higher to bake the edges quickly and encourage the leavening agents to react fast, causing the muffins to rise rapidly
- chill the batter before baking the muffins: chilling the batter will harden the batter and the butter in the batter. Cold butter takes longer to melt in a hot oven. Baking cold muffin batter means the edges will begin to brown and set before the middle of the batter has warmed up. The batter will rise in the middle more than the edges.
- prepare thicker batters: a thin, fluid batter will rise easily in the oven, while a thick heavy or dense batter will need more energy to rise. Thick batters produced domed baked goods. Consider cutting back on the liquid in your muffin recipe to achieve a bigger muffin top.
How to bake a flat cake
If you want your cakes to bake flat, instead of domed on top, you will need to slow the baking of the edges and reduce the heat on the edges of the pan so that the crust doesn't set so quickly:
- use different baking pans: if your pan is made of a dark matte metal, consider switching to a lighter metal, or you could try baking your cake in a glass pan because glass is a poor heat conductor and will slow down the baking process.
- lower the baking temperature: a high oven temperature will cause the edges to bake quickly and the middle to rise. Consider baking your cakes at lower temperatures for longer to bake a flat cake without a dome.
- wrap the outside of the cake pan with a damp towel: The damp towel will insulate the edges of the pan, slowing the baking process.
- use cake strips (which you can buy on Amazon): cake strips work just like a wet towel. You soak cake strips in water and wrap them around the outside of the pan to insulate the cake.
- bake cakes in a water bath: the water will act as an insulator, preventing the outside of the cake from heating up too quickly. This is very common for cheesecakes which need to a gentle heat to bake evenly without drying out and cracking.
- switch to a fast-acting baking powder: most commercial baking powders are double-acting and slow-acting, requiring heat to react. This means that the cake batter has to heat up for the leavening agent to work. If the height in the middle of your cake is causing you problems, you may have luck switching to a different brand of baking powder or to a faster-reacting baking powder.
- try a different mixing method: in my experience, the reverse-creaming mixing method, where the dry ingredients are mixed with the butter before incorporating the liquids, yields a flat cake without a dome.
What to do if a cake is domed
Personally, I don't mind when cakes bake with a dome. I always trim and level cakes with a serrated knife before stacking them when I'm making layer cakes.
I like to snack on the trimmings and the cake scraps give me a chance to test the frosting with the cake before assembling. You can also use the cake scraps to make cake pops or cake truffles, like these birthday cake truffles and these Christmas cake balls.