Layer cakes are wonderful for so many occasions. Wondering how to get started or improve your technique? Learn to prepare the perfect layer cake with these tips and tricks!
Want to up your layer cake game? This post will offer extra guidance to help with my layer cake recipes, as well as many others you’ll find online! I’ll be covering equipment, how to get a perfect slice of cake, storage, and general tips.
For a more in depth look at buttercreams as well as how to troubleshoot meringue buttercream (my frosting of choice), check out my Buttercream Basics post.
Cake Baking Equipment & Tools
Kitchen gear makes a huge difference. You can get away with not using all of these, but everything I’ve listed serves an important purpose. With the exception of the KitchenAid stand mixer, I’m not particular about the brands linked below. Disclosure: These are Amazon Affiliate links.
KitchenAid Stand Mixer – This is worth the investment if you love to bake. I use the classic 4-1/2 quart model which is much cheaper than some of the newer models (and sturdier, I’ve heard). Mine is a 3rd generation hand-me-down. You can definitely get away with using an electric hand mixer for the cake, but not for meringue buttercreams.
Kitchen Scale – I’ve said it a million times, but it’s worth repeating: you need to weigh out flour. A cup of flour can weigh anywhere from 3 1/2 – 5 1/2 ounces depending on how you measure it. Layer cakes use quite a bit of flour; imagine how much those two ounces (multiplied) might impact your recipe!
8-inch Cake Pans – Other sizes are fine as well, but this is a great place to start if you’re building a kitchen arsenal. Don’t mix and match different brands if you’re making a double or triple layer cake; there will be subtle differences that may negatively impact your results. Pick something and purchase 3 of them.
Parchment Rounds – Pre-cut parchment rounds will ensure that your cake never gets stuck to the pan. I also use them with the cardboard rounds below to create a protective barrier against moisture. I strongly recommend using these.
Cardboard Cake Rounds – Since cakes need to be cooled completely before frosting, I often bake them 1-2 days in advance. Place the cakes on these rounds before wrapping in plastic to ensure they hold their shape. However, I mainly use these as a base on top of the revolving cake stand. The cake needs to be chilled before a final layer of buttercream is applied. The cardboard can easily be transferred between the revolving cake stand and the refrigerator. Use them with parchment rounds and you are set. Once again, I strongly recommend using these.
Revolving Cake Stand – I consider this an essential. It makes decorating and achieving flat, even layers much easier and faster. You can gently spin the cake while spreading buttercream with an offset spatula (see below), keeping an eye on all sides to make sure the lines are even.
Offset Spatula – The offset spatula is an essential for cake decorating. You use it to spread the buttercream evenly on the tops and sides of the cake. It’s also good for leveling out the cake batter before baking.
Cake Lifter – Truly an essential for transferring the cake from the revolving cake stand to a pretty display stand.
Large Sheet Pan – This is not essential, but it fits three cake pans and makes transferring them in and out of the oven at once a breeze.
Digital Thermometer – My recipes always call for a candy thermometer when making meringue buttercream, but I have a secret: I use a digital meat thermometer. I love a multitasking tool, and this gets the job done.
Serrated Bread Knife – Not an essential, but no matter how much you try to even out the batter, sometimes cakes aren’t level. When this happens, I use a serrated bread knife to carefully slice away excess cake to even out the top.
Cake Baking Tips
- As noted in the equipment section, it’s critical to weigh out your flour to ensure the cake bakes properly.
- You can lightly grease the sides of the cake pan, but the key word is lightly. This is especially important if you’re using baking spray. Too much will cause the cake to pull away from the sides of the pan at the top, leading to uneven sides.
- Allow the cake to cool before removing it from the pan. Then gently run an offset spatula or paring knife around the edges. Press a large plate, cardboard round, or a cooling rack covered with a dish towel against the top of the pan and invert everything, shaking gently until you feel the cake detach. Using those parchment rounds will make this entire process easy as…cake.
- If your cakes are baking very quickly or very slowly compared with recipe instructions, you might need to check your oven temperature for accuracy.
How to Slice Layer Cakes
People often ask me how I get such perfect cake slices for my photos. If you’re serving the cake to eat immediately, you don’t want to do exactly what I do. For photography, I slice the cake when the buttercream is cold so I get clean lines. However, cakes are best served at room temperature. You can still follow the rest of my method and the slices will be sharp, though the icing lines won’t be quite as clean:
- Run a long sharp knife (I use a slicer but you don’t need something that fancy) under hot water. Wipe off the knife with a clean dish towel.
- Firmly press the knife down into the cake and pull it straight out as opposed to up.
- Run the knife under hot water again, dry, and repeat on the other side of the slice.
How to Store Layer Cakes
Layer cakes are best enjoyed at room temperature. They can be stored for 3-4 days on the counter using a covered cake stand, a large, inverted bowl, or by covering loosely with aluminum foil or plastic wrap. Make sure the cake is at room temperature before covering to avoid trapping moisture.
There are three instances when I recommend refrigerating the cake:
- If a layer cake is prepared with cream cheese frosting or whipped cream instead of buttercream, it must be refrigerated after 4 hours at room temperature.
- If you bake and frost a cake more than three days before you plan on serving it, the refrigerator will help keep it fresh.
- You should also refrigerate the cake if your home gets very hot.
Always cover refrigerated cakes to prevent dryness and avoid the absorption of any refrigerator odors. Let the cake come completely to room temperature on the counter before serving.
If you want to preserve your cake for longer than a week, you can freeze it for up to 3 months. Wrap tightly to keep ice crystals away. Before using, thaw overnight in the refrigerator.
Buttercream Troubleshooting Tips
Buttercream (especially meringue buttercream) can be tricky to work with on occasion. If you’re interested in learning more about the different types of buttercream and how to fix them when they break (don’t throw them away!), check out my post on Buttercream Basics.
Ready to get started? Try my using my classic yellow cake recipe below! You can also try some of my other recipes:
- 7 ounces all-purpose flour (198g or 1 1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons)
- 2 ounces cornstarch (58g or 1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1 1/2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
- 6 ounces unsalted butter, cubed and at room temperature
- 12 ounces granulated sugar (341g or 1 3/4 cup)
- 4 large eggs
- 13 ounces granulated sugar (1 1/2 cups)
- 1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons water
- Optional: 1 teaspoon corn syrup
- 5 large egg whites
- 16 ounces unsalted butter, cubed and at room temperature (preferably left out overnight)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- 4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted
- Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease the bottom of two 8 or 9-inch cake pans (avoid the sides) and top with parchment rounds. Place the pans on a baking sheet (this will make it easy to take both cakes in and out of the oven at once).
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cornstarch, salt, and baking powder. In a liquid measuring cup, combine the milk, cream and vanilla. Crack the eggs into a bowl or liquid measuring cup.
- In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the butter and sugar on low for 2-3 minutes, then turn up to medium speed and cream for 1-3 minutes, until pale and fluffy.
- Turn the speed down to low and slowly add the eggs, one at a time, stopping to scrape down the bowl all the way to the bottom after the second and last egg. Wait until each egg is incorporated before adding the next one. The batter may look slightly broken by the end of this step.
- On medium speed, alternate between adding the dry and wet ingredients, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. This shouldn’t take longer than a minute.
- Thoroughly scrape down the bowl all the way to the bottom to make sure there are no hidden dry patches, then turn the speed up to medium and mix for an additional 10-15 seconds.
- Spread the batter evenly into the prepared cake pans. Use a spatula to even out the tops (don’t skip this step).
- Bake for 28-30 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean from the center. Cool to room temperature before removing from the pan. Use an offset spatula or small knife to help detach the sides of the cake from the pan, then place a cardboard round or large cutting board against the cake pan and gently flip.
Add sugar, water and corn syrup (if using) to a medium-sized sauce pot. Cover and turn the heat to high. Once the liquid begins to simmer and steam has developed, remove the cover. Using a digital thermometer, cook the sugar to the soft boil stage, 235-240 degrees F.
While the sugar syrup is cooking, whisk the egg whites on high in a stand mixer with the whisk attachment until a soft peak has formed.
Turn the speed down to medium-low and slowly pour the syrup down the side of the bowl into the eggs. Try not to pour the hot syrup directly into the meringue.
Once the syrup is completely incorporated, turn the speed to high and let the meringue form a stiff peak while cooling to room temperature, approximately 20 minutes.
Once the meringue is room temperature, begin slowly incorporating the butter on medium speed. Once all of the butter has been incorporated, turn the mixer speed up to high and slowly add the vanilla and melted chocolate.
Place a first layer of cake on a revolving cake stand and remove the parchment paper. Placing a cardboard round below the cake is optional but strongly recommended; it will make transporting the cake much easier after it is assembled.
Spread approximately one cup of buttercream on the cake and spread it around evenly with an offset spatula. Add more buttercream as needed to reached the desired thickness. Repeat with the second layer (don't forget to remove the parchment.
Use an offset spatula to apply a thin layer of frosting to the side and top of the cake. Chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to set this first layer of buttercream. Cover the entire cake with a final layer of frosting. Grate some unsweetened or semi-sweet chocolate on top of the cake for decoration, if desired.
Cake is best when served at room temperature. It can be stored for 3-4 days on the counter using a covered cake stand, a large, inverted bowl, or by covering loosely with aluminum foil or plastic wrap. Make sure the cake is at room temperature before covering to avoid trapping moisture. Enjoy within a few days for best flavor and texture.
Yields two 8-inch or 9-inch round cakes.
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About the Author
Jennifer graduated from the Culinary Arts program at L’Academie de Cuisine in Maryland, and has worked professionally as a line cook, pastry chef, and cooking instructor. Her cookbook, The Gourmet Kitchen, was published in 2016 by Simon & Schuster.