Here are my best baking tips and tricks for how to tell when a cake is done.
Whether you’re a beginner cake baker, or you’ve been baking cakes for while, it takes a bit of practice figuring out when your cakes are perfectly baked, but there are some easy ways to test that will help you know when your cake is baked properly.
This was one of the biggest issues I had when I started out baking cakes. Every single recipe says to use the toothpick method, but through the years, I’ve learned to alter that method (which we’ll talk about below).
I’ve also learned other ways to help you be able to tell when it’s done, so it’s not just a complete guess.
Basically, trying to tell when they’re done can be a little tricky, because different types of cakes will show you that they’re ready in different ways.
I’m going to talk in general terms here though. I’ve listed different ways to tell if a cake is done, but you don’t want to just use one way. These work best in conjunction with each other.
Let’s get started.
Oh and don’t forget, if you want this in video format, I’ve got a video below where I explain it all.
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The toothpick test (and it’s not what you think):
I’m sure you’ve heard of the toothpick test. Many recipes will tell you that a cake is done when you insert a toothpick and it comes out clean. I don’t really agree with that…at least not completely.
In my experience, the toothpick doesn’t need to come out clean…it just shouldn’t come out with raw batter on it. It’s ok if it has a few crumbs on it.
A lot of times, if you wait and keep baking it until it comes out clean, it’ll be baked too long and can be dry. In my experience, a few crumbs showing up on your toothpick, is actually a good thing. That means it’s still moist.
This is especially true for vanilla cakes that can easily be over-baked and dry out on you.
That’s not to say that if your toothpick comes out completely clean that your cake will be dry. It doesn’t work that way. Again, each recipe is different.
What I’m trying to say is that it’s okay when there are a few crumbs left on your toothpick and sometimes continuing to bake until nothing at all shows up is really over-baking your cake.
(Make sure to see the video below for examples of this.)
The Sides Pull Away from the Pan a Bit:
The next way to tell is when the sides of the cake pull away from the pan a bit. Of course, you don’t want them to shrink a ton, but you’ll notice when they start pulling away just a bit from the sides.
You Get a Golden Brown Color (for some cakes):
Another way to tell is by the color of your cake. This is particularly true of vanilla cakes. They’ll usually turn a nice golden brown.
They’ll start turning this color before they’re done, so you don’t want to use this as your only test for cake doneness, but it’s a good place to start.
For chocolate cakes, you can see the change in texture, but obviously, you can’t really see them becoming golden in color.
The Cake Bounces Back with Light Touch:
The next tip is that the top of the cake will bounce back with a light touch, or it will at least not feel ‘jiggly’.
If you lightly touch the top and it just dents in and feels a little wobbly, then you know it probably needs a little more baking time.
Now, you want to be careful with this one though. If you’re right in the middle of your baking time, you don’t want to go pressing on the top of the cake. You could cause it to fall.
This is something you’ll want to do close to the end of your baking time. For example, if the recipe says to bake for 40-45 minutes, then you could do it at say 38 minutes or so.
This won’t work the same on every single type of cake. Depending on the cake recipe, it’s done when you lightly press the top and it sort of bounces back. Don’t be fooled though, sometimes it’s done when it dents in just a little, but it doesn’t have that wobbly or jiggly feeling to it.
Now, when I’m testing a recipe and I open the oven door, I can tell immediately if the middle of the cake is a little jiggly. I know right then that it’s not done, so I’m not going to try and test it. Just shut the door carefully and add some more time to your timer if that happens.
You Can Tell by the Scent:
The next tip is for those who have been baking for a while or those who have extra sensitive sniffers. If you have a really good sense of smell, you can just about tell it’s close to being done by the smell.
Open the oven a crack and take a whiff. For me, I can tell you when it’s almost done, or when I’ve over-baked it just a tad. This takes a little practice and it’s a little different with each recipe, but you get to know your recipes and when it smells done.
My Method & Process:
So here’s the entire process I usually go through when checking for doneness:
First I open the door slightly to look in. I can smell that it needs a little more time and I can see that when I opened the door, the very middle might have jiggled just a tiny bit.
I can also see that it doesn’t look quite as golden as it normally does (if it’s a vanilla cake) and I know I need to give it a little more time, so I slowly and carefully close the oven door and add more minutes on my timer.
When I go to recheck it later, I slowly open the oven door a bit and take a look to see if it seems jiggly. I look at the sides to see if they’ve started to look firmed up and pulling away from the edges of the pan slightly.
I also look at the color to see if it’s getting close. I touch the top to see how it feels and if I feel like it’s just about ready, I’ll do the toothpick test (with the cake still in the oven).
(All that is done in a matter of seconds (or maximum, a minute) because you don’t want to be standing there with the oven door open for long.)
So when I do the toothpick test, If it comes out with any batter, I let it bake a few more minutes and test again.
If the toothpick comes out this time with a few crumbs, then I take it out of the oven.
So this whole time, I’ve left it in the oven. You don’t want to be taking your cakes in and out of the oven to test them. That messes with the oven temperature too much, plus jostles your cakes too much and that could also cause your cakes to fall in the middle.
I only take them out when I’m sure they’re done. Once I take them out and set them on the cooling racks, I lean over and smell them. I can get a good idea then if my cakes will be perfect, or if they’ve been over-baked a bit.
I know that sounds weird, but I’m not the only one who does this…I stopped feeling weird when I noticed people on the Great British Baking Show do it too.
This, of course, isn’t at all mandatory…I just like to do it because it lets me know right then if I’ve over-baked it. (Especially after you’ve turned your cakes out of their pans.)
Ok, I know some of these tips are a little wishy-washy, but there’s not just one specific way to tell if a cake is done. Learn to use some or all of these tips and through the process, you’ll even figure out your own style.
Printable cheat sheet:
You can download the printable cheat sheet by clicking the graphic or button below.
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30 minutes for a video about cake? If someone is really interested in cake, then 30 minutes is nothing when indulging a passion. My kid is passionate about ice skating and would 30 minutes on ice be enough for one session? Nope. There are some tips and tricks that just can’t be squeezed into an 8 minute video so, please, keep doing what you’re doing as it is appreciated.
Janice…thank you! thank you! That’s kind of what I was thinking too. I could watch cake videos all day, but just wasn’t sure what my readers thought about that length of a video. What you said is helpful though. I don’t want to cut out anything that might help someone. Thanks so much!
Yes, the smell!!! Thank you for writing this, because now I feel like I’m not a crazy lady. ?
I bake ALOT, and I can always tell by the smell when a cake is done.
Love it! The first time I saw people doing that on the British Bake Show I was like, “Yes! I’m not so crazy after all!” ?
Hi Kara! I have trouble with this all the time! I tend to under bake my cakes! Have you tried using a thermometer for checking doness? I read that it should read 99 c but i had done cakes that read 95! Should i have baked them more??! Thanks xx
Hmmm, I’ve never tried using a thermometer to check the temperature. I just don’t see how they could make a blanket statement about all cakes being done at 99c exactly. Seems like there would be a variation between all the different types of cakes. That’s just my thoughts on it, but I could be wrong. lol I just never go by the internal temperature. I only go by the tips I’ve got in this post and they’ve always worked for me. It does take some practice knowing when to pull the cakes out though and I’m not right 100 percent of the time…especially if I’m testing out a new recipe I wrote. If you tend to over bake your cakes, maybe just try to add on a couple minutes of baking time when you think you should take them out and see how that goes.
Thanks Kara ! I