what you need to know about building a cake

When I first started making cakes, I must admit that I didn’t know what I was doing             (can you tell by the above pictures?).

There are several things that I wish I had known before making my first cake, but I have learned a lot from my mistakes.

So you want to make a cake for your grammy / boyfriend / BFF but are unsure where to start?

Here are nine cake blunders, and how to avoid them!

Nine essential things to know about building a cake . . . tips to give you confidence in your cake endeavors.

1. Unsure of what tools you need.

Make sure you have quality cake pans – I found some at Michael’s (like these), and they haven’t failed me yet. If you plan to do any piping, make sure you grab some icing bags and tips.

Another essential tool is a turn table. You can find a relatively cheap one at Michael’s (like this one) when you’re just starting out. Trying to get smooth frosting on a cake without a turn table is like trying to bathe a cat . . . you have good intentions, but it miiiiight not go so well for you.

For more on tools (including links to my favorite products), check out my post here.

2. Poor taste / texture / flavor combination.

Use tried and true recipes. Like the cake recipe your mom swears by. At least test a recipe before you make it for a loved one. Also make sure you pick a good cake/frosting flavor combination. For example: I wouldn’t pair my chocolate frosting with white almond cake, because I know how the chocolate frosting would overpower the delicate flavor in my white almond cake.

Another example: Once while making vanilla frosting, I found it too sweet. I knew that a dash of salt could help cut the sweetness, but then I got heavy handed . . . and ended up having to throw the entire batch out. You can bet I never made that mistake again!

3. Over-baking or Under-baking.

You know the cake is done when a toothpick or cake tester comes out clean, but I always like to check my cakes at 20 or 25 minutes in – just peek on ’em. If you see the cake pulling away from the edges of the pan, or if it bounces back when you touch it, your cake is done.

ugly cake
So. much. badness. This is a combination of cake tearing, not stacking properly, crazy piping and bad lighting. eek!


4. Cake not releasing from pans, or tearing.

I have learned to always, always, always flour my pans. Lightly coat the pans in butter (or “grease” them), then add a dusting of flour. Make sure it completely coats the entire pan, and then tap out the excess. Someone once suggested placing a butter wrapper, butter-side up, in the bottom of the pan instead of flouring it . . . cool shortcut, I thought! That only led to the cake tearing as I released it from the pan . . . oops.


ugly cake
hellooo domed cake!


5. Lop-sided cake or uneven layers.

When you are dividing the batter into pans, make sure you distribute it evenly. This will help keep your layers approximately the same size. You will also notice that as your cake bakes, it forms a dome on top. Make sure you level all of your cakes. There are lots of fancy tools out there, like cake levelers, but I just use a serrated knife to level mine.

Tip: Chill your cakes before leveling/trimming them to avoid a crumbly mess! Cake always cuts better when it has been chilled.

Another tip: Check out Joshua John Russell’s FREE Craftsy class, Modern Buttercream. This is where I learned to level my cakes and properly build a layer cake.

6. Layers sliding all over the place when stacking your cake.

This was one of the biggest things I struggled with in my first layer cake. If only I had known to chill my layers . . . after you have your layers leveled, chill them again before you start stacking and filling the cake. This makes the cake easier to manipulate, without it sliding too much or falling apart on you. It also helps to have the right frosting consistency. Once you’ve stacked your cake, chill it again to help set everything in place.

7. Crumbs in your frosting.

After you’ve filled and stacked your cake, cover it with a thin layer of frosting. This will trap any loose crumbs and seal them in the crumb coat. Go ahead and chill the cake again before adding your final coat of frosting. Crumb coating is especially important when you have a dark cake paired with light frosting, like red velvet cake and cream cheese frosting.


police cake
Learning how to pipe letters and space them correctly . . .


8. Your design won’t fit on the cake.

I’ve been there. I once agreed to make a cake for someone before I knew how to pipe “Happy Birthday.” Here is a tip: take an upside-down cake pan, one that’s the same size of your cake, and practice your design there. That way you get a good handle on how much space you have, and where to place your words or design. As far as piping goes: practice, practice, practice. I must have written “Happy Birthday” fifty times before I actually put it on a cake!

Another tip: Chill your frosted (undecorated) cake for 30 minutes, or until the frosting doesn’t smudge when you touch it, before decorating. That way, if you don’t like the decorations you can scrape them off without smooshing the entire cake.

9. Dry cake.

It happens to all of us. This goes back to #2 and #3 – some recipes tend to yield a more moist cake by using ingredients like buttermilk or sour cream. You also want to be sure not to over-bake your cake, as that can cause dryness.

Tip: After cooling your cakes in the pans for 10 minutes, immediately release them and wrap tightly in two layers of plastic wrap. This helps to trap in the moisture.

If all else fails, just smother your cake in ice cream. Dry cake? What dry cake?

Recommended Resources:

Joshua John Russell’s FREE Craftsy Class, Modern Buttercream. This is where I learned how to properly build a layer cake.

How To Build a Cake Like a Pro by The Cake Blog. Another great, illustrated tutorial. They also show you how to level your cakes with a serrated knife.

What cake blunders have you run into? What other questions do you have?

Happy Baking! 🙂

Craftsy Cake Decorating Class


2 Comments on Essentials for building your first cake

  1. Brenda
    February 19, 2015 at 9:22 am (4 years ago)

    LOVE LOVE LOVE your blog! It’s like cakeporn!

    I once had to do a cake in a hurry and of course dragged crumbs through the frosting. Because it was a dark chocolate Guinness cake with Jameson’s glaze and Bailey’s frosting, I went with it and sent it in the husband’s office with the name “Irish Tweed Cake”. Everyone wanted to know how I got the “tweed effect”! BAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

    So I will just live vicariously through your GORGEOUS cakes and imagine the flavors melting on my tongue!

    • SprinkledCakes85
      February 19, 2015 at 8:46 pm (4 years ago)

      Thanks, Brenda!

      I love your cake story . . . awesome way to pull that off 🙂 sounds like it was a hit!


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