Cake Troubleshooting Guide

Baking really is a science, and there are a lot of things that go awry when making a cake. I’ve lost count of the number of frantic emails and messages I’ve received about cake mishaps over the years. To make life easier for all of us, I’ve create this cake troubleshooting guide.

While I always do my best to answer your questions, I figured I’d streamline the process by sharing troubleshooting tips on the most common issues people run into with cakes.

It’s also easier to have pictures of common problems, to help you identify what might have happened if you cake turns out less than perfect.

image of cake layers that are over-baked, over-mixed, underbaked, and made with too much flour
Four cake layers with four different problems. Can you tell what’s wrong with them just by looking? One was made with too much flour, one was underbaked, one was overbaked, and one was overmixed.

This post mainly covers problems related to how a cake batter is made and how cake layers are baked.

It does not cover ingredient substitutions, which can also have a huge impact on the way a recipe turns out. That’s a whole different topic, which I’ve covered in a separate ingredient substitutions post!

The questions I’ll be covering in this cake troubleshooting guide include:

  • Why is my cake dense or gummy?
  • What caused my cake layers to be dry?
  • Why did my cake layers sink in the middle?
  • How can I get my cake out to my pan without breaking it?
  • How can I prevent my cake edges from burning or caramelizing so much?
  • Why do my cake layers have big holes in them?
  • Why is my cake falling apart and crumbling when I try to frost it?
  • How do I know if my cake layers are done baking?
  • Why didn’t make cake layers rise more?
  • What causes my frosting to bulge out between the cake layers?
  • Why is my frosting cracking on my cake?

My hope is that this cake troubleshooting guide will help you understand what caused your problem and empower you bake amazing cakes in the future. So without further ado, let’s dive in!

Why is my cake dense or gummy?

What might have happened:

  1. Too much flour was added to the batter.
  2. The cake batter was over-mixed.
  3. The ingredients weren’t at room temperature.
image of dense, tough cake layer that was overmixed and made with too much flour
This cake layer was made with too much flour and was overmixed. The crumb isn’t tender or soft, and the texture is dense with an oddly gummy center. It causes the cake layer to almost look underbaked once it’s leveled, even though it’s cooked through.

How to prevent this in the future:

  1. Be sure to properly measure your flour by fluffing it, then spooning and leveling each cup, or use a digital kitchen scale.
  2. Mix your batter just until the ingredients are incorporated once you’ve added in your flour. Over-mixing the batter causes strong gluten strands to form, which give your cake that dense texture.
  3. If some of your ingredients are cold, they make it more difficult to mix together your batter and can impact the rise of your cake. Be sure to set out cold ingredients ahead of time, so that all you ingredients are at room temperature when it’s time to make your cake.
photo of flour that has been fluffed and spooned into a measuring cup to ensure it's measured properly
To make sure I’m using the right amount of flour, I’ve fluffed and spooned this flour into my measuring cup, and I’m using a knife to level off the top.

Why is my cake dry?

What might have happened:

  1. The cake layers were baked too long.
  2. The recipe doesn’t have enough moisture or needs simple syrup.
image of overbaked cake layer with brown edges
This cake layer was overbaked, which gives it a lot of browning on the edges and a dry texture.

How to prevent this in the future:

  1. Try to take your cake layers out a few minutes earlier, or as soon as a toothpick comes out with a few moist crumbs. If the toothpick comes out totally clean, your cake might already be overbaked. Remember that your cake layers will continue to bake for a few minutes once they’re out of the oven as they cool in the pans. I always try to err slightly on the side of underbaking for this reason.
  2. Different recipes make different types of cake. For instance, my vanilla cake recipe is a butter cake recipe that’s quite moist and doesn’t need simple syrup. But sponge cake recipes bake up quite a bit fluffier and drier because they use a lot eggs. These cake recipes are designed to bake that way, and are then supposed to be doused in simple syrup to add moisture after they’re baked.

Why did my cake layers sink in the middle?

What might have happened:

  1. The cake layers are underbaked.
  2. The oven door was opened and slammed while the layers baked.
  3. There’s too much leavening agent in the batter (baking powder / baking soda).
  4. Your oven temperature is off.
image of cake layer that was under baked, so the center of the layer sunk in
This cake layer was underbaked, so the center sunk as the cake layer cooled.

How to prevent this in the future:

  1. Bake your cake layers a couple minutes longer, or until a toothpick comes out with a few moist crumbs.
  2. While it’s common practice to rotate cake pans part way through baking, if the oven door is slammed this can cause partially baked cake layers to sink in the middle. If you need to rotate your pans, be sure to carefully close your oven door after doing so.
  3. Be sure to carefully read the amount of leavening agents a recipe calls for, and measure them precisely or use digital scale. The recipe might also be bad! If you try making it a few times and this still is happening, you may want to try a new recipe.
  4. Test your oven temperature with an oven thermometer. If your runs cold, adjust the temperature of your oven to ensure it bakes the cake layers at the actual temperature the recipe calls for.

My cake layers are stuck in my pans! How do I get them out?

What might have happened:

  1. The cake pans weren’t properly greased.
  2. Your cake pans weren’t lined with parchment paper.
  3. The cake layers fully cooled in the pan.
image of a cake pan being properly prepared with parchment rounds and non-stick spray to prevent the cakes from sticking to the pan.
Preparing a cake pan with parchment rounds and non-stick spray to prevent my cake layers from sticking.

How to prevent this in the future:

  1. Generously grease your cake pans with non-stick spray or a layer of butter and flour
  2. When a recipe asks you to line your pan with parchment paper, be sure to do so! I love to use pre-cut parchment rounds to simplify the process, but you can also cut out your own parchment rounds.
  3. If your cake layers cool fully in the pan they can get stuck as the cake firms up. Run an offset spatula around the edges of the pan to help release it from the pan, and dip the bottom of the pan in hot water. This should help it pop out without breaking the cake layer

Why are my cake edges so dark and caramelized?

What might have happened:

  1. The pans used to bake the layers aren’t the right material.
  2. Your oven runs hot.
  3. The pans are overcrowded in the oven.
photo of a cake layer was baked in an oven that ran hot, and was placed too close to the sides of the oven which made the edges of the cake layer over-brown.
This cake layer was baked in an oven that ran hot, and was placed too close to the sides of the oven which made the edges over-brown.

How to prevent this in the future:

  1. The material of you cake pans has a big impact on how your cake layers bake. Dark metals absorb and spread heat more efficiently than lighter-colored pans which causes cakes to over brown on the sides. Glass pans also become very hot once heated, and can cause cake layers to over-brown or caramelize too. Use a light-colored metal pan, like these cake pans which do a better job of evenly distributing heat.
  2. Test your oven with an oven thermometer. If your runs hot, turn the temperature of your oven down to ensure it bakes the cake layers at the actual temperature the recipe calls for.
  3. Make sure your pans are spread out in your oven, and not placed too close to the walls of your oven to help them bake evenly. You can also use cake strips to prevent browning. I don’t enjoy using them, but some people swear by them!

Why do my cake layers have big holes / tunnels in them?

What might have happened:

  1. The batter was overmixed.
  2. The batter was mixed at too high of a speed.
  3. The ingredients weren’t properly mixed or weren’t at room temperature.
photo of a cake layer that was overmixed! This causes strong gluten strands to form which trap the leavening agent in the batter and cause it to create these air bubbles or tunnels.
This cake layer was overmixed! This causes strong gluten strands to form which trap the leavening agent in the batter which creates these air bubbles and tunnels.

How to prevent this in the future:

  1. Tunneling cake happen in your cake layers when the gluten strands are too strong, which traps air bubbles inside the cake. Mix your cake batter on a low speed just until the ingredients are combined to avoid this.
  2. Unless a recipe specifically calls for mixing batter at a high speed (like a sponge cake, or when creaming together butter and sugar), you shouldn’t be mixing your batter that fast. Follow the recipe instructions closely, and mix the batter at the speed the recipe calls for.
  3. Concentrated areas of baking powder or baking soda in your batter can create big holes in your cake layers. Be sure your ingredients are at room temperature to help the batter mix together better, and sift your dry ingredients if a recipe calls for it.

Why is my cake falling and crumbling part when I try to frost it?

What might have happened:

  1. The cake layers weren’t fully cooled.
  2. You’re not using the right tools.
  3. The frosting you’re using is too stiff.
Image of a cake being frosted poorly with a rubber spatula
A cake should not be frosted with a rubber spatula like this! It can cause the cake layers to break and crumble as it drags the frosting around the cake. Instead, use an offset spatula to more easily spread frosting.

How to prevent this in the future:

  1. Your cake layers must be fully cooled before you frost them, or else you will end up with a real mess on your hands! Give them several hours to cool at room temperature on a wire rack, or pop them into the freezer to accelerate the process. I actually like to chill my cake layers in the freezer for about 20 minutes before decorating a cake, so that they’re cold to the touch. It reduces crumbing and makes them so much easier to stack and frost.
  2. An offset spatula makes a world or a difference when decorating a cake. On the other hand, trying to spread frosting onto cake layers with a rubber spatula isn’t a good idea. The lack of control and precision make it a lot harder to properly spread the frosting, and can definitely increase the risk of tearing cake layers.
  3. If your frosting consistency is too thick, this can also make it challenging to spread. The resistance from the thickness of the frosting can cause delicate cake layers to tear too. If your frosting seems difficult or too thick to work with, add in additional heavy cream or milk 1 tablespoon at a time until the consistency is thinner and more spreadable.

Why are my cake layers overcooked or under-baked?

What might have happened:

  1. Your oven temperature is off.
  2. The pans are overcrowded in the oven.
  3. You baked different sized cake layers than a recipe called for.
I bought an oven thermometer to check the accuracy of my oven! Despite my oven being old and gas-powered, it bakes surprisingly accurately.

How to prevent this in the future:

  1. Test your oven temperature with an oven thermometer. If your runs hot or cold, adjust the temperature of your oven to ensure it bakes the cake layers at the actual temperature the recipe calls for.
  2. Make sure your pans are spread out in your oven and not placed too close to the walls of your oven to help them bake evenly.
  3. If you make different sized cake layers than a recipe calls for, it can change the bake time. Be sure to keep an eye on your cake layers and test them with a toothpick. Remove them from the oven when a toothpick comes out with a few moist crumbs.

Why didn’t make cake layers rise more?

What might have happened:

  1. Your leavening agents are old.
  2. The recipe isn’t meant to rise much.
  3. The batter was overmixed.
  4. You used baking powder instead of baking soda on accident.
image of leveled cake layers
My go-to vanilla cake recipe doesn’t rise up much as it bakes! It rises by about a centimeter. Some people think they did something wrong because of the limited rise, but it’s formulated to bake flat. As long as the cake texture is soft and fluffy, the layers turned out exactly how they should.

How to prevent this in the future:

  1. Baking powder and baking soda have a long shelf life, but they don’t stay good forever. If you’re worried about yours, you can test baking powder by adding a little bit into a small bowl of hot water (or vinegar if testing baking soda). They should react and start to fizzle right away. If they don’t, they’re no longer good.
  2. Some recipes are formulated to rise a lot, others are not. My chocolate layer cake recipe and vanilla cake recipe are designed to bake flat without a big dome. As long as the texture and taste are good, it’s ok if your cake layers don’t rise up a ton. Sometimes that’s how they’re supposed to be!
  3. Overmixing your batter prevents the leavening agent from rising up like normal, and traps it inside the batter where it creates tunnels and big holes. Your cake layers will be lighter and fluffier if you mix just until your ingredients are combined.
  4. Be sure you’re using the right leavening agent. Baking soda is about 3x more potent than baking powder, and they are not interchangeable.

Why is my frosting bubbling or bulging out between the cake layers?

What might have happened:

  1. The cake layers weren’t leveled.
  2. The frosting you’re using is too thin.
  3. Your cake wasn’t settled before adding the final layer of frosting.
image of a layer cake with bulging sides, because air bubbles were trapped inside the frosting and as the cake settled the air pressed the frosting out.
The frosting used on this cake was too thin, and as the cake settled the frosting bulged out.

How to prevent this in the future:

  1. Leveling your cake layers with a serrated knife makes it much easier to assemble a layer cake and help prevent air from getting trapped between the cake layers and escaping through the frosting later.
  2. Make sure your frosting is the right consistency. If it’s too thin, it can get pushed out between the cake layers as they settle. Next time you make frosting either add more powdered sugar or use less milk/heavy cream. If you’re not sure what consistency you’re looking for, you can check out this detailed post on frosting consistency.
  3. After leveling and filling your cake, let it settle for a couple hours or preferably overnight before adding your second layer of frosting.

Why is my frosting cracking on my cake?

What might have happened:

  1. Air was trapped between your cake layers.
  2. The cake layers weren’t leveled.
  3. Your cake wasn’t settled before adding the final layer of frosting.
  4. Your cake is made with a filling that’s too soft.
image of cake layers being to make it easier to assemble my cake, and to prevent my frosting from bulging or cracking.
Leveling my cake layers to make it easier to assemble my cake, and prevents my frosting from bulging or cracking.

How to prevent this in the future:

  1. Once your cake layers are stacked, press down on the top layer with your hands to push out any air that might be trapped in the frosting between your cake layers. Then crumb coat your cake and carry on as usual!
  2. Leveling your cake layers with a serrated knife makes it much easier to assembled a layer cake, and helps the cake settle easily and without any big shifts that can crack your frosting.
  3. After leveling and filling your cake, let it settle for a couple hours or preferably overnight before adding your second layer of frosting.
  4. If your cake has a soft filling, it can seep out as your cake settles. Pipe a frosting dam around the edge of each cake layer if you plan to use a softer filling in your cake.
image of cake layers that have been made incorrectly for a cake troubleshooting guide
Four cake layers with four different problems. Can you tell what’s wrong with them just by looking? One was made with too much flour, one was underbaked, one was overbaked, and one was overmixed.

Any Questions I Missed in this Cake Troubleshooting Guide?

If you found this cake troubleshooting guide helpful, please let me know in the comments section below!

Or if you have a cake issue that I didn’t cover, please share it so we can figure it out together 🙂

52 thoughts on “Cake Troubleshooting Guide

  1. Hi Chelsea!!! Love this post! Finally some way i can learn and know what went wrong with my cakes. I’m just learning to make cakes and my issue has been the cake crumbling as i’m cutting into the cake and serving a slice. How can i make the layers come out clean and no crumbs everywhere. THANK YOU in advance. I’m a HUGE fan ????????

    1. So happy you found it helpful Talia! I’d suggest chilling the cake a bit in the fridge before cutting into it so that frosting is a little bit firm, and also using a super sharp knife that has a smooth blade. Hope that helps, happy baking!

  2. I can only place one cake tin in my oven. How will i make recipes that makes batter for 2 layers? Can I leave the batter out till the first pan bakes in the oven?

      1. I just made a cake and I had the same problem. I put my batter in the fridge so the consistency stayed the same; mine turned out great ?

  3. Wow Chelsey! This is brilliant and must have taken you a very long time. Thank you so much – it is really helpful. Thank you for inspiring me to bake.

  4. Hii chelsea??.thankyou sooooo much.i have been searching for a long time why my cake comes out dense and gummy .my chocolate cake looks far worse than showed in the image.it only happens rarely but still it kills me when it happens when i bake for a customer.??.i used to think its cause i over filled my pan or too much egg etc etc..i always have a fear until i cut the layers.soooo glad i found ur page.litterly u saved me from so many mental breakdowns?? iam gonna have if it happens again…love u .ur helping a lot of ameteure bakers like me ???

    1. Hi Nihala,

      I know that feeling, it’s so heartbreaking when a recipe doesn’t turn out :/ I really do hope this post does help you avoid any of those situations in the future, happy baking!! <3

  5. I found this very useful! I’m excited to continue to learn about cakes! The problem I have consistently is a hard/crunchy raised rim around the edge of the vanilla cake specifically, after it bakes. I trim it off and its fine, but I’d love to learn why it does this so I can prevent it from happening again!

    1. So happy to hear that Alicia! It’s part the recipe you use, part your pans, and part your oven! If it really bothers you, I’d suggest trying cake strips like these: https://amzn.to/2Mis7t0

      Hopefully that will help, or you can try different cake pans! <3

      1. This happens all the time when I bake Chelsea’s vanilla cake recipe. I just use cake strips around my pans and it solves the problem. The cake still turns out delicious!

  6. Hello! You referenced an ingredients substitution post but I couldn’t find it on your site. Can you please direct me to the link? Thank you 🙂

    1. Haha so funny you ask Kirsten! My substitutions post actually goes live tomorrow! It’ll be up at 9am Monday morning <3

    1. Hi Kerryn,

      Some recipes just rise a lot! Either try a different recipe that rises less, or use cake strips! In terms of them baking unevenly, be sure to rotate your pans halfway through the baking process <3

  7. THANK YOU SOOOO!!!!!!! MUCH, I WAS ALWAYS BAKING IN THE KITCHEN WITH MY MOM AND AUNT, NOW I HAVE YOU !!!!!!!!, THANK YOU SOO MUCH FOR SHARING I WILL PRINT THIS POST AND HAVE IT HANDY FOR FUTURE REFERENCE.

  8. Thank you so so much for this information!! It’s been of great help to know what happens to my cakes!

  9. Thank you for this post! Large air bubbles keep bulging out of my cakes when they are set at room temperature. I am going to try and let the crumb coat “settle” overnight or a few hours before I do the final frosting to see if that helps. Do you recommend letting the cake settle at room temp or in the fridge between the crumb coat and final layer of frosting?

    1. Hi Carolyn,

      It sure can! I did that for my wedding cake and it worked great! Just be sure your mixer is big enough. My 5 qt didn’t really mix it properly, so I had to use my 8 qt. Happy baking!

  10. When my layers came out of the oven they looked perfect. Nice and flat on top, sides pulled just barely away from the pan. After they cooled in the pan for 15 minutes the sides had sloped inward a bit, so the diameter at the top of each layer is probably 1/2″ to 3/4″ smaller than the diameter at the bottom. I know I can trim the sides straight before frosting but I’ve never seen this happen before. Is this a sign the layers were undercooked? One of them appears to be (it sunk a little in the middle). The other 2 are still pretty much flat. I don’t have cake strips but I have been getting pretty even layers ever since I upgraded to 3″ tall pans. Any idea what causes this?

    1. I’ve also had this issue come up. Would be really interested to hear your thoughts on it! Accompanied with this, one cake in particular tends to “deflate,” not so much a dip in the middle, but the whole of it just becomes more squat as it cools. I feel the two are maybe interrelated.

      Thanks!

      1. Please let me know what you did regarding the deflating. Usually my cakes they rise but after they are cooled down a little they deflate. Only once it didn’t deflate it was when I let it cool upside down

      2. Please let me know what did you do to get it to stop deflating.. I don’t know what I’m doing it maybe needed a little longer in the oven or what. It doesn’t sink in the middle but just deflates from the size it came out in. Only once recently it didn’t deflate was when I let it cool upside down.

  11. Hi, thank you so much for posting – this is an awesome guide! I know it’s common to freeze cakes when decorating but does the freezing/thawing process affect the texture of the cake?

    1. Hi Chelsweets, Why does my cake come out of the oven with a greasy film at the base? Is it because the butter was too soft while creaming? Many thanks.
      Rubina

  12. Thank you so much! I was reading to find out why are my edges not straight like yours. I guess I just need to level my cakes. Thank you again

  13. Hi I have just came across your Instagram and website and they are filled with your brilliant baking and so informative ! I was wondering, when buying cake tins which depth do you go for ? Thanks 🙂

  14. Hi this is vineela from india….I tried to cook eggless cake ….taste was good but came out as it was cooked not spongy….what should I do to get spongy

  15. love your tiktoks, my cake was not cooking i might have been because i used a 10 inch pan but that was all i had was that the problem?

  16. So, the cakes I bake are always moist but when I flip the cakes it breaks or gets stuck to the baking pan. Is there a way to stop the cakes from falling apart and keep the cakes moist? I hope this make sense. Thank you!

  17. Hii your trouble shooting guide was amazing..
    I just had one question um after my cake comes out from the oven it looks perfect but after it cools down the size deflates a little bit and also the top part like mainly the middle top part becomes moist types.. Is it cause of the humidity?

  18. Hey first of all I love your videos! I want to make your vanilla cake layers and it calls to bake at 325 degrees, is it degrees celsius or ferhenheit because in my country we use Celsius so will I have to convert

  19. Hello! I only have 2 molds to bake the cake. how do i bake my cake?
    can I replace butter with vegetable oil?

  20. I live in Colorado at 6900 feet in altitude. I am desperate from some solid, dependable advice on baking layers at this elevation. Please help!!! ?

  21. 2 questions: if I make your Bachelorette cake and do the first layer of frosting on day one, then refrigerate overnight, do I make a 2nd batch of frosting day 2, or refrigerate what will be the 2nd layer of frosting and just bring it to room temperature before I use it on day 2?
    Also, when do I put the flowers on? How long will they look fresh?

  22. Hello Chelsea,

    Thank you for the post, it was really helpful.

    I’ve been (home) baking for a few years and it’s been a hit and miss situation. Guides like yours help me get my baking game to a better level.

    I noticed that my chocolate and red velvet cakes bake into two distinct layers every single time. The top layer has the perfect colour I want (dark brown or red) while the bottom is always a lighter brown colour.

    I’ve used different generic cocoa powder brands, I’ve been careful to ensure the batter is properly mixed, but it happens everytime. How do I get this to stop and for my cakes to come out in one beautiful colour only?

  23. I’m having the same issue with my cakes. The top center gets crusty and almost airy, while the rest cooks normally. The first time it happened, I thought I mixed it too long. I’ve changed pans and tried different cakes, but it continues to happen. These are scratch cakes. Someone said it’s baking unevenly, but everything else seems to bake just fine. The temp on my most recent cake was 300°. I never bake higher than 350°.

Let me know what you think!