“Nine times out of 10 you want your ingredients to be room temperature, particularly your eggs and butter,” says expert baker and cookbook author Matt Lewis. Here, Lewis reveals more essential tips and how he and Baked partner Renato Poliafito perfect their exceptional cakes.

September 21, 2012

  1. Use the best ingredients. We both agree that there’s no sense in making a dessert unless you can utilize the best possible ingredients. I don’t think either of us is snobby about it, but whatever goes in comes out. If you’re going to put in all the time and effort, then it only makes sense to find the best possible cream, eggs, butter, any dairy. If you’re going to use spices, freshly ground spices are almost always better, and with extracts, it’s almost always better to use something pure.
  2. Source high-quality equipment. You don’t need anything fancy—it’s often less expensive, but anything you can get from a restaurant supply store, like heavy-gauge aluminum trays and cake pans and heavy-bottomed pans. Aside from bundt cakes, we recommend using light-colored metals, because darker metals can burn the edges.
  3. Understand the importance of room temperature. Nine times out of 10 you want your ingredients to be room temperature, particularly your eggs and butter. When we write our cookbooks, we say “slightly cooler than room temperature” because room temperature means so many things to so many people. We’ve done events where their room temperature is butter melting on the plate. But we always say 20 to 30 minutes out of the fridge, probably no more than an hour. If your ingredients are too cold, you’ll get a tougher cake, and you won’t get it—for lack of a better word—as fluffy. It’s very hard to beat cold butter and sugar together; they don’t come together as quickly, so the ingredients may not incorporate fully. If they’re too hot, the last thing you want is melted butter. It might help to look at cookies. You can make the same chocolate chip cookies with each of the three types: Melted butter makes a thin, crispy cookie, which some people love. Really cold butter makes an almost cakey cookie that doesn’t spread at all. Barely room temperature butter, to me, makes the best type of cookie—crispy on the edge but cakey in the middle. With cakes, if you use melted butter, you often won’t get as much rise. Some people want that, but it’s not our preference.
  4. Be gentle. Once you’re ready to add the flour—this isn’t true of only cake—just fold it in or beat until it’s just incorporated. If you overdo it, everything starts to get tough. I believe that something that reacts to the glutens in the flour adds toughness. You can tell if a cake has been overbeaten because it has a thick top layer that’s crunchy or chewy. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s better to incorporate it really slowly or by hand. At Baked we fold in our flour for all of our cakes. And in our books, I think 99 percent of our recipes always say to take the bowl off the mixer to add the dry ingredients.
  5. Invest in a thermometer. Renato and I both realized our home oven temperatures are completely wacky. You have to watch that. The temperature can affect the final shape of the cake. Just get a store-brought oven thermometer for $10 and keep an eye on it.