How to Build a Layered Cake

Let me confess that I haven’t always known what I was doing, or even what I was supposed to be doing when it came to making cake. Oh, no. I have had my fair share of complete cake disasters. I learned through lots and lots of practice and from tips from other bakers and bloggers. All of it paid off and I think I can safely say that I know how to build a layer cake. I use the word build because in my opinion, there’s so much more that goes into a cake besides knowing how to frost it. Today I want to show you how I do it, from start to finish. I’m sure it’s not the only way, it’s just my way, and it has worked really well for me.

(Be prepared, I’m a little long winded on this subject.)

First off, building a layered cake is a two day process for me. I like to bake the cake layers and let them chill in the fridge overnight. This way they are really cold and firm when I work with them, and lot less likely to move around or crack and crumble than layers cooled just to room temperature.

Okay, let’s get started! One of my least favorite things is when a cake doesn’t come out nicely from its pan. I’ve had many meltdowns from broken, crumbled layers. But here’s a sure fire way to prepare your cake pans to make sure the cake comes out perfectly every time.

First, line your cake pan bottoms with parchment paper. Trace the pans and cut them out.

Cutting out parchment paper

Next, grease the pan. I use the paper liners from the butter I use in the actual cake. Brilliant, no? I grease the bottom of the pan, then line it with the parchment paper, then grease the entire thing.

Buttering the pan

Then I sprinkle each pan with flour and roll it around until the pan is completely covered.

Flouring the pan

Now comes time to make the cake batter. Need a great cake recipe? I’ve got lots in my recipe index.

When it comes time to pour the batter into the prepared cake pans, I try to make sure that I get an equal amount of batter in each pan so that each layer is the same height. You could eyeball it, but I’ve ended up with too many uneven layers that way. So I like to weigh my filled pans.

Pouring batter

I actually know the weight of my mixing bowl and when the batter is ready, I weigh it all, subtract the weight of the bowl, and divide that by the number of pans I have. And that’s how much batter goes in each pan. It’s almost too much math for me to handle, but that’s why I have a calculator in the kitchen.

You could also measure the total volume of the batter (cups, fluid ounces, etc.) and figure it out that way if you don’t have a scale.

Equal amounts

Now it’s time to bake! Cakes naturally bake with a slightly domed top, which isn’t so good if you want to stack them. You can cut the tops off, but I feel like that’s a waste. There are also wet strips you can wrap around the pans to get the layers to bake evenly, but that seems way too complicated. Want to know what I do?

I reduce the heat from 350 degrees F to 300 degrees F and increase the baking time. The lower temperatures bake the cake slower, which prevents it from doming. A good rule of thumb when you reduce the temperature is to bake it for one and a half times as long as the recipe originally suggests. So if the recipe says 60 minutes at 350 degrees, it will take approximately 90 minutes at 300 degrees. But keep an eye on it! Check it periodically after the original suggested time to be sure you don’t over bake it.

Now you know my secret to perfectly level layers!

Even layers

Once the cakes are baked, let them sit in their pans for about 10 minutes. Then run a knife around the edge and turn them out onto a wire rack. The parchment paper will come out with the cake and I like to use that as a barrier between the cake and wire rack so that nothing sticks, so I actually turn the cake out onto my hand and then flip it bottom side down on the wire rack. Cool on the racks completely.

Like I said earlier, I like to then chill my layers overnight. Wrap them in plastic and chill the layers in the fridge. If you are short on time, a few hours will probably do the trick. Note, cakes will last for at least a week in the fridge and several months in the freezer, which is great for planning ahead! If you freeze your cake, double wrap your layers in plastic wrap and when you’re ready for them, let them thaw completely before unwrapping the plastic.

I have prepared many cakes from layers I froze and then thawed, and I can honestly say I can’t taste the difference between a frozen and a fresh cake.

Wrapped for chilling

Now it’s time to frost the cake!

Unwrap the layers and prepare your icing. You want your icing to be thin enough that it will go on easily, but thick enough that it will stay in place and hold its shape.

Here are a few extra steps I take at this point that aren’t really necessary, but that make it easier for me to get a great looking cake. I use a turntable to frost the cake, which I think cost me $7.00 at a baking supply store. I put the cake on a cardboard round (which can be purchased or made yourself) on top of the turntable and then move the whole thing to my cake stand when I’m ready.

First layer

Once you’ve got your first layer down on your turn table or cake stand, spread on the filling. If it’s the same as the icing for the rest of the cake, it’s very easy. If you are filling the cake with preserves, fruit curd, or anything else that might run out while you’re frosting the cake, it’s best to build or pipe a little dam of icing around the edge of the cake before you pour on the filling. This will keep it in place.

Second layer

Then add the next layer of cake and repeat the filling and stacking for as many layers as you have.

When icing the cake, I like to first do a crumb coat. This is a thin layer of icing that essentially seals in any loose crumbs. This is essential when using a light colored icing on a darker colored cake, but I do it always.

Covering in icing

Simply spread the icing on the top first, then move to the sides. I use an offset spatula to ice my cakes but a flat rubber spatula could work too in a pinch.

Icing the sides

It’s okay if it’s messy at first.

Messy first layer

You can clean it up.

Smoothing frosting

When the first crumb coat layer is done, put the cake in the fridge to chill for 20 to 30 minutes. This will harden up the icing and make the second coat go on super smoothly.

If you got any crumbs in your icing while putting on your first layer, make sure that icing does not go back in the bowl. You’ll want to keep it separate so that your second coat is crumb free.

Spread on the second coat of icing, which goes on very smoothly and makes it easy to get a clean cut finish. Your cake won’t be completely smooth, that’s impossible, I’ve tried. It will be smooth enough and little imperfections add charm.

Second coat

Now is the time I move my cake to a display plate or stand.

Piping bag

And I add the finishing touches with the help of a pastry bag and tip from my collection of star tips and plain tips.

Piping icing

And voila! You have yourself a beautiful cake.

Iced cake

A cake with even layers, smooth frosting, and a professional look. People will ask you where you got the cake and you can simply say, I made it myself, thank you very much!

View the recipe used in this post (photos have been updated): Yellow Cake with Easy Fudge Frosting

I hope you’ve found this helpful. Do you have any tips or ticks up your sleeve when it comes to cake? I’d love to hear about it!
Finally, if you want to see me in action, check out this short video I made, Annalise Makes Chocolate Cake.