Size Matters

Yes, when it comes to cake pans, size does matter. It is a natural inclination to want to vary the size of tin that you bake your cakes in, but for some cake recipes the outcome of going either larger or smaller in pan size without adjusting batter volumes will yield results that are less than desirable.A-full-cake-compweb

The above picture illustrates some of the issues that occur when you shift pan sizes without adjusting a recipe. Let me preface this by saying that my cake recipes usually push the limits on structure weakeners. The very ingredients that make cakes delicious (sugar and fat!) also do the work of undercutting the structural components (gluten, egg proteins and starch). In order for a cake to be moist and flavorful, you often have to give a little in the structural realm.  In comes the issue of pan size.

Here are some of the issues that occur when you change pan size with the volume of batter held constant:A-cut-compweb

  • Small cake pans (like a 6-inch pan, tube pan or cupcake tin) offer a lot of wall push. Think of it like a tension rod across a shower stall. If the distance is short there is sufficient support for the rod to hold the curtain. In a similar way, proteins and starches use the support of the cake walls to push and can grow tall under the influence of leavening. But they may rise more than will support the weight of the cake they bear.
  • When a cake is baked in a moderately sized pan, the structural components have some support from the side walls but because the surface area of that batter is spread out there is less weight on the structural molecules.  Also, because the cake bakes at a different rate than when the batter is thick in a smaller pan, it heats more evenly and proteins set and starches gel more in sync with leavening.
  • In a larger pan the batter is so spread that all of the reactions occur rapidly with limited weight from the cake ingredients. This may result in  a lighter textured cake but the outcome may also be a cake the is coarse feeling on the tongue.

I baked a consistent volume/weight of batter that was designated to fit in an 8-inch pan in a 6×3-inch pan,  an 8×2-inch pan and a 9×2-inch pan to examine the differences in these minor pan size changes. The batter used was from the Vanilla Cake recipe with some minor reductions in sugar and oil.A-six-cake-webThe effect of moving a volume of batter that was designed for an 8-inch cake into a 6-inch pan was dramatic. Upon removing the cake from the oven, the cake sort of collapsed in on itself. You can see above that the side walls even scrunched down and in.A-cut-sixwebWhen looking at the cut cake you can see that it has compacted significantly at the bottom while the top remains fluffy and coarse in texture. A-eightwebThe 8-inch cake had some shrinking when removed from the oven due to its rich nature.A-cut-eight-webDespite this the inside of the cake was light and smooth in texture.A-ninewebThe 9-inch cake settled some as well when it was removed from the oven but it was less pronounced than with the other cakes.A-cut-ninewebThe textural results of this cake are difficult to see. While this cake appears to have a texture finer than that of the 8-inch cake it actually had a very coarse, rough mouthfeel. This is seemingly the effect of the rapid cook time caused by the spreading out of the batter in  a thin layer.A-cut-leavenwebI know that for many people it is appealing to bake their cakes in 3 or 4-inch tall cake tins so l attempted to make simple adjustments to the batter which would favor deep-tin baking. In the cake above I reduced the leavening from 2 1/2 teaspoons to 1/2 teaspoon. The lower amount of baking powder allows the cake to slowly rise and set, giving it more time to develop an understructure. This helped some with the shrinking back and did improve the texture, but as you can see above there was still some compaction at the cake base.A-undermix-webIn a third attempt, I limited leavening by not creaming the sugar and butter thus reducing mechanical leavening. This was in addition to the previous reduction in baking powder.  The uncreamed cake did not sink, but it never actually rose either. The cake was very compact and gummy in  texture at the base and very fluffy and coarse on top.  This cake did not have enough leavening to even get off the ground.

So, to actually make this cake work in a 6×3-inch pan it would take some serious reworking of ingredients and possibly baking at a lower temperature. This recipe is therefore best when baked in an 8×2-inch pan.

That said, I would never deter anyone from trying a favorite recipe in a tall baking pan, but I wanted to illustrate some of the issues that may be arise so that adjustments can be made and headaches prevented.

Here is a summary of some things to try when shifting to baking in a thick baking pan:

  • Reduce the baking powder or other leavening to prevent a dramatic rise and fall
  • Reduce the structure weakeners sugar, fat and liquid
  • Conversely you can increase your flour and/or eggs to bolster the structure
  • Lower your baking temperature to allow the structure setting to be in concert with the leavening processes

I hope this helps and informs your baking efforts in the future.

Happy Baking!









23 thoughts on “Size Matters”

  1. I am so enjoying this blog!! I’ve always wanted to learn more behind the science of baking!!

    I wanted to let you know that I baked the vanilla cake in a 13x9x2 pan and it turned out great! Thank you for the great recipe.

  2. Dang, Science Gal, meet Baker gal! Fantastic and yet, now I am totally intimidated to bake different size cakes. All the more reason to stick to baking sugar cookies. :/

    1. Have no fear! I was reading Shirley Corriher’s Bakewise last night and read a quote she had that said, “a sad cake is a happy cake”. Meaning when a cake fails it usually is delicious because of all the good stuff that make it flop! It’s a win-win! And you can always bake in the same size pan and cut them down if you are really afraid 😉 Do whatever it takes to bake deliciousness! Although I am a sucker for sugar cookies too!

  3. Hi Summer! Thanks again for a very scientific look at cake making 😉
    I wanted to say that when I have a recipe that is meant for 2 8X2 layers and I want to use it, say in a 6X3, I leave the recipe unchanged but spread the batter so that the tin is always no more than 2/3 full (that’s why I have 3 6X3 pans) and so far that’s always worked for me. I do the same if I’m going down to 4X3 or any combination of sizes that are smaller than the tin size recommended in the recipe.
    Now my problem comes when I want to go UP the size pan rather than down. I never know when and if a recipe can be doubled and, if so, should the temperature/cooking time change and by how much. Hopefully you’ll tackle this in a later blog post 😉
    I truly enjoy reading your posts, thanks so much for spending the time to write them and share them with us!

    1. Hi Maria! Yes, it seems mostly to be an issue with depth, so if you keep it thin you are in good shape 😉 Going big can be a bit tricky. Like going small you have to adjust baking powder down so that you don’t inflate the cake more than the pan walls can support. You also have the issue of uneven cooking since there is such a great distance between the outside and the inside of the cake. Hence the reason a heat core is often used. It gives support as a tube pan does and also conducts heat to the center of the cake. I would probably recommend going down in temperature 25 F/15 C and keeping the layers relatively thin but too much temperature variation and depth adjustment can affect cake texture. It’s a fine balance! Yes, perhaps one of these days I can do an in depth (haha) coverage of going large 🙂

  4. Yes, definitely the large cakes that give me the most problems. The biggest problem is the texture. Gummy in the middle and on top even with flower nails in the center. I’m going to try increasing the flour and add an additional egg along with a heat core. I never thought about the core providing support! No wonder the flower nails weren’t working.

  5. Hi Summer. I was wondering what about if I wanted to use different shaped pans like a square instead of a circle, will that effect the baking in anyway. And thank you so much for your blog, very informative. All the recipes I have tried so far on here have been delicious 🙂

    1. Square pans seem to strangely offer more wall support, so if you don’t bake super deep they mitigate some of the problems of going larger. I believe most other shapes (octagon, heart, etc.) would act much like the rounds in their distribution of support and you should be able to treat them as you would rounds.:)

  6. Hi Summer .Thank you so much ! I love your moist coconut cake recipe , first time I made it ,it was perfect ( baked in 8 inch pan) second time had same results as your first picture 🙁 in a 6×4 , and 6×2 same results . But now I know why 🙂 . Also I try your chocolate mud cake but it seems I did something wrong the cake was very airy kind of sponge texture 🙁 , what I’m thinking I probably over beat the batter . Any suggestion will be really appreciated , I would like it to give a try again 🙂
    I love you blog , thank you so much !

    1. Hi Claudia, I would check your oven temperature. I wouldn’t think that overbeating would cause textural problems since this batter is so liquid in nature. Pan size could make a difference. Make sure you are using a good quality cocoa with a high fat content. If your cocoa has little or no fat you may need to add butter to compensate. I am sorry if I can’t pinpoint an issue. So many factors can affect texture. Without knowing every step it can be difficult to determine the problem. Good luck! 🙂

      1. Thak you Summer for your pront response.
        I used herseys dutch processed cocoa , next time i’ll try the one you sugested on your recipe 🙂 .by the way your new recipe is just perfect for father’s day 😉 my Husband loves coffe and white chocolate , i’ll be baking that soon . Thank you thank you .

        1. I hope he enjoys it! My step dad kept going back for seconds this weekend when I brought some to my parents house 🙂

  7. I am attempting to make your fresh strawberry cake. The recipe calls for three 8″ pans, but I only have three 9″ pans. Should I adjust the recipe, temperature or cook time to accommodate the larger pans?

  8. What would the danger be if baking with 8×4 round cake pans instead of 8×2 with your 8×2 recipes? All I have is a set of 8×4 pans :(. I feel that the height of the baked cake would be similar. Might the danger be over cooked edges? I’m guessing that the increased surface area would mean more heat to the sides. What do you think I should do?

  9. Hi Summer. I had a major issue when baking your White Velvet cake in 10″ pans. I adjusted the recipe to produce the amount of batter required for two 10″ round pans, but the cake fell apart when I tried to assemble it! I did bake it fully. Typically I try to bake two cakes of full thickness (I use 2″ tall pans) so that I can tort them.

    Question is could I have adjusted the ingredients of the White Velvet cake to work in 10″ pans? Or is that cake just too tender to work at a larger size? Follow up: which of your recipes would work as 10″ cakes? Thank you!

    1. Hi Lynne, My white velvet and red velvet recipes are uncommonly tender. I usually only stack and work with them quite cold or frozen. For that reason, they become very difficult to work with in larger scale. You can improve their stability with extra eggs and flour, but by the time you modify them you may alter what makes them delicious. It’s always a balance with cakes. Most of my other recipes should enlarge well. Sorry for your crumbles!

  10. Thanks Autumn! Figures I chose that recipe. Would using a heating core help for non super tender cakes, to ensure the cakes bake well in 10”pans? And reducing temperature by 25 degrees? Just paranoid cakes won’t bake properly throughout at that size.

    1. For 10″ cakes I use standard heat and no heat core. They peform well without alteration in my experience. For 12″ and larger the modifications are helpful. 🙂

      1. Perfect. Thank you so much. A bunch of your recipes are standard in my repertoire and all worked great in tiered cakes, minus white velvet. Lesson learned!

  11. Hi! Thanks for posting this! I have a question. How do you succesfully divide a cake recipe in half? Do you divide all ingredients including the leaveners by two? Or do you make adjustments to the quantity of the other ingredients so that the halve cake recipe will have the same texture as the original recipe?

    1. Hi Ruth! I divide everything, including leaveners. If the eggs divide unevenly, I always round up on the eggs. A bit of extra egg doesn’t affect much. 🙂

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