The Mystery of the Crowning Cake

Reader Melissa writes:

I have an issue and I know if no one else can, you can tell me why I am having it. Everytime I bake a cake, the middle cones up and it splits. I checked through your tutorial but didn’t find an article on it. So I decided to write.

Thanks for writing in with this, Melissa, since it’s an extremely common problem. There are two main causes for bulge-in-the-middle cake layers. The first is over-mixing. Too much agitation creates a lot of activated gluten. Think of gluten as a stretchy network of rubber band-like molecules that’s trying to pull the cake together into a ball as it heats. It’s a very common cause of crowning — especially in muffins, the tops of which are often cone-shaped (a sure sign of a pasty, chewy product).

The other major cause is an overly hot oven, and flattish items like cake layers are especially vulnerable to a hot oven’s effects. The outer regions of the layer heat up quickly and set prematurely, the consequence being that their surfaces become rigid. This holds in the rise like a girdle, so as the un-baked batter in the middle of the layer heats it has nowhere to expand — except inward toward the center.

As the process continues the very center of the layer becomes compressed, and as the last of the un-baked batter that’s located there heats, it has nowhere to expand but upward. The result is a pronounced crown and usually some very severe cracks as the expanding batter pushes up through the layer’s rigid surface.

So my guess, Melissa, is that your oven is running hot. Try calibrating it with an oven thermometer: turn the oven to say, 350, put in the thermometer and move it from place to place to check the temperature in different spots (most ovens have hot and cold spots). Raise the temperate to 400 and try it again, since ovens behave differently at different settings. After an hour or so you should have a feel for how your oven is behaving and can adjust accordingly. Get back to me if you’re still having problems!

16 thoughts on “The Mystery of the Crowning Cake”

    1. Hey HBM!

      Yes, cake bands work by adding mass to the outer edge of the pan, slowing down the rate at which the outer regions of the cake heat. The outer surfaces stay flexible longer, creating a more even rise.

      Thanks Baker Man!

      – Joe

  1. I also use water-logged baking strips wrapped around the cake pan to slow the baking of the outer edge. Wilton makes them, or you can make your own out of thick, soaked towel strips. I get absolutely flat, evenly cooked cakes all the time.

    1. I’ve tried the strips of toweling with bad results. I cut 2″ strips of toweling and after wetting them, I wrapped them around my 6″ cake pans. The cakes rose well at first but ended up deflating and the edges remained mostly raw. Yuck! So I don’t know if my towelling basically over compensated and provided too much insulation. It seemed that the sides of the pan never got hot enough to cook the edges completely. Any tips on how I could do it differently?

      1. Hm, that’s an interesting question since I don’t use strips or towels, just moderate heat. People swear by those metal cake strips, though. They’re not expensive!

        – Joe

  2. Thanks for the response. When I saw your explanation, i realized it had to be over heating. because halfway through when i go tot turn the cake around, i see the sides already browing slightly and the middle still not formed. I am usuallt tempted to pop a hole in there. lol. If i bake this weekend, i’ll let you know first thing Monday. Thanks.

  3. I’ve never heard of cake bands. I’ll have to figure out how to use the towel strips. What i forgot to mention was that the over heating of the oven caused us to use a aluminum bowl with water every time we bake. So its like a standard now in the house when we are baking, pop a bowl of water in the oven…. Don’t know if that affects anything.

  4. I tried cake bands but thought them tedious. And I was always getting stuck with the pins–maybe they no longer use those. I’m with Joe on the moderate heat and I’ve used some cheap crappy rental property ovens and achieved good results. A trick I learned from Tyler Florence back when FoodTV was worth watching is to make the center slightly lower than the sides. Obviously it has to be a batter firm enough to hold its shape but that helps the center come up slower than the sides. Works great.

  5. Hey Joe. Once again, great site with so much valuable information. Thanks! Re: baking strips wrapped around cake pans… As several of your readers have mentioned, they really do work well at keeping cakes level as they bake. The mechanism is precisely as you mentioned. Personally, I’ve sworn by them for many years. In response to Rosanne’s comment about her failed attempt, however, the dirty secret about this secret weapon is that they should never be used on pans smaller than 8-inches in diameter. (Of course, they don’t mention that on the packaging. But has anyone noticed that they’re not made for pans smaller than 9-inches?!?) As you mentioned, cake pan strips work by reducing the rate at which the batter closest to the outside of the pan heats. But the effect is “felt” more than just at the very outside edge of the pan; the effect is dramatic, and several inches of batter in from the outer edge of the pan is affected. That means that at pan diameters less than 8-inches, cake strips really only serve to lower the temperature of the batter *overall* (i.e., all the way to the center), rather than changing the “shape” of the heating *gradient*. In essence this is equivalent to starting the baking in a cooler oven. And that means, guess what…? Under-baked layers, exactly as Roseanne described. Bottom line… Those things are really meant to be used on large layers, where they really do work.

  6. Heavy fruitcakes require some sort of edge insulation like this. Usually recipes tell you to line the cake tin with multiple layers of paper. What I did a couple of years ago is make an external casing for my fruitcake tin out of corrugated cardboard, tied together with string (sellotape doesn’t hold up well in ovens, and staples are a bit counterproductive). Works a treat and it’s reusable. It’s loose enough for the tin to easily slip in and out of it.

  7. I too have not had many good results with the cake strips.

    Whenever I bake anything in a large pan (cake, brownies, loaves), I also always push the batter somewhat toward the edges of the pan, leaving a small depression toward the center. I don’t know if that actually helps create flat tops, but most of my cakes, etc., turn out relatively flat. (Not all, but enough that it’s not an issue for me.)

  8. While perusing Fantes website, I noticed they have the bands, and a “heating core” for really wide cakes. As I just figuring out how to make decent cakes (thanks to you, Joe), I’m not there yet. Nor have I gotten to Fantes yet either – a dream trip one day.

    1. Hey Naomi!

      Yes, those “heating cores” have been getting more popular…basically little rings inserted into the batter in the middle of the sheet to help conduct heat into the middle where it’s needed. You end up with circular pieces cut out of the middle, but you simply stick them back in, and who’ll notice later when the cake is cut? They’re a good idea if you ask me.

      – Joe

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