Getting your cake layers even may seem like such a basic thing, but it is something that has to be learned. Why should you bother to make all the layers nice and even? After all, we all remember the homey look of old-fashioned cakes with a domed top. Well, that looks fine for one or two layers with simple frosting. But when you are stacking three or more layers on top of each other, having a slightly domed top on each one will make the cake less stable. It will also look less appealing, and could create problems if you plan to do some intricate decorating. Having even layers is also one of the visual things that takes a cake from "homey" to professional.
There are several different methods for levelling off the layers once they are baked, but it is better to try to get even layers as you bake, so you don't have to cut away a domed top in the first place.
Prevention is key:
Essential supplies: Professional quality pans, Parchment paper, Bake Even Strips, and Non-stick spray.
Line pans with parchment paper - it is the only surefire
way to not have your cake stick to the pan.
Spray the parchment paper as well as the pan.
PANS:Use professional pans. Professional pans will be made of sturdy aluminum in most cases. They will have very straight (not angled) sides. You should NOT be able to "nest" your pans within each other. Note: I personally do not like dark coated non-stick pans for baking (they can cause over-browning and are not truly non-stick). My favorite brand is Magic Line, which you can buy online or at most professional cake supply stores. And don't worry - Professional pans need not be expensive. You can buy two 9" Magic Line pans for under $20. There are other great brands out there, just make sure they are sturdy not flimsy, and have very straight sides.
This pan is lightweight (but sturdy) aluminum, with very straight sides.
Notice that it does not have a dark non-stick coating.
The sides to these 6" pans are straight, so they cannot nest inside each other when stacked. This is a good way to test pans in the store before buying.
Getting nice straight sides on a cake is not easy to do with the regular cake pans you buy at a department store (or even some cookware stores). You may not have noticed it, but most of them have sides that angle slightly outward. To get really straight sides you need professional pans.
Get an oven thermometer and take your oven's temperature to make sure it is not over or under-heating. Adjust the temperature accordingly.
Weigh the batter:
I like to use a kitchen scale to weigh the batter so you have an even amount in each pan. This avoids having one layer that is thicker than the other.
Bake Even Strips:
I love these things. You soak them in water and then affix them to the outside of the cake before baking (see pic below). They come in large and small sizes.
Flower Nail Method:
Putting a flower nail upside down in the center of the pan will help the cake bake evenly because the metal core heats up and bakes the batter around it. This is recommended for larger layers (12" or larger). I prefer to use bake even strips instead of the flower nail, but with a large layer I do both. Be sure to spray the flower nail with non-stick spray (in addition to the pan itself). When you flip the cake out of the pan, turn it upside down onto a cooling rack, letting the nail go through the grates of the rack. When it is upside down, slowly pull the nail out of the cake by the flat end, and let the cake cool. There will be a very small hole that can easily be covered with frosting.
If you DO have to cut a domed top, or if you want to torte the cake (cut the layers horizontally to create more layers for filling) here are some suggestions:
Use a sharp serrated knife, such as a long bread knife. I also recommend placing the cake on a cake turntable. It is not necessary, but I find that it makes the cutting easier.
First, measure the cake layer before cutting:
1) Take a ruler and measure where the domed area starts (at the lowest point) and mark it with a toothpick. Measure all the way around the layer, marking the same height with toothpicks as you go. Then cut just above or below the toothpicks. OR you can use Christa's Easier Method:
2) Christa's Easy Method: Skip the toothpicks. I set my cake on a turntable and measure where it needs to be trimmed. Then I take my knife, and, keeping the ruler at the cake with the other hand, I start cutting at the same mark all the way around. When I have cut a little bit into the cake, I set aside the ruler and follow my cut mark, working the knife into the center as I turn the cake on the turntable.
NOTE: As you get better, you will be able to just eyeball it for many of your simpler cakes. A basic, pretty layer cake does not need to be measured precisely - I usually eyeball my cakes unless they are going to be stacked and need to be very level.