Getting your cake layers even may seem like such a basic thing, but it is something that has to be learned and there are a few different methods to do it. 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. Lastly, having even layers is one of the visual things that takes a cake from "homey" to professional.
Prevention is key: Try to get even layers as you bake, so you don't have to cut away a domed top in the first place. My layers frequently come out without any dome at all, which makes things much easier!
Essential supplies: Quality pans, Parchment, 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 aluminum in most cases; sturdy but not overly heavy. (I personally do not like dark coated non-stick pans for baking.) These pans heat evenly and have very straight (not angled) sides. My favorite brand is Magic Line cake pans, which you can buy online or at most professional cake supply stores. You can also buy Wilton pans at any craft store or online. But beware with Wilton - they also put out a line of pans which are geared toward amateur bakers and do not have nice straight sides. So take a good look at what you are buying. And don't worry - Professional pans are actually not expensive. You can buy a set of two 9" pans for under $20.
This Magic Line pan is lightweight 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, and take the temperature every time you bake.
Weigh the batter:
If you have a kitchen scale, 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). You can try it for smaller layers, but I prefer to use bake even strips instead. With a large layer, I do both the bake even strips and the flower nail. 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):
Use a sharp serrated knife, such as a long bread knife. I recommend using a cake turntable, it is not necessary but will make the cutting easier.
You can measure the cake layer three different ways 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.
2) Christa's Easy Method - Use a ruler without the toothpicks - this is the method I use most. 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.
3) If you have some cake boards on hand, put the cake boards into your pan (however many you will need to boost the cake layer up so that the dome is over the edge of the pan). Set the cake on top of them, boosting the cake layer up inside the pan so you can use the pan edges as a guide to cut.
As you get better, you will be able to just eyeball it for most cakes. Generally it will only be when you are doing elaborate decorations or tiering a cake that you need to be absolutely precise!