The Cake Tips And Tricks Ina Garten Swears By

Cake is one of those rare foods that brings everyone together. Whether for a birthday, to celebrate the holidays, or simply to enjoy a cup of coffee with a friend, a slice of cake will put a smile on your face. Baking cakes at home is a challenge that many home cooks enjoy, and creating the perfect masterpiece becomes a labor of love.

However, it is not always plain sailing in the kitchen, and in this age of information overload, we often find ourselves seeking tips from those more experienced than ourselves. Enter, Ina Garten. The Barefoot Contessa has never been shy about sharing her culinary wisdom, and her down-to-earth manner means her cooking tips are revered by home cooks across the country.

Join us as we explore the tips and tricks that Garten has taught us about baking cakes, from how to keep crumbs out of your icing to steering clear of imitation vanilla. With the benefit of Garten's guidance, you can step into your kitchen with confidence, ready to create beautiful cakes that will impress your friends and family.

Refrigerate before icing

You've spent all afternoon baking your masterpiece and now it's time for the exciting part: Icing your cake. The finishing touch is a lot of fun to apply, and you probably want to get straight to it as soon as your cake is out of the oven. But on Instagram, Ina Garten advises that a little bit of chill — for both you and the cake — will give you more chance of creating a perfectly iced showstopper.

Refrigerating your cake before frosting it will cool it down and make it firmer, which is key to the finished icing. The warmer the cake, the more likely it will yield as you apply the frosting, meaning chunks could break off, spoiling all your hard work. The weight of the icing could also cause the shape of the cake to change if it is not chilled, and unless you are recreating the Leaning Tower of Pisa, you'll want to avoid that.

An added reward for chilling your cake in advance is that fewer crumbs will be displaced and stick to the icing as you frost. If you have time, you could apply a first layer of icing — essentially an undercoat — that will contain the crumbs, then refrigerate again before applying the outer layers. This should result in the super smooth finish your cake deserves.

To follow Garten's tip, chill your cake for at least a couple of hours, but ideally overnight. This forward planning will pay off when you see the finished product.

Smear fruit sauce on the plate before serving

Though it is tempting to simply eat your freshly made cake straight from the pan, if you are serving it to guests you may want to consider the presentation. When you have spent so long on your signature bake, you want to show it off as much as possible, and Ina Garten has the perfect hack to do just that.

In an Instagram video, Garten suggests plating your cake up restaurant style by smearing some fruit coulis across the plate before placing your perfectly sliced piece of cake on top. Not only will this make the plate look colorful and attractive, but it will also add flavor and moisture to the cake-eating experience, enhancing the enjoyment of your guests.

To make a fruit coulis, choose a fruit that matches the flavor profile of your cake. If it already contains berries or oranges, it makes sense to create a sauce based on those flavors. If you are unsure, raspberry coulis will go with just about anything. Simply crush or blend your chosen fruit, then simmer until it is reduced to a thick syrup. If your cake is pretty sweet, don't add much, if any, sugar. If you don't have time to make a fruit sauce, use a fruit jam instead.

Once your sauce is ready, spread it on the bottom of the plate before placing the cake carefully on top. Restaurant quality presentation with little effort? Done!

Use a hot knife to smooth the icing

If you are a keen home baker, you have likely gazed in amazement at the cakes in a high-end bakery and wondered if you could get your frosting to look as perfectly smooth as it does. Icing your cake is undoubtedly fun, but it can also be incredibly stressful, especially if you are serving it to special guests who you worry will be judging how perfect it looks.

Ina Garten shared a great tip on Instagram for smoothing the last layer of frosting on your cake, and you don't need any fancy tools — just a knife or cake scraper and a pan of boiling water. A rotating cake stand will make things easier too, though it is not essential.

After the final layer of icing has been applied, dip your knife into the hot water for a few seconds, then dry it off with a cloth. Run the knife lengthways around the cake to smooth out the icing; if you have a cake turntable, you can keep the knife pretty much stationary and slowly turn the cake stand instead. The heat from the knife will melt the frosting just enough to allow it to glide smoothly and create a beautiful finish.

The same trick can also cut your cake into clean slices. Dip a sharp knife into hot water and dry it before cutting through the cake, which will be made easier by the heat of the knife.

Use golden raisins instead of regular

Raisins are a classic ingredient in many cakes, adding a burst of flavor and allowing you to lower the added sugar with their intense sweetness. Ina Garten is a fan of adding raisins to cakes but prefers to use a different variety from most.

Golden raisins are Garten's dried fruit of choice, as she shared on an episode of Food Network's "Barefoot Contessa," lending a lighter and juicier note to your cakes, as well as a plumper shape. They are actually made from the same grape variety as regular raisins but are dried under controlled conditions, rather than sun-dried. This results in a paler color and more delicate flavor that Garten and many others prefer in their desserts.

To plump up your raisins even further, add them to a small bowl of water and microwave for 30 to 45 seconds. This will partially rehydrate them, which will change the texture and improve your cake. If you don't have access to a microwave, you can achieve the same result by soaking the raisins in tepid water, but it will take longer for them to reach the same state. It's worth noting that dry raisins (or grapes) should never be put in the microwave, as there is a chance they may start smoking or explode. 

Using Garten's double hack for raisins means you can have a delicious, light flavor throughout your cake with the juicy texture from rehydrating them. This useful switch can transform your cake and create a tastier version of many of your baked goods.

Protect the cake turntable from spills with parchment paper

Once you've baked your cake, the next question is, how to present it. If you are having guests over and want to show off your masterpiece before it has been cut into, presenting it on a cake stand is the ideal way to do so. However, if it has been on the stand or turntable while you ice it, it may look less than presentable, with blobs of icing dripping down. A little bit of advanced preparation can avoid this situation, allowing you to present your culinary creation in all its glory.

Before you add your cake to the stand, ready for icing, cut four pieces of parchment paper that are just longer than the width of the stand. Lay them on the turntable in a square around the outer edge, so that the cake will sit inside them, overlapping a little onto them, as Garten shows in an Instagram video. This will catch any errant splashes of frosting and protect the cake stand since you can simply slip the parchment paper out once you have finished. This is much more effective than having a whole sheet of parchment paper underneath, as you would need to lift the cake off to remove it, risking damaging your beautiful handiwork.

Add coffee to chocolate cake

At the heart of everything that Ina Garten does is the focus on creating dishes that taste fantastic. Whether it is a simple bowl of spaghetti or a Moroccan lamb tagine with lots of complex layers, her main aim is always to serve a dish with maximum flavor.

When it comes to making chocolate cake, Garten has a secret ingredient: coffee. "Chocolate is really enhanced by the flavor of coffee", she says while making brownies on Food Network's "All-Star Desserts." She is a big fan of adding coffee to chocolate baked goods to intensify the flavor without making them taste solely like coffee. Don't worry about messing with coffee beans and an espresso machine, Garten uses instant coffee granules in her cakes.

The bitter notes from the coffee will balance with the sweetness of the chocolate to create a rich flavor that will take your cake from good to utterly delicious. Imagine how well a hot cup of coffee goes with a piece of high-quality dark chocolate — those are the intense flavors that are going to make your chocolate cake a showstopper.

Buy real vanilla or make your own

If you are a seasoned home baker, you will be well versed in adding vanilla extract to your creations. A staple in the pantry of most home cooks, it is used in a wide variety of cakes and baked goods, lending a sweet vanilla flavor that we all love. But it may shock you to know that some vanilla extract doesn't come from vanilla beans. Unless it explicitly says pure vanilla extract on the bottle, it will be made from a synthetic compound called vanillin, which has a similar flavor to the real stuff.

Ina Garten is not a fan of fake vanilla essence and recommends getting a hold of the real stuff whenever you can. Though it is significantly more expensive, it lasts a long time, meaning that an initial outlay can give you substantially better baking results for months.

If you are feeling adventurous, Garten shares on Instagram how to make vanilla extract at home, and tops up her homemade batch that she has been using for 40 years! If you choose to make your own, it will be six months before you can use it, but after that, you can simply top it up regularly and it will keep your cakes flavored for the next four decades.

Choose local ingredients when you can

Ina Garten is well known for emphasizing using high-quality ingredients to make simple dishes where the flavors can shine and says on an episode of "Barefoot Contessa" that she is a big fan of using locally grown produce to make that happen. Taking Garten's advice when it comes to baking cakes will make a noticeable difference to the outcome of your creations. Food and ingredients that have been reared or grown on your doorstep will be fresher and more flavorful than those that have been flown thousands of miles before arriving in your local store.

Free-range eggs, milk from local grass-fed cows, and organic berries will elevate your cakes from good to outstanding, as well as ensure your ingredients are always in season. So head to your local farmers' market and get to know the people and produce. In doing so, you will also be supporting your local farmers, contributing to the community, and reducing your carbon footprint — in addition to creating cakes that are ethically made and downright delicious.

Don't strive for perfection

As a modern home baker, there can be a lot of pressure to make your cakes and sweet treats look perfect. Instagram and Pinterest are full of photogenic examples of what your cake should look like, and it can be disheartening to compare your finished piece and feel disappointed every time. It can be helpful to take Ina Garten's advice, found on Instagram, when striving to create your masterpiece. "It doesn't have to be perfect, it'll be just as delicious," she insists.

One of the reasons we all love Garten so much is that she is down to earth and makes us feel like we mere mortals are capable of replicating her recipes in the kitchen. Her refreshing advice is a reminder that the purpose of cooking — other than to feed yourself and your family — is to enjoy yourself, especially if you are challenging yourself to make something complex like her Boston Cream Pie. 

If you make a mistake when baking your cake, embrace it. If your frosting isn't as smooth as you would like, add some sprinkles or studs of fruit to cover up the imperfections. Your friends and family will still be impressed with your cake and will likely not even notice. As long as it tastes great, everyone will be happy.

Turn top layer over for a professional flat finish

Some of the tips that Ina Garten offers for home cooks are straightforward and based on common sense, which is why we love her, as she is very relatable. However, this next cake tip is one we could never have worked out ourselves and is a great way to instantly upgrade the presentation of your cake from homemade to professional baker level.

When you cook multiple cake layers, they generally have a domed shape on top, which can make icing and decorating the top of it tricky. There is the option to slice the curved piece off to create a flat top, but this is difficult to get right and can end up making it uneven, which looks even worse. On Instagram, Garten's sneaky tip is to turn the top layer of the cake upside down before adding it, giving you a perfectly flat surface to work your artistic magic.

Once you have iced your cake, no one will be any the wiser, and your cake will have a wonderfully flat top decorated to perfection. Thanks to Garten, your cakes will look as good as they taste, and your guests will be singing your praises.

Serve it for breakfast

If there is one tip of Ina Garten's that we have no issue getting on board with, it's her suggestion that we eat cake for breakfast. Move aside oatmeal, we have a new vehicle for our morning berries, in the form of Garten's blueberry and ricotta breakfast cake featured on her Barefoot Contessa website.

Light and airy, thanks to the ricotta and sour cream, and packed with fresh flavors from the blueberries and lemon zest, we can't think of a more wonderful way to start the morning. While it probably wouldn't be prudent to make it your regular daily breakfast, it is the perfect special dish for a weekend or holiday morning. The best part of this dish is that it is so easy to make, and with only 1 cup of sugar to serve eight people, it is not overly sweet either, feeling like a morning cake that goes perfectly with a cup of tea, rather than a dessert.

To make it feel more breakfast-like, you could serve it with some Greek yogurt and switch out the blueberries for any other berry that you usually enjoy in the morning. So, now that Garten has given you permission to have cake for breakfast, you have no choice but to whip up a batch of her blueberry and ricotta cake and enjoy.

Only go in one direction with icing to avoid crumbs

Crumbs — the thorn in the side of so many home bakers. Is there anything more frustrating than finishing a smooth layer of frosting, only to notice a few errant crumbs dotted across the cake? To avoid this annoyance, Garten has a simple trick: Spread your frosting in only one direction when icing the cake.

It can be tempting to move your pallet knife backward and forward across the cake as you ice, but this will encourage crumbs to become dislodged, stick to the knife, and end up ruining your beautiful frosting. Instead, Garten suggests spreading the icing across the cake in horizontal strokes, without doubling back, or starting at the center and moving out, as she shared on Instagram.

In addition to refrigerating the cake before applying the frosting, this tip from Garten should give you a crumb-free finish on your cake and impress everyone with your smooth frosting. For such a simple trick, it will save you lots of stress the next time you ice a cake.