Baking cake in a dark pan: burn prevention

Our magazine, Sift, is filled with stunning photography and delicious recipes. But it’s also a great educational resource for bakers. From time to time, we pick out a reader’s question from Sift to feature here in our blog — like this one from our Holiday 2016 issue:

“I’m wondering about baking in dark pans. I made a recipe from your magazine, and it came out very dark at 350°F, even though the pan was lined with parchment. Should I lower the heat when I use dark pans?” — Corky Karen

Here’s the simple answer: yes, when baking cake in a dark pan, reduce your oven temperature 25 degrees. And to be on the safe side, start checking the cake about 10 minutes before the recipe says it should be done.

Learn why baking cake in a dark pan is a potential burn hazard — and what to do about it. Click To Tweet

A dark metal pan absorbs and distributes heat more quickly and thoroughly than lighter-colored pans. So not only does your cake bake more quickly in a dark pan, its crust can potentially burn (or at least brown unpleasantly) due to over-exposure to oven heat.

But why does that matter? Isn’t it more efficient to bake cake more quickly?

No, and here’s why. First, exposing the cake’s sidewalls to high heat right at the outset means they’ll set quickly. Meanwhile, the cake’s center, still liquid, continues to rise, causing a significant dome — irritating when you’re trying to stack a layer cake.

Second, it’s easier for the oven’s heat to penetrate cake crust while it’s still soft. The last thing you want is a set crust that blocks heat from reaching the cake’s unbaked interior (result: gummy center).

And finally, the quicker your cake bakes, the more chance you have of over-baking it — simply because your window of opportunity for pulling it out of the oven at the exact right moment is smaller.

Baking Cake In A Dark Pan via @kingarthurflour

What qualifies as a dark cake pan?

Clearly, my black tube pan in the photo above is DARK; and the Party Bundt pan at the bottom is light.

Baking Cake In A Dark Pan via @kingarthurflour

But what about my other Bundt pan, a dark gray model? Is it dark, or light?

Baking Cake In A Dark Pan via @kingarthurflour

It’s not black and white

Metal cake pans can come in a range of shades, from very light gray to dark charcoal. Judging whether a cake pan is dark or light isn’t as important as realizing that the darker the pan, the more quickly your cake will bake.

The photo above shows cake baked in the party Bundt (left), and in my darker Bundt. While both crusts are perfectly acceptable, the darker pan does produce a darker crust.

So, when baking in a darker pan, you might do well to start checking your cake for doneness 5 to 10 minutes before the time indicated in the recipe.

But what about lowering the oven temperature — should you do that as well?

Baking Cake In A Dark Pan via @kingarthurflour

When using a black pan, lower the oven temperature

My experimenting reveals that only when you bake in a truly dark pan — black, or close to it — do you need to compensate by lowering your oven temperature.

Above are two cakes, both baked in a black tube pan for 45 minutes. The cake at the left was baked at the recipe’s given oven temperature, 350°F; the one at the right, at 325°F. Baking at a lower temperature yields a lighter crust.

Baking Cake In A Dark Pan via @kingarthurflour

And not only is the crust lighter, it’s more tender, as well. Notice the thicker, darker crust from the cake baked at 350°F (above left), compared to the crust from the cake baked at 325°F.

The darker crust is also harder — the result of sugar being drawn by heat to the cake’s outer edge, then caramelizing there.

Baking Cake In A Dark Pan via @kingarthurflour

Shortening baking time: yes or no?

Finally, what about reducing the baking time from what’s stated in the recipe?

Using our Classic Vanilla Pound Cake recipe, which calls for a bake time of 50 to 60 minutes at 350°F, I find that cake baked in the two Bundt pans is perfectly done at 50 minutes.

Cake baked in the black tube pan, however, is done at 45 minutes — even with the oven temperature reduced to 325°F. So when baking cake in a dark pan (black or verging on black), reducing both oven temperature and baking time yields perfect results.

Now, what about glass pans?

Since we’re celebrating the Year of the Bundt, I’ve concentrated my tests on Bundt/tube pans, which are nearly always metal. Now, common kitchen wisdom says to lower oven heat by 25 degrees when baking in a glass pan; but without having done the tests myself, I can’t vouch for that. (For more information, here’s a great discussion on glass vs. metal pans).

Parchment and dark pans

And let’s circle back to our original reader question, which mentions lining a dark pan with parchment. Parchment helps prevent sticking when you’re turning cake out of a pan. But it’s not an insulator; it won’t block heat. So don’t rely on parchment to “lighten” your metal pan.

My advice? For best results, bake cake in a medium- to light-colored metal pan. As Sift editor Susan Reid says, in her answer to the reader question that leads off this post: “If you have the option, next time reach for a lighter-colored baking pan. We think you’ll be amazed at the difference.”

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. J. A. Vann

    I purchased one of your Bundt pans several years ago. It was the one shaped like a Chrysanthemum. I was baking a pound cake and it was to be baked at 350 degrees for 50 to 60 minutes!
    I lowered the oven temperature to 325 degrees and hoped for the best! The cake took a little over an hour and a half to get about 3/4 of the way done and the out side was very very brown. The crust was chewy and tasted bad and the cake was not done about 2 inches from the post in the middle. In order to eat it I had to cut off the crust and cut about a third of the cake away that did not get done, from the middle of the cake, each slice. The bottom of the cake, I thought for sure would have been done and browned was gooey, not done and very pale! It was the first time I had used that particular pan. I have 2 others that I purchased from King Arthur and have had no problems! Any idea why I had so much trouble with this pan?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Oh no! Hmm, is the pound cake recipe one that’s designed for a Bundt pan, J.A.? Some recipes just do better in a loaf pan or a deeper tube-style angel food cake pan. Some of the flower shaped Bundt pants produce cake that’s significantly skinnier on the top than at the bottom. This may just be one of those recipes. Give the recipe a go in one of your other Bundt pans if you haven’t already, and go for a lighter cake in the Chrysanthemum pan for better results. Our Lemon Bliss Cake is a great recipe to experiment with! Annabelle@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      The one you see there was baked in the very light colored metal pan pictured behind it, so your plan sounds like a strong one, Kathryn. Best of luck with your experiments! Do let us know what you learn. Mollie@KAF

  2. Kathryn

    I recently received a Pound Cake that had pretty much NO Exterior “Browning”, it was really light colored. How would I acheive this?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      To start with, Kathryn, we’d suggest using a lighter colored metal pan. If you only have access to a darker one, try turning the oven down by 25 degrees as we explain here. Tenting your loaf with foil partway through can also help the top from browning. Ingredients like milk and sugar aid in browning, so it’s possible the loaf you received didn’t use as much sugar and/or didn’t use milk. We’re not sure it would be worth the sacrifice to texture and flavor to reduce these ingredients purely for the sake of lighter color, but you’re welcome to experiment. You could also look at a light, golden crust as a plus, as we do, rather than seeing it as something to be avoided. Mollie@KAF

  3. Cindy 2

    In the past, Nordicware made fancy-shaped bundt pans that are silver on the outside, but black nonstick on the inside. I have several of these, including a Bavaria pan. Do you recommend lowering the temperature for this type of combination light/dark pan as well?

    Also, is Pam for Baking not recommended because it contains flour?

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Cindy, your best bet is to try the recipe as written, though you could start checking earlier to see if it’s done. Since it’s black on the inside rather than outside, it might be it works like a lighter-colored pan. If it does bake more quickly, you’ll know to lower either temperature or time next time out. Personally, I don’t like those spray oil/flour combinations; I prefer to leave the flour out, but if you like it and it works for you — go for it! PJH

  4. Elmo

    I cannot speak for bundt pans, but I have learned to insulate the sides of my pans or use a water bath to keep the sides from heating faster than the middle, to get flat-top cakes where the “dome” does not need to be trimmed. But especially in water, one must always make sure the cake is done through. Best if using a cool water bath, to remove it once the cake is set and finish baking dry. Otherwise a cool kitchen towel soaked in water does wonders.

    Reply
  5. Kathleen bowen

    Still dot get it are you saying use an internal thermometer my cake collapse when I do so moved to a new location in md 2 hrs from Baltimore and cake firmness I have not been successful with. Dark pans used. What ten to use for a firm pound cake not dry

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Kathleen, I wouldn’t test the internal temperature of a cake until you know it’s really fully set, and won’t collapse. I’m not sure what a change in your physical location would be doing to the texture of your cakes; perhaps the area you’re now in is drier, and you may be adding a touch too much flour to cake recipes that were developed somewhere hotter/more humid? For pound cake, I’d bake at 300°F, testing towards the end. When a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean — or with a few moist crumbs clinging to it — your cake should be done. Good luck — thanks for connecting with us here. PJH

    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Haven’t tried it, Jorge, but it would seem lining a dark pan with aluminum foil on the outside, with the shiny side of the aluminum facing outwards, would be your best bet for success. Good luck — PJH

  6. Cynthia Pebbles

    P.J. Hamel, thank you so much for this information. I made the KAF Vanilla Pound cake recently and used my black bundt pan. The result was horrifying…..the cake was seriously overdone – I had to throw it out. The next thing I’m throwing out is the black bundt pan. The cake smelled so wonderful, I’ll soon try it again in a light colored pan. Thank you for all the good, solid and honest information. You and all of KAF have helped me make many improvements to my baking.

    Reply
  7. Kathie

    I have a 9-inch square pan that is light gray inside, but black on the outside. Would lowering the oven temperature 25 degrees help when baking in this pan? My gingerbread always comes out nearly burnt at the edges.

    Reply
    1. MaryJane Robbins

      Hi Kathie,
      Yes, it sounds like reducing the temperature will help give you more control over the bake, so you get better crusts on the gingerbread. MJR@KAF

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