The water will turn into steam whilst baking, providing moisture and an even temperature during the baking process.
Anyone who has ever baked with a grandmother or a favorite aunt has their share of baking tricks. You need cold hands for pastry, warm hands for shortbread, and if you bake a cake, never open the oven during the first half-hour if you want it to rise.
Another prevalent piece of advice, also cake-related, is putting water in the oven when baking cake. Many of us do these things without thinking because we inherit them with our recipes. But what does putting water in the oven when baking a cake do?
Cakes Love Moisture
The main reason to put water in the oven while baking a cake is that there’s nothing worse than a dry cake.
Different recipes have different solutions to this problem, including adding high-moisture ingredients to your cake, like yogurt or buttermilk.
These work well, but sometimes substitutions aren’t an option because they change the density of your cake. That can affect cooking time, and if you aren’t used to baking or are trialing a new recipe, that can seem daunting.
For that reason, a popular alternative to keep your cake moist is to put water in the oven while your cake bakes.
How Does Putting Water in the Oven While a Cake Bakes Work?
So, that’s why it’s a good idea to bake a cake with a bit of water in the oven. But what does that mean in practice?
Here’s how to use a water bath to keep your cake moist without affecting its structural integrity of the cake.
Start by securely wrapping the bottom of your cake tin in aluminum foil. You want to keep your cake from drying out, but you don’t want it to be soggy.
When you are certain the cake tin is wrapped adequately, pour the batter into the cake pan. You must follow these steps in this order because wrapping an already-full cake pan can be tricky and cause the batter to spill.
Place the wrapped and filled cake tin on a baking tray or sheet and set it aside. Next, fill a kettle with water and put it on the range. Note that the kettle doesn’t need to come to boil, but you need the water to be warmer than it would be coming from the tap.
Pour an inch of warm water onto your baking sheet. It’s helpful if you pick a baking sheet with a raised lip or edge to it. That ensures that when you pick it up to put in the oven, you won’t slosh water onto the floor.
This is particularly important because even water that isn’t boiling may cause scalds or burns if it splashes on you.
Place the cake in the oven. For an even rise, the oven shelf should sit in the middle of the oven. Leave the cake there for 40 minutes. Don’t open the oven door prematurely, or the cake may sink.
After the 40-minute mark, you can safely remove your cake and set it on a cooling rack for 15 minutes. Take extra care unwrapping the cake pan from the tinfoil since you still don’t want to get the cake wet.
Once unwrapped, leave your cake to cool for an hour. Do this at room temperature rather than somewhere cold, like a fridge, unless your recipe specifies otherwise.
When to Put Water in the Oven When Baking a Cake
Not all recipes need you to put water in the oven when baking a cake. But some benefit from this culinary trick.
Water is crucial for baking a good cheesecake. These cakes, in particular, should be moist. It’s also extremely fragile. Without water to help distribute the oven temperature, cheesecakes rapidly dry out.
Sponge cakes are famously temperamental when it comes to baking them. If you aren’t careful they expand too quickly. In the worst-case scenario, they explode over the top of the cake tin.
In more genteel moods, they bake unevenly, and you get a lopsided sponge.
Yogurt and buttermilk can also help add extra moisture, but create a much thicker sponge. Sometimes that can work, but for something like Victoria Sponge, you want a light cloud of a cake, and that’s where putting water in the oven can help.
As the water evaporates, the sponge absorbs it. The heat of the water also ensures it cooks evenly, and the result is a light, evenly baked cake.
This is also an excellent way to avoid crumbling cake or hard edges on your sponge.
Are There Risks to Putting Water in the Oven With Your Cake?
Nothing is fool-proof, and there are a few risks that come with putting water in the oven while you bake your cake.
The biggest danger is that some of the water will seep through the tinfoil and leave your cake with a soggy bottom.
When that happens, your cake may cook on top but not on the bottom. There’s also a chance it may fall apart when you take it out of the tin.
One way to manage this risk is to line your cake pan with baking paper, even if you’re using a non-stick pan. It gives your cake additional protection between the water and the batter.
Another thing to keep in mind as you add the water is that you always want at least an inch between your tin and the water. Even though this technique is colloquially called a water bath, you don’t want the cake pan to be swimming in water.
What does putting water in the oven while baking a cake do? It helps keep your cake moist. It also ensures it cooks evenly.
But those aren’t the only advantages. A bit of water in the oven also helps to melt chocolate for molds and icing and reheat baked goods without dehydrating them.
If you decide to experiment with putting water in the oven while baking a cake, take care to protect your cake tin with tin foil. And don’t use too much water. This is one instance where less is more.