If you’ve been a home baker for long enough, you know that a cake taken fresh out of the oven can often feel sticky on top. Luckily, this is a pretty common occurrence that doesn’t always warrant concern—even pro pastry chefs have to deal with it from time to time! However, learning a bit more about the factors that might be triggering this phenomenon can help you better control the texture and consistency of your baked goods.
Your cake is sticky on top after baking because the sugar in the batter has reacted to the water molecules found in high-humidity air, attracting them and creating a wet or sticky surface. The phenomenon can also occur due to errors made during the baking process.
Read on to learn more about the reasoning behind this phenomenon, what can trigger it, and how to troubleshoot and fix some of the most common culprits. In the following sections, I’ll also take you through some tips and techniques on how to keep your cake from getting sticky after baking in the first place and how to fix an already sticky cake top.
Why Does the Top of a Cake Get Sticky After Baking?
The good news is that a sticky cake top is generally nothing to worry about; however, looking into the probable causes and attempting to fix them will give you better control over your baked goods’ texture and overall quality, which is ultimately what every home baker wants.
A cake gets sticky after baking due to various problems that may occur during the baking process. Such problems include a chemical reaction between sugar and water, using incorrect ingredient ratios in the batter, and covering your cake with plastic wrap before it’s completely cooled down.
Let’s take a deeper look into each of these common issues.
Chemical Reactions Between Water and Sugar
This is the most common reason why so many cakes feel moist when they come out of the oven. Unfortunately, it isn’t always preventable.
When a cake bakes inside an oven, the moisture found in the batter (from the liquid ingredients) will start evaporating. However, given that the pan is placed inside an enclosed space, the vapors don’t have enough space to escape. As a result, they start rising to the top of the oven (which is right above the cake), increasing the moisture level of the surrounding air even further.
This phenomenon in itself wouldn’t be an issue if it weren’t for the sugar content inside the batter. All sugars are hygroscopic (some more so than others—more on this in a moment), which means that they tend to absorb water from the air. As a result, the excessive moisture gets drawn onto the surface of the cake, leaving it wet or sticky.
If this is the case, there’s likely nothing you can do to change the outcome and nothing to worry about. As long as the issue isn’t too extreme, the cake’s taste and texture shouldn’t suffer too much. Simply frost the treat as you usually would (after it has fully cooled down, of course), and I assure you that you won’t even notice the stickiness once you eat the finished cake.
Stickiness Is Preferable to Dryness in Cakes
This is also a good time to mention that a sticky top is a more promising sign to notice in a freshly-baked cake than a dull, lackluster surface.
If your cakes usually turn out sticky (even when they’re cooked perfectly) and a particular sponge comes out looking drier than usual, chances are you’ve overcooked it.
Environmental Humidity Impacts the Baking Process
Moreover, it’s important to note that the moisture coming from the batter itself isn’t always the culprit behind this phenomenon. For example, people living in high-humidity locations will often find themselves having to deal with this issue no matter how dry their batter is. This is because excess moisture in the surrounding air will always react the same way with sugar, no matter its source.
Consider Key Ingredients and Ratios
Another point to note here is that the type of sugar you use and the ratios you use also matter. As mentioned, some sugars are more hygroscopic than others. For example, dark brown sugar is the most hygroscopic variety out of all, closely followed by its light brown counterpart.
This is why cakes that are made with brown sugar (e.g., carrot) are much more likely to come out looking shiny and sticky on top. On the other hand, vanilla sponges, which are always made with white sugar, will usually look and feel much drier after baking.
Using Incorrect Ingredient Ratios in the Batter
Even though white sugar is the least hygroscopic variety of all, it can still yield the same sticky results when used in abundance. Therefore, ingredient ratios also matter. If you use a bit too much sugar compared to what the recipe called for, chances are you’ll have to deal with an overly moist surface once the cake finishes baking.
The same goes for the liquids you’ll be adding to your batter. Since excessive moisture is the main trigger for this phenomenon, you’ll want to avoid adding too many (or too much of the) liquid ingredients in your recipe, no matter how badly you want the cake to be a bit extra moist and soft.
Covering Your Cake With Plastic Wrap Before It Has Cooled Completely
This is yet another culprit that you have control over, which is why you’ll want to avoid making this mistake at all costs. As my fellow home bakers know, sometimes the most challenging part of what we do is exercising patience.
Finding the right ratios, taking exact measurements, and experimenting with flavors is one thing; however, when it comes to waiting an hour or two doing nothing before moving on to the next step of the process, our discipline and self-control seem to fly out the window.
Covering your cake with plastic wrap (or otherwise storing it in a closed space) before it has completely cooked down is one of the most common mistakes that leads to an overly moist and sticky surface.
Covering Traps Condensation
The residual heat that the cake will eventually release (in the form of vapors) will condensate once it meets the cold plastic wrap, and the resulting water will have nowhere to go, settling right back on top of the cake.
The issue can be further exacerbated if you live in an especially humid area, which is something you’ll want to consider before storing your sponges away.
Properly Identify When the Cake Has Cooled
One of the main reasons why this is such a common occurrence is that most home bakers don’t have a good enough understanding of when a cake is completely cooled down. Some feel that the sponge is slightly warm to the touch and consider that as a sign that it is cooled down enough. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
In some instances, even sponges that feel room temperature aren’t cooled down enough—especially if they’ve been sitting in a sweltering kitchen. Therefore, when it comes to cooling time, it’s always best to overshoot than not leave your cake enough time to settle (especially if you’re considering storing it away for later).
Use Sugar To Restore Moisture Lost During Cooling
If the sponge ever becomes too dry for your liking, you can always brush it with some simple sugar to bring back some of the moisture. Dealing with a too-wet or sticky cake, on the other hand, isn’t as simple.
At the end of the day, it’s crucial to remember that even when you do everything right, there are still bound to be some-sub par cakes; that’s just the nature of baking. Therefore, it’s better to focus on the components that you have control over (ratios, ingredient quality, technique, etc.) rather than spend precious time worrying whether your sponge will come out sticky on top or not.
As I previously mentioned, the issue is unlikely to affect the overall taste and texture by much; even if it does occur, it’s not the end of the world.
How To Keep Your Cake From Getting Sticky After Baking
As with everything else, prevention is better than cure when it comes to dealing with a cake that feels sticky after baking. The best way to deal with such an issue is to prevent it from happening altogether. However, for those that don’t have this option, I’ll be exploring some strategies on how to fix a sticky cake top in the following section, so make sure to read until the end.
Here are some of the most effective ways to keep your cake from getting sticky after baking.
Choose the Right Recipe and Follow It Carefully
As I’ve already mentioned, the ingredients and ratios you use when making your batter can have a significant impact on the texture of the final product. Therefore, the process of preventing your cake top from getting sticky starts from the moment you choose a recipe.
During this process, it’s essential to pay attention to ingredient type and sugar to liquid ratios. Your climate’s humidity level should be taken into account when choosing a recipe as well. When reading through the description, you’ll want to look at the consistency said recipe is designed to achieve.
Pay Attention to Recipe Ingredients
For example, some cakes are meant to be sticky, and if there are some elements that can exacerbate this quality, you might want to look for another recipe instead.
Moreover, if a sponge requires too much sugar, liquid ingredients, or dark sugar specifically, either brace yourself for a possibly sticky surface or change direction altogether.
Follow Ingredient Ratios Precisely
Even though sometimes you can experiment with lowering the suggested sugar quantity, it’s usually best to stick to a recipe as written. The slightest deviation can lead to a reaction that you’re not even aware of, making your cake susceptible to issues far worse than a sticky top. So, until you gain some confidence and experience, following the recipe to a T (especially if it’s coming from a credible source) is usually the best route of action.
With this in mind, it’s always best to measure each ingredient to the gram to make sure that the quantities and ratios are correct.
Before moving on to the following section, I also want to note that it’s essential to make sure your sponge is cooked all the way through before looking for ways to combat its stickiness.
Refrain From Wrapping or Storing Your Cake While It’s Still Warm
If you’ve read through the previous sections, this might sound like a given, but it’s worth mentioning again. The easiest, most surefire way to make sure that your cake’s surface doesn’t get too tacky or moist is to let it cool down completely before attempting to store it in an enclosed space.
This tip can also help keep an already sticky sponge from getting worse, so be sure to follow it through.
A fully cooled down cake should radiate absolutely no warmth from its surface, which is why you’ll want to leave a sponge out for a few hours before wrapping or storing it (sometimes even more if you’re working in an especially hot environment).
If you haven’t got the time, you can always refrigerate the cake to speed up the process. Doing so will not only help cool down the sponge faster, but it can also allow it to dry a bit quicker and release some of the excess moisture as well.
How To Fix a Sticky Cake Top
Here are a few ways to fix a sticky cake top:
Invest in Food-Safe Desiccants
Food-Safe desiccants work just like silica gel packs. When you store them along with a sticky or wet sponge, they help draw out some of the excess moisture, leaving the cake texturally perfect.
Food-safe desiccants can be especially helpful if you live in a high-humidity climate and have to deal with sticky cake tops all year round.
Draw Excess Moisture Using Baking Soda
If you can’t get your hands on food-safe desiccants and are looking for a DIY alternative, baking soda works wonders when it comes to drawing excess moisture out of any food item.
All you have to do is sprinkle some of it on a paper towel and place the latter on the bottom of the container you’re planning to store your cake in. As time goes by, you should notice the sponge losing most of its stickiness.
Some other strategies you can use to salvage a sticky cake include:
- Frosting the cake.
- Scraping off the sticky exterior.
- Using the stickiness to adhere fun topping to the cake.
- Freezing the cake.
Many cakes come out feeling sticky right out of the oven. The main reason behind this phenomenon is a reaction that occurs between hygroscopic sugar and the water found in the air.
There are various other reasons that might be causing this issue; luckily, most of them can be remedied through a few quick strategies.