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How to cut cake like a pro

(Rey Lopez for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

When you add up all the steps involved in baking a cake — measuring, mixing, cooling, frosting and decorating — it’s a very time consuming process. Even for boxed cake mix and jarred frosting, it takes at least an hour or two to get from start to finish, and recipes for standard layer cakes made from scratch only go up from there.

Given all the care invested in baking a cake, people sometimes go at it sloppily when it comes time to slice and serve, with chunks of cake and smears of frosting flying all over the place.

“I think sometimes when it comes to serving, especially cake, people are like, ‘Just give me a fork and let me go into it,’” said baker Dan Langan. “And I’m always like, no, I spent all this time and put all this care into making something beautiful. So I want this to be beautiful for you when I give it to you.”

While the cake will taste the same no matter how it looks, perhaps it’s time to treat the last step, serving, with as much care as all of the previous ones. So if you’re looking to get a perfect slice, here are some tips to cut cakes with ease.

It all starts with knife choice. The experts at King Arthur Baking recommend a short serrated knife, such as a tomato knife. In my testing, the only serrated knife we had available was a long one typically used for bread. Because of its size, it worked great for cutting the cake into quarters (more about that later) but was not ideal for cutting slices. Serrated knives are good for extremely tender cakes, such as angel food, but for standard American-style layer cakes, Langan as well as our food stylists Lisa Cherkasky and Carolyn Robb prefer a straight-edge knife.

“Sometimes I think a serrated knife kind of rips at the edge of the cake a little bit,” Langan said. When it’s time to pick a blade, Langan starts by asking himself, “What’s the sharpest knife that I have?”

Beyond that, I’ve found that a narrow blade, such as a carving, slicing or utility knife, is ideal because it has less surface area to collect frosting and drag it through the layers.

Before you make that first cut, some recommend chilling cakes to make them more solid. “For a photograph, frozen cake cuts perfectly,” Cherkasky said, but you wouldn’t want to do that in real life. Though you could pop it in the fridge for a few minutes just to help the frosting firm up, our experts said it wasn’t necessary. “I think it’s actually a little easier to cut room-temperature cake,” Langan said. “When you cut a cake that’s cold and the frosting is cold, sometimes the frosting actually just wants to break.”

Temperature can also come into play with the knife. A hot knife will cut through cakes like the butter they’re made of. The easiest way to heat it is to dip the knife in hot water to warm it up and dry it off with a towel. “If the cake is room temperature and you’ve got a hot knife, you can get a really nice slice,” Langan said. Robb especially recommends heating up the knife for chocolate and fudge cakes that you want to slice cleanly. (It works great for cheesecakes, too.)

When you’re ready to cut the cake, Robb suggests finding its center point, cutting it into quarters and then cutting each quarter accordingly depending on how many slices you want. When making the cut, it’s important not to exert too much pressure with the knife when slicing up and down so as not to squeeze the layers. Or if you don’t want to worry about that, you can utilize Langan’s technique of slicing with the knife held vertically from the outside of the cake, slicing inward (instead of the traditional up and down through the layers and frosting).

Langan stumbled upon the technique by accident. “One day I had half of a cake, and because of the way I had stored the cake, it was up on its side,” he said. “I cut down into the cake like that and realized that the cake looks so much nicer when the knife was traveling in the direction that the cake layers and the frosting layers were also going. So it was kind of like that lightbulb moment that if I just cut a cake kind of in a different direction, I would get a much nicer finish.”

It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, but when Langan was recently photographing his upcoming debut cookbook, “Bake Your Heart Out,” he mentioned the technique to the food stylist he was working with, and she encouraged him to tell people about it. That led to the Instagram reel where I first saw it and was amazed by it too. In practice, the movement is a little awkward and would probably take some getting used to, but it did result in relatively smear-free slices.

If you take nothing else from this article, the most important step in getting clean slices of cake is to wipe your knife off between each cut. The towel will look less than pleasant, but the slices will be pretty pristine.

Regardless how you cut it, the cake will taste the same. “No one cares about icing dragging into the crumb when they’re eating it,” Cherkasky said. Your guests are just happy someone made them a cake.

But if you do hack it a little bit, you can always cover up any imperfections with a scoop of ice cream or a dollop of whipped cream. Even a slightly mangled cake is a good cake.