My husband is a philosophy professor, and so it’s always extra funny when silly things blow his mind. Most recently, he was floored by the following fact: a stale piece of cake has the same calories as a fresh piece of cake. Like, even though one tastes way worse than the other, stale cake is just as sugary and buttery as fresh…… boom!
If you’ve got stale cake around, I guess it’s better than nothing, but there is a super easy trick to preventing this tragedy in the first place: you need to rethink your relationship to both your fridge and your freezer.
If you’re a fan of both superhero movies and romcoms, you’ll probably see it coming. That person you thought was your reliable friend, the one who was there for you from the beginning, turns out to be your arch nemesis. And that guy you always took for granted and never noticed (until he grows up, moves to Greenwich Village, and becomes a gritty photographer), the one you always thought was just your best friend—well, it turns out it was him…. it was always him!
In this case, your refrigerator is Harvey Dent/Two-face and your freezer is Mark Ruffalo in 13 Going on 30. While it seems like the reliable choice, the refrigerator will often betray you—putting bready baked goods in the refrigerator will make them stale even faster than leaving them out at room temperature. And while the freezer is so often the place where we ignore our leftovers until we feel ready to let them go, it actually happens to be an ideal environment for storing these bready baked goods. See? Harvey Dent and Mark Ruffalo. Boom!
a quick guide to storing baked goods
I’ve put together this guide to what goes where (and when). I’m sure there are exceptions for each of these items, but generally speaking, these are sort of best practices for storing baked goods. Some things will need to be stored in the refrigerator (generally things with a lot of dairy, or pastry that doesn’t stale easily), but most things will prefer the freezer, or room temperature for shorter periods of time. When storing baked goods in the freezer, make sure you seal them tightly in a plastic bag, removing as much air as possible, and always let them cool completely before freezing. Once they’re cool, get them in the freezer quickly to preserve as much of their freshness as possible. They’ll usually last about 3 months before starting to noticeably degrade in quality. Most things can be thawed at room temperature, but if something tastes a little stale after thawing, you can always throw it back in a 350°F oven for just a few minutes (long enough to warm almost completely through, but not enough to dry it out).
store it In the refrigerator
store it In the freezer (or at room temperature under 12 hours), but never ever in the refrigerator
bread (either store-bought or homemade)
unfrosted cake layers, or cupcakes
biscuits (in the US sense of the word)
most Middle Eastern pastries (like kadeh and kleicha, except baklawa can be stored pretty much anywhere)
cookies (which can be stored at room temperature much longer)
store it In the freezer (but obviously never at room temperature)
balls of cookie dough (frozen on a sheet pan, then stored in a bag)
other unbaked doughs (like scones, biscuits, proofed pizza dough—although yeast-risen bread dough can usually be stored in the fridge for a couple days)
leftover slices of frosted/decorated cake, individually wrapped and then placed in a bag
baking a cake ahead of time
While I’m not going to stop you from baking cake at the last minute, I’m definitely going to encourage you to bake them ahead of time. If you store everything correctly, you lose very little quality, if any at all. It’s just important to know when to use the refrigerator, when to use the freezer, and how to bring everything to room temperature.
The cake layers
Unless you’re baking a cake that’s going to be eaten within 12 hours, you should really consider freezing the layers. Once they cool, wrap them tightly with plastic wrap, then seal them in a bag, and freeze them for about 1-2 months. The sooner you freeze them, the fresher they will be when you thaw them. To thaw them, leave them at room temperature for a few hours. You can even sometimes decorate your cake with the frozen layers, which makes them easier to handle, and easier to apply a crumb coat. If you decorate layers while they’re still frozen, simply allow the cake to thaw before serving.
When it comes to actually making and using it, frosting loves to be at room temperature. But most frosting (the creamy or eggy kind) needs to be stored in the fridge to make sure it doesn’t spoil. So work with room temperature ingredients, store it in the fridge right away, and then let it come to room temperature before decorating. You can do this by letting it sit out for a while, or you can zap it in the microwave with very short bursts of heat (like, just 5 seconds at a time), giving it a stir between each zap. Just be very careful it doesn’t melt!
While you can decorate your cake earlier, I like to decorate as close to the last minute as possible. Once you have all your components, it comes together in such a snap. Just make sure the frosting is at room temperature, the cakes are thawed, and everything is ready to go. I don’t love elaborate cake decoration, because it has to be done in advance of events, which means it has to be stored in the fridge… and the fridge is an unkind place for a cake. In my experience, simpler cakes are always tastier than elaborate ones for this reason.
leftover frosted cake
But what to do if you have leftover frosted cake? No worries, just slice up the remainder into individual pieces, wrap them in plastic, store them in a bag, and freeze them. Whenever you want a piece of cake, just take one out, zap it in the microwave for like 20 seconds just to thaw it, and enjoy! It doesn’t even matter if you accidentally melt the frosting a little bit at this point—trust me, it’s good. But whatever you do, don’t refrigerate leftover cake, because it’ll dry out very quickly.