How to Freeze and Thaw Cakes
This video covers the topic of freezing cake at all stages including baked cakes, sliced cake layers, filled cakes, frosted cakes and decorated cakes. It covers the pros and cons of freezing cakes plus offers solutions to common problems that may occur as a result of freezing. It approaches the matter the way many bakeries do, by building layer cakes in the baking pan. If you are new to this method, start here: How to Fill Layer Cakes in the Pan. If you just need a refresher, watch the video series below.
It’s a myth that freezing cakes is bad.
In fact the opposite is true.
The Truth About Freezing Cakes
The truth is that a lot of bakeries freeze their products, including the cakes. It’s easiest, safest way to maintain an inventory of perishable products. Too many days in the refrigerator causes cakes to go stale so we only thaw what we intend to sell in the next 48 hours. The rest, we store in the freezer. The same goes for bread. The truth is that a disappointingly stale cake or loaf of bread you bought from a bakery is probably just an aging product that was not frozen when it should have been.
The Best Way to Freeze a Cake is in the Pan
The best way to freeze a cake is to do so after assembling the filling layers and before frosting and decorating it. I would argue this is the best way to build the insides of a cake. Yes, I intentionally freeze my cakes every time using a trick that involves stacking the layers within the baking pan using this cake filling method. The pan serves as a handy mold. It also protects the dessert from the harsh freezer environment. When done right, the cake thaws out tasting as fresh as the day it was made.
7 Pros to Freezing a Cake
#1 It’s Easier
When filling a layer cake in the pan, the pan does all the work of molding the shape. You don’t have to worry about symmetry or leveling. It’s all taken care of for you. Carving and frosting are twice as easy to do on a cake that’s made this way too.
#2 It’s More Forgiving
Even if your cake layers end up cracked or broken during the slicing stage, you can piece them together in the pan like a mosaic. The pan will hug all the parts in place as you spread the filling on top. After that, the press-wrap-freeze-thaw process (read about it here: How to Fill Layer Cakes in the Pan) will ensure all the layers including the broken one fuse together into one solid shape. In the end, nobody will ever know there was a cracked layer of cake.
#3 It’s More Stable
Because a baking pan is level, when you use it like a mold, you end up with a level cake. A level cake holds up better on display. For that reason, it’s the safer bet compared to free-form cakes, like the one below, which can be wobbly, which can lead to crookedness, which can lead to collapse.
#4 It’s More Professional
Because the cake filling gets pushed all the way to the edges of the pan, air pockets get forced out. Air pockets are one of the primary reasons why cake fillings bulge. Bulging cake fillings look unprofessional.
#5 It’s More Economical
Because this method yields solid shapes with no gaps, crooked or uneven parts that need patching, it reduces the amount of buttercream needed to crumb coat and frost. Frosting, when it’s made from real butter, is expensive. In the food industry, where costs are scrutinized, we gravitate toward the methods that are the most frugal. That’s why pastry chefs like cake filling in the pan.
#6 It’s More Efficient
This method reduces the amount of time that is needed to frost basic cylinder, square, and rectangles cakes because the filled cake starts out neat and tidy, in the exact same shape as the desired result. A cake like that will help you over the finish line.
#7 It’s More Convenient
One of the best parts about this method of filling cakes in the pan is that it allows you to begin the project in advance. For example, a wedding cake may be baked and assembled a week or more before the event. That way, you don’t have to cram all the work in at the last minute.
#8 It Lasts Longer
A properly frozen cake has a longer life. At one wholesale bakery where I worked, there was a giant walk-in sub-zero freezer dedicated entirely to 6″ and 7″ layer cakes. They were stacked in pucks, each sealed within two layers of plastic wrap. Hundreds of cakes were stored like that, waiting to be thawed, frosted and decorated. Those cakes would last for months in great condition because there were no other tastes mingling in that freezer besides cake. They were excellent quality cakes too with flavors like chocolate pecan torte and hazelnut dacquoise. You would never have guessed they’d been frozen.
That same bakery also had a giant walk-in freezer for decorated cakes, which were stored in boxes. Since the freezer environment is harsh on a finished cake, we kept this inventory to a minimum, decorating only what was needed for that week or month.
3 Cons to Freezing Cakes
Storing a cake for an extended period of time in a freezer alongside fish, raw meat, or spicy, pungent foods risks cross-contamination of flavor. A better long-term freezer environment for cakes is one that is dedicated exclusively to desserts.
Co-mingling cakes with raw fish and meat *anywhere* is also is a food safety concern. If raw meat is present in your freezer or refrigerator, it should be well-sealed and stored under the cake, not above. Please read more on this topic here: How Not To Serve Crap.
Freezing causes cakes to expand. This is why we try to avoid freezing a cake after it’s been frosted, because the pressure of the cake expanding can crack the finish. This is most likely to happen if a frosted cake goes straight from room temperature to the freezer (for people who are tempted to try this on hot days, don’t do it) or when it goes in and out of the freezer multiple times while being decorated (also not recommended). The freezer only comes in handy during the filling stage. After that, it can lead to problems. When in doubt, use the refrigerator.
Freezing increases the potential for condensation to form on the surface of the cake. Condensation develops when warm water vapor collides with the cold surface of the cake. The change in temperature turns the vapor from a gas to a liquid, which beads on the cake’s finish, making it damp. Too much condensation can interfere with frosting and decorating.
VIDEO Tutorial: Cake Condensation Solutions
The key to minimizing condensation is a matter of temperature control. Continue reading to learn more.
Ideal Temperatures for Cake Tasks
The following graphic contains suggestions for which temperatures are the most ideal for each stage of the cake making process.
In the following section, I break down each stage of cake making from baking to delivery, in terms of how it may be optimized using temperature control.
How to Freeze Baked Cakes
Once the cake has baked and cooled but still in its full form, it can be frozen if that suits your needs. Seal the whole cylinder (or whatever the shape may be) in at least two layers of plastic wrap. Set it on a flat surface in the freezer.
Later, when you are ready to use it, thaw it in the refrigerator. This may take anywhere from 6-12 hours depending on the size of the cake. Larger cakes will take longer to thaw all the way through. You can test the core temperature with a thermometer. You can also test it for resistance by inserting a metal skewer.
Allow a baked cake to thaw fully before attempting to slice it into layers. Too many times in the course of my career, I made the mistake of hurrying the process by slicing a cake that was still frozen in the middle. Every time, it ripped the cake to shreds. Over the years, I have learned that if I freeze a whole baked cake, the slicing process can’t be rushed. The time it takes to defrost the cake must be factored into the schedule. When it comes to defrosting, it’s better to schedule extra time than not enough.
How to Freeze Sliced Cake Layers
When you slice cake layers, it’s preferable to work with room temperature cake. I don’t recommend slicing a cake while it’s still hot from the oven. I also don’t recommend slicing a cake just after it has cooled. The surface tends to be a little crusty then, which makes it more challenging to cut.
In bakery kitchens, I would cover racks of cakes (fully cooled, still in their baking pans) with giant plastic bags for 6-24 hours before slicing. In a home kitchen, I’ve gotten the best results from sealing cooled cakes in plastic wrap then letting them sit at room temperature for three or more hours. During that time, the moisture inside the cake migrates to the surface, softening it.
Once the moisture content has balanced itself out, then the cake is easiest to slice.
I don’t recommend freezing cake layers since it requires the use of materials but it can certainly be done. If you want or need to freeze your sliced cake layers, I recommend stacking them on a solid base (such as a cake cardboard) with a piece of parchment or wax paper in between each slice. This prevents them from fusing together. Once they are all separated, seal them within a thick bag or within several layers of plastic wrap. Don’t seal them so tightly that they get compressed.
Later, when it comes time to assemble the cake, you can work with the frozen slices if that’s more convenient for you. Or you can let them come to room temperature. Frozen slices have the benefit of being easier to maneuver because they’re durable, less prone to cracking apart. However if they are bent, curved or warped, that shape will get incorporated into the cake, which may cause the neighboring layers of filling to be too thick or too thin in some areas. That sort of imbalance has the potential to compromise the structural integrity of the cake. For that reason, I only recommend working with frozen cake layers if they are perfectly flat. If not, do take the time to defrost them.
How to Freeze Filled Layer Cakes
The best way to freeze filled cakes is in the pan using this professional method for assembling cake layers. The cake layers may be frozen or room temperature at this stage. There are pros and cons to each option.
It’s preferable to have fillings at room temperature because that’s when they are the most spreadable, which helps them fuse with the cake and prevent the formation of air pockets.
Once the cake has been assembled in the pan, it’s time to freeze it overnight or for however long you need to store it. Depending on the size of the cake and the functionality of your freezer, it will probably take 12-24 hours for the cake to freeze. Larger cake tiers take longer to freeze therefore should be allotted more time in the freezer. Large cake tiers (12″ or wider in diameter) may require as much as 48 hours to freeze. All tiers should be sealed in a double layer of plastic wrap encircling the bottom, sides and top of the pan.
How to De-Pan a Frozen Cake
Depanning is easiest to accomplish with a frozen cake. To learn more about this step, follow this link: How to Release a Frozen Layer Cake from the Pan. After the cake has been depanned, the job of the freezer is done. I don’t recommend putting the cake back into it unless you intend to store it for a later time. If that is the case, seal it in a double layer of plastic wrap to protect the cake from the harsh freezer environment.
How to Carve a Frozen Cake
If the cake needs to be carved (for example a topsy turvy cake or a 3D fish cake), it’s easiest to do the job on a semi-frozen cake. A semi-frozen cake is still frozen but not like a rock. It surface is just soft enough to shave with a knife.
How to Crumb Coat a Frozen Cake
It’s easiest to crumb coat a cake, especially a large wedding cake or sculpted cake, while it’s still frozen or semi-frozen. There is less chance the cake will crumble under the pressure of the frosting tool. Best of all, the cold cake will quick-set the frosting, which helps trap all the loose bits and crumbs.
How to Frost a Cake After Freezing
Avoid adding the final coat of frosting to a frozen cake.
If you are opting for a frosted buttercream or ganache finish then wait to add your final coat until the cake has reached refrigerator temperature. Yes, it is possible to start this step earlier, when the cake is semi-frozen, but then you are more likely to encounter condensation issues so it’s not the ideal choice. This is an extensive topic that I cover more thoroughly in the video ebook, Smooth Buttercream Cake Frosting.
Fondant & Modeling Chocolate versus The Freezer
Semi-frozen cakes are easiest to wrap and cover.
If you plan to cover your cake with fondant or wrap it with modeling chocolate, note that it’s easier to accomplish when the cake is still semi-frozen. The edges and corners of the cake will stay sharp under the pressure of being covered. You can even turn the cake sideways if you need to wrap it. You don’t need to worry as much about your fingers or tools leaving divots in the surface because the cold cake will resist them.
Once the cake is covered with fondant or wrapped with modeling chocolate, seal the surface under plastic wrap. Pushing too hard risks leaving an imprint of wrinkles on the finish so press gently, just enough to work the air out from underneath. When there is a tight seal, plastic wrap acts like a temperature buffer between the cake’s finish and the refrigerator environment. As the cake thaws, it will form condensation on the plastic instead of on the finish. This protects the finish from getting all wet.
I don’t recommend putting the cake back into the freezer after the covering/wrapping stage. However if you must, it can be done. Just make sure all the exposed surfaces are well-sealed. Later, when you are ready to transfer the cake into the refrigerator, leave the plastic wrap on until you are ready to decorate. That way, the condensation forms on the plastic, not on the surface of the cake.
Cake Dowels versus The Freezer
Avoid adding dowels to a frozen cake.
When the cake is semi-cool (somewhere in between refrigerator and room temperature), it’s the best time to add wood dowels or supports. It’s fair to assume the cake has reached this point after it has received its final coat of frosting or just after it’s been covered in fondant or wrapped in modeling chocolate. At that point, you’ve had it out on the countertop, exposing it to room temperature. It’s then when the cake is most soft and pliable so it will best tolerate the pressure of being penetrated by dowels. Getting this timing right is one of the keys to preventing a cracked finish. I cover more on this topic in the following tutorial: How to Use Wood Dowels in Stacked Cakes.
If the cake is large and complicated or the kitchen is hot or you are new to the skill of frosting, the cake probably warmed up to room temperature while you were completing the previous stages. That’s okay but now that yo’ve given it skin (frosting, fondant covering or modeling chocolate wrap), and bones (wood dowels or your choice of supports if it happens to be a stacked cake), it’s time to let it chill in the refrigerator for at least one hour before adding decorations. This step is not required but it leads to a more professional-looking finish. That’s because a firm canvas is easier to decorate. It can better tolerate the pressure of piped patterns, pressed on decorations, and the occasional bump of the hand.
While the cake gets its pre-decorating chill on, it’s a good time to clean your work station and prep your decorations.
Decorated Cakes versus The Freezer
Once the decoration stage has begun, avoid using the freezer. The cold, moist air is not a friendly environment for finished work.
Throughout the decorating phase, any time you are not actively working on the cake, let it chill in the refrigerator. Chill it while you’re cutting and designing modeling chocolate flowers. Chill it when you have to answer the phone. Chill it when you break for a snack.
While you’re decorating, the cake gets exposed to room temperature. That’s fine but keep in mind that a cake can only tolerate so much warmth before it will begin to droop. A hot kitchen will speed up the drooping process.
A cool, dry air conditioned room ~ 60°F (15°C) is ideal for cake decorating.
How to Freeze a Decorated Cake
Freezing a completed, decorated cake is not recommended but can be done within a limited scope.
Here is an example of a cake that would freeze well
If you must, the best way to freeze a decorated cake is to put it in a box with enough head room and space that it won’t get bumped by the sides or lid of the box. Seal the box all the way around its top bottom and sides with two layers of plastic wrap. Place it somewhere in the freezer that is not directly in front of the fan.
When it comes time to defrost the cake, allow 24-48 hours for it to thaw in the refrigerator (NOT at room temperature). During that time, keep the plastic wrap sealed. Do not peel it open or off. The amount of time needed for a cake to thaw depends on its size. A 10″ diameter cake will probably take 24 hours. A 3-tier cake will probably take 48 hours.
Decorations That Don’t Freeze Well
- hard candies
- whole fruit garnish
- edible frosting sheets with printed images
- anything made with gumpaste
- anything made with fondant
- anything made with modeling chocolate
- dark accents on a light cake
- light accents on a dark cake
Beware of dark decorations such as red, black or blue on a white cake or vice versa. When the dark-light combination endures a freeze-thaw, there is a high probability it will streak, bleed and stain, which tarnishes the overall cake presentation. When the timing or circumstances are such that you can’t guarantee it won’t lead to one or more of those problems, you’re better off choosing a different design. In design consultations with clients, I frequently have to steer people away from this problem. If, despite my warnings, they still insist on a design that is prone to bleeding and streaking, I make them sign a disclaimer.
How to Deliver a Frozen Cake
Delivering a frozen cake is not recommended in most cases.
With few exceptions, the ideal temperature for a cake at the beginning of transport is refrigerator temperature. That way, the cake starts out cold enough to tolerate the journey but not so cold that it develops condensation. Depending on the type of cake, the style of vehicle, and the weather, there are many variables to consider. I have so much to say on this subject that I wrote a book about it.
All my advice on dessert transport can be found in my book, Cake Delivery Made Easy,
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