I bake a lot of cakes. I also get a lot of requests for my cake and icing recipes. Everyone wants to make a great cake but many people don’t have success baking “outside the box.” Since I find boxed mixes to lack both good taste and texture, my mission is to give people the skills to make a great cake from scratch. Once you know the secrets, it’s really no more difficult than a mix. (Okay, it’s a wee bit more time consuming, but definitely worth it.)
Types of cakes
There are many different kinds of cakes, but they can be broken down into two major categories: butter cakes and chiffon cakes. The difference between these categories is not, as the names might suggest, that one has butter and one does not. Many people, including most self-proclaimed cake specialists, get this wrong. I’ve seen quotes on baking websites like “Cakes that do not contain fat, such as sponge, angel food and chiffon cakes, are often referred to as foam cakes. These have a larger proportion of egg than butter cakes.” First of all, if they contain eggs, they contain fat. Second, on the same page, the author proclaims “Chiffon cake ...[contains] more fat...so it’s more tender and moist than sponge cake.” So fat is not where it’s at. Rather, the difference is in how the cakes are leavened. In a butter cake, chemical leavening is used whereas in a chiffon (genoise, biscuit – pronounced bis-kwee –, angel food), beaten eggs alone provide the lift.
This tutorial will only deal with butter cakes, and only non-chocolate cakes, since chocolate fucks up the whole deal.
Pound per pound
The most basic cake is the venerable pound cake, so named because in the olden days (pre-internet if you ask someone under 20), it was made with a pound each of eggs, sugar, flour and butter. Centuries after the first cake popped out of the hearth, this formula still works. Even modern cakes hew closely to the formula. Take for example a popular cake mix, weighing in at about 18 ounces. It contains approximately 9 ounces of flour and 8 ounces of sugar (plus 1 ounce of crap* – in my humble opinion, of course). To this you add about a cup of oil (8 ounces, so far so good), and usually 3 eggs (about 5.25 ounces). That’s where the biggest change happens. To make up for fewer eggs, modern recipes substitute additional liquid, but overall the ratio stands the test of time. Fiddling with the ratio provides different textures in the final product. Once you know the ratio, making a great cake becomes, well, a piece of cake!
Betty Crocker’s secrets
So why do cake recipes often fail but cake mixes are so good consistent? I’ll share some of Betty’s secrets if you promise not to tell her (that bitch wants to keep it all to herself). The first, and I posit the most important, reason is that cake mixes are measured by weight, not volume. I’m convinced that measuring errors account for most failures in home baking. Just how much flour is in a cup? If you ask a dozen people to measure a cup of flour, I guarantee you’ll get at least 10 different measurements. Some people spoon the flour into the cup and level it. Some people dip the cup into the flour until it’s full and level it. Some will sift the flour before measuring. Some tap the cup to level the flour. Others use inaccurate measuring devices (coffee cup, anyone?). These disparate techniques result in variances of perhaps 25% or more between users.
When making a cake, tinkering with the ratio by this much will affect the outcome. And most recipes don’t indicate how the baker measured the flour, so you are left in the dark. (Although humidity also plays a role, unless you live in the desert or on a tropical island it probably won’t make a catastrophic difference.) This is also why you can make your famous family recipe even though your friend cannot. You probably watched your mom/dad/grandmother make the recipe and know how the ingredients were measured. The rule is, if you don’t know how the flour was measured, use the scoop and sweep method better yet, use a weight of 4.5 ounces for all purpose flour, 4 ounces for cake flour. I think it’s better to err on the side of too little flour. Weighing also provides the advantage of consistency.
The other ingredients don’t suffer as much from mis-measuring. Sugar isn’t as susceptible to settling as flour, eggs are pretty easy to measure and a slight difference in size won’t be a deal-killer, and butter is probably the easiest ingredient to measure thanks to the markings right on the package. I'd like to shake the hand of the genius who thought of that.
Mix it up
The second reason cake mixes are consistent is that they contain emulsifiers. A cake batter is at its core an emulsion of oil and water, which as we recall from science class**, do not mix. Most cake recipes instruct you to cream the butter and sugar until they are light and fluffy, add the eggs one at a time, and finish by adding the flour and liquid ingredients alternately. The creaming, in part, creates air bubbles for lift, but its primary purpose is to create the basis for a stable emulsion. But you don’t need to do this for almost any cake. I’ll explain why in a bit. (Is this starting to sound like an infomercial? But wait, there’s more!)
Can I have a lift?
The final reason for Betty’s (alleged) superiority is the leavening. Her leavening hasn’t languished in the back of a cupboard over the stove for several months (or years) losing its pizzazz. Using old baking powder and soda will result in a cake that is as leaden as Kate Gosselin’s dancing. Make sure you use baking powder and soda that is not stale. Even if not expired, improperly stored baking powder will deteriorate. If you don’t bake often, store the baking powder in the fridge and replace it if you are in doubt.
And now for some boring science stuff about leavening that is actually quite useful. Baking soda, a base, reacts instantly with the acids in the batter to create gas bubbles and provide lift. (Yep, there’s acid in your batter, but not the fun/dangerous kind.) Single acting baking powder, on the other hand, is activated by heat. It provides lift after the soda has worked its magic. It’s rather like a two-stage turbo charger (What was that, honey? Not everyone knows how a sequential turbo works? Oops, my bad.) Scratch that – just remember that soda alone will not provide lift long enough for the cake to set, and single-acting powder alone won’t provide enough lift in time. That’s why you use both – or you can use double-acting baking powder, which contains both the alkaline component (typically baking soda), one or more acid salts (activated by heat), and an inert starch (usually cornstarch) to act as referee between the two. Some of the acid salts are aluminum based, and I for one can taste the metal. That’s why I use a non-aluminum baking powder (Rumford is one brand). YMMV with respect to the metallic taste.
Altitude affects how leavening works, too. At any altitude above sea level, the air pressure is lower. This lower air pressure allows baked foods to rise faster. Leavening agents such as yeast, baking powder and baking soda create large gas bubbles that expand rapidly. The large bubbles can weaken the structure of baked goods and cause cakes and breads to collapse unless recipe adjustments are made. In addition, too much sugar can weaken the structure of baked goods. Also, water boils at a lower temperature than at sea level (as elevation increases, the boiling point is reduced 2 degrees per 1,000 foot increase) so foods take longer to cook. I won’t go into the changes that need to be made for high altitude baking – there are many websites to find out that information.
What makes a white cake white and a yellow cake – wait for it – yellow? Duncan Hines seems to think Yellow #5 and #6, but it should be a matter of yolks versus whites. A white cake uses all egg whites, yellow cake all egg yolks, and the recipe below is a yellowish cake that uses whole eggs. Using all whites makes for a fine-textured light cake. The extra fat in the yolks makes the cake richer and more tender, which can also translate as more crumbly. The whole egg cake, as you may expect, falls somewhere in between. I use whole eggs for convenience unless I have a ready use for the whites or yolks.
Flour is flour is flour, right?
Different kinds of flour will make a difference in how light, tender and moist your cake is. Cake flour (almost always bleached) is made from lower protein wheat and is more refined. It makes the lightest, most tender cakes with the finest crumb (what it looks like when you cut it). I use cake flour almost exclusively. It’s not expensive and will last about a year. Each box makes about three 2-layer cakes.
All purpose flour will make a respectable cake, but the crumb won’t be as fine. The cake may be denser as well. Bread flour should almost never be used in a cake (with the exception of chocolate cake, but we’ll get to that another time). It has too much gluten and protein and will make one tough cookie cake.
The other ingredients should be of good quality. Superfine sugar is nice, but not absolutely necessary. I think that fancy butters are wasted in cakes with all the other ingredients competing for attention. I use unsalted butter because I can control the salt and because unsalted butter is usually better quality (they can’t hide any off flavours with the salt). You can substitute salted butter, but reduce the salt by 1/4 teaspoon per stick. Making substitutions for the liquid can be fun, like substituting buttermilk or even pumpkin. This is where you can play, but expect some chance of failure if you stray too far.
Whip it, whip it good
Earlier I alluded to not following the age-old method of creaming the butter and sugar. That’s because clever professional bakers devised a way to streamline cake making, but like that mean old Betty Crocker, they have not shared this with us common folk (with one exception - Rose Levy Berenbaum). The technique is called the hi-ratio method after the type of shortening that spawned it. (I like the technique, not the shortening). It goes like this: Blend together ALL of the dry ingredients. Add the butter and most of the liquid. Beat the crap out of it. Add the rest of the liquid. Beat it a little more.
If you think about it, it’s pretty much the same as the instructions on the back of the box. In fact, you can put together the dry ingredients in batches, making your very own cake mix. I do this for holiday gifts for friends because friends don’t let friends use cake mix.
What this method accomplishes is threefold: first, it creates a stable emulsion. Second, it provides some aeration. Third, by adding the fat with the liquid, it prevents overdevelopment of gluten so you don’t accidentally turn your cake into a hockey puck.
Take my temperature
One item that is often overlooked when baking is the temperature of the ingredients. Remember the emulsion discussed above? Temperature affects emulsions, and the general rule of thumb is no cold ingredients. That means everything (flour, sugar, butter, eggs, and liquids) should be at cool room temperature, which is about 65 degrees F. Cold butter and eggs can make the batter curdle, which means the emulsion is broken. It’s not the end of the world unless it completely breaks down - I’ve baked many a cake with a slightly curdled batter, but for best results warm is better. This is one instance where a microwave works wonders. Of course, having the ingredients too warm is not good, but this isn’t as common a problem.
Equipment and bakeware considerations
Other items that can affect the outcome of a cake are equipment and bakeware. Some of this is only important if you plan to make a fancily decorated layer cake. But basic considerations need to be, um, considered. For instance, is your oven calibrated properly? If your oven runs hot or slow, it can affect how much time the leavening has to work. If you oven is not level, it will be difficult to stack the layers. (Do not, I repeat, do not, think you are going to fix the level issue with icing. Unless you want to be on cakewrecks, that is.)
Mixers play a minor role. If you have a stand mixer, use it. It will whip the dickens out of the batter, aerating it and also getting the gluten lathered up. A hand mixer works too, you just need to use a higher speed. Mixing by hand is an option, but not preferred unless you are really, really mad and need to work off a lot of steam.
Cake pans play a role. A dark (i.e. non-stick) cake pan will bake faster and may make the outside more brown. Reducing the oven heat by 25 degrees is recommended when using this kind of pan. One thing I don't think is necessary is all the buttering and flouring of the cake pan. I line the pan with parchment. Period. I've never had a cake stick doing this (I've probably just jinxed myself there). But really, if you use baking parchment to line the bottom only of your cake pan, you can use a thin plastic spatula or paring knife to loosen any sticking on the edges and the cakes will fall out. Really.
Size also matters (hee hee). The cake recipe below makes enough batter for two 9 x 1 1/2 inch cake pans. If your cake pans are only 8 inches in diameter, you may want to use 3 pans. Determine the recommended pan sizes before you bake to avoid a mess in the bottom of your oven. For most cakes the pan should be no more than half full. Remember the formula for volume of a cylinder before making any pan size substitutions: π * r2, or pi r squared (no, pie are round! yuk yuk yuk).
Smaller cakes (especially cupcakes) counter-intuitively need more leavening. This is because they bake faster and the baking powder doesn’t have as much time to work.
If you plan to make many cakes and want to decorate them all fancy-like, invest in heavy, straight-sided cake pans. If the cake pans nest into each other, the sides are sloped and it will be more difficult to ice the sides. I ain’t sayin’, I’m just sayin’. If you really want to get fancy, buy Magic Cake Strips. These clever puppies insulate the pans and keep the outside of your cake from baking faster than the center, which means a more level cake. The dome in cakes results from the outside setting faster than the center, where that good ol’ baking powder is still producing lift until the very end. (Over leavening can also cause a dome, but that will be more like a Krakatoa dome than the slight dome by not using cake strips.)
When will it end?
A final note: how do you know when the cake is done? My grandmother once wrote down one of her recipes. She just said to bake the, not indicating for how long. So I called and asked her how long to bake it. She said, "till it's done." Thanks, Grandma.
For cakes, I think the toothpick test is the most definitive. The cake is done when a toothpick inserted near the center comes out with only a few loose crumbs. Wet batter: it's not done. I've been fooled with the "touch the top and it springs back" test, and the "just listen to the noises it makes" test. The toothpick test has never let me (or my cakes) down.
Okay, now it's time for a quiz (oh no, pop quiz!)
Making a good cake is easy if you:
a) Measure accurately
b) Use the right ingredients at the correct temperature
c) Utilize the hi-ratio method
d) Reasonably follow the standard cake ratio
e) Use the right equipment
f) Make a pleasing sacrifice unto the baking gods
The answer is, of course, f. This is because the baking gods are mischievous and mildly malevolent. They delight in making bakers cry by making their cakes turn out badly even though they followed all the rules. What I’m trying to say is that perfection is elusive. If you follow the basic tenets above, though, you’ll achieve success most of the time. And even the “failures” won’t be that bad (but we shall never speak of the Chocolate Cake Tragedy. You would be amazed how far cake particles can travel when propelled by a fist). And always remember, practice makes perfect. It's inexpensive to practice, and always tasty.
*Crap includes such things as sodium stearyl lactylate, and propylene glycol mono and diesters of fatty acids (all emulsifiers, btw). I find it humorous than on the Duncan Hines box, it proudly proclaims “as always, pudding in the mix.” And by pudding, they mean modified food starch.
**Unless you were busy removing your nail polish, accidentally knocked over the nail polish remover and spilled it all over the newly waxed floor, in which case you learned a valuable lesson about the solvent properties of acetone along with just how much school janitors dislike re-waxing the floor. That’s what educators call “a teachable moment.”
Basic Yellowish Cake
This recipe is a little heavy on the sugar, but I like it. (This is my version of reasonably close to the standard ratio.)
Measure dry ingredients into bowl of stand mixer or a large bowl. In a small bowl, lightly whisk together milk, eggs and vanilla. Add butter (and oil if using) and all but 1/2 cup of the milk/egg mixture to dry ingredients.
Beat at low speed until dry ingredients are moistened, about 20 seconds. Increase speed to medium-high and beat for 1 1/2 minutes to aerate mixture and add structure (if using a hand mixer use high speed). Turn mixer off and scrape sides and bottom of bowl.
Add remaining milk/egg mixture and beat at medium (or high) speed for an additional 30 seconds. Scrape bowl again.
Divide batter evenly into baking pans (if making cupcakes, fill each about 2/3 full. Depending on the size of the muffin tin, this may make more than 12 cupcakes). Tap pans lightly on counter to remove any large air bubbles.
Put pans in oven on middle rack and bake until light golden brown and toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out with only a few loose crumbs, about 25 minutes for layer cakes, 15-20 minutes for cupcakes. Due to variations in ovens, check at least 5 minutes before the stated time. Cool in pan for 10 minutes then invert onto cooling rack. Cool completely before frosting.
References: (please note I receive NO remuneration from these sources)
The Cake Bible, by Rose Levy Berenbaum
William Morrow Cookbooks; 8th edition (September 20, 1988)
Various Bound Annuals, Cook’s Illustrated
Boston Common Press, 1993-2011
Ratio by Michael Ruhlman
Countless failed cakes from my very own kitchen
My excellent high school science teacher, Mr. Malaski
My husband, ScooterBob, for buying me kewl chef’s jackets that I don’t wear because I am not worthy.
My mom, who inspired my love of baking and who has never had a failed cream puff.