Cake Ingredient Science

mixing cake batter

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Cake batters are precise combinations of ingredients. In fact, a cake recipe is a scientific formula in which the ingredients are combined in a certain way to form the cake's structure. Scratch cake formulas include shortened cakes such as pound cakes, foam cakes like angel food and sponge cakes, and a one-bowl method. Cakes made with mixes can be just as good as scratch cakes, especially if you add ingredients like finely chopped chocolate or sour cream to the mixture.

Each type of cake follows a basic procedure intended to produce the desired results. When you want to create the best cakes, it's good to know the science behind them and why recipes direct you to take specific steps. As you gain cake-baking skills, this knowledge will also help you tweak recipes for better results or develop your own recipes.


Several elements are universal to baking cakes. For instance, sugar, eggs, and some type of fat—whether that's shortening, butter, or oil—appear in nearly every recipe. While other ingredients may also be used, flour is essential, and there are several types of flour that you can use.

It's always best to use the flour recommended in the recipe because the cake's formula is designed around the unique properties of that particular flour. For instance, the Southern caramel cake recipe uses all-purpose flour, but you'll need to eliminate the baking powder and salt if you switch to self-rising flour because it contains those two ingredients.

Some cake recipes call for cake flour, which is made from a finely ground, low-protein soft wheat. Less protein lowers the flour's gluten content and increases the cake's tenderness. If you can't find this specialty flour, you can make your own cake flour by adding two tablespoons of cornstarch to a measuring cup then filling it with all-purpose flour (it works for pastry flour, too). With any flour substitute, it's best to sift the mixture to thoroughly combined the ingredients and measure the flour again before using it in the recipe.

Greasing the Pan

Preparing the pan is the first step in cake recipes, and it's crucial to follow the directions. Most recipes use a greased pan to make the baked cake easier to remove from the pan, and nonstick sprays that contain flour work well. The cake will stick if you use salted butter or margarine to grease a pan.

The most common way to grease a cake pan is to use solid shortening or unsalted butter and dust it with flour. You can also make a pan-coating mix by beating together one cup of solid shortening (not butter-flavored) with 1/2 cup of flour. Store this in the fridge and use it to grease your pans.

Greasing is not always a great choice for foam cakes because the grease may hinder a proper rise. If you don't have a round springform pan, you can line the bottom with parchment paper, then cut strips to line the sides.

Shortened Cakes

Most basic cake recipes are shortened cakes based on a creamed combination of fat and sugar. Called aerating the fat, sugar crystals create tiny holes in the fat when creamed with a mixer, and carbon dioxide and steam fill the holes while the cake bakes. Flour and eggs provide structure with proteins and starches, which coagulate under the heat and set the structure in tiny bubbles around the carbon dioxide and steam.

There's a primary method for making traditional shortened cakes:

  • Cream together the butter or other fat and sugar.
  • Add eggs and liquid flavorings, and beat well.
  • Sift the flour with leavening ingredients, salt, and dry flavorings.
  • Alternate adding flour and liquid to the fat/sugar/egg mixture, ensuring the ingredients are combined before adding the next ingredient. The dry ingredients are usually divided into fourths and the liquid into thirds. For example, if a cake calls for two cups of flour and one cup of liquid, you add 1/2 cup of flour and beat the mixture until the flour disappears. Then add 1/3 cup of liquid, and beat the mixture until the liquid disappears. Continue in this matter, making sure you begin and end with dry ingredients.

Foam Cakes

Based on a foam made by beating whole eggs or egg whites or whipping cream, foam cakes include angel food, chiffon, and sponge cakes. Unless otherwise directed in the recipe, a few key steps will ensure success for many foam cakes (especially those that involve whipping egg whites):

  • The bowl and all utensils that come in contact with egg whites must be impeccably clean and free of grease. Fat will destroy the foam by interfering with the protein bonds of the egg white.
  • The egg whites should be at room temperature to relax the protein bonds and create a higher foam and volume.
  • Start beating egg whites slowly, then gradually increase the mixer's speed as you add sugar.
  • Gently fold flour and flavoring ingredients into the egg white foam. Using a spatula or wide spoon, cut down the side of the bowl, then scoop along the bottom of the bowl, gently turning the mixture until the dry ingredients are incorporated. It's a delicate process, so take your time.
  • Foam cakes must be baked as soon as the batter is finished. Make sure your oven is preheated to the proper temperature, and use an oven thermometer for accuracy.
  • Ungreased pans allow the delicate structure to grab onto the pan sides as the steam forms and the air bubbles increase.
  • Some recipes tell you to cool the cake upside down, which stretches the protein bonds and prevents a collapsed cake. Don't worry; the cake won't fall out of the pan as it cools.

Angel Food Cakes

Angel food cakes are made from egg whites, sugar, flour, cream of tartar, salt, and flavorings. Cream of tartar makes the mixture more acidic, forming a favorable environment for protein bonds. Sugar adds flavor and tenderness and helps form and stabilize the protein bonds.

Chiffon Cakes

Chiffon cakes are angel food cakes with egg yolks and vegetable oil (not butter or margarine). They still depend on an egg white foam, which provides most of the cake's structure, but the fat makes a more tender cake that stays moist longer. It is essential to beat the egg white foam until it's very stiff.

Sponge Cakes

Sponge cakes are made of whole eggs and use no other leavening ingredient. Egg yolks are beaten with sugar to incorporate air into the batter, and the whites are beaten with more sugar for stability, structure, air, and volume. The two mixtures are folded together, and flour is added for structure.

One-Bowl Cakes

One-bowl cakes were a big deal in the 1960s thanks to innovative home economists. They discovered that you could make a cake by simply combining all of the ingredients in one bowl and beating them together for an extended period of time (four to five minutes) at high speed to incorporate air.

A variation of the one-bowl cake, there is also the two-stage method. The dry ingredients are combined in a mixing bowl, the fat and liquid are added, then eggs are beaten into the batter. This method "greases" the proteins in the flour in the first step, so it's harder for them to combine with each other, making a very tender cake.