Basic Cake Ingredients

Spring Tulip Cake Pops TutorialSARAH SAYS: The ingredients used to make shortened(butter) and unshortened(foam) cakes differ. However, the goal is always to the same: to create great cake recipes through a delicate balance of its ingredients - making sure they have the strength to hold the recipe together, but still create a tender, moist and flavorful cake. Different mixing methods also result in different cakes, as do the type of pans used and their treatment, timing, temperature, baking, cooling and storage. Afterwards, cakes can be filled, frosted or glazed and decorated. Decorated cakes include wedding cakes

A cake's structure is created mainly from the combination of the flour's starches, by the proteins in whole eggs, egg whites, and/or in milk. The melt-in-your-mouth texture comes from tiny air holes left in the cake's structure, created through mixing, serving as nuclei and enlarged through the carbon dioxide gas from the chemical leaveners, heat and /or steam during baking. The sugar and fat in the recipe, as well as any acids, tenderize the cake, as well; they interfere with gluten formation and egg protein coagulation, interrupting the network of gelated starch. But, if the recipe is unbalanced, for example, if there's too much sugar and fat, the cake's structure is weakened so much it cannot support its own weight and will collapse. Too much flour and too many eggs may make the cake tough and/or dry.


Tougheners    Flour, Milk Solids, Egg Whites will make your cake tougher or stronger
Tenderizers Sugar, Fats, Egg Yolks, Chocolate, Leavenings, Emulsifiers, Starches, Gums will make your cakes more tender or weaker
Moisteners Water, Liquid Milk, Liquid Eggs, Syrups, Liquid Sugars
Driers Flour, Milk Solids, Instant Starch, Gums, Egg Whites
Flavors Salt, Sugar, Cocoa, Chocolate, Butter, Vanilla, other flavors

Overall, the flour mixtures that produce cakes and cookies are very similiar to those used to make breads, although they are sweeter and often have added flavorings not typically used in breads. Cakes have a higher proportion of sugar, milk and fat to flour than do breads, and the flour used is usually cake flour.




















Moist, soft, rich






Moist, soft









150 - 200

20 - 40


Light, springy,
somewhat dry



150 - 220



Light, springy, dry






Light, springy,



350 (whites) 



Light, springy
very sweet 






Light, moist

From: On Food & Cooking, by Harold McGee

The vast majority of cakes - with the exception of cheesecakes, foam cakes and gluten-free cakes - contain wheat flour as very backbone of their composition. It establishes the crumb structure in cakes and is used to bind all of the other ingredients together during the cake making process. Wheat flour contains two very important proteins, glutenin and gliadin, when mixed with moisture and stirred, create its structural network. The flour's starches gelatinize or set when baked. The bad part about gluten is that too much creates a tough, dry and flavorless cake.

Mini-Baked Alaskas RecipeTo help prevent this, you'll see cake recipes especially high-ratio ones, typically made with chlorinated soft wheat flours, such as bleached cake flour, a potentially containing low-gluten forming proteins. Other types include Southern bleached all-purpose and pastry flour. It's gluten from the wheat flour that gives dough its strength and elasticity - qualities we want in yeast breads, but not in cakes. Soft wheat flours are generally low in water absorption and do not require harsh mixing or a long mix time.

Chlorination of cake flour provides two great benefits. First is bleaching, which gives a whiter crumb color to your cakes but second and more importantly it lowers the gelatinization temperature of the starch within the cake flour. This makes it possible for the cake to set faster and therefore reduces the loss of leavening during baking. Bleaching also gives the cake flour the ability to carry more sugar and fat (as well as water), without their tenderizing (collapsing) effects, balancing the recipe. Bleached flour must be used in high ratio cakes where the sugar is higher than the flour level, by weight.

QUESTION: If the recipe calls for bleached cake flour and I do not have any, can I substitute it with anything else?
SARAH SAYS: For best results, always use the flour specified in the recipe. You can substitute cake flour, but many times the result is not what you might expect. What I use is:
1 cup bleached cake flour equals 1 cup (preferably) bleached all-purpose flour minus 2 tablespoons, and then add in 2 tablespoons cornstarch. Combine. 

Every type of flour has its own unique attributes and when substituted with something else, will not quite match the original: Bleached cake flour should have a protein content at around 8 ± 0.5% with a moisture content of 13 ± 0.5%, an ash level of .35± 0.05% and a particle size of 10±0.5 microns. The cake flour should be well bleached with chlorine bleach, (not benzyl peroxide) to a pH level of 4.4 - 4.8.


Three formulas for high-ratio cakes:

There are three formulas for preparing the sweeter high ratio cakes that contain more sugar than flour, by weight. Following these ingredient proportions will ensure a high-ratio cake that is not too dry or too moist:

  1. The sugar should weigh the same or slightly more than the flour. It is the weight and NOT the volume that counts.
  2. Eggs should weigh almost as much as or slightly more than the fat.
  3. The liquid ingredients(including eggs), should weigh the same as or more than the sugar.

High ratio cakes are mixed using the High Ratio or Two Step Mixing Method.

We typically think of sugar's role in a cake recipe to add sweetness, but it also plays other important roles depending upon whether it is in the crystalline (granulated white or brown) or liquid form (honey or corn syrup). All sugar acts as a tenderizer by preventing the wheat flour proteins from forming an excessive amount of gluten. It does this because sugar is hygroscopic, honey and some liquid sugars better than crystalline sugar; another word for its ability to absorb or attract moisture from the air, and it dissolves readily. By doing so, sugar essentially absorbs available water in the recipe, until saturated, leaving the rest for the wheat’s available gluten forming proteins. Gluten is formed when the wheat flour protein’s are moistened and agitated or mixed; the higher the flour’s gluten-forming potential, the more available water or liquid and the more mixing (agitation) that takes place and the less tenderizers, such as sugar and fat, (and the warmer the ingredients), the more gluten is formed. Because sugar is also a hygroscopic substance, it helps with a recipe's moisture retention and thus increases its shelf life by slowing the staling process. Sugar also tenderizes by slowing down the coagulation of the egg white and milk proteins, as well, that also contribute to structure of the cake when baked.

Crystalline sugar plays an important role by incorporating air into the batter for leavening when beaten with solid, plastic fat, such as stick butter or margarine or solid shortening, called “creaming” (only when the fat is at an optimal temperature). Sugar plays an important role with the lubrication of other ingredients in the recipe, when molten, and with crust color. Increasing sugar in a cake recipe will raise the gelatinization temperature of the starches in the wheat flour and thus will increase expansion time, so care must be taken in its ratio to the other ingredients; too much can cause a cake's structure to fail or the cake may be so tenderized that it crumbles when cut rather than staying in slices (a warm cake will also cause crumbling). When the sugar is reduced too much, the gluten structure is so strong that the cake develops some long cells or tunnels. Overall volume may even increase, but the cake would be tough.

Flourless Chocolate Almond Cake or Torta Caprese RecipeOther types of sugars used in the cakes include dextrose and brown sugar. Also syrups such as invert sugar, corn syrup, glucose, molasses, honey or refiner's syrups are used either for the particular flavor they impart or as a moisture retaining capabilities in cakes. When using these sweetener varieties you must be aware that some do not have the same sweetness as granulated sugar (sucrose) and do contain various levels of water. Sugars of any kind when used in cakes tend to soften the batter and make it thinner, and they need to be included as liquids. Fine granulated sugar, also known as superfine sugar is used to help create the finest texture and maximum volume in a cake. Sugar can stand in for fat and is often added to commercial low-fat products or recipes. However,'s low-fat recipes have no increase in sugar because of our use of fruit purees and particular ingredients, with our special mixing and baking methods.

There are two types of fat used in cake baking: solid and liquid. The primary function of solid fat, also known as plastic fat, such as solid shortening, stick butter or margarine, is to incorporate air bubbles into its malleable mass for volume. This is done through creaming, or beating the fat with crystalline sugar, also known as white granulated or brown sugar (white granulated sugar combined with molasses). But, it can only be done successfully if the right ingrediants, ratios, mixing times and temperature, and using the proper tools are followed.

This makes fat a great tenderizer; expanding air cells help lift the cake's batter during baking, resulting in eventual cake tenderness. They are also known as shorteners; they also shorten the length of the gluten strands when the flour is stirred with that moisture. Fats also tenderize by readily coating the flour proteins like a raincoat, during mixing, preventing moisture from reaching them, helping to reduce their gluten forming potential. Fat is also a good tenderizer because it slows down the coagulation of the egg, flour and milk proteins that set the structure of the cake when baked.

SARAH SAYS: As the fat level in a cake goes up, more eggs are required to emulsify the fat. Eggs also add structure and thus increase the volume depending on the part of the egg used, if it is beaten and when it is added to the recipe; sometimes less flour and chemical leavening agents, such as baking soda or baking powder, is needed.

Fat is a lubricator. It coats the flour particles so the elastic formation slows down; it makes the gluten strands slippery so the gas bubbles can move easily; and it gives the final cake recipe a finer grain. It also lubricates other ingredients, allowing them to mix and disperse more readily and for the cake to rise more readily. Similarly, fat lubricates the inside of your mouth, giving you the perception that a high fat cake is especially moist when you eat it because it glides easily on your tongue.

Fat also increases a baked cake's shelf life by helping to retain the moisture in it.

Some fats, such as butter, add important flavor to a cake recipe, whereas margarine does not have as fine a texture and taste. Shortening does not contribute flavor, unless you use the "butter flavored" type.

Easter Bunny Cake Pops TutorialSARAH SAYS: Denser oil cakes such as carrot, zucchini, apple and pumpkin are commonly made with vegetable oil, called liquid fat. Cake mixes are also classified as oil cakes.

Eggs perform a multitude of important functions in a cake recipe, depending on the part used. Foamed eggs provide leavening, especially separated and beaten whites. Whole eggs and whites contribute to structure. Egg yolk is also a rich source of emulsifying agents and, thus, is a tenderizer; it facilitates the incorporation of air and inhibits wheat starch gelatinization. Egg yolks also add color, nutrition, and flavor and help to retain moisture in the finished cake. On the other hand, whites can have a drying effect, but they contribute slightly more protein than yolks do, although with far fewer nutrients and without the fat and cholesterol.

SARAH SAYS: Some white cake recipe can use 6 to 8 large egg whites, which I find have a drying effect on the recipe. When I develop white butter cake recipes, I substitute some of the egg whites with whole eggs, without affecting its color. The result is a more flavorful and moister cake.

SARAH SAYS: Many of the changes from old-fashioned cakes to the recipes we see today, started with the development of cake mixes and the addition of emulsifiers(found naturally in egg yolks) to the shortenings such as Crisco. Before then, cakes tended to be heavier, more like the pound cake consistency. Shortening used today gives better aeration when mixed and with the addition of liquids, make a light and fluffier cake.

Cakelette Pops TutorialThe leavening source(s) used in cakes may serve to produce gas by physical, chemical or biological methods. It starts with the creation of millions of tiny air bubbles from various mixing methods, trapped in the structural framework of the cake's batter by the gluten strands. Air incorporation comes from beating eggs, creaming butter and sugar together, from folding ingredients together, and from any agitation. Cakes are then leavened when the air bubbles in their batters expand when heated from water vapor or steam from liquids; carbon dioxide produced from chemical leaveners(baking soda and/or baking powder); general expansion from heat from the oven and in some cakes, from yeast activity. In many baked items, one or more of these agents participate in the leavening process. 

A chemical leavening agent provides a source of gas to the recipe called carbon dioxide. When moistened (baking soda and double acting baking powder) and/or heated (double acting baking powder), it expands the millions of air bubbles previously created in a batter or dough from mixing or any agitation made to the cake's ingredients, trapped in the structural framework by the gluten strands. If the batter is overmixed, becomes too warm or not baked promptly, the gas will escape and the final recipe will have poor texture and low volume.

One of the biggest failures of a cake recipe is using baking powder or baking soda that has been weakened from being moistened previously in the cabinet or refrigerator from humidity. Another failure can be caused by pre-wetting a chemical leavened batter because they start to release carbon dioxide bubbles immediately (double acting baking powder will again leaven when heated). Refrigeration will slow their release, but not stop it. Also, when a batter is placed in an oven that has not been preheated, baking powder fails to act until the oven reaches over 120 degrees F.

Using the wrong flour can also affect leavening. (See bleached cake flour).

Milk is usually the main liquid dairy used in cake recipes. It hydrates the dry ingredients, dissolves the sugar and salt, provides steam for leavening and allows for the baking powder and/or baking soda to react and produce carbon dioxide gas. Milk contains proteins(caseins) that set or coagulate from the oven's heat and help form the structure of the cake, as do flour and eggs. Other dairy products, such as buttermilk, sour cream or cream cheese add more moisture and flavor to a cake, consequently those made with them keep well. The acid in the buttermilk and sour cream help tenderize the gluten in the recipe, producing a finer crumb. Sour cream and cream cheese add richness to a recipe, which makes them moist and almost springy.

Snow Cake Men RecipeSARAH SAYS: When I developed the Healthy Oven (tm) White Cake Recipe, a classic butter-cake recipe reduced-in-fat, I added instant nonfat dry milk powder to help strengthen its structure.

QUESTION: Can I substitute water or juice for milk?
SARAH SAYS: Not advisable. Milk, water, fruit juices, and potato water each contribute in different ways to the quality of the recipe. Milk contains fats and proteins in a solution (water) which is a toughener and structure builder in a recipe. It also contributes valuable nutrients to baked goods, helps with browning and adds flavor.   

Flavorings come in different forms: ground spices, extracts(especially pure vanilla extract), citrus zest (peel), citrus oil and even liqueurs. Alcohol adds sugar and counts as a liquid ingredient. Be careful how much you add; too much in proportion to the other ingredients in the mix can cause your cake to fail.

Salt is an important ingredient because it is a flavor enhancer.

Some cake recipes and mixes call for added pudding. Instant, not cooked pudding should be used in the recipe. The use of cooked pudding will result in a drier, coarser, grittier texture. That's because it has not been activated or pre-gelatinized, as instant puddings have, affecting the cake.

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