Cakes are a terrific way to celebrate a special occasion, give as a gift, or just have a little fun. They are delicious and versatile, and they can be decorated to fit your fancy.
There are many ways to prepare cake, which is both a benefit and a challenge of this beloved international treat. As with any baked good, small mistakes can lead to big problems.
Also, the method of baking will determine the texture and taste of your cake.
Everyone has different cake preferences and finding the right cooking technique can be an enjoyable journey. The rewards of cooking experimentation are endless!
While you probably think of the oven as the best method for cake baking, there are alternatives. Instead of reaching for that oven temperature knob or button, consider a different route: steaming.
One of the most popular ways to steam a cake is with a basic bamboo steamer, found in any home goods store or Asian market. There are, however, easy ways to get the same result without specialty equipment.
Why Steam a Cake?
Using steam to cook your cake is a reliable alternative to traditional oven baking. The steaming option is especially useful for people who do not have access to an oven, or perhaps their oven is unreliable.
Many people outside the United States live in smaller homes that do not permit ovens or they live in areas that do not offer the electricity needed to power large appliances. Steaming a cake on the stove in a pot or wok is an easy, common alternative.
East Asian cuisine is the most notable for using steam to cook (think of delectable steamed dumplings or delicately steamed fish), but the method is utilized all around the world.
Most famous is probably the steamed sponge cake called bak tong gou (literally “white sugar cake”). It is a Cantonese classic often eaten at the end of a dim sum meal.
Long before electric ovens revolutionized professional and home cooking, steam was a culinary sensation.
What Are the Benefits of Steaming a Cake?
There are several notable reasons for choosing steam over conventional baking when considering your cake options.
First, cooking with steam produces a more pure flavor in the cake. Steaming does not produce the browned edges of oven baking, and thus the authentic flavors of the ingredients shine more brightly.
Equally important, steaming increases the moistness of your cake. Traditional oven baking uses dry heat so when the cake rises, a lot of the moisture is lost to the air around it, which results in the cake becoming dry and brown.
A steamed cake, on the other hand, is cooked using moist air. The cooking temperature will be a lot lower as the steam is formed when water reaches its boiling point (212 degrees Fahrenheit) and the lower temperature results in a moister, richer cake.
Third, steam cooks your cake twice as fast as baking. Steam cooks at 212 degrees while an oven cooks at higher temperatures, usually around 350.
However, a steamer will cook faster because steam transfers heat 100 times more efficiently than air. So steaming is a great option if you are in a time crunch.
Fourth, you can’t overcook your cake with steam, so you can easily avoid one of the common mistakes of cake baking by simply using a steamer instead of an oven. Say goodbye to long waits by the hot oven and anxiety over timing; say hello to quick and easy!
Finally, steamed cakes are easier on the stomach. They are easier to digest than traditionally baked cakes and more likely to prevent flatulence, bloating, and indigestion.
They are also, as with steamed vegetables, much healthier. Steamed cakes are not quite diet food, but they are a trusty substitute for oven-baked goods.
What Are the Drawbacks to Steaming?
The biggest difference that you will find with steamed cakes is that the edges are not browned. Browned edges change the texture and flavor of a cake, and most Americans are accustomed to a less moist cake with browned edges produced by oven baking.
Another drawback is that steamed cakes will dry out faster than those produced by traditional oven baking. Steamed cakes start out far moister but they cool faster, and thus the moisture evaporates faster.
What Can I Do to Increase the Moistness of My Steamed Cake?
To increase the moistness of your steamed cake, you should add additional fats to the cake mix before steaming. Butter, oil, sour cream, or full-fat yogurt are great options.
You can also substitute cake flour for all-purpose flour to increase the moistness of the cake. Some cake enthusiasts have coated the finished cake with a simple syrup mixture to help lock in the moisture.
What If I Don’t Have a Steamer?
No steamer, no problem! You can steam a cake with the cookware you already have in your home.
If you don’t have or want a bamboo steamer, you can simply use a large pot with a lid on the stove. All you need to do is fill up the bottom of the pan with water and bring that water to boiling point. Put your cake mix in your cake tin, then add the cake tin to the pot so it rests in the boiling water. Cover the pot and let the steam do all the work.
Here’s a pro tip: After you place your cake tin in the pot of boiling water, cover the pot with a hand towel or cloth. Covering the pot with a cloth before putting the lid back on prevents the condensation on the lid (from when it covered the boiling pot) from dripping onto your delicious cake!
You can also steam a cake in a rice cooker, a pressure cooker, or even a microwave!
What About Small Cakes and Cupcakes?
You can use the steam method for small cakes and cupcakes as well. For cupcakes, be sure to use cupcake liners inside the ramekins.
Then place the ramekins directly into the boiling water, just as with the full-sized cake. Cover with the pot lid (don’t forget the pro tip!), then cook until done. Cooking time will be shorter and the pot will not require as much water.
What About Extra-Large Cakes?
Steaming works for extra-large cakes the same as it does for regular-sized concoctions and miniature treats.
Just as cupcakes require less water in the pot, larger cakes require more water. And, of course, you will need a larger pot.
Because of the additional water, you will need to raise your cake tin off the bottom of the pot. A small metal or wooden rack will be perfect. If you don’t have a rack, here are a few ways that you can accomplish this raising:
1. Use a significant amount of tin foil and divide that tin foil into three to five sections. Then crumble each section into similarly-sized balls.
Place the tin foil balls in the bottom of the pan, being careful to distribute them evenly and place your cake tin on top of the tin foil balls. The cake tin should sit evenly on the foil balls and provide the height you need to accommodate the additional water.
2. Add the water to the pot and then start stacking plates on top of each other at the bottom of the pot, using as many plates as needed to achieve the height you want. Average dinnerware plates should have no problem surviving the short duration of the boiling and steaming.
3. Instead of raising the cake from the bottom, you can try suspending it from the top. If you have cooking twine, you can use it to create a sling for your cake tin.
Use the twine to tie your cake tin as you would a package or present, then attach the twine to the handles of your cooking pot. The tin should hang nicely above the water and below the lid, producing a lovely steamed cake.
Can I Ice and Decorate My Steamed Cake?
Absolutely! Just as with an oven-baked cake, a steamed cake can and should be decorated after it has cooked. Fondant and icing are likely your best bets, and they can be applied after the steamed cake has cooled.
You can even use steam in the decorating process. Just as you can use a common everyday pot to steam your cake, you can use a common everyday clothes iron to finish and decorate.
Use the steam created by your iron to give your cake a beautiful, glossy finish. You can’t steam a whole cake with your iron, but the iron puts out just enough steam to finish your fondant and perfect your icing.
In the end, it doesn’t matter how you cook your cake as long as you enjoy it. Though they sound unusual or exotic, steamed cakes are just as delicious and fun as their oven-baked counterparts.
Sarah is the founder of Baking Kneads, LLC, a blog sharing guides, tips, and recipes for those learning how to bake. Growing up as the daughter of a baker, she spent much of her childhood learning the basics in a local bakery.