Understanding a cake’s ingredients and their functions is essential to understanding what changes you can make in a recipe and how to do so. There is not much leeway in changing the main ingredients as each ingredient plays a crucial role in the end product. The basic ingredients of a cake are: flour, fat, sugar, eggs, liquid, salt, and leavening agents.
Once you’ve learned about the purpose of the various ingredients in cake, learn about which cake pans are the best to use and which cake baking tools you should have, and if you’re feeling adventurous, learn how to bake one without an oven.
Perhaps the most important ingredient in a cake is the flour. Flour creates the basic structure for the entire cake. Wheat flour is the most popular form, though it is not used in cheesecakes or gluten free cakes. Gluten is a protein in flour that provides a way for the cake to bind to itself. It creates a web that traps and seals in air bubbles. The more gluten that is formed, the tougher the cake is. Due to this, the less gluten formation, the better, as long as the cake sets correctly. There are several types of flour, such as all-purpose flour, bread flour, cake flour, pastry flour, rye flour, buckwheat flour, etc, though you are most likely to use all-purpose or cake flour to bake a cake.
A good all-purpose flour to keep on hand at home is Pillsbury Best All Purpose Flour. Pillsbury also offers a cake flour, but there are many other brands that produce great products, as well. Most recipes will call for cake flour when baking a cake. The difference between cake flour and all-purpose flour is the gluten content. All-purpose flour has a higher gluten content at 11% than cake flour does at 8%. You can still use all-purpose flour, but you will have to adjust it to allow for the best results of your cake. The general formula is below:
1 cup all-purpose flour – 2 tbsp all-purpose flour + 2 tbsp cornstarch = 1 cup cake flour
Fats and Oils
Adding fat to the cake is a way to curb the amount of gluten formation that occurs. Fat prevents gluten from combining as easily. It also contributes to the fluffiness. This is due to the fact that when fat is combined with sugar, the sugar cuts the fat, which causes air pockets to form. This aeration results in a texture that is less grainy and more tender.
Generally, fats are solid, while oils are liquid. In baking, oils, shortening, lard, butter, and margarine are used most commonly. Which one you will use will depend on the texture and taste you are aiming for in the end.
Butter is typically used for its flavor. It is not particularly great at making flaky pie crusts or creating a very tender cake, but its flavor wins, bar none. It is better to use unsalted, unless the recipe calls for salted. Stay away from clarified butter (ghee) in cakes as it will ruin the flavor and texture.
With shortening, you will get a much more tender cake, without worrying about ruining the flavor, as long as small quantities are used. A larger quantity of shortening will give you an artificial flavor, as it is made from vegetable fats.
Lard plays the same role as shortening, without the artificial vegetable fat flavor. You are able to get the tender cake without the overpowering taste of shortening.
Oils generally don’t impart a strong flavor on the cake. When used, they create a denser texture, which may or may not be the end goal for your cake. Typically, boxed cake mixes call for oil. When the amount of oil called for is minimal, the flavor of olive oil will not impact the flavor of the cake. If the amount of oil is more substantial, use vegetable or canola oil, as that will not leave behind a flavor like the olive oil would.
Be cautious when substituting fats and oils. If you are substituting a fat (a solid), you will want to replace it with another solid. Likewise, if you are replacing an oil (a liquid), you will want to replace it with another liquid. The solids and liquids react differently in the cake, so to obtain the same reaction, you must replace in kind.
Sugar’s main role is to sweeten the cake. It also assists in the aeration and stabilization of the batter. Sugar helps to keep the cake moist and soft, but it can also create a crisp, browned crust due to caramelizing. It can come in both solid and liquid forms, such as granulated sugar, powdered sugar, honey, and corn syrup.
Granulated white sugar is what is typically used within the cake. Powdered sugar is typically used on top of a cake, as a glaze or a frosting. It is granulated sugar ground up into a fine powder. Brown sugar can sometimes be used in a cake, depending on how you would like the cake to turn out. It is typically more moist than white sugar, so you may need to reduce the liquids in the recipe if you plan on substituting brown sugar for white sugar. It is perfect in quick breads, where you would like the moist, decadent feel. Brown sugar is usually just white sugar with molasses added back in. The darker the sugar, the more molasses. Be careful with how much brown sugar you add, as you will start to taste the molasses as you add more.
Eggs add volume to the finished product. They also act as a binder, which is what keeps the finished product together. Used as a whole, they can bind, thicken, or be used as added flavor. When brushed onto a baked good, they can be used as a glaze to brown the top. When used separately, egg whites are a drying agent and add stability to the batter. The yolks contribute to the texture and flavor of the overall finished product.
While milk tends to be the most used liquid for a cake, a recipe can also call for water, juices, or alternative milks. Because each liquid can cause different reactions in the mix, be careful when substituting one for the other. Liquids are used to supply moisture to the flour and the starch, aid in gluten formation, and assist in leavening by dissolving the sugar and salt. The more liquid in the recipe, the more moist the cake will be. It can be the difference between labeling the resulting product as a “dough” or a “batter”.
Salt is used in small quantities in a lot of baked goods. It is mainly used as a flavor enhancer, as it brings out the flavor of what it is added to. The lack of salt use in a recipe that calls for it can result in a flavorless, bland end product. Salt can also be a good preservative, as it absorbs water, which means less for bacteria and mold growth.
Common leavening agents are baking powder, baking soda, and yeast. Baking powder and baking soda are known as “chemical leaveners”, while yeast is a “natural leavener”. Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate, and it needs an acid to get its aeration engines started. On the other hand, baking powder is baking soda paired with cream of tartar.
Baking powder is the usual choice for cakes, though its over-use can result in a coarse cake that may be deemed inedible. If your recipe calls for baking powder, but you only have baking soda, there are different ways to substitute to achieve the desired effect.
– ¼ tsp baking soda + ½ tsp tartar cream = 1 tsp baking powder — Must use quickly after mixing, but can add ¼ tsp corn starch to absorb moisture and delay chemical reaction
– ½ tsp baking soda + ½ cup buttermilk, sour milk or plain yogurt = 1 tsp of baking powder
Mastering the use of the ingredients is the first step to understanding how a cake works. Knowing the functions sends you on your way to being able to adjust and substitute ingredients like a professional. With time, patience, and a little trial and error, you can start to create your own recipes and share them with the world!
Now that you know all about the role of ingredients in cake, learn what ingredients are needed to make cupcakes.