Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Cake Ratios and Butter Cake Hints

Pumpkin cupcake at Brandon's Birthday
Why I needed to know...
For my boy's his first birthday I wanted to make a true pumpkin cupcake - not a muffin with icing.

But it turns out that I couldn't tell the difference on paper. I needed to know what a good cake recipe looked like before I could get crazy with the canned pumpkin...

Birthday cake a.k.a Butter Cake:
They typically contain: Butter, Sugar, Egg, Flour, Milk, Leavening, and Flavor extracts. The ratio determines results, or even what bakery product you make (muffin, scone, tortilla etc)

Perfect Cake is a Balance Between Structure and Moisture
  • The flour and egg contain protein that provide structure
  • The fat and egg yoke provide tenderness and moisture
  • Imbalance causes a dry & tough cake OR a mushy & deflated cake

A balanced recipe has (BY WEIGHT):
  1. More sugar than flour
  2. More egg than fat
  3. More liquid than sugar
  4. Proper amount of leavening

1. Sugar vs. Flour:
The sugar should be equal to, or slightly greater than the flour by weight.
One cup of sugar is 7 oz. and one cup of flour is 4 oz.
So a balanced recipe should have approximately 1 cup (plus a little) to 2 cups of flour.

2. More egg than fat:
Likewise there should be slightly more egg than fat/oil.
One egg is 1 & 3/4 ounces and two tablespoons of fat is 1 ounce.
So a balanced recipe would have at least 2 eggs per 4 oz butter
  • Note: 4 oz butter = 1 stick = 8 tablespoons
  • Tweak it better: 2 eggs is only 3 & 1/2 ounces, balanced against 4 ounces of butter - so you could use a little more egg, about 1/2 an egg (1/8 c). The easy way to do that is by adding an extra yoke. The additional yoke adds smoothness and helps create a velvety texture vs. adding beaten whole egg. Plus you can reserve the white for another time.
3. More liquid than sugar:
The total liquid, INCLUDING egg should be equal to or slightly more than the sugar.
If a recipe is in balance so far, you can simply add enough milk to make up the difference.
To Balance 1 cup of sugar you need 1 cup of liquid total:
  • If the recipe has 2 eggs (3 & 1/2 oz), then the extra liquid needed is about 4 & 1/2 oz (~ 1/2 cup +)
  • If the recipe has 2 eggs + 1 yoke ( ~ 4 oz +), then the extra liquid needed is right at 4 oz (1/2 cup)
Liquid Flavorings
If a recipe calls for 1-2 tsp of flavorings, don't worry about the math. You can ignore this amount in the equation. However more than 1 - 2 tablespoons (coffee, liquor, etc) should be added to your measuring cup first then pour in enough milk to bring the total volume to 1/2 cup.

4. Leavening:
The light/ airy texture of cake is created by a physical process AND a chemical reaction
  • Physical:
    • Butter is "creamed" with sugar: Room temperature butter is beaten with the sugar until a slight color change occurs and the mixture is lighter. The MINIMUM time for this is about two minutes. It's okay if your recipe has a longer mixing time at this step.
    • This physical step introduces air into the mixture trapping tiny bubbles into the fat (like making whipped cream). Melted butter or liquid oil do not hold the bubbles, so the butter must be room temperature for the creaming step to be effective.
    • Note: Do not reduce or eliminate this step because it IS critical for texture
  • Chemical:
    • Baking Soda or Baking powder undergo an acid/base reaction reaction to release carbon dioxide (CO2) gas into the batter. The carbon dioxide ADDS to the tiny bubble created during creaming causing the bubbles to expand. 
    • Too little OR too much and the cake will not raise properly. Too little leavening does not increase the air bubble enough to rise properly, but too much can cause the bubbles to expand too large and float to the surface and burst. 
    • Note: It is possible for a good recipe to call for BOTH baking soda and Baking Powder
Baking Soda:
Typically requires a separate acid in the recipe to activate the reaction, such as lemon juice or buttermilk. A typical recipe will have 1/4 teaspoon per cup of flour. Excessive baking soda creates an unpleasant soapy taste. It is best to measure accurately and not "add a little extra - just in case" to avoid this flaw. This is part of the reason a recipe may call for a combination of both leavening agents.

Baking Powder:
Contains it's own acid that becomes active when it becomes wet. The most commonly available type is double acting. It has a second process that kicks in once the batter is heated in the oven. A typical recipe will have 1 teaspoon baking powder per cup of flour. Again, careful measuring is required. Too much baking powder can create an unpleasant bitter flavor in the final product.

Other factors that contribute to success or failure:

Egg Temperature:
The eggs should be room temperature when added to the creamed butter and sugar. They must be added one at a time and mixed in well before the next addition. Cold eggs will curdle the batter and you will lose some of the air bubbles you worked so hard to whip into the butter. Eggs can be brought up to room temperature quickly by putting the whole eggs in a medium bowl filled with hot water for ~ 5 minutes.

Mixing Time:
The mixture should not be over-beaten once the flour has been combined with wet ingredients. Once flour is wet it can release gluten into the batter. A minimum amount of mixing is needed to create a protein "scaffold" to hold the batter in place as rising occurs in the oven. But excessive mixing develops a protein "net" that holds the batter together too tightly and does not allow proper rising. This results in a heavy or tough cake. Uneven bubbles or "tunneling" of bubbles in the cake can be a sign of over mixing.

Don't skip the salt, it is an important factor in developing the flavor completely. Typical recipes will have 1/4 tsp per one cup of flour. So a balanced 2 cup flour recipe will need about 1/2 tsp. If a recipe does not call for any salt, I might assume they forgot and add at least 1/4 tsp.

Limit to the Leaven:
Do not hold batter to bake at a later time. Once the leavening has gotten wet you have a count down until the reaction is all used up and the bubbles escape. If you must hold batter, place it in the fridge and use as quickly as possible, ideally in less than 30 minutes. If you must, stir briefly by hand, trying to even out the bubbles but do not deflate the mix.

Cooking more than one pan may require "rotating" the pans, basically switch their places. Cupcakes should be filled as close to 2/3 full as possible. More will cause the batter to go "up and over" making them have a "muffin top" shape. Too little batter in the cup may be dry besides looking skimpy.

When the cake is done cooking, remove from oven and allow it to rest in the pan for 2-5 minutes. This will help make it easier to remove from the pan cleanly. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Cake left in the pan too long may continue to cook and become dry. This is especially true of glass or ceramic pans that hold the heat. Cake must be fully cool before frosting and cutting for the best look. 

Now you're fancy, get out there and make the best cake ever!

Please check out the article that inspired mine:


  1. My grandma always used room temperature eggs! She must have known the secret. :)

    1. Smart lady! Room temp is best for scrambled and fried eggs too. Basically if they are cold it takes additional time to recover back to the perfect cooking temperature, since eggs cook so quickly the time lag can significantly effect the final texture.

      Warming them in a bowl of hot tap water is a good modern option to get them to proper temperature without having to wait. In terms of food safety it is probably safer too. I do it all the time now.

    2. I have just tried this technique with one of my recipes and it was just the understanding I was missing when making my cakes. However using the 2 eggs+1 yoke technique has made my cake taste a little eggy. Is there anyway to cut back on that?

    3. Dr. Missus, I'm guessing it wasn't a strongly flavored cake like chocolate or spice? I could see how the egg-y taste might stand out more in a vanilla or other lighter flavor. Here are my thoughts:

      I really like the texture of the added yoke - but it does bring the flavor with it - so for me I would try to balance the flavor.

      Egg is a rich & umami flavor, so I would try adding in a pinch of a bright & fresh flavor, like lemon. Not enough so you can taste the lemon - just enough to cancel out the egg. It might just take a couple drops of lemon extract.

      Also the feed the chickens eat effects how strongly flavored the egg is - so if you have been buying premium eggs - free range etc. A cheaper egg might be more mild.

      Or you could try 1/8 cup of whole beaten egg. It may not be quite as silky compared to just yoke because the whites have the structural protein. Last resort would be something like egg beaters if you don't feel like beating one extra egg.

      Good luck! Please let me know how it turns out!

    4. AHH! I think have found my missing component, the flavoring!! I added none! I had orginially decided to add lemon zest and vanilla bean extract. I was so excited to find this information and to try it out, that I skimped on my flavoring! Thank you so much again! When I make another batch I will let you know how it turns out! I must agree though, the extra yoke adds a very nice smooth texture to my once doughy and heavy cupcakes!

    5. Dr. Missus - thank you SO much for the follow up! I've been there before too... actually I got so excited about a recipe I used rootbeer extract instead of vanilla! In my defence they were in the same shaped bottle. It was not a "happy accident" as they say

  2. Jade,

    I love the quick cake in a mug recipe from SortedFood.com which allows you to mix a cake and throw it in the microwave, but the cake that comes out is often variable in size, eggy taste, texture and moisture. Some of these can be easily remedied by figuring out the right amount of baking powder or self-raising flour compared to the egg, but what would you do to improve the moisture of a microwave cake?

    More liquids? More sugar? Or is it hopeless to even try?

    1. Stijn,
      Sorry about the delayed reply on this post - What a good question!

      One of the easiest troubleshooting things for cakes of any type is to buy fresh baking soda/ powder.

      I tend to avoid self-rising flour because the leavening that's included can lose power with age and there is no easy way to determine how much extra to add. Correcting the leavening should help with part of the variable size.

      Egg-y taste can be a sign the recipe is out of wack - it may need more salt, sugar, or flavoring. I would compare the recipe to at least two similar ones and see if the author missed something.

      Microwave cooking actually works best when the food is placed Off-center. Basically if the food is placed dead-center of the rotating tray a small portion in the very middle doesn't really get moved around that much.

      If the food is placed carefully you may be able to cook it for slightly less time. The starch has to have enough time to gel, and the sugar has to get hot enough to provide structure - not just sweetness. But it's a delicate balance because sugar interferes in the coagulation of the egg protein.

      To Summarize:
      I would compare several recipes, get fresh ingredients, and cook off center. Good luck!

  3. I love to eat cake.This article helps me to make a nice cake
    smart home

    1. Sarah,
      Thanks for reading. I'm glad I could help!

  4. Hi can you mix the magarine ,sugar and flour in a blender if u dont have a mixer

    1. Good question, I think you could cream the butter and sugar together, but put the butter in first, whip to soften then put the sugar in and pulse. Don't over process because blenders can be used to process granular sugar into super fine sugar. With a high powered machine you could accidental make paste and not the creaming effect desired. I wouldn't put flour in the blender at all.

  5. love it !!!!! i recently started baking and im great ! with chocolate cakes but i tried lemon and it came out gummy :( i cant wait to try this out today and eat some cake lol

  6. Hi. Nice page!
    What if we want a less sweet cake (less sugar compared to flour)?
    Also, in this case the total liquid weight should be compared to flour(instead of sugar)?
    Thanks in advance.

    1. Thanks for the compliment!
      By definition, Butter Cakes have more sugar than flour. If you had less you would no longer have a cake but a "quick bread" like a muffin.

      Here is an interesting link to help you understand the difference. http://www.diffen.com/difference/Cake_vs_Muffin


Please leave a comment, even just to say HI
I will do my best to reply to every message personally!