What makes up a cake?

I recently wrote about the difference between cupcakes and muffins. In that Tip, I mentioned I would be delving more into cakes. I wish to do just that in this and my next Cooking Tip. In this one, we will look at the ingredients and their function in cakes. In the next one, we will learn the different methods of incorporating these ingredients to achieve different types of cakes.

All cakes have similar ingredients – flour, sugar, eggs, a fat, maybe a leavener and flavorings. Let’s take each in turn along with a couple others.

In general, cake ingredients can be categorized as strengtheners or tenderizers. Great cakes are a balance of these two characteristics.

Strengtheners

  • Flour
  • Eggs

Tenderizers

  • Sugar
  • Fat

Flour

Flour gives cakes structure. However, just one look at the store shelves will tell you that there are many different types of flour. Choosing the right one for your cakes is important.

In the US, we name our flours based on the usage such as bread flour, cake flour, pastry flour and all-purpose flour. The differences between these flours is the protein (predominantly gluten). Even among these categories, protein content can vary from brand to brand or even within different shipments of the same brand. One company that pledges to always have the same protein content no matter where or when you buy their flour is King Arthur Flour Company.

The type of flour with one of the highest protein contents (12-16%) is bread flour. This is why when bread dough is kneaded, the gluten is developed leading to the structure and chewiness of artisan breads. It will not give you tender, moist cakes

Cake & pastry flours have the lowest protein content (7-9%) and are milled to a finer consistency. They are what gives the tenderness to these baked products and are often recommended for cakes. I will warn those of you that live at high altitude that this may not be the best choice. As one of the problems at altitude is lack of structure with resultant falling of the cake, cake flours are not ideal in this situation. See my Cooking Tip on cake flour for more info.

All-purpose (AP) flour has a protein content in the middle: 10-12%. If you only want one flour in your cupboard, this is the one to choose. Because it has a moderate protein content, you can use it for almost any purpose. You won’t necessarily get the same result as you would if using one of the other flours, but it will be perfectly acceptable.

Eggs

  • Add structure in the form of protein.
  • Add volume to the cake when beaten.
  • Act as a binder keeping the cake together.
  • Yolks contain emulsifiers that help to form a thick batter that doesn’t separate.
  • Contribute to browning.
  • Contribute to the overall flavor partly because the fat in the yolks helps to carry other flavors.
  • Being mostly water, they contribute to the overall moisture content.
  • The fat in yolks helps to shorten gluten strands and tenderize the final product.

Sugar

  • Adds sweetness.
  • Aids in browning.
  • Assists in the aeration and stabilization of the batter.
  • Helps to keep the cake moist.
  • Helps to form a finer crumb due to its ability to impede gluten formation by attracting the water away from the flour.

Fat

  • Adds flavor.
  • Tenderizes the crumb.
  • Aids with browning.
  • Decreases gluten development by coating the gluten in the flour so it is less available to the liquid.
  • Solid fats are used to incorporate air bubbles to increase volume. This is done through the creaming method, which I will discuss more in next week’s Tip.
  • Oil will help keep the cake moist but can also yield a denser cake.

Salt

  • In cakes, the main purpose of salt is as a favor enhancer.

Leaveners

  • Aid in rising of the cake.
  • Chemical – usually baking powder.
  • Mechanical – by beating air into the batter.

Liquids

  • The most common liquid in cakes is milk but there could be other liquids specified in the recipe.
  • Add moisture.
  • Help dissolve the sugar and salt.
  • Provides steam for leavening.
  • On the caution side, liquids can increase gluten formation resulting in a tougher cake.

Flavorings

  • Spices, extracts, citrus zest, liqueurs can add flavor and aroma.

Now that you have a good idea of what all these ingredients do, stay tuned for next week’s
Cooking Tip to see how to put them all together!