Cakes – How to put it all together!

In the last Cooking Tip, we looked at cake ingredients. In this one, we want to delve into the methods of mixing those ingredients into a cake batter. The different methods are going to give you different results and it is good to have a working knowledge of them. In fact, you can learn to predict what method you are going to use based on the ingredients. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip. This Tip is not written with high altitude concerns in mind. If you are one of us that does live at high altitude, there are other considerations that are in addition to the following information. See this prior Cooking Tip for that.

As we learned in the last Tip, cakes have basically the same ingredients – flour, sugar, butter, salt, eggs, chemical leaveners, milk, flavorings. How you combine these ingredients determines what you end up with – a cake, muffins, a quick bread, etc.

Creaming

This is a relatively easy method that you will use if the ingredient list calls for softened butter and sugar. This method involves mechanically incorporating air into the batter to produce a light result. Although you can do it by hand, it is very difficult to get the desired result and will be much easier to use some type of electric mixer. The basic method is as follows:

  • It is very important that the ingredients are at room temperature (~70°F).
  • Combine room temperature butter with sugar and mix thoroughly until light and pale yellow. The sugar will cut through the butter, creating air bubbles, which will expand in the oven.
  • Either lightly whisk the eggs together and add to the batter in a slow stream or add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition until they are fully incorporated.
  • Add dry ingredients, which may be done in one of two ways. Some recipes will have you add them all at once and mix just until combined. Others will have you add the dry and wet ingredients alternately, starting and finishing with the dry to ensure the batter can absorb all the liquid. One exception is if the wet component is whipped egg whites. You will end with those to prevent deflating.

Cakes made with this method will be soft but sturdy, easy to slice and stack in layers. Examples are pound cakes and butter cakes. This method also works well for batters put into Bundt pans as well as for many cookie recipes and cupcakes.

Reverse Creaming

This method is sometimes referred to as the “two-stage” or “high ratio” method or even the “paste” method. By high ratio, what is meant is that there is more sugar than flour by weight or at most, equal amounts. This method does not work well for cakes that have less sugar than flour. These cakes will also contain a chemical leavening agent rather than just relying on air as the regular creaming method often does. The method is:

  • Combine all dry ingredients in a bowl and mix.
  • Recipes may vary a bit after this. Some will add only the softened butter and mix to form a coarse crumble followed by adding the liquid ingredients, either all at once or in two additions. Others will add some of the liquid with the butter and end with the remaining liquid.

This method is said to allow the butter to coat the flour. The liquid is then combining with the sugar instead of the flour, limiting gluten development. It produces less air holes and the resulting cake is very soft and tender.

When Cooks Illustrated compared creaming and reverse-creaming side-by-side using identical ingredients, they found that tasters could not tell the difference. They also used a tool to analyze firmness and they were very similar. They did find that the cake using the regular creaming method had a slightly domed top and a more open crumb. With the reverse creaming method, the cake top was more level and the crumb very fine and velvety.

One-stage method

This is also known as the “muffin” method and is a very simple method.

  • Mix all the dry ingredients in one bowl.
  • Mix all the wet ingredients in another bowl.
  • Mix the wet into the dry and combine gently to avoid developing excessive gluten.

You will recognize this method when the ingredient list has all the dry ingredients grouped together and all the wet together. The ingredient list also has:

  • A liquid fat (oil, melted butter) as they are easier to incorporate with this method.
  • A good amount of liquid.
  • A higher amount of chemical leaveners than cakes or cupcakes as this is the only way to get a rise. There is no mechanical leavening such as you get with whipped eggs or from creaming butter & sugar together.

Blended

Also known as the “single stage” or “one bowl” method, it is the absolute easiest of all cake methods. You just put everything in a bowl at once and stir together. With this method, it will often call for oil rather than butter as it is easier to incorporate. This method can be used with cakes made from scratch but it is normally used with cake mixes. It results in cakes that are very moist and good for add-ins but on the denser side.

Foam method

This method produces very light and airy cakes. The leavening is provided by whipping air into the batter. The method can be done either with whole eggs or what is called the “separated egg foam.”

  • Separated egg foam
    • Separate eggs and beat the yolks with part of the sugar until thick and light in color.
    • Beat egg whites separately with sugar to stiff but not dry peaks.
    • Very gently fold beaten egg whites into the yolks alternating with the dry ingredients.
  • Whole egg foam – warm or cold
    • For the warm method:
      • Whole eggs and sugar are warmed together over a hot water bath until sugar is totally dissolved and then beaten until thick.
      • You continue beating until the mixture is cooled and ribbons form. At this point, mixture is almost tripled in volume.
      • Finally, the dry ingredients and melted butter are folded in alternately.
    • For the cold method:
      • Egg and sugar are place in a bowl and whipped at high speed until creamy, light in color and volume has greatly increased.
      • Butter is typically not included as cakes made by this method are later soaked in a liqueur or flavoring such as in tiramisu or a trifle. With this method, part of the sugar melts in the oven rather than over the water bath. This results in larger air bubbles in the finished cake, which are great when soaked in a flavorful liquid.

Angel food cake method

Angel food cakes are a type of sponge cake made from egg whites, sugar and flour. There is no butter or other fat.

  • Start by sifting the flour and part of the sugar in a bowl.
  • Egg whites are beaten with the remaining sugar to peaks and then gently folded into the dry ingredients.

Chiffon method

This method is an amalgamation of different methods. It will contain a liquid fat, usually oil, as well as a chemical leavener like baking powder. The basic method is:

  • Sift together dry ingredients with part of the sugar.
  • Mix in the oil, yolks, water and flavorings.
  • Beat egg whites to peak with remaining sugar and gently fold into batter.

Is one of these methods better than another? Does one produce a better cake than another? It all depends on what kind of cake you want. No matter what result you want and what method you choose, there are some tips for great cake baking in general.

  • Baking cakes, especially if you live at high altitude, is not a time to fly by the seat of your pants. It is, rather, a time to follow the recipe exactly. The only variations would be those you make at high altitude.
  • Buy a food scale and weigh the ingredients. It is more accurate than cup measures and will yield better results.
  • Pay attention to temperatures called for in the recipe. If it specifies room temperature butter (and/or other ingredients), you will only get the desired result if you heed that advice.
  • Butter should be unsalted unless otherwise specified. If all you have is salted butter, reduce the salt in the recipe by ¼ tsp for each 4 ounces of butter. If you do much baking, try to always have unsalted butter on hand. It keeps wonderfully in the freezer and you will not have to make adjustments.
  • I did a prior Cooking Tip on pan sizes. Review that and then measure your cake pans to know if they are going to work for the recipe.
  • Try to not use dark-colored pans as they will not give you the desired result of a golden, moist and tender cake.
  • Most recipes will call for greasing the cake pans. Even better is to grease the pan, line it with parchment, and grease again. For bundt-style cakes, grease the pan thoroughly and sprinkle lightly with flour or use a flour-based pan spray.
  • Allow enough time to thoroughly preheat your oven. It is also a good idea to use an oven thermometer to check its accuracy.

Do you do much cake baking? What is your preferred type of cake? What method do you use? Do you live at high altitude and have you experienced altitude-related challenges?
Let me know and send me photos of your wonderful creations!