Thursday, March 22, 2012

Making Moist Cakes or Cupcakes

I have never believed, as some people do, that you either have a gift for baking cakes or you don’t.  Have you ever looked at a piece of cake thinking it’s going to be moist only to find that it’s really dry?  If you love to bake cakes (or cupcakes) but find they are not as moist as they should be then read on.  Whether from scratch or a box mix, with a little practice and a few tips you can make moist and delicious cakes. 

First, here is a quick lesson on the science behind making cakes:

Ingredients for cakes (whether from scratch or a mix) include the same things. Most cakes are composed of flour, sugar, eggs, and a fat for moistness (either oil or butter). In fact, classic pound cake requires nothing more than these basic ingredients: one pound each of flour, sugar, eggs, and butter. The trick when it comes to baking is not to upset this balance of ingredients too much.  When baking from scratch, you must first see that the basic chemical balance is in order. If you want to change the cake then you must find a way to do so without upsetting this balance.  This assumes the balance is right to begin with.
Alterations can be made, but they still must allow the basic ingredients to do their magic and produce a basic cake. If you want the cake to taste a little richer than a basic cake, add extra fats. If you want a denser cake, reduce the amount of eggs. And, if you want the cake to be more bread-like then add a bit more flour. There's a variation for almost every taste.

Here is some science that you don’t see:

When fat and sugar are mixed together – the process in a recipe is called creaming – little bubbles of air are being trapped in the mixture, each one is surrounded by a film of fat (which is why the mixture changes color during creaming as the trapped air creates a foam-like look). It is this air which produces the lightness in the finished cake, but unless eggs are added to the mixture the fat would collapse and the air escape during cooking. The egg forms a layer around each air bubble, and as the temperature of the cake increases then this layer coagulates and forms a rigid wall round each bubble, preventing it from bursting and ruining the texture of the cake.

While it is baking, the bubbles of air will expand and the cake will rise. At the same time the stretchy gluten in the flour – which has formed an elastic network round the air bubbles – will stretch until it loses its elasticity and the shape of the cake becomes fixed.  But until that moment of expansion is reached, the baking must occur uninterrupted.  This is why 1) the cake should be baked as soon as the batter is mixed and 2) the oven door should never be opened in the early stages of cooking. If the door is opened the temperature will drop suddenly and the air in the cake will stop expanding and actually contract. The whole structure of the cake will then sink back because there’s nothing to prop it up. So, remember, never look at a cake until three-quarters of the cooking time has elapsed.

My tips for making a moist cake:

Here are a few tips that I use for making moist cakes:

·         The most important thing is to not overcook the cake or cupcakes.  Bake according to the recipe but check for doneness the last 5-10 minutes before scheduled.  You know it’s done when a toothpick in the center comes out with just a few cake crumbs attached or the cake springs back when pressed in the center.  You can also pull the crumbs off the toothpick and rub them between your fingers to see if they are too moist or just right.  I believe the cake will taste better if it is slightly undercooked than slightly overcooked. I found that cake (or cupcakes) will continue to cook just a little bit more after you take it out of the oven so if you test it and it needs just a couple more minutes, take it out and set it on the stove. My rule of thumb for cupcakes is 28 minutes on 325’.  They come out great every time.  Since all ovens vary, find out what works for your oven and then modify recipes accordingly.

·         I use sour cream in most of my recipes for moistness.  You can also add mayonnaise or applesauce to increase moistness.  Be careful though, dumping in gobs of moistening agents often leads to little more than a soggy, wet mess.  Don’t confuse "moist" with "wet."  If you are making a box mix then I would say add 1 cup of sour cream for each box of cake mix.  This is in addition to the recipe ingredients, not as a substitute.

·         Egg whites can dry out a cake, so baking experts recommend using just the egg yolks for a moister cake.  I have never tried just the egg yolks but have added an extra egg.  This explains why white cakes are usually drier than other flavors . . . there are no egg yolks in white cakes.

·         Make cupcakes the day before you need them.  Frost and decorate them and then put them in an air tight container.  Unless you use a frosting that has to be refrigerated (like cream cheese), leave them at room temperature.   I’m not sure exactly why but letting them sit one day will make them very moist and richer tasting.  If you use buttercream frosting (that does not have to be refrigerated) then you can even make them two days prior to when you need them.  Cupcakes can be good for about 5-7 days.  I can’t be exact because I’ve never made any that lasted that long.

·         For cakes, make them a couple days in advance.  Here’s a trick that works wonders . . . immediately after you take the cake out of the oven, wrap it in plastic wrap and put it in the freezer.  I put about two to three layers of plastic wrap on it.  The heat from the cake will make the plastic wrap mold nicely against the cake.  Take the cake out of the freezer the day you plan to frost it.  Depending on the size, it will only take a couple hours to thaw out.  As it’s thawing, the condensation that was created during the wrapping phase is now being soaked back into the cake, making it very moist!

·         Brush cake layers with simple syrup made by simmering equal amounts of water and sugar in a saucepan until the sugar dissolves completely. The syrup keeps the layers moist.

Other tips for making a moist cake:

Here are some other tips I have heard but have never tried:

·         Try adding an extra quarter-cup of sugar to the recipe, a little extra butter, or a touch more oil (oil can slow down gluten production during the baking process, which can dry out a cake).

·         Brown sugar holds more moisture longer than white sugar. Replacing brown sugar for white sugar will keep the cake from drying out and maintain its moistness. Use the same measurements for the brown sugar as your recipe called for the white sugar. The taste difference will be minimal, but the moisture levels will be higher.

·         Mix you batter as you normally would then add one small container of yogurt to the mix and bake as usual. This will keep the cake moist for days.

·         Use only egg yolks instead of the whole egg (use 3 yolks instead of 2 eggs, for example). This works for cookies, too.

·         Don't stir the mix too much! This develops the gluten in the flour and makes it chewy. The batter should look a little under-stirred when you pour it in the pan.

·         Use baking powder instead of baking soda. The bicarbonate by itself neutralizes the acid in the batter and makes it darken more. Baking powder won't reduce the acidity, making the cake fluffier.

·         Use a stoneware pan if you're really serious about it; the temperature stays more even in the pan, so that the center and edges are done at the same time.

·         Add one box of pudding to the mix.

There are several ways on the internet to making a great cake. Try one every time you make a cake or cupcakes and see what works for you.  Now it’s time to test your new baking skills!

Happy Baking!



kris valencia said...

Hi Thank you for your great tips about Cake decoating ideas This is excellent suggestion for a beginner in decorating cake.

Cakeology said...

Wow, GREAT tips Donna, I actually use a few of them myself, like the sour cream, extra oil and my favorite egg yolks instead of the whites, THANX

Nonoph Ngadimin said...

hi! how much oil sud i add to recipe that already use butter to make it more moist? tq

Donna said...

If you already added butter then I wouldn't add more oil. Sorry for the delay in posting this!

oceanrose43 said...

I have a similar question and I'm assuming nonoph might have meant this as well... how much oil to use to replace the butter in a recipe? like if the recipe calls for a cup of butter, how much oil should be used instead of butter?

Donna said...

Oceanrose43 - Based on my research (and experimenting) I would use a 1:1 ratio when substituting oil for butter or vice versa. It has worked for me with most recipes. If you are making a cake for a special occasion then I would make a batch and try them a few days earlier. If it's not what you were expecting then reduce the oil by 1/8 cup. Hope that helps!

Ni'Cole Cartier said...

Is it too much to add sour cream and pudding to the cake mix and should you create the pudding before adding it to the cake mixture

Anonymous said...

Can you or should you use both instant pudding and sour cream in a box cake mix?

Do you have a recipe for a good vanilla buttercream that can be tinted and also used for some simple decorations? I would like to use your Viva paper towel method.

Thank you

Donna said...

It's not too much to add both the sour cream AND pudding to the cake mix. I have added both when I made a lemon cake to increase the lemony (is that a word?) taste. Do not make the pudding! Just add the contents of the box to your dry ingredients. I will be giving you some frosting recipes soon!!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the tips on pudding mix and sour cream. The reason I asked about the frosting recipes is I was asked to make a baby shower cake for a friend, I have no clue what I am really doing besides baking a cake. Someone I was talking to pointed to this website. The baby shower is this coming weekend 1-11.


Donna said...

Embarking on a new project (like a cake) can be very scary when you're not sure what you are doing. I would suggest improving the store bought frosting with the tips on my previous post. If you give me some specifics on the type/style of cake you're making then I can give you more specific tips. Hope that helps!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the encouragement, I am making a 12" vanilla cake, and a 10" chocolate cake, tierd. I did find a plastic disk that is used to put the second cake on top of the first one. I have played with cake decorating in the past but it has been a few years since I have done anything like this. The bottom layer is going to have pink frosting and the top layer white frosting with with the opposite color of small dots scattered around the cakes. I did make a good vanilla buttercream at Christmas, I was thinking about using that frosting but using some shortening so it would get the crust. I got a small tub of Wilton decorating icing for the border and dots.
Today I made a white cake with pudding mix and sour cream, to test it out, I only used half a box of pudding and half a cup of sour cream and ithe cake turned out so moist and light. I am sold.

Donna said...

I know that many others have the same question so I will create a new post with instructions for making your cake later today. Hope that helps.

Mahrukh Erum said...

I apply all tricks as you said but I feel my cake is haviour what should I do

Donna said...

Cake can end up heavy if there is too much flour. When measuring your flour, don't scoop the measuring cup into flour because it gets packed down and you get more than you should. Try using a large spoon to scoop the flour into the measuring cup and then use a knife to level off the cup. If, after trying this, it is still too heavy then I would suggest measuring your flour instead.

Lilian Phung said...

This is great! Exactly what I was looking for. Thanks Donna for posting all the tips & explanations. I'd thought about trial & error, changing the ingredients myself to see how each would affect the whole cake, but thought that would be a waste of food. Tried to look in many places and none provided the details that you do. Truly appreciate. -Lili

NewfieGirl said...

I have a chocolate cake recipe that came frm my husband's mother thatis my families favorite cake. It is frosted with what I assume is some sort of buttercream with justa few drops of maple flavoring. It absolutely makes the cake!
My question is this wht does altitude have to dowith moistness of a cake? We have moved from an elevation of about 3000 feet & this cake was sovry moist always!!! Inow live at an elevation of abou 1000feet & it is dry everytime!!! Any ideas? I will try adding wha you have recommended but boy I sure do miss my cakes of old!!!

Donna said...

NewfieGirl - As you know, the higher the altitude the lower the air pressure. This causes the air bubbles in cakes to rise faster, making the cake bake faster. The good news is that it can be only five things, at the most. This includes oven temperature, baking time, sugar, liquid and flour. I would try the following: 1)Decrease the oven temperature by 25 degrees (i.e. bake at 325 instead of 350); 2)Increase the sugar by 1 to 2 Tablespoons; and finally 3) increase the oil or butter by 1 to 2 Tablespoons. If you decrease the oven temperature you will also need to watch the overall time in the oven. Because the recipe works for the higher elevation doesn't mean it won't work at a lower one. It will just require playing with a few ingredients. Don't try all of these at the same time. I would suggest trying one change at a time so you know what works and what doesn't.

Phuong LuuPham said...

Thanks very much for your knowledge, Donna! I haven't tried any of your tips yet but they all sound scientific and reasonable.
P. LuuPham

Caroleseeking said...

So, I'm wondering what the correct procedure is for moist cupcakes/cakes; one box of pudding and how much sour
cream gets added to batter?

VA Mom said...

Is it possible to disregard sugar in making a cake? I made my first cake and it tastes sweet. Then I added icing and I can't take its too much sweetness.

Donna said...

Caroleseeking - for one box of cake mix add one box of instant pudding and one (8 oz) container of sour cream. For two boxes of cake mix add one or two boxes of pudding (I can't really tell the difference with a second box) and one (16 oz) container of sour cream.

Donna said...

VA Mom - If you add flour you need to also add sugar. If regular sugar is too sweet for you then try a sugar substitute (like truvia or splenda) AND up your salt to 1 tsp per box mix instead of 3/4 tsp. For your frosting you also want to increase your salt to balance out the sweetness.

shaman said...

Hi Donna.
i always reduce sugar in all my baking.. but if reducing the sugar makes cupcakes not brown properly (sometimes at all.. making me feel like leaving the tray jn the oven but they end up dry!!).. will adding brown sugar help? Or half white half brown? Will the cake be overly dense ..?

Also . If were to substitute half yogurt into the milk.. will this help increase moistness .. what about browning..?

i like to make cupcakes that has just a tinge of sweetness in them be ause the buttercream is very sweet and i need them to be balanced in flavour and sweetness..a s i always use the simplest bc recipe with pure butter i.e. needing lots of icing sugar to stand up!

Anonymous said...

Great tips, I use sour cream to help make my cakes moist. I am puzzled as to what "pudding" is as I live in the UK and have never heard of this as an ingredient in cakes! Please explain!!!!

Donna said...

I'm sorry. I didn't know that pudding doesn't really exist in the UK. What I am talking about here (in the USA) is a powdered mix in a box that is added to cold milk to make an instant flavored dessert custard. To purchase instant pudding mixes [Moirs and Jell-o], check out these:

Anonymous said...

Hey, Donna. Thanks for all the tips. I was wondering, I make my cake from scratch. So what quantity of sour cream do I have to add to like 5 cups of flour? Thanks.

Donna said...

For a scratch cake that makes enough batter for two 8" round cakes then I would probably add one cup of sour cream. If your batter makes double that then I would increase the sour cream accordingly. Hope that helps!

Anonymous said...

Hi Donna,

How much pudding do I add to a scratch cake? Would it also be 1 box?

Thanks - so glad I found this site.

Donna said...

For cake mixes from scratch I would add just one box of instant pudding in the same flavor as the cake. It will be subtle enough without making it seem wet or soupy. Let me know your thoughts!

kccakes said...

When putting one box of pudding I add the ingredients for the pudding mix into the cake ingredients?

Donna said...

kccakes - If you are going to add one (or two) boxes of pudding mix, DON'T make the pudding first and DON'T add the ingredients on the box of pudding. The wet ingredients in the cake recipe will take care of it. If you are following your own recipe or my recipe on this blog (that involves cake mix) then add the dry pudding mix to your dry ingredients (flour, sugar, etc) and then follow the recipe as written. Hope that helps!

Paula Hupp said...

These tips have been very informative. I can't wait to try them out on my next batch! Sooo, tomorrow! :) Thank you so much for sharing this information!

zalak tripathi said...

Thanks Donna, your advise helped me a lot. My usual chocolate marble cake which is always dry, was so moist after adding extra egg york and yogurt instead of milk. Thank you. You explained the science behind it so well.

Lisa said...

Wow! I am so glad I found this site! I want to make tons of cakes just to try the tips. Thank you Donna!!


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