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Help - I can never make a light and airy cake!

I'm usually a fairly decent cook but I always fall short in the baking area. Every time I make a cake, it always comes out very dense. I can usually get my cakes to taste good, but they are very heavy. My cakes are never light and airy. I know baking is more of a science than an art so I always follow the recipes to the letter. Am I missing something here? My house is pretty humid, could that be a factor, or is there something i could be doing wrong? A key step that is not typically listed in a recipe? Or is baking just a skill that some (like me) do not have?

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  1. I bake often to rave reviews, and the best advice I can give is to invest in a digital scale (I got mine for about $15 at Target). It sounds like you're either over mixing, or adding too much flour. I weigh all my ingredients to be sure it's the right amount - it's amazing how a cup of flour can vary in weight so much. Also, if you're really interested in figuring it out, I suggest checking out the book Cookwise by the food scientist on Good Eats. She does a great job of explaining what goes wrong in cooking and why.

    1 Reply
    1. re: jenhen2

      That is Shirley Corriher on Good Eats. She is excellent with explanations

    2. How old are your baking powder/baking soda? If you can't remember the last time you bought these things, they are too old. Throw them out and buy new. That should help.

      Also, do you mix by hand or use a mixer? I think an electric mixer helps incorporate more air.

      Jenhen is spot-on about weighing the flour, too. Drives me nuts when I see people scoop and swipe. I guess that is easier on TV, but usually makes for more flour than you should actually have in real life.

      1. -Use cake flour, not AP
        -Test your baking powder or soda before using
        -Use oil instead of butter
        -Whip up the eggs (either alone or with wet ingredients) before adding in dry ingredients
        -Don't overmix or overbake

        2 Replies
        1. re: dippedberry

          Cake flour will fix most problems. I'm not especially careful with measurements, I don't own a sifter or an electric mixer, I only use butter, and I still manage to turn out pretty good cakes. But I always use either Swan's Down cake flour or at least White Lily soft wheat flour.

          1. re: Hungry Celeste

            I tend to prefer butter myself, but it will give you a denser cake than using oil. Think about it: butter will solidify at room temp but oil (veggie, canola, olive) will not. For people who prefer a lighter cake, oil is the way to go. (Though it's good to combine with some portion of butter, buttermilk, or sour cream for flavor.)

        2. Unless we can see couple of recipes, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact reason. It depends on what type of cake you are baking. Here are my generalization, some already stated in previous posts:
          For bundt or butter cakes: have butter at room temp (unless you kitchen is very hot); cream the butter and sugar until very light; do not over mix when you add the liquid with the flour mixture into the creamed butter... though these are very forgiven cakes. I find I don't need to use cake flour for these types of cakes. Cake flour gives it a too fine of a crumb.
          Sponge cake: have egg yolks and whites at room temperature; beat egg yolks with sugar until very very light and pale; this may take as long as 10 minutes depending on your mixer; it is difficult to over beat. Gently fold in flour mixture; separately beat egg whites until almost stiff, fold gently but thoroughly into flour mixture. I find many bakers are afraid to fold thoroughly which results in a cake that is heavy on the bottom.
          Genoise: warm the whole eggs with the sugar to body temperature in a double boiler. Beat until light and very pale. The folding of flour then the butter is tricky. Sift the flour mixture on top of the beaten eggs and gently fold. Mix a about 1/2 cup of this mixture into the butter to lighten it. Then fold the butter mixture into the egg/flour mixture. Fold well and make sure there are no streaks of fat or dry flour in the batter. Bake immediately. Genoise are drier when baked because they usually calls for soaking syrup or a very moist filling.
          Folding is a technique that needs a little practice. If done right, folding thoroughly is necessary so that there aren't lumps of flour or dense parts.
          Other problems:
          Check your oven temperature for accuracy.
          Check the freshness of your baking powder and soda.
          Always test the cake a few minutes before the recipes required baking time.

          1 Reply
          1. re: PBSF

            One thing to note about PBSF's (very helpful) comments is that s/he moves from easiest cake to make well to most difficult. I would try perfecting a bund or butter cake before moving on to a sponge or genoise. What you learn working no one kind will serve you well as you move on to the more difficult kinds.

          2. You might try Rose Levy Barenbaum's Cake Bible-- she has a lot of theory and, in my experience, her recipes are faultless.

            10 Replies
            1. re: Procrastibaker

              I have not found RLB's recipes to be faultless and her tone drives me nuts. OP, if you decide to give her Cake Bible a try, I recommend checking it out of the library first. Try it one before you buy it.

              1. re: Smokey

                Happy to see someone else who doesn't worship at the RLB alter. Her tone PO's me as well. I have not made many of her recipes, I did not care for the choc cake I tried. I find it hard to use...and the "showpiece cakes" are extremely dated. It is true one does need a lot more precision in baking than cooking, but if I had read that book when I was a new baker, I would probably have given it up permanently.

                1. re: Smokey

                  I am also in the "RLB drives me nuts" camp. I get exhausted just reading her recipes. I don't mind a thorough recipe but there is just too much unnecessary text. I would definitely take the above poster's advice and borrow a copy before buying one. I have a copy and have only baked one thing from it...the "Perfect Pound Cake", which she claimed to be similar to the famous frozen Sara Lee that I grew up eating.

                  1. re: PBSF

                    Hey, PBSF, the verb tense you use suggest that you didn't find the Perfect Pound Cake to be like Sara Lee. Is that true? I will, occasionally, deign to try one of her recipes and that was one that had intrigued me. My previous efforts (using other recipes) to get the texture I want had not garnered me much success, so was considering it.

                    1. re: Smokey

                      I haven't found one with that same 'melts in your mouth' crumb that is characteristic of the frozen Sara Lee. The RLB's Perfect Pound Cake has a finer crumb than most pound cakes and is not bad. Sadly it is not quite the same. Her's and Sara Lee's do have one thing in common, one can sit down and eat half of cake in a pinch.

                      1. re: PBSF

                        I have a friend at work who made the "Perfect Pound Cake" from her recipe, using the exacting method she described. It was a very tasty cake -- but a pound cake it was not... more like a yellow cake taken to the fine extreme.

                        (I am very much of the "1 lb. each butter, sugar, eggs and flour" pound cake school.)

                  2. re: Smokey

                    Which recipe(s) went wrong, Smokey? I've made a few and have tried others at friends' houses and the results have been great. I'm not sure a "personality clash" is reason for not guiding the original poster to the book.

                    1. re: Procrastibaker

                      Specifically, I have made the banana cake multiple times and have never gotten it to work well (and yes, I've used cake flour, checked the freshness of my leaveners, have an oven thermometer, followed her mixing ingredients to the tedious T she requires). Believe me, I'm not the only person who has reported here that they haven't found all of her recipes to be above reproach. (That said, although it's not a cake recipe, her hot fudge recipe (I believe from CB) is perfection and is my turn-to recipe for hot fudge.)

                      As for the "personality clash" I'm obviously not the only person who dislikes her tone (just as she has many fans). I think your comment might be more on target if I had told the OP to avoid RLB like the plague. I merely stated that her tone annoys me (as it does others). Since it might also annoy the OP, it's probably worth checking the book out of the library before spending money on it. If RLB's tone didn't drive many folks nuts, I probably wouldn't even comment on what might be an individual, unique response.

                      1. re: Smokey

                        Point well taken about checking cookbooks out from the library first. That seems prudent. We'll have to agree to disagree on the RLB. I am an absolute fan (great results from the Cake Bible, Bread Bible and Pie and Pastry Bible). And funnily enough, I also did the banana cake and thought it was great-- maybe just a difference in taste preference. Personally, I appreciate the research and methodology she provides (it's a bit like Harold McGee with recipes) though I do see how her tone could seem pedantic.

                        1. re: Smokey

                          There are many errata and addenda on her website, from editorial "oopses" to improvements and corrections.

                          When I sit down to make a RLB recipe, I know I have to clear at least the whole day to do it -- but 8 times out of 10 it's perfect, 1 time out of 10 it's my fault, and 1 time out of 10 it's her fault -- and that beats most other people.

                          If nothing else, RLB got me to buy a kitchen scale, and I couldn't bake without it now.

                          The tone can get pedantic, but it's obviously her life's labour and she obviously cares so much about it that she's willing to lay down monstrously detailed instructions ("the loaf should be 12 inches around and weigh 486 grams"). I'm usually willing to forgive her, but occasionally I kick her cookbook to the shelf and pull out the trusty Joy of Cooking, where I know I can futz with the recipe.

                          As you get more experienced with baking, you'll look at her recipes and say, "Ah, I know why there's the extra rise," and be able to compensate and know what you're doing and what you're sacrificing if you don't have time for the extra rise.

                          As for the OP's light and airy cake -- softer flour (that is, flour with less protein), newer ingredients (flour, baking soda and baking powder -- I hate the boxes for baking soda, because it goes "off" so quickly), maybe a bit more leavening, and check your oven for temperature accuracy and leaks, you may be losing oven spring.

                          By the way, RLB has been known to hang out on this very board, so be nice! :-P