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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

                  3. For years I couldn't figure out why all of my cakes came out like yours, tasty but heavy,my corn bread was particularly flat and I knew I was doing everything to the letter of the recipe. One day I realized that the expiration date on my trusty(old)can of baking powder had past by several YEARS. Could this be your problem too?

                    1. I have to agree with dippedberry.

                      A digital scale is mandatory to guarantee correct ratios of ingredients.

                      I write the purchase date on packages of soda and baking powder and toss them or use them to clean the sink at 6 months. They are cheap, and it is just not worth taking the chance.

                      I like cake flour, but pastry flour (I love King Arthur's Round Table) is also acceptable.

                      Its better to under-mix the batter and then have to stir the batter a few times with a spatula to incorporate all the flour, than to over-mix with a machine.

                      Oil will make a lighter cake, but melted butter tastes much better.
                      You can never cream the butter and sugar too much.

                      Whipping the eggs before incorporation should be done with all baking. Using fresh large eggs will make a difference

                      Shirley Coorhier's "Cookwise" and "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen" by Harold McGee are required reading.

                      The CIA baking textbook is very good as well.

                      1. I don't weigh my flour, but I sift it FIRST, and then measure it out with a spoon.

                        I agree that you cannot over-mix the butter and sugar...but you can over-do it once you start putting in the flour.

                        Don't ever refrigerate a butter cake.

                        1. I think Berenbaum's book might be good for a beginner who seriously wants to dive in, but she does have tendency toward an "I invented the Internet" attitude. Most of her recipes are in no way unique, but she does explain everything in agonizing detail and all of that aside, some of the reference tables in the back are very useful at any level of expertise. And BTW, I'm not criticizing her for lack of uniqueness - a genoise is a genoise after all - but for rather blatant self-promotional tone.

                          1. I have another take on things. Home made cakes, and cakes made from scratch are typically denser and drier than what people have come to assume are the standard for cakes, which is a cake from a box mix.

                            I happen to think that your recipes and methods are just fine. I think that maybe you prefer cakes from box mixes. I don't say this as an insult, because, truth be told, I prefer the sweeter, moister results from cake mixes. I remember once in college, I just got my new Joy of Cooking and set out to make a buttermilk cake for my then boyfriend's father. I freaked out because it was dense and drier than I was used to. I know now that the cake was made correctly.

                            I will say that I don't prefer the flavor of a straight box mix. So, I have a bunch of recipes that call for cake mix and then you add your own extra ingredients. I've never tasted a better strawberry or coconut cake than mine, and they all start with a box...really. If you are interested, I'll send the recipes your way.

                            I do really love the Perfectly Chocolate Cake recipe from Hershey's for a great chocolate cake.

                            Americans like sweeter, moister desserts. I do not think this makes us unsophisticated. It is just a preference. If you don't believe me, check out some dessert cookbooks that have authentic european desserts in them. See what you think...

                            4 Replies
                            1. re: showlett

                              Maybe it IS a preference thing, but I disagree with you that a homemade cake is not moist or airy. A well made pound cake, bundt, carrot cake, bannana cake are all moist. And that goes for chiffon and angel cakes. A Maida Heather's simple chocolate cake will be more moist and flavorful than any cake mix. A properly made sponge or genoise type cake is certainly airy and I have not found any box cakes that can duplicate it. They will taste a little dry because they are not meant to be eaten by itself but filled. What I perceive as "moistness" in a box cake mix is more of a "wet tacky mouthfeel" that clings to the mouth. Maybe this is what you perceive as being more moist.

                              1. re: showlett

                                I suspect that what you prefer about the cake mixes is the type cake they produce, not the mix itself. If I'm not mistaken, cake mixes use oil for the fat, not butter. Thus you get a cake with more of a chiffon cake texture.

                                I have had people (on this board) say my favorite chocolate cake recipe is too dry. I imagine that's because it is a butter cake. Conversely, I made a choc cake last month from a well-reviewed recipe that used oil... and I hated it. I don't like that moisty-y stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth texture. It's all personal preference.

                                1. re: showlett

                                  >>I happen to think that your recipes and methods are just fine.

                                  Here's the thing--amblergirl didn't post any recipes or methods. So, while I think your point in some ways is valid (e.g. box mixes make a particular kind of cake that is diffficult to approximate baking from scratch), this point does not, de facto, mean that her recipes and methods are fine.

                                  1. re: Smokey

                                    My point is this, Americans tend to prefer desserts that are sweeter and moister...The way that when you first give an outstanding bittersweet chocolate to someone who has only had Hershey's, they think that the bittersweet chocolate is not as good. I think that sometimes drier, less sweet desserts are an acquired taste.

                                2. "I have another take on things. Home made cakes, and cakes made from scratch are typically denser and drier than what people have come to assume are the standard for cakes, which is a cake from a box mix.

                                  I happen to think that your recipes and methods are just fine. I think that maybe you prefer cakes from box mixes."

                                  It's hard to respond to this statement other than to say I think you are dead wrong. It's very possible to make a light and airy cake without resorting to a cake mix. Nor is a cake mix held up as 'the standard' by most people who have tasted good cake.

                                  I can imagine that for a lot of casual or non-bakers turning to a cake mix is common. Then they try a recipe from scratch and are disappointed somehow. My theory on that is not that these people prefer cake mix, but that they don't have enough experience baking to get a good result from scratch. As with anything, baking well requires practice. (Cake mixes OTOH are idiot-proof because they are geared to non-bakers.) I think if the OP follows some of the very good advice that's already been offered she will get a superior result to what she has now and what she could get from a cake mix. I think you would too.

                                  4 Replies
                                  1. re: Pupster

                                    Pupster, I agree with you entirely. Cake mixes are just awful, loaded with preservatives, stabilizers, anti-coagulants and other chemicals which have no place in food. I know many are addicted to the overly sweet, strangely lifeless cakes produced by mixes but it usually doesn't take long to change that opinion.

                                    For showlett - cake by itself should taste good, without any extra dressing up. It's usually to cover the taste that amateur bakers add all that fluff.

                                    1. re: cheryl_h

                                      I know that cake should taste good by itself. What I meant was that, in addition to the cake mix, I mix in other ingredients...For example, I mix in real strawberries in syrup for strawberry cake. My recipe starts with a box white cake mix and goes from there.

                                      My coconut cake starts with a box mix and I add sour cream, coconut, etc. Would you like my recipes so that you can do a blind taste test with your family? I would be happy to give them to you, and hear your findings. I guarantee that your perspective will change.

                                      1. re: showlett

                                        Thank you for your offer but I've been baking for decades, I doubt my perspective is at fault. The last cake I baked a couple of weeks ago was a marjolaine - 4 layers of dacquoise sandwiched with coffee and chocolate ganache, finished with chocolate ganache and hazelnuts. No-one who sampled it said it was dry or heavy. Most just wanted more, please.

                                        I'm the wrong person to appeal to. I pick the organic strawberries I put into my homemade preserves. I render lard for pastry. I grow Meyer lemons for cooking and baking. This isn't some strange eccentricity, I do these because I want food that tastes good and is good for me.

                                        I've eaten all the processed foods I need to know that I never want to eat any more. Even my husband who has a far bigger sweet tooth than I have, refuses to eat cake made from mixes. He finds the taste offensive, overly sweet and lacking in good flavors.

                                    2. re: Pupster

                                      I agree. I bake a lot and the more 'traditional' recipes produce
                                      a more dense cake. Quite a delicious change, more taste, than
                                      commerical box mixes.

                                    3. Count me as someone who loves RLB's approach. I am a cook, not a baker, and her explanations really help unlock why I am doing or not doing things. That's a cook's way (because we then can understand and foresee consequences of experiments), which may strike some as odd given how her approach can at first blush sound like a chemistry text.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: Karl S

                                        Thanks, Karl S. As a newish cake baker but a veteran cook, I think RLB's detail is useful. Plus the original poster was problem solving and, let's face it, RLB lets you know what can go wrong and why.

                                      2. Gotta agree with you there. Cake mix cakes can be decent, but you usually need to add more egg and use butter, to bring it closer to "scratch". Now, if the previous poster meant the various pudding/etc mixes (which I've never made, but have eaten). they might have a point, but it's a different, and to my taste inferior, sort of "moist."

                                        1. Here's Good Eats "A Cake on Every Plate." If you care to take a few minutes to read it, you might check out your proceedures. And have a few laughs!


                                          1. yayadave, thanks for that link!

                                            1. I would agree with the PP who referred to cake mixes, except I think they're gross too because of the weird metallic taste. The fact is though, if you are used to the texture of a mix cake, a scratch cake could seem too dense or dry in comparison. That doesn't mean it IS too dense or dry (and a scratch angelfood should never be too dense, for example, but a homemade poundcake or butter cake may seem that way), it just means that the standard of comparison is different. AmblerGirl -- I don't know if you're expecting homemade cakes to come out like box cakes, but they typically (thankfully) don't (though using cake flour can make it closer). If your cakes are too dense compared to a good scratch cake, then I'd check your leavening and follow the other suggestions posted here.

                                              1. While precision in baking is important to some extent, it's not all about that. I rarely sift or weigh my ingredients, unless the recipe specifies to, and simple cakes turn out fine. When I say simple, I mean things like butter or bundt cakes. Other cakes may be different...

                                                Something I'm obsessive about is creaming my sugar and eggs very well til pale yellow and fluffy w/ the help of a stand mixer and making sure that my oven is at the right temp. using an oven thermometer. Oh, I also highly recommend using superfine sugar (not to be confused w/ confectioner's sugar) in place of granulated sugar.

                                                Some people have stressed that it's important to weigh, but I generally like to go by the recipe. So if it measures by volume, I measure by volume. If by weight, I use a scale, etc. I check in the intro about tips on measuring.

                                                An alternative to Berenbaum's Cake Bible is Flo Braker's "The Simple Art of Perfect Baking," which I recently bought. Anyone have experience w/ this book and suggestions for a starting point?


                                                Lastly, I think you need to start w/ tried and true recipes to correct your negative baking streak and boost your confidence. Two recipes that have consistently worked for me:

                                                Sir Gawain's butter cake w/ fruit:

                                                Ginger Molasses cake:

                                                3 Replies
                                                1. re: Carb Lover

                                                  This is one of my favorite baking book. I have the first edition rather than the recently re-issued paperback. Her text on different types of cake is invaluable. I've made many of the cakes in the book. The results were excellent except where I noted.
                                                  Devil's Food Cake baked in rounds with Double Bittersweet Frosting
                                                  Crystal Almond Pound Cake with Cocoa Filling
                                                  American Banana Roll (the cake is a bit difficult to roll and cracks, but looks fine with a sprinkling of confectioner's sugar)
                                                  St. Lily Peach Cake
                                                  Zebra Torte
                                                  Lucerne Cheese Torte
                                                  Chocolate Rhapsody, I found the cake a little dry and haven't make it again. Also I have a better recipe for Rigo Jancsi.
                                                  Lemon Mist Torte, make it couple weeks ago but I had problem with the lemon mousse filling...for some reason it got too stiff. Maybe I mishandled the gelatin.
                                                  Boston Trifle
                                                  Hazelnut Sponge with Raspberry Whipped Cream
                                                  Raspberry Cream Torte, more work than the result justified, ok but not great.
                                                  Chocolate Delice
                                                  Classic Banana Chiffon Cake
                                                  When I need a genoise or sponge cake, etc, I tend to use her recipes and they've all turned out great.
                                                  I haven't use the pastry section much.
                                                  Would love to get your feed back if you bake anything from the book.

                                                  1. re: PBSF

                                                    Thanks so much for your comments! Didn't know much about this book, although I'm familiar w/ Braker, and found a new re-issued hard cover for very cheap (love my local indie bookstore!). I think this one has new photos which are very nice, BTW.

                                                    I need to bring a dessert to a gathering this weekend, so I think I'll have a lookover to see what I can make. I'll def. report back as I bake my way through it. Thanks again.

                                                  2. re: Carb Lover

                                                    I also have the newer (hardcover with photos, like what you linked to) Flo Braker book. I like it a lot. The truth is, I haven't done too much baking from it (although I have done her banana cake--it's got a much better banana flavor than RLB's (IIRC), but the crumb of RLB's was better for me). Her introductory chapter reviews a lot of the recommendations for baking that people have made here (e.g. the importance of having ingredients at room temperature, etc.) I don't feel as though she strangles creativity/self-promote the way RLB does and she provides a lot of good looking recipes. You're really making me want to bake from it. Mmmm, cakes.