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Cake mix vs 'real' cake

I volunteered to make some cupcakes for church and the lady who was going to do it says 'I've already got the ingredients, I'll give them to you' - two boxes of Betty Crocker cake mix and a bunch of cans of frosting. I've got nothing against the frosting (I'm not a big frosting person anyway...) but I've never made a boxed cake in my life. I learned to make a basic vanilla cake when I was ten!

I made the chocolate cupcakes from scratch... but I ran out of flour in the process and I figured that the box would be okay. How bad could plain vanilla be? I don't use 'real' vanilla in my baking myself. But oh my goodness! As soon as I poured the powder into my liquid and started mixing it stank! What do they put IN that stuff? It smelled like my vanilla-scented deoderant and looked more like corn muffins than vanilla! DH says I'm being snobby but they look (and smell) revolting to me. I bought some more flour and butter and I'm making some real vanilla cupcakes - lets see if he thinks there isn't any difference then!

The only boxed mix I have ever knowingly used (and enjoyed) is Ghiradelli brownies. I'll make them any day... but I think I'd have to be stranded on a dessert island for a year to ever want to make up another Betty Crocker product. There wasn't even really much of a time saving. It took 5 minutes to mix up the box, and 10 minutes to make mine from scratch (including melting the butter in the microwave).

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  1. I'm somewhat in favor of mixes. This is mainly due to all the ingredients being measured out. I detest having to bring out the scale, calibrate it, weigh the cups, sift the ingredients, weigh the ingredients... AHHHH! Not for me, which is peculiar since I don't mind doing essentially the same thing in a lab. Still, it's been a while since I've used Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines (or similar supermarket items). I find that the pricier mixes are worth the extra $. Really strange how that is, considering it's just flour and stuff.

    4 Replies
    1. re: ediblover

      I don't get all this calibration, don't you just zero the scale ?

      1. re: magiesmom

        That would be the quick/smart move. But, it assumes that it's accurate and I'm just one of those people... I never measure with general cooking, but I treat baking like serious chemistry (which it is).

        I wonder how much difference there really is. I just can't see the quality of stuff being all that different between your regular cake or all-purpose flour and the type in the box. There shouldn't be too much difference in grind, protein and other stuff that can affect the outcome. Other ingredients, like the baking soda (if used) and sugar, are pretty much the same all around. I get the feeling that a lot of it is just the "It's homemade" factor.

        I just don't see much science behind a difference (if any). If you took simple store flour, sugar (and other stuff), and combined them in the same ratio as the premix, it should taste the same.

        1. re: ediblover

          but when you put a box-made cake next to a home-made cake, the texture and flavor will be considerably different.

          For me, it's the texture (spongey and rubbery) even more than the flavor (chemical-ly - that's a technical term :P )

          1. re: ediblover

            If cake mixes contained "simple flour, sugar (and other stuff)" you might be right. They don't. They're loaded with lots of crappy ingredients, and taste like the artificial concoctions they are.

      2. I'm with ya! I not only am disgusted by cake mixes (and even more so the canned frosting!) but as a baker I enjoy the baking process. Using a mix would make me feel like cheating. Baking with a mix seems too, well, dull. In my opinion there is absolutely no comparison between scratch-baked cakes and mixes as far as flavour and texture goes. I enjoy experimenting with various flours (I have celiac so that can be tricky) so would miss the creative aspect of using mixes.

        "Vanilla-scented deoderant" - EXACTLY! I make my own vanilla extract and use vanilla beans in my baking and refuse to use VSD.

        1 Reply
        1. re: chefathome

          Besides which, most of the best cakes are leavened with beaten egg whites and are nothing like cakemix cakes.

        2. You're not being snobby... you have standards. I love to bake and there are lots of things I would never, ever make from a mix (red velvet cake for one). But, aside from the aforementioned Ghirardelli brownies, I have relied on Betty Crocker WHITE cake mix for an emergency batch of cupcakes. Made with butter and milk instead of oil and water, and a few drops of lemon extract. This was done at a friend's house who said something very similar about having the ingredients for me. I was pleasantly surprised. The YELLOW Betty Crocker mix is vile.

          2 Replies
          1. re: iluvcookies

            I usually only bake from scratch, but am frustrated when baking for my kids' birthdays and watch half the cake get thrown out! I have become a mix baker for those occasions only, but am disgusted by the consistency and fluffy texture of the cake mixes. Does the butter and milk substitute give the mix a better crumb? I'm hoping so! Thanks!

            1. re: pdxmom

              The texture is slightly better with butter and milk, but the real payoff is the taste. I mix cooled, melted butter into the whole eggs, then add the milk and flavoring, then the mix. The butter and additional flavoring masks that "artificial-ness", of which the White Cake mix has less than other flavors. (Still not sure in whose mind "white" and "yellow" are flavors)

              Out of curiosity, I also tried using milk and cold coffee in place of the water, and a few drops of almond extract. Not terrible either, but still a little puffier than I'd like.

          2. I'm with you, too -- it doesn't take significantly longer to make a decent cake from scratch (there's a Better Homes & Gardens recipe called Busy Day Cake that's a great one, as is a traditional French yogurt cake). The last time I made cake from a mix, I was mortified at how rubbery and weird the texture were. I do make Duncan Hines brownies from mix once in a while, but I've started making the Green & Black's chocolate brownie recipe, with great success.

            If you're in a jam and it's the only option, fine...and I've been known to use a box if we're in a rented vacation house (because the hassle of buying all the ingredients outweighs the quality issue) -- but my rule is to just make it from scratch.

            1. You ARE being snobby!

              But so am I! LOL

              I REFUSE to use anything prepackaged. I spent half of Thursday making a complicated cake from scratch, including the ganache frosting, fresh mint sauce, and homemade fudge sauce. Before delivering it to my wife's office on Friday, I even whipped the whipped cream for the final touch. I don't understand why ANYBODY uses those crappy packaged cake mixes and canned frosting, and even worse, they act like Duff Goldman when they BRAG about the cake they made! Reminds me of my step-mother dumping a bunch of ingredients in the bread maker in the morning and then bragging at supper about the bread "she" made!

              11 Replies
              1. re: PotatoHouse

                Nothing pre-packaged here, either. I make my own condiments, preserves, spice blends, breads, pizza, etc.

                That cake sounds lovely! I would have done the same thing - I would not use pre-packaged for any of the components. I could not bring myself to do it.

                Is canned frosting even legal?

                1. re: PotatoHouse

                  it's wonderful that you had the time and energy available to spend half a day making a cake. Clearly a special gift, and one that was no doubt appreciated. But does that mean than anyone who doesn't have that kind of time available should not take pride in what they are able to do?

                  1. re: KaimukiMan

                    Well, I admitted that I'm snobby about it. LOL

                    Let me give you a little background about me, and maybe you'll understand where I'm coming from. I literally grew up in my mom's kitchen. I was making my own grilled cheese sandwiches at five (with my mom watching, of course) and I was cooking full dinners on my own by 12. I have spent my entire life learning and updating my recipes, techniques, and skills. NOTHING makes me happier than creating a dish from scratch and seeing how happy my creation has made other people.
                    This is why I honestly can not understand anyone using prepackaged cake mix and frosting rather than making them from scratch with their own two hands. I'm not trying to be a jerk about it, I just honestly don't understand it.

                    1. re: PotatoHouse

                      It was for a church group. People either cook for a family experiencing an illness, funeral or for coffee following mass or Bible Study. Usually there is a rotating list and you are assigned a side dish, salad, dessert or main dish, so as not to burden any one person/family with an expensive selection every two or three weeks and to be fair to everyone on the Call List.

                      The OP said the person asking her to make the cupcakes gave her the ingredients she was going to use. Two boxes of mix, (so as to make two dozen cupcakes?). It was to help the OP save money and time to get the assigned task done. There were probably another two people also making cupcakes for the group.

                      Church events are not gourmet meals and are more social and supportive get togethers. This thread has two mentions of Church meals http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/788611 which may help to clarify.

                      1. re: Cathy

                        That's where I usually refer to things as "home-baked", rather than "home-made".

                        Never had somebody refuse either, to be fair!

                      2. re: PotatoHouse

                        I really do think its great that you do that. The reason I use mixes is because I don't have the ingredients in the house to bake. I do keep one small bag of flour in the freezer (if i left it in the cabinet it would go bad in the heat and humidity) Leaveners go bad faster than I can use them, I don't eat eggs so I don't have them, and I have a mild milk allergy, so while I can eat food with milk in it, drinking milk is not good, so I don't have that in the house. I can't keep butter in the house cause I keep putting it on everything and eating it. Yes, I suppose I could buy milk in small containers and keep it in the freezer, and sometimes I do have powdered milk. Eggs I can buy in half dozen, then find some other use for the rest. But when you have to purchase everything any time you want to make a cake, it gets expensive. And if you aren't good at it, it takes a long time, and the results aren't all that great.

                        I wasn't trying to make you sound like a jerk, just trying to explain why it is unlikely that I'm going to be making a cake from scratch any time soon. I do find that various add-ins as people have mentioned do make a big difference. And I'm not denying that your cake is probably far better. I do appreciate your thoughtful reply, and I'm sure in reality you aren't snobby about it. I can't see you being served a boxed cake at someone's house and saying "Oh, this isn't bad for a mix, of course I never use mixes myself, you really must learn to cook Mabel." And yes, I have witnessed such snobbery.

                        1. re: KaimukiMan

                          You can keep baking powder in the freezer, too, KaimukiMan.

                          Try this one: easy, fast, and oh, so good:

                          French Yogurt Cake

                          1 4-ounce tub yogurt (plain or vanilla is best ) KEEP THE TUB
                          1 tub vegetable oil
                          2 tubs sugar
                          3 tubs flour
                          1 egg
                          and 1 tsp baking powder is optional (better if you have it, no biggie if you don't)

                          Stir it together and pour into a 9" cake pan...bake at 375F/180C 30-35 min or until brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

                          (You can use 8-ounce tubs, but use 2 eggs and 2-9" cake pans)

                          Not even a dirty measuring cup!

                          I've used lemon yogurt, too, and have a friend who used strawberry yogurt -- you get a lightly-flavored, pastel-colored cake, but it's still good stuff.

                          We use it as is for shortcake - the slight tang from the yogurt is delicious.

                        2. re: PotatoHouse

                          You and I must be related! I was baking cookies when I was 6 (learned to read at 4) and all the canning and preserving when I was 12 (and all the dinners - I enjoyed it!). In high school I was teaching my Home Ec teacher cooking skills. I understand what you mean about scratch cooking/baking making others happy (and yourself). It gives me such joy and pleasure. Not only that but I love the process of scratch cooking/baking. It would not even dawn on me to use mixes, either. If the recipe takes an entire day or two so be it. In fact, even better. The more difficult and tricky the more I like it. But then I am SO fortunate to choose to stay at home (other than teaching culinary classes) so I have far more time than many others do. Learning interesting skills/techniques and cooking/baking with unusual hard-to-obtain ingredients are extremely important to me, too.

                          So, I suppose that makes me snobby about it, too. :-) It is just that my standards are incredibly high and for that I do not apologize.

                        3. re: KaimukiMan

                          It doesn't take half a day to make a cake. Not all cakes, anyway.

                          1. re: Jay F

                            no, in fact there are many cakes that take ten minutes before the oven. I think people have been brainwashed that it is hard to make cake and so turn to mixes.

                            1. re: magiesmom

                              The one I made was dense, like a torte, and I made two just to make sure there was enough for everybody. It uses a ganache frosting, a fresh mint simple syrup drizzle, fudge sauce, and fresh whipped cream. Like I said, it was rather complicated. You are right, there are plenty of homemade cakes that are much simpler and faster.