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Jan 14, 2014 10:11 PM

"Mix" cakes vs. scratch cakes

I am writing a paper on why scratch cakes are better than mix cakes for a class. I do not favor making mix cakes but I am sometimes forced to. I dont see any skill in making mix cakes nor do I see any taste in it. My goal in life is to become a Baking and Pastries chef and I love making everything from scratch. Modifying recipes and creating things of my own is always fun but you cant exactly "modify" a mixed cake recipe. I believe that mix cakes are simple and can be made by almost anybody but unless you dont have the time or money for the ingredients called for I think it is always best to make a cake from scratch.

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  1. Here are the ingredients for a yellow cake according to Martha Stewart:

    • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
    • 3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
    • 1 tablespoon baking powder
    • 1 teaspoon baking soda
    • 1/2 teaspoon salt
    • 2 cups sugar
    • 4 large eggs
    • 1 1/4 cups buttermilk
    • 1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract


    Here are the ingredients for a Betty Crocker Super Moist Yellow Cake Mix that costs $1.32 at Walmart:

    • Enriched Flour Bleached (Wheat Flour, Niacin, Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid),
    • Sugar,
    • Partially Hydrogenated Soybean And/Or Cottonseed Oil,
    • Corn Syrup,
    • Leavening (Baking Soda, Sodium Aluminum Phosphate, Monocalcium Phosphate),
    • Modified Corn Starch,
    • Propylene Glycol Monoesters Of Fatty Acids,
    • Corn Starch,
    • Dextrose,
    • Salt,
    • Distilled Monoglycerides,
    • Dicalcium Phosphate,
    • Maltodextrin,
    • Xanthan Gum,
    • Natural And Artificial Flavor,
    • Yellows 5&6,
    • Nonfat Milk.

    To the BC mix you would need to add:
    • 3 eggs
    • 1 1/4 cup water
    • 1/3 cup vegetable oil


    If you compare them for cost I guess you'd have to determine if some flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, sugar and vanilla would cost more than $1.32. Maybe the costs would be comparable. Maybe the same amount of natural ingredients would be a little higher.

    I know I'd rather have simple natural ingredients.

    So it's a matter of which you'd prefer and whether it's worth it to you to measure out 6 ingredients you probably already have on hand. The eggs and fat of either recipe you're going to have to measure yourself in either case.

    Don't you also wonder, if you can get a tasty and attractive cake from those simple ingredients in Martha's recipe, what all Betty's artificial and lab ingredients are necessary for? And why is it a good idea to have sugar, corn syrup, dextrose AND maltodextrose? Does that give you the feeling that the total sugars may exceed the flour in the recipe since, by law, ingredients of packaged foods have to be listed in the order of largest volume (or weight, I've forgotten which)?

    1 Reply
    1. re: rainey

      I never have enough motivation to actually figure out what all the ingredients are that are listed on the boxes for mix cakes, if it takes me more than 2 tries to say the word, I figure its probably not the most healthy thing or needed. I love being able to look at a list of ingredients and being able to ask my little brothers to get them for me and them understanding what I am talking about. I also know that I would prefer not to have any "modified" ingredients in my desserts, this is another reason I only make them from scratch, that and when I bring a dish to a party or event and people ask who made it I can happily tell them that I made it from scratch. There is a sense of accomplishment when you make things other than out of a box and you get to see others enjoy and appreciate what you have made. I don't mind having to spend a few extra dollars on ingredients because those ingredients will allow you to make multiple cakes!

    2. I remember making my first 'from scratch' cake as a teenager. It was a revelation. :) I haven't used a cake mix since.

      Scratch cakes just taste much better than mix cakes if you ask me. Maybe it's the absence of preservatives as Rainey pointed out.

      Comparing the two, it seems to me that cake mixes save you the labor of measuring out dry ingredients (depending on how complicated your scratch recipe is). Really, how long does that take?

      On the other hand if you don't have confidence making baked goods... or a well stocked pantry (or other things in life take precedence over cake baking) cake mixes are probably a good thing.

      Good luck with your paper! :)

      12 Replies
      1. re: thingmaker

        Oh- you just reminded me of another reason why people who don't cook prefer mix cakes- they contain all the ingredients that they wouldn't probably have around the house anyway. I'm not dissing anybody, I just know a lot of noncooks that bring cakes.

        1. re: EWSflash

          Maybe that's what somebody should do... I will fully admit to almost always using cake mix. We love our occasional strawberry chocolate cake and I am not proud to say the only thing fresh is the strawberries - otherwise, it's Betty Crocker and Cool Whip. Does it taste great? No, but it tastes fine and with two kids and a pretty busy job, I don't have time to grab ingredients, measure it out, etc...

          However, if someone would sell me a box with everything pre-measured and separated into sealed bags (sugar, salt, flour, baking soda, vanilla, etc.), where I could just add the perishables (butter, eggs), I would definitely buy it and I would pay a premium. Whereas I pay $1.99 for a box of cake mix, I might pay $4.99 for a box of pre-measured ingredients.

          Surely there is a business opportunity here, bridging the gap between sandra lee simplicity and ina garten deliciousness.

          1. re: FattyDumplin

            I think those mixes probably exist at Whole Foods and other natural foods stores - I believe I've seen a few.

            The Cool Whip thing really unnerves me - it isn't that hard to whip up some cream, and it's so much better in every way - !

            1. re: sandylc

              I've seen the mixes at Whole Foods. Never tried them. For some reason, I figure if I'm going to eat some boxed crap, I might as well not get the healthy version.

              As to Cool Whip, I keep a tub in the freezer. To me, Cool Whip is not whipped cream, it's something else entirely. A giant spoonful eaten frozen once in a while is a (not guilty) pleasure. I think real homemade whipped cream with a bit of vanilla is one of the greatest things on the planet. But sometimes I just want some chewy frozen Cool Whip.

              I think if you get away from the idea that any of these processed foods are supposed to be taking the place of the real thing, it's less irritating to think about and you can appreciate them for what they are. I don't eat fast food at all, but it's along those lines. Almost everyone has a place in their heart for an occasional shelf-stable/GMO-laden/factory-farm-raised/just-add-water/wholly unnatural food they grew up eating.

              I don't see any problem with this. I see people eat things far worse than cake mix and Cool Whip on a daily basis.

              "Everything in moderation."

              1. re: nothingswrong

                Completely agree with your assessment of processed vs real thing. I used to work at a place with one of those coffee vending machines, and I actually kind of liked the stuff in a way once I viewed it as "hot caffeinated beverage." Plus, there was no ready alternative!

                Along the same lines, a friend of mine was on a severely calory-restricted diet and tried lo-cal mayonnaise. Said it would have been better if it hadn't been called mayo, and ended up just doing without for the duration.

              2. re: sandylc

                i know! i told you i was embarrassed. I love cool whip. yesit tastes artificial, but sometimes i just love thelightness and don't want to feel guilty about eating real frosting / whippedcream..

                1. re: FattyDumplin

                  <<<<<don't want to feel guilty about eating real frosting / whippedcream>>>>>>

                  I infer that you consider cool whip to be a healthier choice than real frosting or whipped cream?

                  I can't get on board with that idea!

                  1. re: sandylc

                    In terms of fat content, yes.

                    I've been reading that dieting thread also going on and it's just case in point that different people are concerned with different things when looking at nutrition and dieting.

                    Some avoid/count carbs, some avoid fat, some avoid processed foods, some simply count calories, no matter what those calories are made of.

                    Our bodies are all different and respond to different things in terms of weight loss.

                    Fat Free Cool Whip would be a great choice for someone who wants something creamy and cold but doesn't want all the fat that comes with ice cream or whipped cream.

                    1. re: nothingswrong

                      You do know that we have to eat fat to survive, right?

                      1. re: nothingswrong

                        Also, you call THIS:

                        Ingredients (16):

                        Water, Corn Syrup, Vegetable(s) Oil Hydrogenated (Coconut Oil Hydrogenated, Palm Kernel Oil Hydrogenated) , Corn Syrup High Fructose, Contains less than 22% of Sodium Caseinate from milk, Flavor(s) Natural & Artificial, Food Starch Modified, Xanthan Gum and, Guar Gum, Polysorbate 60, Polysorbate 65, Sorbitan Monostearate, Sodium Hydroxide, Beta Carotene color(s)

                        a "great choice"?

                        1. re: sandylc

                          Of course you have to eat fat to survive. But there is fat in lots of things, and good fats and bad fats... I may not be the one to get into a debate about this with, given I have some serious medical issues which don't allow me to digest much fat. I also cannot digest ANY fiber. So I have to avoid fiber at all costs, and limit my fat very strictly.

                          Plant-based fats are easiest for me; I get almost all of my oral intake of fat from extra-virgin olive oil. Fat from dairy makes me feel pretty ill, and animal fats from meat make me violently ill. I can eat some Cool Whip though, and it's a great alternative in terms of snacking or satisfying cravings.

                          As to the crazy list of funky stuff in Cool Whip, of course it's not a "great choice" in terms of eating a clean whole food diet. But the reality is that people crave specific foods and flavors, and like it or not, most people don't have the willpower to abstain from these cravings in the long term. A spoonful of Cool Whip every now and then isn't going to do any damage, just as much as eating McDonalds occasionally as a child hasn't caused tremendous health problems in all of the "billions" of people who apparently have eaten it.

                          I still stick by the "everything in moderation" way of approaching food.

                          Very strict avoidance of entire food groups or flavors that one really really craves does nothing but drive you crazy. With my awful diet restrictions, I've been forced to find alternatives. They may not be "perfect" or "whole" or "the best option," but for my body they are indeed a great choice.

                    2. re: FattyDumplin

                      I used to eat huge spoonfuls of it as a teenager. My mother would buy tubs, freeze them then never use them. I figured I was doing the family a favor. It has a weird metallic taste to me, but apparently I liked that... :)

            2. The biggest problem with box cakes seems to be the amount of baking powder. I always can taste something that I can only guess is the aluminum.

              2 Replies
              1. re: jaykayen

                That has a lot to do with the initial recipe. Cakes from my mom's old Betty Crocker Cookbook had that baking powder flavor. New more modern recipes adjust for it.

                1. re: adventuresinbaking

                  Well but you can also buy baking powder without aluminum! Easily. Or make your own.

                  For me, the problem with boxed mixes isn't the aluminum - it's that they TASTE boxed. Extra sweet with a touch of processed : )

              2. I have never ever used a box mix until a couple months ago. Not because I was lazy but I tried a cake at a potluck and LOVED it (kaluha cake). This was a “doctored” up cake (still super quick) and it tasted really good. Then I did a bit of research online and I found another recipe that uses a box mix and pudding (who would have thought!) and I tried it, really good results as well. That being said, I will continue to bake with “real” ingredients from scratch because there is a certain satisfaction I get when not making a box mix and most things I have baked taste really delicious. However, when the craving strikes I wouldn’t hesitate to make those doctored up box cake recipes.

                1. The leavens and emulsifiers in boxed mixes are designed to overcome the deficienies of lazy or poor cooks/equipment.

                  Also, box mixes use oil instead of butter which makes a much more moist cake (albeit with loss of flavor, which is disguised with other flavor enhancers) than a butter cake: lots of Americans prefer oil over butter in cakes without understanding why. That said, most mixes are designed so that they CAN be made with melted butter instead of oil (I do this for my mother, who prefers a stiff cold cake, and you need butter for that to work; also, the flavor is obviously superior; for myself, if I use a mix for a Cake Doctor recipe - some are quite good - I use half melted butter, half oil).

                  A very close friend of mine is a superb cake baker. She's the one who clued me in on these truths. She's observed over many years that her Cake Doctor mix cakes are devoured much faster than her wonderful from scratch butter cakes, and she gradually figured out why.

                  6 Replies
                  1. re: Karl S

                    I agree that the Cake Doctor suggestions often improve the box cakes. I do keep a box in the pantry for emergencies.

                    And futurechef, it's not cool to dismiss something because you can't pronounce it. Don't you think a future chef would want to learn all they could about ingredients so they could speak knowledgeably about them?

                    1. re: DonShirer

                      Dismissing something because you can't pronounce the whole list of ingredients implies that it's okay for me to eat it because I trained as a chemist and can therefore pronounce most of the ingredients?

                      1. re: Palladium

                        You're also better prepared to evaluate what you are willing to ingest and what you're not prepared to.

                        The rest of us are far more in the dark. Being such a naîve, I'm pretty much with futurechef in being skeptical about the lab -- as opposed to pantry -- ingredients.

                        1. re: rainey

                          Actually, I think being trained as a chemist means that I'm normally *just* as sceptical of the pantry ingredients as I am about "processed" food ingredients!

                          1. re: Palladium


                            What's in our pantries that we should know about but don't? I'm asking seriously.

                    2. re: Karl S

                      An important point here that needs stressing. Box mixes offer nothing in terms of flavour or texture that you *can't* reproduce or improve upon by making your own cake "from scratch", but the technical skill required to do so *in practice* is significant, often beyond what all but a handful of home bakers actually possess. You'll have to have enough experience and knowledge to be able to create entirely new recipe formulations from the ground up rather than using recipes derived from third-party sources - because they may have been and often are designed to achieve a different type of result that that which the box mix aims for.

                      For instance, it's possible to make an all-butter cake that's every bit as moist as an oil cake, but you'd need to have a properly formulated recipe designed to achieve this effect.

                      Another common issue is that butter cakes are considerably more sensitive to baking time - you need to be careful not to overbake, and this means both a well-calibrated oven and the attention paid to take it out before the needle/skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Box mixes as noted are much more forgiving - they permit a larger range of baking parameters while achieving essentially the same effect.

                      On a totally different point, and one that I'm always MASSIVELY depressed and disappointed by. Steve mentions:
                      "Upscale restaurant desserts are another question. Most pastry chefs seem to spend very little time making cakes in the same style you would get out of a box or expect to find at a birthday party. "
                      I agree with this completely - and this applies equally to upscale bakeries. There seems to be a sharp divide. Businesses that make an effort to produce quality seem never to make a good basic cake - that seems to be left to the mass-market bakeries who are more interested in reduced cost than ultimate quality. Is there really no market for maximum-quality traditional cakes bought from a bakery? If so, can someone here explain why? I find it hard to believe that the majority of people who might be interested in such a cake would either themselves have the skill to do so to a consummate level, or have private access to someone else who can.