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Cake Batter Salt & Leaveners

In the first Cake Batter class we started the process of taking apart and examining the original pound cake recipe. Now we’ll learn about an important ingredient in cake batter, salt & leaveners.

What’s a leavener? That’s just a name for baking powder and baking soda. They’re used in small amounts, but have a big impact.

Four fork each with a bite of cake at the end against a gray background

The same pound cake recipe made with none, 1 tsp, 2 tsp and 3 tsp baking powder (left to right)

The testing for the “mixing methods” class adhered strictly to the traditional “quatre-quarts” recipe of equal parts butter, sugar, flour and eggs.

The remaining classes in the Cake Batter series will examine each of those ingredients and their respective roles in the recipe.

How salt, baking powder & baking soda work in cake batter:

Neither salt nor leaveners are a part of the basic pound cake formula. I thought the cakes I baked for the mixing methods tests, which used the original recipe, were a little dense and tasted a bit flat.

Now we’ll explore how the addition of salt and chemical leaveners can improve the original pound cake. These two ingredients are used in very small measure, but have a major impact on both the flavor and the texture of the cake.

I baked 9 pound cakes to test the effects of salt and baking powder, with wildly varying results.

Eight pound cakes lined up on a white background

Lots of pound cakes were baked to test salt and leavener amounts.

All about Salt in Cake Batter:

To learn general information about the types of salt and how they work in baking, please visit the Baking Ingredients – Salt post. This class will specifically cover how salt works in pound cake batter.

A ½ teaspoon less or more of salt may not make much difference in a pot of soup, but it can make a great deal of difference in cake batter. My testing proved that, for our pound cake recipe, a little salt goes a long way.

As I discuss in the Baking Ingredients Class, Salt is not only a flavor enhancer. Salt also affects the tenderness of a baked good.

Salt molecules form strong bonds with flour proteins, causing the gluten molecules to become less mobile, which, in turn, makes the batter tighter and more elastic. This is a desirable trait in a bread dough, but is definitely not desirable in a cake batter.

I baked several cakes to test how salt changes the pound cake’s flavor and texture. All the cakes were made with room temperature ingredients and were baked in identical 9×5 loaf pans at 325°F in a convection oven.

As a control, I first baked a pound cake using only the four original ingredients and the reverse creaming method. Consistent with previous tests, the cake was fairly dense with a soft tender crumb and a slightly flat taste.

For the next test I added a ½ teaspoon of table salt to the batter. The difference between the first and second cakes was really surprising.

The cake with the added salt baked up higher due to the stronger gluten in the batter, and had a noticeably more chewy bite. The flavor was better than the first cake, less flat and more well-rounded, but the loss of tenderness was not good.

I reduced the amount of salt to ¼ teaspoon for the third test. I found that was just enough salt to improve the flavor, yet keep the tenderness of crumb.

Now that we have just the right amount of salt in the cake, we can move on to leaveners.

Two pound cakes on a white surface with a gray background

The cake on the left has no salt and the cake on the right has 1/2 teaspoon of salt. The salt made the cake rise higher and have a tougher texture.

All about Baking Soda & Baking Powder in Cake Batter

Please visit the Baking Ingredients – Chemical Leaveners page to learn all about the science of baking soda and baking powder. This class will discuss the specific effects that chemical leaveners have on cake batter.

Based on the rule that 1 teaspoon of baking powder creates enough lift for each cup of flour in the batter, the correct amount of baking powder for our pound cake recipe should be about 1 ¾ teaspoons baking powder.

To test the ideal amount of leavening for our pound cake, I baked 3 successive cakes, using 1 teaspoon, 2 teaspoons and 3 teaspoons of baking powder.

The difference between the three cakes was quite striking. The cake made with 1 teaspoon of baking powder was nicely domed with a slightly open crumb.

The cake made with 2 teaspoons of baking powder had a lighter, more open crumb and started to flatten a bit at the top, but it was still acceptable.

The cake made with 3 teaspoons of baking powder collapsed down the middle because the batter could not hold the excess carbon dioxide. The crumb on cake 3 was rough and spongy.

Of the three cakes, I preferred the one made with 1 teaspoon of baking powder. It had a little lightness from the leavener, but retained the traditional pound cake texture.

Four slices of pound cake lined up on a white background

The same pound cake recipe made with none, 1 tsp, 2 tsp and 3 tsp baking powder (top to bottom)

Four pound cakes standing side by side on a white surface with a gray background

The same pound cake recipe made with gradually more baking powder. Too much leavener caused the last cake to collapse.

How the leavener is mixed into the batter can make a great deal of difference in the final product.

It may be hard to believe, but there is yet another factor to consider regarding chemical leaveners.

Leavening that is not thoroughly and evenly distributed through the batter will result in a cake with an uneven crumb and scattered tunnels and holes. You may even get an unpleasant bite of raw baking powder.

For the final round of tests I mixed 1 teaspoon of baking powder into the batter in 3 different ways.

For the first cake I sifted the baking powder with the flour and then mixed the sifted ingredients together on low speed for a full 20-30 seconds before adding the butter.

For the second test I sifted, but did not take the time to premix the dry ingredients before adding the butter.

For the third cake I did not sift or premix the dry ingredients.

Once again, the difference between the baked cakes was clearly visible even before tasting. The first cake had a nice even crumb, the second cake had a slightly rougher crumb with some holes and the third cake had a rough open crumb with tunnels and holes throughout the cake.

Sifting and pre-mixing the leavener is definitely worth the few extra seconds it takes.

Three slices of pound cake arranged on a white background. Each cake has a different texture.

1 tsp baking powder is sifted and mixed, is just sifted and is not sifted or mixed (from top to bottom)

After 9 test cakes, here is the revised pound cake recipe. It’s not perfect yet, but it’s getting better.

Four forks with pieces of cake at the end of each fork. Gray background.

Pound Cake Revision #1 (Salt & Leavening)

Yield: 12 slices
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 55 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour 15 minutes

A small change to the traditional pound cake recipe (equal weight of flour, sugar, butter and eggs) makes the cake lighter and tastier.

Ingredients

  • 1 ¾ cups (8 oz, 225g) cake flour
  • ¼ teaspoon table salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 cup (8 oz, 225g) granulated sugar
  • 2 sticks (8 oz, 225g) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 5 large (8 oz, 225g ) eggs, room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (see note)

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter and flour a 9"x5" loaf pan.
  2. Combine the eggs and the vanilla in a small bowl, whisk to combine and set aside.
  3. Sift together the flour, salt and baking powder. Add the sugar to the flour and mix at low speed for 30 seconds. Add the butter to the flour and mix until combined.
  4. Increase the speed to medium high and continue to mix for a full 2-3 minutes. The batter will lighten in color and texture. Scrape the bowl and beater thoroughly.
  5. On low speed, add the eggs in 2 increments, scraping the bowl after each addition.
  6. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.
  7. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean (about 55 minutes).

Notes

Before making any other changes to the basic pound cake, I added a teaspoon of vanilla. While vanilla is an essential baking ingredient, the addition of vanilla does not noticeably alter the texture of the basic pound cake. Extract can be added without consideration of the balance of the recipe and does not need further examination.

Did you make this recipe?

Please leave a comment on the blog or share a photo on Instagram

In Cake Batter Class #3 we’ll examine that most basic of baking ingredients; flour.

When we’re done experimenting with all the techniques and ingredients for this “cake batter” course, we’ll use all we’ve learned to create Pound Cake Perfection.

In This comprehensive post about creating a great cake recipe you’ll find the perfected pound cake recipe, and lots of great information to help you adapt and create your own cake recipes.

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Six different slices of pound cake arranged in a pinwheel pattern on a white surface

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Pound Cake

Sunday 28th of February 2021

Awesome post, makes me want to make pound cakes. (:

Eileen Gray

Sunday 28th of February 2021

Great. Try this recipe for Perfect Pound Cake.

Elizabeth C

Monday 29th of June 2020

I'm making a pound cake using a recipe I'd used as a base before. Just the classic recipe. But I wanted to tweak a few details, adding the salt and baking powder. So I did a search and found this amazing useful article! My only problem at this moment is I measured out everything by weight, especially because we're dealing with Pound Cake. My Cake Flour measurement is off by 1/2 cup! To reach 225 grams I needed 2 1/4 cups. I'm really concerned about the balance of the recipe. Nothing I can do now except go by weight and hope I don't mess it up. For the future, when you have this much variance, do you think weight is more important or volume? Thank you!

Eileen Gray

Tuesday 30th of June 2020

Measuring by weight is always more accurate because an oz is always an oz or a gram is always a gram. Measuring by volume will vary based on how you fill the cup. I use the "dip and sweep" method. That is where you dip the cup into the bin to fill it up and then sweep it level. If you use the method where you spoon the flour into the cup you'll likely end up with less flour because as you spoon the flour you are fluffing it up and adding more air. So a cup of flour can weigh more or less based on how it's filled. For my recipes you can assume a cup of cake flour weighs 4.5 oz or 126g.

Karen

Saturday 19th of October 2019

This is the most thorough explanation on the use of leavening agents in baking that I have come across (including many cookbooks) and I greatly appreciate the time, patience and money you spent testing the cakes and publishing the results,

I have been struggling with a very old recipe for plum spice cake that keeps falling in the middle and your post may actually help me sleuth my way to a fix. Thank you!

Eileen Gray

Sunday 20th of October 2019

That's awesome, Karen! I spent months doing research for my series on cake ingredients and cake batter. I'm so glad it's helpful. I have a private Facebook group for discussing recipes. Just ask to join and I'll add you to the group. It's a great place to troubleshoot recipes.

Sheens

Tuesday 23rd of April 2019

Why do some cakes require just baking soda and no baking powder?

Eileen Gray

Tuesday 23rd of April 2019

Hi Sheens, visit my "Chemical Leaveners" post to learn when and why each is used.

Yasmin

Monday 25th of February 2019

This article and recipe and the science of ingredients is the BEST I have ever had a chance to read. What a wonderful job <3

Eileen

Monday 25th of February 2019

Why thank you! That's so nice to hear. I worked really hard on the series.