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The Function of Sugar in Cake Batter

Welcome to class #5  in a series of 7 “Cake Batter” classes. We’ve been using the traditional “quatre quarts” pound cake recipe as a tool to understand the science of cake batter.

In this post we’ll look at another important ingredient in cake batter, sugar.

Four slices of pound cake standing in a row on a marble slab. cake batter sugar amounts.

One pound cake recipe made with various amounts of sugar

After experimenting with mixing technique and how to use salt and leaveners to improve the cake texture and flavor, we began to look at each of the core ingredients of the basic pound cake and their respective roles in cake batter. Now we’ll look at our next ingredient in the cake batter – sugar.

To learn detailed information about the composition and science of sugar as a baking ingredient, visit the Baking Ingredients – Sugar page. This class will focus specifically on sugar in pound cake batter.

In a successful cake the ingredients that strengthen the cake structure (flour and eggs) are balanced with the ingredients that weaken the cake structure (sugar and fat). To create a moist, sweet and tender cake that bakes up with a nice even crumb the four main ingredients have to work together.

In classes 3 & 4 we looked at the two structure builders, flour and eggs. We learned that low protein, chlorinated cake flour produced a cake with a light and tender texture.

Through multiple baking tests we found that we can alter a cake’s texture significantly by manipulating the number of eggs, yolks and whites in the batter.

For this class we’ll learn about one of the “cake tenderizers” in cake batter – sugar.

In Cake Batter – Sugar is a tenderizer

Of course sugar is important in the kitchen because the sweet flavor makes food delicious. We humans are programmed to like sweet. Sweetness also balances out sour and bitter flavors in food to help create a more complex flavor.

For a baker, just as important as the flavor enhancements that sugar provides are the ways that sugar affects a baked good’s texture. As we learned in “Cake Batter” class #1, the “creaming” method of mixing cake batter uses the physical shape of sugar crystals to aerate the butter and lighten the cake’s texture.

Sugar is hygroscopic, meaning it has a tendency to attract and hold onto water molecules. This characteristic of sugar helps make and keep baked goods moist.

Sugar interferes with the coagulation of proteins. Adding more sugar to a cake recipe causes the proteins in the flour and eggs to form weaker bonds, creating a more tender, softer crumb. But more is not always better.

Excess sugar could weaken a cake structure so much that it collapses. A successful recipe balances adding enough sugar to tenderize and sweeten, but not so much to make the cake collapse.

Testing Different Amounts of Sugar in Cake Batter

I baked 4 different cakes with varying amounts of table sugar to test how changing the proportion of sugar in the pound cake recipe affects the texture. Remember, the percentage refers to the percentage of sugar in relation to flour in the recipe.

I also baked 1 cake with 10x powdered sugar and 1 with honey to see how using other forms of sugar would change the texture.

All the other ingredients in the recipe were kept at 8 oz each to ensure that any change to texture and taste were a result of the variation in the amount and type of sugar.

Four slices of pound cake on a marble slab. Blue text overlay stating the cake batter sugar variations in each cake.

A chart listing 5 cakes, the amount of sugar in each cake and how it changes texture and flavor.

Two slices of pound cake standing on a marble slab. One cake is taller than the other.

What a difference just a few ounces of sugar can make in a pound cake

As the research suggested, increasing the amount of sugar in the batter made a more tender crumb, moister cake and sweeter flavor.

The cake made with 25% less sugar than normal was not sweet enough and was tough and dry. The cake with 25% more sugar had a very nice flavor, tender crumb and the texture was not compromised.

Further increasing the amount of sugar to 50% above normal compromised the structure of the cake enough that it baked with a flattened top and the crumb had a slightly pasty mouth feel.

Both the +25% and the +50% cakes had a noticeably thicker and sweeter crust than the control cake, and the crust was crackled. Because I added extra sugar to the recipe but did not add extra liquid, the sugar could not completely dissolve and the excess sugar rose to the surface and created the crust. I didn’t find the crust unpleasant but it was a noticeable difference.

The 10x powdered sugar produced a cake surprisingly similar to the cake made from granulated sugar. I did use the reverse creaming method. Had I used the traditional creaming method the difference may have been greater.

The cake made with honey had a very nice flavor, but the excess moisture in the honey compromised the structure too much and the cake partially collapsed, leaving a gummy layer along the bottom and top of the cake.

A honey pound cake on a marble slab.

Pound cake made with honey has great flavor but excess moisture caused the structure to collapse.

Extra, Extra, read all about Stevia!

To coincide with my research regarding sugar in cake batter, I also tested a sugar substitute made from the Stevia plant. Stevia is 150x sweeter than Sucrose, or table sugar. I thought it would be helpful to see if Stevia can be used to replace sugar in a cake batter.

I baked a test cake using 8oz by weight of a granulated sugar substitute made from the Stevia plant. Because I knew that Stevia is much sweeter than sugar I didn’t expect the cake to taste good, but wanted to use the same amount as a comparison.

The cake made with the Stevia product was heavy, dense, hard and brittle with a gummy mouth feel. It was extremely sweet with a bitter, unpleasant aftertaste. The cake was inedible.

As I expected, Stevia products cannot be used 1 for 1 for sugar in a recipe. The product I used recommends using less than half the amount of Stevia by volume. Since sugar affects baked goods in more ways than just the flavor, reducing the amount of Stevia in the baked good may improve the sweetness level and aftertaste of the cake, but the texture would still be compromised.

For those who must use sugar substitutes in baking, recipes will have to be revised further than just swapping out the sugar with a sugar substitute for a good result.

Two pound cake standing on a marble slab. One cake is taller.

When using sugar substitutes for baking the recipe must be revised.

Next up for class #6 we learn all about luscious butter (and other fats).

When we’re done experimenting with all the 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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Baking Ingredients – Sugar

Two forks each with a bite of cake at the end. Gray background.

Cake Batter Mixing Methods

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Cake Batter Salt & Leaveners

Six pieces of pound cake in a pinwheel pattern on a white surface.

Flour in Cake Batter

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Eggs in Cake Batter

Five slices of pound cake arranged on a marble slab. Text overlay shows type and amount of fat in each cake.

Butter in Cake Batter

Experimenting with eggs in pound cake.
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Cake Batter - Eggs
Pound cake made with butter shortening and oil
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The Function Butter & Other Fats in Cake Batter