The Function of Sugar in Cake Batter

Welcome to class #5  in a series of 7 “Cake Batter” classes. In this article 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

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.

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

Sugar’s role in a cake recipe

  • Sugar’s sweet flavor makes food delicious. We humans are programmed to like sweet. Sweetness also balances out sour and bitter flavors for a more complex flavor.
  • 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.

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
  • 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 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.

Using sugar subsitutes in cake batter

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.

Other cake batter classes:

Next up: Cake Batter Class #6 will explore the function of fat in a cake recipe.

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.

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  1. Hello, I love this article. I am trying to figure out a cupcake recipe that has too much sugar in relation to flour. The cupcakes I made melted out of the cups. The dough is delicious, but no cupcake! The recipe calls for 400g sugar (which I think is way too much), 245g flour, 60g cacoa powder – what do think?

  2. This article is exactly what I was looking for, I didn’t realize how much sugar impacted a cakes structure.I made a cake with splenda instead of sugar, it came out extremely dense and I couldn’t figure out why. Thank you

  3. Hello,

    I would appreciate your advice about increasing granulated sugar by 15% in a Bundt cake as I do not find the standard 400g to be sweet enough. Must I reduce butter or liquid (I am using 240g buttermilk) to avoid having a collapsed cake or that I would not need to reduce from any other ingredient?
    I tried increasing sugar by 7% and reduced butter by 7% but that still was not sweet enough and the cake became denser.

    Looking forward to receiving your kind advice.

    Thank you.


  4. what is the recommended qty of sugar to make cake with 1cup/2cup/3cup of APF
    Pl suggest for white and brown sugars

  5. Wow! I’m surprised that you haven’t done a test with erythritol. Zero calories, browns and caramelizes almost as good as sugar, and a minimal aftertaste (especially when mixed with stevia).
    I hope you add another post with just tests using erythritol. I am very interested in the way that adding this sugar alcohol in differing amounts affects baked goods.
    Thank you!

  6. Hi my name is Donna & I would like to know what is your preference & overall tips to making the perfect Pound Cake every time? I wanted to experiment with powdered sugar because my great-grandmother I believe used it for her pound cakes & they were the best. Thank you for your time & response.

  7. Thanks alot for this very useful information.
    I don’t like much sugar in my cake. What should I do to make up for the less sugar and make my cake moist and render.
    For example a recipe of:
    500g flour
    500g butter
    I usually like my sugar to be 200g.
    My cakes usually turn out dry and chewy.
    Thank you.

    1. Hi Ejura, with less than half the weight of sugar to flour I’m not surprised your cakes are dry and chewy. Unfortunately, there’s only so much you can reduce the sugar in a cake before it becomes more like a quick bread than a cake. If that’s what you prefer, you can try using a little more butter and maybe something like sour cream or yogurt. In addition to the moisture and fat from sour cream or yogurt, the acidity also helps tenderize the crumb. Here’s my Sour Cream Poundcake recipe that you can use to start with.