Skip to Content

How to create the best Cake Recipes

In this article we’ll learn how to create a great cake recipe using the Baker’s Formula.

The information in this article is the culmination of all our Cake Batter classes, but can also stand alone. If you’d like to follow the classes in order visit the Baking School/Science of Cake Batter page.

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

Use the Baker’s Formula for making the best cakes

To make a perfectly moist and soft cake you’ll first need to understand the concept of the baker’s formula.

A successful cake recipe balances the ingredients that strengthen the cake structure (flour and eggs) with the ingredients that weaken and tenderize the cake structure (sugar and fat).

The Baker’s Formula is used to calculate the proper percentage of each ingredient for a successful recipe. The flour in the recipe is designated at 100% and all the other ingredients are designated relative to the flour. This is a very important point, so keep it in mind as we get deeper into it.

The ingredients for a pound cake arranged on a black background. Text Overlay indicates each ingredients roll in the recipe.

Lean Cakes vs. High Ratio Cakes

About Lean Cakes:

A pound cake recipe made with equal weights of flour, sugar, butter and eggs is a so-called “lean cake”. A “lean cake” has a very simple 1:1 formula balancing the structure-builders with the tenderizers.

The only liquid in the original recipe comes from the eggs (egg whites are 90% water).

About High Ratio Cakes:

While a lean cake is made with equal proportions of flour and sugar, a high ratio cake has a higher proportion of sugar to flour.

In order for a high ratio cake to have good structure we need to adjust some of the other ingredients to keep the cake formula balanced.

Liquid brings together the structure builders and the tenderizers in the batter. The liquid activates the gluten and swells the starch in the flour. The liquid also dissolves the sugar and helps disperse the fat throughout the batter and, of course, provides moisture.

If we use cake flour, with it’s finely ground starch that absorbs extra moisture, we can change the Baker’s Formula to allow for more liquid.

We can also use an emulsifier in the batter to help bind the liquid and fat in the batter. This allows for even more liquid in the recipe, and thus more sugar since you need liquid to dissolve sugar.

A cake made with cake flour and an emulsifying agent can now be higher than 1:1 (sugar:flour) without compromising the structure.

An overhead view of two slices of cake on a white plate and a slice cake on a wooden cake stand.

Adjust the Baker’s Percentages for A Better Pound Cake

I used the original quatre quarts pound cake recipe as the basis for all the cake batter classes because the simple 1:1:1:1 ratio makes it very easy to measure changes. So that is the recipe I will use to show you how to use the baker’s formula to improve a cake recipe.

The first step was to lighten the crumb a tiny bit, so I added a little baking powder to the recipe. A pinch of salt and a teaspoon of real vanilla extract were added to enhance the flavor.

Now that the cake was lighter I wanted to sweeten things up a bit. The Baker’s Formula for a high ratio cake allows for up to about 140% of the weight of sugar to flour. I found in my testing that I like pound cake with a ratio of 125% sugar to 100% flour. With this in mind I increased the sugar in the recipe from 8 oz to 10 oz.

I also wanted to add a little extra liquid for moistness, so I needed an emulsifier in the batter. Vegetable shortening will act as an emulsifier, but I prefer an all-butter cake for the unparalleled flavor.

Instead of using shortening in the batter, I used a few extra egg yolks because yolks are great emulsifiers and also add a little extra fat and flavor to the batter. I changed the 8 oz of eggs in the recipe to 3 whole eggs and 4 extra yolks.

Now that we have cake flour and emulsifying eggs yolks in the recipe we can add a little more liquid for additional moisture. I added whole milk as the liquid for a basic pound cake recipe.

The revised recipe makes the perfect melt-in-your-mouth buttery pound cake.

Adjust Baker’s Formula for A Lighter Vanilla Layer Cake

Of course the Baker’s Formula is not only useful for perfecting pound cake recipes. We can continue to test the limits of the structure builders and tenderizers to create a whole world of cake recipes.

I’ll give you another example. As I said, the perfect pound cake should have a dense, buttery texture that doesn’t need any icing at all. But a Vanilla Layer Cake is meant to be filled and iced with frosting. So a great Vanilla Layer Cake should be a little lighter and softer than a pound cake.

As a comparison, let’s look at the Baker’s Percentages for my Pound Cake Recipe vs. my Vanilla Butter Cake Recipe:

Pound Cake
Flour-8 oz100%
Fat-9 oz112%
Sugar-10 oz125%
Eggs-8 oz106%
Liquid-7.5 oz (w/eggs)
Vanilla Cake
Flour-9 oz100%
Fat-10.6 oz 116%
Sugar-12 oz133%
Eggs-6.6 oz73%
Liqui-12 oz (w/eggs)

Ok, that’s a lot of information. But lets look at the percentages. (Remember: all percentages are relative to the weight of flour in the recipe.)

By just looking at the percentages you can guess that the vanilla cake will be a little more tender (more sugar and fat), a little sweeter (more sugar) and a little more moist (more liquid) than the pound cake.

The vanilla cake recipe also has more leavening and I whip the whites before adding them to the batter. So the vanilla cake also has a more open and light crumb than the pound cake.

Whew!!! So, all those small changes to the basic formula created a lighter, sweeter and softer cake. That’s just what I want for a cake that will be filled and iced with buttercream.

The takeaway here is that every cake recipe in the universe is some variation on this formula. The type of fat or liquid can change, additional ingredients can be added, but it’s always about the balance between structure and softness.

It’s the variations that create the myriad of cake recipes that we can invent and perfect.

Other cake batter classes:

Shirley C. De Los Reyes

Friday 10th of November 2023

Thanks for this great basic lesson.


Friday 28th of October 2022

How would you make an onion cake? (It's for an argument)

Eileen Gray

Monday 31st of October 2022

I'd need more information to about what you mean by "onion cake". A cake flavored with onion? An upside down cake?


Monday 22nd of August 2022

I'd just like to say how much I appreciate your recipes you've posted here on your site. I stumbled upon your cake science a few years ago, having been a total failure in baking cakes in the past (sunk, yet burnt. Ew.) and seeing how you go through the experimental process was a true eye opener - I think it's important to show not just how to do something, but how NOT to do something and why.

Now whenever I present fairy cakes or a birthday cake using this pound cake recipe everyone gets super excited, it's great! It's always a good feeling when people who eat the cakes are surprised that it was me who baked them - they expect my wife to have been the baker. I'm not one to keep the source of my skills to myself and I always refer people to your website and book as much as I can.

You say they'll stay fresh for a few days. I made a big cake a few months ago and it was still edible two weeks later having been stored a room temperature (though a little dry). Absolutely amazing.

Thank you so much for your generous gift of cake knowledge.


Tuesday 22nd of March 2022

If I were to replace sour cream with milk, would that substitution require me to adjust the recipe since milk doesn’t have the same properties as sour cream?

Eileen Gray

Wednesday 23rd of March 2022

That would depend on the recipe you're working with.


Thursday 10th of March 2022

This is such a great article and made me understand deeper science of cake making. Just wondering, if i am to make a cake with fruit puree, bits, juice or powder.. How do i adjust the recipe, from the milk or the flour or can i keep the milk and add the fruits in? This part is really confusing tq

Eileen Gray

Friday 11th of March 2022

Fruit puree would be a liquid and would replace milk, for example. If it's a very acidic fruit puree it might alter the texture a bit. Chunks of fruit can just be folded in. But if it's a very liquid batter they might sink as the cake bakes. Fruit powder, such as pulverized freeze dried fruit could be added with the dry ingredients. Each of these additions and how to incorporate them will depend on the base recipe.