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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 post 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.

The secret of how to make a cake moist & soft:

Before we start creating our perfect recipe, I’m going to introduce an important concept; the “Baker’s Formula” or “Baker’s Percentage”.

The ingredients for a pound cake arranged on a black background. Text Overlay indicates each ingredients roll in the recipe.
To achieve a successful cake formula the structure builders and tenderizers must be balanced

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.

Lean Cakes:

Some of the earliest cake recipes, called “quatre quarts” (four fourths), were simply equal weights of flour, sugar, butter and eggs. I find that a cake made following the traditional recipe is less than ideal. It’s fairly dense, a little chewy and has a slightly flat taste.

That quatre quarts recipe produces 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). 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.

High Ratio Cakes:

Because we’re using 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 is “High Ratio” because the ratio of sugar to flour can now be higher than 1:1 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 Percentages for A Better Pound Cake

I used the original quatre quarts 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.

I wanted to lighten the crumb a bit, make it taste a little sweeter and produce a cake that is tender and rich enough to be eaten without buttercream. But I was careful to keep the characteristic even crumb and melt-in-your-mouth texture of a really great pound cake. I was not going for “light and fluffy” with this cake.

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 for the “sugar” class 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 the Percentages 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: (Both recipes can be found, in full, at the end of this post)

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 balanace between structure and softness.

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

Perfect Pound Cake

Pound Cake Perfection

Yield: 12 slices
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Baking Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 1 hour 15 minutes

A really great pound cake should have an even crumb with a melt-in-your-mouth texture and buttery, vanilla flavor. This is a really great pound cake!

Ingredients

  • 3 large eggs plus 4 yolks (8.5 oz, 238g) room temp 
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup (2 oz, 60 ml) whole milk , divided
  • 1 ¾ cups (8 oz, 225 g) cake flour
  • ¼ teaspoon table salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 1/4 cups (10 oz, 285 g) granulated sugar 
  • 2 sticks plus 2 tablespoons (9 oz, 255g) unsalted butter, room temp 

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to at 350°F. Butter and flour a 9"x5" loaf pan or 12 cup bundt pan.
  2. Combine the eggs, yolks, vanilla and half the milk in a small bowl, whisk to combine and set aside.
  3. Sift together the flour, salt and baking powder in a mixing bowl. Add the sugar to the flour and mix at low speed for 30 seconds. Add the butter to the flour and mix until combined. Add the other ½ of the milk and increase the speed to medium high. Mix for a full 2-3 minutes. The batter will lighten in color and texture. If your using a hand mixer add another minute or two to the mixing time.
  4. Scrape the bowl and paddle thoroughly. On low speed, add the egg mixture in 3 increments, scraping the bowl after each addition. Mix just until the eggs are incorporated.
  5. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth to an even layer.
  6. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean (about 55-65 minutes).

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Did you make this recipe?

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

A four layer Vanilla cake on a white cake stand.

Vanilla Butter Cake

Yield: 12-16 servings
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Bake Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour

Perfectly tender and buttery vanilla cake layers. Super soft, yet strong enough for sculpted or wedding cakes.

Ingredients

  • 6 large egg yolks at room temperature
  • 1 cup (8 oz, 230g) sour cream at room temperature, divided
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 2 cups (9 oz, 252g) cake flour
  • 1 1/2 cups (12 oz, 336g) granulated sugar, 1/4 cup separated
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 sticks + 2 tablespoons (9 oz, 255g) unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 3 large egg whites at room temperature

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line two 8" round cake pans with a circle of parchment paper or butter and flour the bottom of the pans only, not the sides.
  2. Combine the yolks, 1/2 the sour cream and the vanilla in a small bowl, whisk to combine, set aside.
  3. Into a mixer bowl put 1 1/4 cups of the sugar, sift in the flour, leavening and salt. Mix on low speed for 10 seconds to distribute the leavening. Add the butter to the flour mixture. Mix on low until the butter is incorporated and the batter looks like a paste. Add the other 1/2 of the sour cream to the flour and butter mixture. Increase the speed to medium and mix about 3 minutes until the batter lightens in texture. If you're using a hand mixer add another minute or two to the total time.
  4. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl. With the mixer on low, add 1/2 the egg yolk mixture. Mix until mostly incorporated. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl. Add the rest of the egg yolk mixture. Scrape the bowl and mix until incorporated.
  5. In another bowl, whip the egg whites on medium high until they form soft peaks. Turn the mixer to medium low and slowly add the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar. Turn the mixer to medium high and whip the whites to full peak. Fold the whites into the base in 2 parts, folding just until there are no streaks of egg whites.
  6. Divide the batter between the 2 pans and spread so it's level.
  7. Bake until the center of the cake springs back when lightly pressed or a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean, about 25-30 minutes.
  8. Cool 10 minutes in the pan and then turn out onto a cooling rack. When fully cooled, wrap in plastic and refrigerate at least 3 hours or overnight before filling and assembling the cake.

Notes

The cake is very soft the day that it's baked. If you'd like to trim the crust and split the layers allow it to chill in the refrigerator until it's firm enough to handle without breaking. The filled cake can be kept at room temperature for several days (unless it has a perishable filling). The cake cake be frozen for several months.

Did you make this recipe?

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

Check out the companion eBook to this series. My Perfecting Pound Cake  eBook includes 6 exclusive pound cake recipes not available on the blog, including Chocolate Pound Cake, Whipped Cream Pound Cake and an Improved Gluten Free Pound cake.

More from the Cake Batter Series:

Two pieces of cake on the ends of two forks. Gray background
Mixing Methods
Four forks with a piece of cake at the end of each fork. Gray background.
Salt & Leaveners
Six pieces of cake set in a pinwheel pattern on a white backgound.
Flour in Cake Batter
Four forks each with a piece of cake at the end on a gray background.
Eggs in Cake Batter
Two slice pound cakes, one taller, side by side with a white background.
Sugar in Cake Batter
Five slices of pound cake on a marble background. Text overlay shows different types of fat used in the batter.
Butter in Cake Batter

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Caroline D

Sunday 3rd of January 2021

I am so happy i found your site. I love experimenting but results are not always edible! Knowing the science behind is fascinating and makes sense now. Thank you so much for your tireless patience in answering questions. I will certainly buy your book in on UK Amazon. If I may ask one please? I have lots of ripe bananas and wondered how to adjust the recipe to accommodate them and end up with a nice textured cake? Many thanks

Alice

Tuesday 29th of December 2020

Hello Eileen! I just happened across you’re post after looking at ways to alter a cake recipe and this makes so. Much. Sense!

One question - I’m from across the pond and we don’t have Cake Flour (not in supermarkets anyway) - do you know what flour combination I would use for either the pound or vanilla cake to make my own cake flour?

Thank you! :)

Eileen Gray

Tuesday 29th of December 2020

For each cup of cake flour you can use 3/4 cup of all purpose (plain) flour plus 2 tablespoons of corn starch.

Rani

Monday 26th of October 2020

Thanks for sharing this really awesome

vanessa

Saturday 17th of October 2020

Hi Eileen, I wanted to sell cakes commercialy in a small scale. Can I use this receipe if the cake has to stay long. Thanks , Vanessa

Eileen Gray

Saturday 17th of October 2020

Are you asking how long this cake will stay fresh? If so, 1-2 days at room temperature or up to 3 months frozen. Never refrigerate the cake. The freezer is your friend for keeping cakes fresh.

Louise G

Wednesday 2nd of September 2020

What an amazing set of posts. I’ve always wondered about the difference between the Victoria sponge (basically pound cake) that we all bake in the UK and all the variants of American pound cakes and vanilla cakes. Your scientific approach to each ingredient was fascinating and so thorough. You must have been sick of pound cake by the end.

Eileen Gray

Thursday 3rd of September 2020

Lol, I was a little sick of baking the same recipe over and over. Most of the time it was one or two bites and then into the trash or into the freezer to share.