When you get a cake recipe in baking school, there is usually a one-line instructions section. It looks something like this, “Use the creaming method.” That is because there are six basic methods for mixing a cake (creaming, two-stage, one-stage, sponge, angel food & chiffon) and repeating the steps again and again is just a waste of paper! Today I hope to explain why we mix cake the way we do so you won’t be tempted to skip a couple of steps and just throw it all in a bowl (unless of course it is a one-stage cake like the Moist Chocolate Cake in our Wedding Cake Blog)!
In all the methods, there are three basic things we are trying to accomplish:
1) Creating a smooth, uniform batter. Usually this means mixing together ingredients that don’t like to be mixed together (fats and water). In technical terms, we are creating an emulsion.
2) Add air pockets into the batter (so you cake is not like a hockey puck)
3) Creating the right texture. Creating just enough gluten to hold our cake together without it being tough or chewy.
I am going to start with the details of the creaming method as this is the most common method. There are three basic steps that I will go through with some information about what is going on at each phase. Before you start it is important that all your ingredients are at room temperature (for more information on this see my Blog on Baking Basics). Also, throughout the process ensure that you scrape down the sides of the bowl often.
1) Cream fat and sugar together (hence the name of this method)
Creaming the fat (usually butter) and the sugar creates air pockets that lighten your cake. Slamming the butter against the side of your bowl aerates the butter but this becomes more efficient when the course structure of the sugar is added. As the butter turns over the sugar thousands of air pockets are created. Because it is the coarse structure of the sugar that increases air pockets, you need to use granulated white or brown sugar. Icing sugar is too soft to do the job.
Your butter also needs to be at the right temperature. If it is too hard, it cannot create the air pockets. But here is something most home bakers don’t thing about, if it is too soft it will also not form air pockets. When you lightly press your thumb into butter is should leave an indentation, but your finger should not go right into the butter (mind-blowing, I know)! You also don’t want to heat up the mixture too much, so creaming is done at medium speed, not high speed as that would create too much friction and warm up your mixture.
2) Beat in the eggs and flavouring a little at a time
Eggs add both moisture and structure to cakes. The proteins in eggs are one of the main sources of structure in baked goods, the others being gluten and starch. They also are also natural emulsifiers. This means they help hold together the liquid and the fat we use to make cakes. Eggs are added to the cake batter prior to any flour because they require some vigorous mixing to be incorporated into the cake mix. If they were added after the flour, the mixing would cause too much gluten to be developed and would make the cake heavy and tough (see Blog on Wheat Flour & Gluten). For the same reason, any liquid flavourings, such as vanilla or almond extracts, are added now.
When adding the eggs, it is important to add them a little at a time. Eggs are mostly water, so this is the first part of our emulsion, mixing the butter-sugar mixture and eggs together. If added too quickly the mixture will not be able to absorb all the liquid and your batter will curdle. Curdled batter means the fat-liquid emulsion has been broken and you are basically left with small pieces of fat floating in liquid. Curdled batter creates a greasy cake. Adding eggs that are too cold can also cause curdling. If your batter curdles, add a handful of your dry ingredients and beat. This will toughen the cake a bit as you are starting to form gluten, but it can save you from ruined batter.
3) Add dry ingredients and liquids, alternating
The final step is to add the liquids and dry ingredients. Prepare you dry ingredients by placing them all in a small bowl, including any dry flavourings like cinnamon. Now here is one step that I omit from most recipes, sifting. Unless I am making an angel food or chiffon cake, simply whisking the dry ingredients together is sufficient to break-up any lumps.
This step is done with the mixer on low speed. We are now adding all the elements of gluten formation; flour, water and mixing. In a cake, we want to limit the production of gluten so we now must be careful how much we work the batter. Start with about one-third of the dry ingredients. Mix until almost incorporated and then add one-half of the liquid. Just before the liquid is completely incorporated into the batter, add one-half of the remaining dry ingredients. Again mix until almost incorporated then add the remaining liquid, finishing with the final amount of dry ingredients just as the liquid is absorbed into the batter. When I get to the final amount of dry ingredients, I usually finish the mixing by hand to ensure they are all incorporated and to reduce the risk of overmixing.
The reason we add the dry and liquid ingredients alternately is because without some flour, the batter would not be able to absorb the liquids. Furthermore, if they were all added together, too much mixing would be required to create a smooth batter which would result in an over-production of gluten, and by now I am sure you know what that means…a tough and chewy cake!
So that is the creaming method. Hopefully it all made sense and maybe it even gave you some insight into previous cakes that didn’t quite work out. I think you have an understanding of why we do things makes us better bakers and cooks. If you still have questions, ask in the comments below or send us an e-mail!
Classic Yellow Cake
makes 2 – 8” layers
342 g (1½ cups) unsalted butter, at room temperature
400 g (2 cups) granulated sugar
3 large eggs
3 large egg yolks
5 ml (1 tsp) vanilla extract
240 g (2 cups) all purpose flour
120 g ( 1 cup) cake flour
5 ml (1 tsp) baking powder
2.5 ml (½ tsp) baking soda
2.5 ml (½ tsp) kosher salt
240 g (1 cup) non-fat buttermilk
Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter two 8” round cake pans and line bottom with parchment paper.
Use the creaming method to make the cake. Place butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (you can also use a hand mixer, but it will take a bit longer). Cream the butter and sugar on medium speed until light, fluffy and a pale yellow colour. This will take about 3 to 4 minutes (closer to 8 to 10 minutes with a hand mixer). Scrape down the bowl with a spatula a few times during the creaming.
In a small bowl, lightly whisk together the eggs, egg yolks and vanilla to combine. With the mixer on low, add the egg mixture in three additions, waiting until mostly combined before adding the next. Scape bowl down and beat on medium speed until mixture is completely homogeneous. About 30 seconds.
In medium bowl, combine flour, powder, soda and salt with a dry whisk until combined. With the mixer again on low, add about ⅓of the flour mixture and mix until almost combined. Now add ½ of buttermilk and again mix until just combined. Scape down bowl. Repeat with ½ of remaining flour mixture and remaining buttermilk. Finish with last portion of flour. Do not overmix.
Divide batter evenly among the two prepared cake pans. Bake for approximately 40 to 50 minutes until the tops are golden brown and the centre of the cake springs back when lightly pressed. Place on wire racks and let cool completely before removing from pans.
*For high-altitude baking (1000metres /3500 feet and above, including Calgary) use 240g (2 cups) all-purpose flour and 120 g (1 cup) cake flour.
adapted from Flour by Joanne Chang