In a recent issue, I discussed the basic recipe formulas that bakers use to create cakes that rise and set properly (see For Great Cakes, Get the Ratios Right). But having the right amount of butter, flour, eggs, and sugar is only half the battle. The way you combine ingredients and bake the batter can have a huge effect on the texture and structure of your cakes and muffins. Here is part two of the story.
Beating bubbles into fat creates a light cake
There are many techniques for mixing cake batters, but the two most common are the creaming method and the two-stage method, also called the blending method. The method you choose depends in part on the style of cake you want. Some people like an extremely light, well- aerated cake, while others prefer a more velvety, tender texture and will accept a slightly heavier cake in exchange.
If you want a light cake, use the creaming method. The key to a light cake is to trap lots of tiny bubbles in the-butter or shortening and then let the leaveners (baking powder or soda) go to work enlarging those bubbles. In the creaming method, you beat the butter, add the sugar, and continue beating until the mixture is pale and fluffy. Most home bakers give this step short shrift, not aerating the batter fully. It takes at least five minutes (some bakers say ten full minutes), but you can’t let the butter get so soft that it melts or you’ll lose the bubbles. To keep the butter cool, some bakers chill the bowl and beaters and use refrigerator-cold butter, cut into cubes. Others stop beating when the butter starts to soften and put the bowl in the freezer for five minutes before continuing.
When the butter and sugar are very light, you beat in the eggs, one at a time so the batter doesn’t get lumpy. Bruce Healy, author of The Art of the Cake, established that this step doesn’t add any volume so you only need to blend until the eggs are well incorporated. The last step is to stir in part of the well-sifted dry ingredients, half of the liquid, more of the dry mixture, the rest of the liquid, and finally the remaining dry mixture.
The alternating addition of flour and liquid ensures that the batter blends evenly, but it also has a potential pitfall: development of too much gluten, which makes the cake tough or leads to tunnels. The first addition of flour gets well coated with fat and doesn’t form gluten, but once the liquid is added, uncoated flour proteins (in the next addition) can combine with liquid to form tough gluten. To minimize this, I like to add a lot of the flour in that first addition. Once the liquid is added, you must avoid overmixing in order to limit gluten formation.
If a cake with a velvety, dissolving texture is your heart’s desire, the two-stage method is for you. First you blend all the dry ingredients, all the fat, and a small amount of the total liquid, and then you add the remaining liquid. This method lets the fat coat all the flour proteins and prevents the formation of gluten, producing an incredibly tender cake—so tender that it falls apart in your mouth. This dissolving texture gives the illusion of lightness, but in fact, cakes made by this method are a little heavier than those made by the creaming method.
For casual quick breads and muffins, which aren’t intended to be light and airy,use the muffin method. You combine the dry ingredients in one bowl, the wet ingredients in another, and then stir them together. In contrast to the creaming method, the key here is not to stir too long or too vigorously since stirring flour and liquid together forms gluten, and that would make the muffins or quick breads tough.
When a cake goes wrong
Any number of factors can lead to trouble with cakes or muffins, and that makes it hard to identify the real cause—or causes. Here is a list of several cake and muffin problems and a few of their likely causes.
Cake or muffins fall: underbaking, too much baking powder or soda
Cake or muffins heavy: batter undermixed, oven too hot, too much sugar or fat (or both)
Cake or muffins tough: overmixing after flour and liquid are combined, oven too hot or pan too dark, flour too high in protein, too little sugar or fat (or both)
Cake grainy: oven not hot enough, poor mixing
“Volcano” cake: oven too hot or pan too dark, too much flour
Muffins don’t peak: oven not hot enough; try 400° to 425°F
Tunnels in cake: oven too hot, batter overmixed, too much batter in the pan
Cake or muffins dry: too much flour or too many egg whites, too little sugar or fat
Oven temperature and pan color can make the difference
When a cake bakes, the air bubbles you’ve beaten into the fat expand until the egg and flour proteins coagulate, the flour’s starch gelatinizes, and the cake’s structure sets. Larger bubbles mean an airy, coarser textured cake; smaller bubbles give a finer texture but also a denser one.
For finer textured cakes, try a slightly higher baking temperature (350°F). This will set the cake sooner and keep the bubbles from getting too big. For a lighter cake with a slightly more open texture, a slower oven (325°F) will help. The cake will need a few more minutes in the oven, but the lower temperature will give the bubbles more time to swell before the batter sets.
With cakes, the goal is a level top that’s as flat as a skating rink while muffins, in my ideal world, should peak like a volcano. In addition to oven temperature, choosing the right baking pan can help.
Heavy, dull, light-colored aluminum pans absorb less heat, and this makes them the very best choice for level cakes. Gray nonstick pans work all right, too. A dark pan, which absorbs more heat, can set the outside before the inside gets hot. The wet center will continue to rise and you may end up with a peaked cake.
For muffins to peak, gray pans are excellent. Black pans would also work, but if you’re not careful, they’ll burn the muffins.
A higher baking temperature (400° to 425°F) is key for a volcanic muffin. In this case, you want to encourage the outside to set fast and let the inside keep rising. If the muffins brown too fast, reduce the oven temperature for the last ten minutes of baking. Many muffin recipes say to heat the oven to 325° or 350°F, but you won’t get good peaks at these temperatures.