How Cakes Work

By: Alia Hoyt  | 
pastry chef, wedding cake
A pastry chef puts the finishing touches on a wedding cake at the Culinary Institute of America. Richard T. Nowitz/Getty Images

Marie Antoinette once allegedly said, "Let them eat cake." She was supposedly referring to the peasants in France but boy, have we ever taken her up on it! The popular dessert is one that knows few, if any, limits, and many innovative bakers throughout history have helped the confection morph into thousands of delicious variations. Although the word cake is derived from the Old Norse word, "kaka," many cultures and civilizations have contributed to its continued evolution [source: Davidson].

Food historians note that breads and cakes were somewhat interchangeable in ancient history — cakes just tended to be sweeter than breads. Ancient Egyptians made the first "cakes" using hot stones as makeshift ovens and adding honey as a sweetener. Greeks concocted an early type of cheesecake, while Romans incorporated nuts and fruits to make a primitive version of the fruitcake [source: Davidson].


In 1400s Germany, cakes started crashing birthday festivities, when enterprising bakeries realized the dessert's celebratory potential. Due to the cost of ingredients, however, birthday cakes were a luxury largely reserved for the wealthy, until the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s helped to make them more accessible (more on that later).

Interestingly, lighted candles atop a cake had been around for centuries at that point, although they didn't have anything to do with birthdays. Ancient Greeks baked round cakes and topped them with lit candles to make the cake glow in a moon-like manner. This was to honor Artemis, the goddess of the moon. Even today, many cakes are round thanks to this early practice. In the 1700s, birthday candles became commonplace when Germans started regularly celebrating children's birthdays, adding the decoration as part of the festivities [source: Patrick and Thompson].

Today there are hundreds of cake recipes and just about every country and region has its favorite. Let's look at the science behind cakes next.

The Chemistry of Cake Ingredients

The batter for a chocolate cake swirls in a mixing bowl. Every ingredient -- as well as the mixing method -- contributes to the taste and texture of a cake.  Babina Wisnevson/EyeEm/Getty Images
The batter for a chocolate cake swirls in a mixing bowl. Every ingredient -- as well as the mixing method -- contributes to the taste and texture of a cake. Babina Wisnevson/EyeEm/Getty Images

A standard cake recipe typically includes flour, a type of sweetener, eggs, some kind of fat, a liquid, a leavening agent to help it rise and flavoring (like vanilla, cocoa powder or cinnamon) [source: What's Cooking America]. The ingredients interact with each other to produce cakes of varying density, texture and taste. Think of cake-making as a truly tasty science experiment. Here's how each ingredient works:

Leavening agents were the main instigators of cakes becoming their own category (separate from breads), as these allowed baked goods to literally expand in ways they never had before. Chemical leavening agents release carbon dioxide gases within the cake mixture during the baking process, helping the batter to rise into a porous structure. Examples of chemical leaveners include baking powder, baking soda and cream of tartar. Yeast is a natural leavening agent that works in a similar manner to the chemical ones. One unsung leavening agent is air. Beating eggs, creaming the butter and sugar and sifting the flour all add air to your batter. That's why it's so important to follow your recipe carefully. The mixing steps and the type of leavener listed are all there for a reason[sources: Encyclopaedia Britannica, King Arthur Flour].


A fat source is usually included to improve texture, moistness and overall flavor. Butter is the perennial favorite, because of its knack for trapping air when creaming, helping to make baked goods lighter and more flavorful. However, shortening, margarine and cooking oil can be used in tandem with, or instead of, butter [sources: Huff, Baking Industry Research Trust].

Sweeteners are very important to cakes. Although alternatives, like honey or artificial sweeteners, are usable, plain old sugar bonds best with water molecules, helping to make cakes moist and soft. Too much or too little sugar can tip the scales, however, causing the cake to be too tender or too tough, respectively. Sugar also deepens a cake's color and flavor [source: Masibay].

Eggs play a big role, since their inherent proteins work with other ingredients to form the structure of the cake. The emulsifiers in the yolks also help to mix ingredients that normally don't want to stay together, like water and oil. Those same proteins, when heated during baking, help the cake to achieve a nice, golden-brown hue. Eggs yolks and the fats they contain also up the flavor quotient of any cake [source: Field].

Flour gives the cake its strength and holds all the ingredients together, thanks to its proteins that mix with water to form gluten. The gluten stretches to contain the leavening gases when the cake is rising in the oven. The higher the protein content in the flour, the stronger the dough. Cake flour is 7.5 percent protein while all-purpose flour is 10.5 percent (bread flour is 12 percent). So, cake flour will make your cakes softer, although you can use all-purpose flour — just use a little less [source: Lauterbach].

Liquids hydrate the protein, starch and leavening agents, allowing the chemical changes needed to develop the structure of the cake. Liquid vaporizes during the baking process, creating steam which expands the air cells and the volume of the cake. Liquids also help make the cake moist and improve its overall texture [source: Lauterbach].

The Role of the Oven

For best results, bake a cake in the middle of the oven and don't open the door before it's ready, or the cake may fall.  Gabriele Ritz/EyeEm/Getty Images
For best results, bake a cake in the middle of the oven and don't open the door before it's ready, or the cake may fall.  Gabriele Ritz/EyeEm/Getty Images

Although cakes have been made and enjoyed for many centuries, they were prepared mainly by professional bakers until the 18th century and the invention of the semi-closed oven for households [source: Mason]. Using ovens that evenly spread heat at a reliable temperature allow the cake ingredients to better interact with each other and fulfill the purposes previously mentioned, making the process easier for everyday cooks.

Of course, even with our modern ovens, there are still a few missteps that can easily occur during the baking process. First, the cake needs to be baked in the middle of the oven to avoid overcooking the top or burning the bottom. Never slam the door of your oven during the baking process. This can cause a delicate cake to fall because the bubbles facilitating the rising process will effectively burst, and thus your delicious creation will be ruined. In fact, it's best not to open the door at all during the baking process because the change in temperature (between inside your oven and out of it) can cause the cake to fall. If your cake falls without any door-opening-or-slamming incidents, this could be because you overmixed the batter, introducing too much air and weakening the structure [source: Thomson].


If you think your oven is a little hotter or cooler than it should be, grab an oven thermometer to test whether it's heating appropriately. Otherwise, that cake that's supposed to take 25 minutes to cook might be overdone in 18. If you think it's done, lightly tap the center. It's baked if it springs back; otherwise it needs more time. You can also insert a wooden toothpick into the cake to check if it's ready — a fully baked cake will yield a clean toothpick when you pull it out [source: Horn].

Once the cake is out the oven, it needs a chance to cool in the pan. This allows the cake to finish baking from within and to acclimatize itself to the room's temperature. After 10-15 minutes, you can turn it out onto a wire rack to finish the cooling process.

The Road to Easier Cake-baking

Christina Hall looks over the instructions on the back of the cake mix box, as her daughter Rosita Navarro, 7, stirs the batter for the young girl's birthday cake at their home in Alexandria, Virginia. Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post/Getty Images
Christina Hall looks over the instructions on the back of the cake mix box, as her daughter Rosita Navarro, 7, stirs the batter for the young girl's birthday cake at their home in Alexandria, Virginia. Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post/Getty Images

In addition to the oven, other inventions have helped make cakes a household staple. The Industrial Revolution of the early 1800s, which created mass production, as well as railroad travel, helped to make ingredients, like sugar, more affordable and available to the everyday family [source: What's Cooking America].

In the 1840s, baking soda was developed, followed by baking powder in the 1860s, both of which replaced yeast as the rising agents of choice and helped improve cake texture [source: Davidson]. In fact, the cake as we know it today (with white flour and baking powder) developed during the mid-19th century [source: Food Timeline].


Pre-packed cake mixes came on the scene in the 1930s and were the next major step toward making cakes common household treats. A company called P. Duff and Sons was determined to incorporate its surplus of molasses into something new and profitable. Owner John Duff landed on a combination of wheat flour, molasses, shortening and spices that turned out a pleasing gingerbread mix. All the customer had to do was add water. Duff's big achievement was figuring how to get all the ingredients into a dry form.

Cake mix use didn't really explode until after World War II, when flour companies decided to segue into production of convenience foods. But cake mix sales flattened out in the 1950s, until a psychologist determined that women wanted to feel more a part of the cake-creating process and advised cake mix companies to emphasize cake decorating and elaborate cakes made from mixes. (An urban myth says that this psychologist came up with the idea of cake mix companies advising housewives to add eggs to the batter as a way to make women feel more included in the cake-making process. In reality, most cake mix companies had always told consumers to add their own eggs as it improved the cake's flavor) [source: Park]. Even today, many people turn to pre-packaged mixes to produce delicious, simple cakes, rather than sweating it out from scratch.

Cake Types and Toppings

This lovely pistachio sponge cake has a strawberry filling. Sponge cakes use egg whites, rather than baking powder, as leavening agents. Eugene Mymrin/Getty Images
This lovely pistachio sponge cake has a strawberry filling. Sponge cakes use egg whites, rather than baking powder, as leavening agents. Eugene Mymrin/Getty Images

The ingredients that go into a cake aren't the only things that affect how a cake turns out. The methods with which they're combined make a major difference. As a result, a given cake usually falls into one of the categories below [sources: Malgieri, CraftyBaking]:

Creaming Method: Recipes include a fat, such as butter or oil. The creaming method is used to combine the butter and sugar using an electric beater. Once that's done, the remaining ingredients are added, alternating wet and dry. This method makes the cake moist, buttery and light. Most modern birthday cakes fall into this category, particularly layer cakes. Pound cakes are a variation of the butter cakes, although they are denser and simpler than layer cakes. Traditionally they called for a pound of each ingredient. Their heavy nature is offset by a light glaze instead of the standard frosting. Or they can be served with ice cream or fruit.


No-Aeration Method: This is for cakes with little to no flour and a creamy dense texture. There's little incorporation of air in mixing — the batter is folded rather than stirred. Beloved examples include the flourless chocolate cake and the cheesecake. Some recipes require baking, but many don't. Often the cake pan with the batter is baked inside a water bath — another pan filled with water to add moisture to cakes that tend to crack during the baking process, and provide a slower, more even source of heat while in the oven.

Egg Foaming Method: These cakes often don't include fats or leaveners to make them rise. Instead, they rely on whipped eggs or egg whites to encourage light, airy volume. Whipping the eggs with an egg beater or mixer introduces air into the batter, which in turn causes the mix to expand during the baking process. Angel food cake, chiffon cake and sponge cake are three well-known examples.

All-in-one Method: This is used most often with cake mixes and simple cakes. All the ingredients are added at one time in a bowl and mixed.

Many cakes are made more attractive with the addition of frosting, also known as icing. The earliest version is believed to be an almond and sugar paste created in the late 1400s to top marchpanes, a thin cake or wafer traditionally served at British fêtes [source: The Foods of England]. A French chef created the first known iced layer cake in the 15th century, and the first official frosting recipe emerged in 1655. It consisted of egg white, rosewater and sugar [source: Hunt].

Today, buttercream and fondant icings are the most prevalent toppings for celebratory cakes. Fondant presents a more refined, luxurious appearance, although it is far thicker and more difficult to handle than other icing forms, as fondant must be kneaded and rolled out before being placed on a cake.

Cakes Around the World

The tiramisu is an Italian cake made with ladyfinger biscuits, mascarpone cheese, cocoa and coffee. Eugene Mymrin/Getty Images
The tiramisu is an Italian cake made with ladyfinger biscuits, mascarpone cheese, cocoa and coffee. Eugene Mymrin/Getty Images

Just about every region in the world has some version of a cake. North America is particularly fond of cakes. In fact, the Indian pound cake was developed soon after Europeans settled, and incorporates corn meal into the recipe. Later, enslaved African-Americans created several cakes now known for being ubiquitously Southern, such as the Lady Baltimore Cake, the pound cake and the coconut cake. Many of these bakers had a working understanding of ingredients seldom used in the United States until that point, such as coconut.

The Boston area, in particular, is credited with the development of the classic chocolate layer cake, at the encouragement of chocolate companies who hired women to develop new uses for the ingredient [source: Martyris]. Strawberry shortcake is a seasonal favorite that made its way over from the Old World. Today, it pairs sponge cake (or sweetened biscuits) with berries and whipped topping [source: Marks]. The Dole pineapple company helped to propel its product into popularity via a 1926 contest calling for use of the fruit in a recipe. Of the tens of thousands of recipes submitted, 2,600 were variations on pineapple upside-down cake, still a beloved confection today [source: Avey].


Meanwhile, a small poll in Great Britain recently showed that the Victoria sponge cake is the favorite (or should we say, favourite?) cake to bake (although chocolate cake was the favorite to eat) [source: Sunday Express]. A traditional tea-time dessert, the Victoria sponge— named for Queen Victoria — is a standard two-layer cake, except it uses a fruit jam for a filling in place of icing [source: Berry].

Italians developed tiramisu, which layers lady fingers dipped in coffee with sweetened mascarpone cheese and cocoa. The Pavlova (named for the ballerina Anna Pavlova), is so beloved that New Zealand and Australia have fought bitterly over its country of origin. It turns out that the fruit-topped meringue emerged in New Zealand in 1927, much to the chagrin of proud Aussies everywhere [source: Li].

In South Africa, people love malva pudding, a very sweet pudding served with a sauce, while Latin Americans like tres leches, a sponge cake soaked in three milks: condensed, evaporated and whole milk. In Japan, there is a special treat called dorayaki, which consists of two pancakes with a filling of anko (sweet red bean paste) inside.

With thousands of cake recipes worldwide, we could go on ad nauseam about the variations of the beloved dessert. The beauty of cake is that the sky is the limit.

Originally Published: Jun 28, 2017

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Author's Note: How Cakes Work

In these uncertain times, at least most of us can agree that a celebration of any type isn't complete without a cake. My personal favorite is a highly unattractive, yet delicious Southern yellow cake that I dubbed "chocolate cement cake" as a child because the fudge icing hardens to the point that you can actually knock on it without doing damage. Yum!

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More Great Links

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