I bet you can’t think of anyone who dislikes cake.
It is challenging to resist a moist, airy, decadent sponge, and you find yourself returning for more and more. The cake is the focal point of every celebration, including birthdays, weddings, and anniversaries. And let’s be honest, most of us attend these events for the free dessert anyway!
Even better, you don’t need a special occasion to eat cake. Sponge preparation in the comfort of one’s home is straightforward and quick. Occasionally, however, it is not as simple as combining a few ingredients to hope that the resulting cake will be perfectly risen, moist, and airy.
Frequently, my baked goods have not sufficiently risen, prompting me to wonder, “What am I doing wrong?” Nothing is more disheartening than putting in so much effort to make the cake batter, only to have it turn out flat, sad, and depressing and make you miserable.
The key to baking a perfectly risen cake is understanding which ingredient is responsible for its rise. Once you better understand the various available raising agents and how to use them properly, you will (hopefully) never have to struggle with your cake again.
What Causes Cake to rise?
There are several ingredients you can use to help your cake rise in the oven. This article will focus on baking powder, baking soda, self-rising flour, eggs, and baker’s yeast as leavening agents.
Baking Powder & Baking Soda
When I first began baking, I believed that baking soda and baking powder were identical. How incorrect I was. I pondered the difference between baking powder and baking soda, given that they are both white and powdery, sound similar, and come in containers with similar shapes.
However, I’m not alone. Many bakers assume the same thing. How naive we were! Baking powder and soda are distinct substances with specific applications.
Baking soda, also known as sodium bicarbonate, is an alkali that reacts with an acid. This is the extent of my scientific knowledge, so if you want to learn more about the science behind baking soda, click here.
Baking soda must be combined with an acidic substance, such as vinegar or brown sugar. Once baking soda and an acid are combined, bubbles begin to form, which expand in the oven and cause the cake to rise.
Baking soda begins to react as soon as it is combined with the rest of the ingredients, so you must bake your batter immediately, or you will get a flat result. Because baking soda only causes a single rise, it is ideal for cookies. The soft and fluffy texture of cookies is due to baking soda.
Be mindful of how much baking soda a recipe calls for because it is highly potent. If you add too much, the cookies will have a soapy flavor. Nobody desires soapy cookies! Simply put, baking soda is used in foods containing acidic ingredients, such as cookies, fruit cakes, lemon cakes, gingerbread, and soda bread.
Here is where things can become a little confusing, as baking powder already contains baking soda combined with sour cream of tartar. Baking powder is typically used in recipes that do not require an acidic component because it is already combined with an acid. Still there? Good.
To add to your confusion, baking powder is dual-acting. Like baking soda, double-acting baking powder reacts immediately upon contact with liquid ingredients. The baking soda reacts further in the hot oven, causing the cake to rise even more. Consider it as two rising stages. Therefore, baking powder is utilized to help raise a basic Victoria sponge cake, chocolate cake, and cupcakes.
Flour is available in every home. It is one of the most versatile ingredients available, as it is used in nearly all our baked goods. Flour is found in literally EVERYTHING, including bread, cookies, lava cakes, and pastries. I panic when I’m almost out of flour because I believe I can’t cook anything without it!
Wheat flour is the most common, but there are many other types of flour as well. Whole wheat flour, bread flour, rice flour, oat flour, and even chickpea flour is all available. There is a great deal of flour variety available.
Self-rising flour is utilized for its ability to make baked goods rise. Self-rising flour is plain flour combined with baking powder. As stated, plain flour will not cause a cake to rise on its own; the baking powder is required.
If you ever run out of self-rising flour, you can substitute regular flour and baking powder to achieve the same results. Understanding what self-rising flour is and how to use it is very simple. Use self-rising flour to make a sponge cake with a good rise that is light and airy. If you want thick, fluffy pancakes, use self-rising flour instead. The resulting pancakes will be enormous!
Eggs and Egg Whites
Eggs. They can be beaten, poached, scrambled, fried, baked, whipped, etc. What can eggs not do? They are incredibly versatile and a crucial cake ingredient because they bind and stabilize the batter.
Additionally, they are excellent for thickening sauces such as custards. When used correctly, eggs can be used as a leavening agent. Air is incorporated into the mixture when an egg is beaten, causing it to expand.
This volume increase gives the cake its light and airy texture upon rising. There are various methods for increasing the volume of an egg mixture through beating.
Eggs and egg yolks can be beaten over simmering water (bain-marie) to increase their volume. This method emulsifies the mixture, producing a highly smooth and creamy texture. This technique is utilized in numerous Italian dishes, such as tiramisu and genoise sponges.
Additionally, egg whites can be beaten to add height to a dessert. Egg whites are increasingly used to make meringues, macarons, and soufflés, which contributes to their light and airy texture.
To add volume to your cake, separate the egg whites, whisk them, and gently fold them into the cake batter. This will result in a tall, fluffy sponge. Always use eggs at room temperature in your baked goods. They are easier to disassemble and mix.
Even though yeast does not cause a cake to rise, it is a common bakery product ingredient that deserves mention. Yeast is what makes bread, donuts, and cinnamon rolls deliciously light and doughy.
You will find that there are a variety of yeasts available for purchase. Popular baking yeasts include instant yeast (rapid), active dry yeast, and fresh yeast. My preferred yeast is instant yeast because it does not need to be dissolved in warm water or milk and can be mixed directly with the ingredients.
Now, you’ll never have to guess which ingredient causes a cake to rise, as you now have a thorough understanding of the most common leavening agents. Knowing the available leavening agents and how to use them will ensure that your baked goods always rise to perfection.
With the addition of water, the baking powder makes tiny bubbles of air. As the cake bakes, the heat from the oven makes the air bubbles expand and causes the cake to rise.
Both baking soda and baking powder are leavening agents, which means they are added to baked goods before cooking to produce carbon dioxide and cause them to rise.
If the oven is too hot, the cake will set too fast before the air bubbles have formed. If the oven is not hot enough, the cake will rise too much, then fall in the center before it is set. Bake a cake mix cake for a test run to check your oven temperature. (Make sure you’ve preheated your oven, too.)
Most cakes will call for a leavening agent like baking powder or baking soda. These create the bubbles you need for the cake to rise. If the flour you use is self-raising, it already has a leavening agent in it.
The oven temperature is too high. If the top crust forms and sets before the cake has finished rising, the middle will try to push through the crust as it continues to bake, causing it to crack and possibly dome. Check your oven with an oven thermometer and reduce the temperature accordingly if it is running hot.
When you add yeast to water and flour to create dough, it eats up the sugars in the flour and excretes carbon dioxide gas and ethanol — this process is called fermentation. The gluten in the dough traps the carbon dioxide gas, preventing it from escaping. The only place for it to go is up, and so the bread rises.
Uneven heating may be due to the oven itself. Rotate cake pans ¾ through the baking period to compensate for uneven heat distribution. An oven that is too hot can also cause uneven baking. Test the oven temperature when preheating the oven by using an oven thermometer and adjust as necessary.
Wrapping the pan with insulation is another alternative to make a cake bake evenly. As the cake batter bakes, it rises and loses moisture all at once. Once enough of the moisture evaporates from the cake itself, it begins to set—exactly what you want!
It should reach at least the halfway mark of your pan, although ⅔ of the pan is ideal. If you don’t have enough batter, your cake simply will not have a chance to rise high and become light and fluffy. What happens if you don’t have enough cake batter to fill half the pan? The answer is easy: make more cake batter.
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