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Baking science - cakes


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First - I love the new boards!

After literally months of testing cakes, reading about them, etc., I have decided to ask you (the experts) about the science of cakes. (I have checked out cooking for engineers - great site!) In my reading, I saw something mentioning that cake mixes use high-ratio shortening, therefore allowing the cakes to hold more sugar, thus more moisture. It was also mentioned that using this type of shortening would require a different mixing method, but I've not discovered that yet.

I also would like to know the scientific theory behind what makes a fine, tender crumb vs. a spongy one, etc. I've come to determine that the only way I'm going to get the cake I want is to experiment, but I don't want to spend a fortune trying to find that one special recipe. So how exactly does one achieve that fine crumb, and would using a high-ratio shortening really make that much of a difference? What is the mystery behind that perfect cake?

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You may like the descriptions in The Cake Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum; it's not a comprehensive cross reference regarding how which fats perform in cake recipes because virtually all of them rely on butter as the main fat; there are a few with oil, and one with mayonnaise but for the most part it's a good reference to have.

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High-ratio cakes use a slightly different method than a traditional creaming method. Usually, the dry ingredients are sifted together and then the dry ingredients are combined with the fat (usually a high-ratio shortening formulated for this type of cake as you noted to hold more sugar and moisture in the mix). Slowly, the hydrating ingredients are added. According to Michel Suas from "Advanced Bread and Pastry: A Professional Approach": "Checking mixing time and scraping down the bowl are critical concerns for mixing high-ratio cakes. Mixing occurs at different speeds and must be monitored by time for quality control and consistency." He recommends a three stage addition of the liquid ingredients.

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I would recommend getting hold of Shirley Corriher's book, Bakewise. She describes the difference between the various methods of mixing, and gives the same recipe but with 3 versions, each using a different method (including hi ratio) and explains how the result is different. I used to use the high ratio method a lot, as it is quicker and less steps than creaming. However, recently I have gone back to the creaming method as I prefer the texture of cakes made this way. Hi ratio cakes are denser, with a soft tender crumb. You can achieve tender crumb with creamed cakes too but it takes a bit more care.

"I'll just die if I don't get this recipe."
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not to add another volume to the pile, but How Baking Works by Paula Figoni (I have both, second edition larger format than the first) is a great book for this; she even explains and has exercises for seeing the difference between fats in cake batters. In it, I learned that commercial bakeries have something to turn to called liquid hi-ratio emulsifying shortening -- a pourable, opaque/cloudy shortening that makes it possible to mix a finely grained, moist cake in one step. Fascinating and instructional.

Also for tenderness, the reason hi-ratio cakes are called that is the quantity of sugar (by weight) is equal to or exceeds the flour; sugar tenderizes by absorbing water, thus minimizing gluten development; in a hi-ratio cake, the sugar is mixed with the flour so that when it is wet it (the flour) won't produce too gluten. For the most part, creaming the butter and sugar makes a cake light by incorporating air (sugar's crystalline shape and butter's plasticity hang on to maximum air). Lightness and tenderness are seemingly opposite, but mixing method and how/where you employ the sugar matter a lot. hth!

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