Sugar in Cakes: What You Need to Know

by Jane Wangersky | February 6th, 2015 | Cooking Basics

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAHere’s another one of my mistakes you can learn from. Last week, while recovering from some bug that apparently affects the mind as well as the nose and throat, I got to the point of putting a great big carrot cake into the oven before I realized I hadn’t put any sugar in it.

Very quickly, I considered my options:

  1. Scrape all the batter out of the pan, back into the bowl, and mix in the sugar (argh).
  2. Leave the cake as it was and try to pass it off as “carrot-pineapple bread” (wrong shape for that).
  3. Sprinkle the sugar on top of the batter as evenly as I could, press it in, and hope that worked.

I went with option 3, and it did work, especially since I covered the whole thing with orange Jello icing. But if it had been a slightly different kind of cake, I would’ve been out of luck.

This was my low-fat recipe for carrot cake, which uses canola oil instead of butter, margarine, or any other solid fat. In a recipe like this, you combine the dry ingredients in one bowl, the wet in the other, then both together, not always very thoroughly. In a cake recipe using solid fat, you usually start by creaming it, adding the sugar, and beating them into a fluffy, icing-like substance to build the rest of the cake on.

If I’d been working on a recipe like that, I don’t think I could’ve gotten away with just sprinkling the sugar on top as the cake was already baking. In those recipes, creaming the butter and sugar creates lots of little air bubbles or pockets, which hold moisture that turns to steam in the oven and helps the cake rise. So skipping it would leave you something much flatter and heavier than it’s supposed to be. It may still taste fine if you sneak the sugar in some way, but it won’t be what you had in mind. Read more about creaming butter and sugar here.

Cakes that are made with oil, or melted butter, are more like muffins in texture — of course there’s nothing wrong with that. Put icing on a muffin and most people won’t even notice it’s not a cupcake. Recipes for cakes like this, as well as for muffins, often tell you not to blend the wet and dry ingredients completely; too much mixing makes it even harder for the batter to rise.

Now, how do you avoid the whole issue and just remember to put all the ingredients in, the way you’re supposed to? Try taking them all out before you start and putting them away when you’ve used them.

That’s what I’m going to try, anyway.


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