What is Cake?

Butter Cake Recipe

So What IS Cake? really?

Sure we all know what cake is as far as our favorite recipe or flavor we like best……

But as a baker, understanding what to type of cake to make and with what filling and icing will be best can be a difficult task.
You have probably heard them all, Butter Cake, Sponge Cake, Chiffon Cake, Genoise Cake, Pound Cake, Devils Food Cake, Coffee Cake! And probably more that I forgot to list!!

So what’s the difference?

Easiest way to think about it is like this:

The difference is in the Mix Method.
So there are basically 2 classes, and then of course variations of those classes.

Sponge Cake – Also known as foaming method cakes, which rely primarily on trapped air in the foamed eggs which are the base bulk structure of the entire recipe which also provides the leavening.
Sponge cakes are known to be lighter, airier and can also be known as “dry”.
Typically Sponge cakes are accompanied by a Simple Syrup which is brushed on the layers to add moisture and flavor to the cake.

Butter Cake– Also known as Pound Cake and some variations of the Devils Food Cake are mainly creamed butter cakes. Where the butter and sugar is creamed to create a fluffy matrix of air pockets trapping the sugars within the fat pockets which upon baking are melted and converted to steam, which in turn causes your batter to rise. Creamed cake batters have a closer, denser crumb than those recipes which require foaming.

Then there is a separate class of cakes that fall in a category with

Muffins and Quickbreads
This method typically  will ask for the oil and sugar and eggs to be combined together, and then the dry ingredients are added to this.  Like My Carrot Cake

Oil Based Cakes vs Butter Cakes?  

You have probably wondered why recipes are written the way they are, with one ingredients versus another.

You may have even wondered, “can I use this on place of that”?

Especially in regard to the question of Butter Vs Oil I do get this question a lot.
My first quick answer to this question is always, “How is the butter being incorporated into the recipe?” “What is the Mix Method?”
I ask this because our mix methods often classify the type of cake we are making, and determines how we can interchange ingredients inside that recipe.

For example: Are you creaming the butter and the sugar together to achieve a fluffy, voluminous batter upon which we rely on the leavening to take place due to this mix method and also to which the other ingredients will be suspended?

Or are you melting the butter in a quickbread sort of “muffin method” batter?

Your answer as to whether you can substitute will first be found in the mix method.

If it is creamed butter method, no way are you ever going to jab those sugar crystals throughout liquid oil and expect the resulting air bubbles to trap those fats causing steam to leaven your batter once it goes into the oven. The oil will simply dissolve the sugar and that’s the end of it.

If the recipe requires melted butter, sure go ahead and switch to oil, but not without some differences in your results.

I have done some experimenting with the “quickbread” or “muffin method” as I call those recipes which require oil as the base.
I have used melted butter in place of oil in recipes, because after all, isn’t butter the best way of making sure your next pair of pants are a size larger and have it all be worth the while??

I mean, Butter is food of the Gods right?

So much complex flavor and richness, and we can always tell when a sub-par recipe has cheated its way and used that forsaken oil.
Let’s face it, recipes made with real butter are the most prized recipes of all time!

Well, not necessarily.
Here is what I found.

I use my vanilla sponge cake recipe as an example which requires the fat or “butter” be melted in the mix method.
Now some have complained that upon refrigerating this cake, it became hard and dry.

Well, let’s think about this for a moment. Butter when refrigerated is indeed hard.
Not silky and smooth and soft as it is when it is at room temperature.

So, I used oil on the next try.
By using oil in this cake, it definitely made it more moist, and kept it moist even upon refrigeration.
You see, butter contains milk solids, that when cold, become…well….solid.
Oil on the other hand is liquid whether it is cold or warm.

So, what to do?
This new knowledge now requires us to think through to the end in how we are using/serving our cakes.
The Vanilla Sponge Cake recipe is wonderful, and if you are planning to fill it with fillings that require refrigeration, if is fine to do so, I do it all the time. However I do advise my customers to bring their cake to room temperature (by leaving it out on the counter for about an hour) before serving. There is no harm to the filling inside in that short amount of time, and it allows the cake to get back to its intended state, which is soft and spongy.

I will practice this “bringing to room temperature” with all my cake recipes really. I just prefer to take the chill off of any cake before serving.

So if you choose a filling that requires refrigeration and a cake that has butter in it, it’s no problem really, just be sure to give it at least an hour out of the fridge to get to it’s perfect state!

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78 Comments

  1. I just discovered you a few weeks ago and bookmarked you. Today I realized you disappeared but a quick search found you again. I’m looking forward to trying your recipes because I enjoy the visuals and the information you give about baking on a professional level in layman’s terms. I want to spend part of my retirement doing what I love, which is baking. (The other is photography). Keep up the good work and I’m looking forward to sharing my new-found baking skills with family.

  2. Hi, Gretchen! I am loving your new blog! Very stylish and the videos are beautifully shot.
    Lately, I am obsessed to make a nice spongy butter cake. I have been using creaming method, and my outcome have been always different… and never actually know what I did wrong. So your blog is helping me a lot to find out what I have been doing wrong as well as learning the new method I have never tried.
    When I was subscribing your old blog, I remember reading your list of analysis on the cake texture / failure and the reason why. I learned that I was over beating egg white and that was the reason of my dry cake. That page was the most helpful and accurate cake 101 I have ever read anywhere else, and hoping you could re-post it on your new blog sometimes, please?

  3. OMG I am so sorry you had to remove your recipes. Gosh 4th of July I need your help. Also my I need the recipe for the NY cheesecake it is the best ever. Help Help….Love you and and hope everything works out.

  4. This holiday weekend I did a lot of baking and my cakes did not turn out at all. They were really heavy and flat. I suspect that the baking powder did not do it’s job since I measured all of my ingredients and I usually don’t have a problem producing beautiful cakes…what do you think

    1. Oh no! that’s the worst! I would also suspect it could be the powder, I have had others say similar and they bought new and their cakes sprang right back (no pun intended LOL)

          1. Well I purchased some new baking powder and I had to try out your butter cake recipe and oh my goodness… That cake came out perfect ! The taste is incredible! I agree with you 100% no frosting needed. This cake can certainly stand alone. Thanks for the great advice and the awesome recipes.
            BTW I live in Florida, what part are you moving to? Will you be opening a business here?

  5. Hi Gretchen. Whenever I try to make cupcakes with starch it becomes hard when it’s cool. But with the box mix it was soft. What would be the mistake I am doing ? Please help me. Thanks once again for u r blog. Love it.

  6. Hi Gretchen,

    I love cakes from scratch, but whenever a make a cake from scratch it doesn’t come out moist and fluffy, it’s always dry and very dense, what am I doing wrong? Help plase.

    1. Hey there, well it sounds like a couple things. First of all scratch cakes are never going to be like a box cake (all those preservatives make those cakes really soft) but second Im not sure what recipes you are using- sometimes people get turned off my scratch cakes because believe it or not, all recipes on the internet (or even in bake books!) are not always super! I do love my recipes here, and I have many people to testify the same. I wouldnt share anything that I though was inferior – so I hope you do try one of my recipes. I would start with the Yellow Cake so you can see how easy it is and also how soft and spongy it will be! The last thing that could play into the end result being dry or dense is to make sure you are using the correct flour as listed in the recipe. Alot of my recipes have cake flour or a mix of cake and AP. SO be sure to follow everything as listed and you should have NO TROUBLE! Keep me posted if you try! id love to hear your results if you try my recipe!

  7. Hi! You’ve mentioned that the cake recipe that requires melted butter after refrigeration turned dense and hard.So, I reckon the cake that requires creaming the butter with sugar would be still soft and moist even after refrigeration? Will be making your white cake. Hihi.

  8. Hi, I love watching your videos and trying your recipes. I’m curious though, as you give both kinds of measurements in your recipes, do you use a scale to weigh your flour, etc., or do you use the measuring cups?

    I remember watching my grandmother bake when I was younger [sigh, fond memories] and it always looked to me like she was just basically throwing the flour into the bowl by hand, never saw her measure anything, but her cakes and pies were always delicious. My biggest regret is that I never paid better attention to her while she was baking. Thanks.

    1. Hi Susan thanks! I use the scale most of the time unless I’m just “throwing together” something like a cookie or muffin real quick like your grandmother! LOL

      1. Thank you for your response. Haha I found the answer myself after writing to you in measuring 101. But you were kind enough to answer me anyway and I appreciate it. You are a first class person.

  9. Hey,
    Thank you so much for all your fabulous recipes. Appreciate your time giving us your expertise.
    I am looking for a petit fours recipe . Can you help me

    Thanks You,
    Linda

    1. HI LInda! Great and you are welcome! I am trying my best to get all the recipes refilmed and reblogged (400+ from the old site was quite alot!) I now I have to re-do Petit Fours, but in the meantime the recipe is posted in PHOTOS to my facbeook page

  10. In your comments about cakes using butter getting dry or hard in the frig, you say that the cause
    is the solids in butter. If you clarify (perfectly) can you use this instead of oil?

  11. Hi Gretchen,
    Can hardly go a day without visiting your site. Well, its so educative. Thanks for letting me glean from your wealth of experience. Keep up the good work.

  12. Your comments about the white sponge cake being dry has me concerned of whether it’s moist or not.
    I would like a recipe for a perfectly moist white cake so my husband can stop comparing my cakes to Safeway’s cake.

  13. HELLO GRETCHEN!! I love your videos. So much so that I plan on using your white cake recipe to make a funfetti cake. I am trying to decide on whether to use the aquafaba frosting or white chocolate ganache. Overall I am looking to do a Katherine Sabbath inspired drip cake. With your experience with this recipe which frosting do you think would be better?

  14. hi chef, happy new year to you and your family around you… thank you so much to your tips and videos..i learn alot about pastry..and you make me happy as i watch you…. thank you so much..

  15. Hi there
    Awesome blog:) what would be best cake for decorating? Also does the Swiss buttercream last well in hot temperature out of fridge?
    Thankyou
    Zahara

  16. Hi Gretchen,

    I’m confused between sponge cake and chiffon cake. What are differences between them? Also, for sponge cake, could I substitute butter with either margarine or oil?

    Thanks.

    1. Hi Mey if you read the 2 recipes side by side you can get a good idea of where the differences are. As well as the mix method for each.
      I thought I tried to explain in this post here for What is cake some of the differences from a texture point of view (maybe I did not do a good job?)
      Yes you can sub in oil for that recipe (I thought I mentioned that here too?)
      Ill have to re-read this article if it is seemingly unclear, thanks!

    2. Gretchen,

      sorry that I had asked before I read one of your chiffon’s recipe. Yes, after I went thru both your sponge and chiffon recipes, I got the idea now. Thanks. I’m gonna try your choco chiffon this wknd. Thanks again 🙂

  17. Hi Gretchen, I am from India,and very recently startd my own home bakery and i so love your blog. I learn so much each day. I am a self taught baker, so i grasp every information. I aspire to go to CIA to study as well (when i can afford it,someday,fingers crossed).your you tube tutorials are soo good, its like having a virtual college and my own personal mentor.

    My question to you is, i am having a hard time figuring out what cake to use when ? Chiffon cake? Sponge cake ? Butter cake ? I usualy do all-in-one method, 1:1 weight of ingredients using butter. (M sorry i dont know wat kind of cake is this called) and i tend to stack my cakes 3-4 layers (3/4th inch) i dont experiment much coz i wonder will the cakes collapse if i do an egg foam method. Will the cakes collapse ? If i need to carve it, m not sure if it would hold shape. Also another reason i ask is coz i think the cakes i do, tend to be heavy to eat. I use American buttercream, jus as needed, i dont ice it much. So mayb its the cake which is rich and heavy .. is dat a good thing. ?

    Sorry for the long post and if i sound too lost and confused. Thank you.

  18. Hi Gretchen You are amazing and wonderful mentor. I do baking from last couple of months and really looking for best recipe of sponge cake and I got it. Thankyou for explaining the science of mixing and foaming, liaison method. Please can you tell me if I replace 1 stick of butter(8 Table spoon) by oil should I use 8 Table spoon of oil?

    Secondly , Can I brush pineapple syrup in sponge cake instead of simple syrup. And use fresh whipping cream to enjoy the lightness of cake.

    Please reply. Thank you again.

    1. Hello Gretchen thanks for the break down of what is cake. I am interested in baking and would like to know what is so special about using canola oil in baking . also should Maida flour be the main flour to bake cakes?

      1. HI I don’t think there is anything special about canola oil except that it is the most available. It is not the “best” by far since Safflower oil is the best for cake making.
        Im not sure what Maida flour is, but it is always beat to follow the recipe as it is written since sometime I use All Purpose, Cake or a combination of the two

  19. I can’t begin to tell you how easy it is to learn from your general instruction ~ INVALUABLE. Thank you for all of it and continually adding to my base knowledge and the ability to find the answers I need, or just want.

  20. Hi Gretchen,
    Thanks for the valuable information .can I use you Vanilla sponge cake recipe on fondant ? If not , what vanilla cake recipe would you suggest under fondant ? Am afraid creaming method butter cake is too heavy to eat . Appreciate your reply . Thanks in advance

  21. Hi, I have one question. I’ve seen some videos that say i cant use self rising flour in a sponge cake as it would rais too much and explode. So i want to know if it is real, or ir i can use half commn flour and half self rising flour, or if its just posible to use it in the butter preparation. I want a really tall cake. Thank you

  22. Hi. I really need a good sponge recipe for a three tier wedding cake. Any suggestions on a sponge that will withhold a little weight (plastic dowels being used to support it). Many thanks. Love your buttercream recipes!

  23. Hi Gretchen,

    Based on the last sentence of the post, regarding “fillings that require refrigeration”, what if the frosting needs refrigeration like cream cheese, white ganache and whipped cream?

    Thanks!

    1. Most of my cake recipes even the ones with butter- I do not feel they are offensive even cold, however that is your personal preference and one you have to decide on for yourself. I will however leave the cake at room temperature for an hour or two before serving to avoid any “hardness” that may be present from a colder cake

  24. Hey Gretchen!!
    Thanks so much for the recipes!! People don’t realize how hard it can be to maintain a blog & work at the sametime.
    I was wondering what is the ratio of fat to dry ingredients for a butter cake? That makes sense.
    On another blog for a “WHITE CAKE- @ addapinch.com”, the ingredients:
    2-sticks butter
    1/2c oil
    3c sugar
    5 eggs
    3c flour
    1/2c whole milk
    1/2c buttermilk
    1/2 tsp. salt
    2 tsp baking powder
    Flavoring
    A lot of people are having problems with this cake turning out. The flavor was great but it was a little dense like a pound cake for me. Most people, including myself had the cake fall was out of the oven. This cake has a sugary crust all over the edges. A lady claiming to be a pastry chef commented that this cake has the right amount of sugar & fat. To me, I don’t think it does due to the crust it forms. What’s your take?? To me it’s NOT a white cake since using the yolks also. I don’t get how she got the cake that she showed in her photo.

    1. HI there, thanks so much and I agree that it wont be a “white” cake with the yolks in it. AS for ratios, Hmmm I dont really bake that way. There have been several recipes where I think it is going to be a complete disaster based on the ingredients list but to my surprise I have found some really great recipes where I once doubted the integrity. This being said, its hard to say without me trying it, however it looks similar to my White Cake recipe only with more fat (oil?) and yes 1 cup more sugar!

  25. Hey Gretchen! I thought you had at one time had a recipe for a devils food cake, but I cannot find one on your site…nor in any of the e-books I have purchased.

    I know it is a butter cake, but I have no idea how to make one. Please advise!! If you could also suggest an appropriate icing for a devils food cake, I would appreciate it!

    Thank you!

  26. Have always loved your site since I started baking when I decided to be a full time stay -at-home mum. You have been my mentor for all bakes..cos I always go back to your site for more help and information in my bakes.
    Thank you for sharing all that you know Gretchen.

    May your life be full of blessings always!

    Hayati
    From Singapore

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