Baking mystery: how to get my cakes to rise?
May 5, 2016 6:28 AM   Subscribe

Multiple times in the past few years I’ve baked cakes from scratch that haven’t risen, and two dutch babies that probably reached a cumulative total height of 6 millimeters. Baking powder doesn't seem to be the issue. Box mixes do fine. I’m at sea level. Controls and variables within…

I’ve made vanilla, chocolate, and lemon cakes. In that time I’ve replaced the baking powder as a possible culprit, gotten an oven thermometer, adhered to recipes’ instructions for room temp ingredients, and made variations of the same cake.

For example, in the last two days I made two different versions of lemon cake: cake flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, egg whites, sugar, and butter. One used zest, the other extract. One had buttermilk, the other called for milk. One whipped the egg whites with cream of tartar, the other added them one at a time to the batter without tartar. I bought new baking powder for the second recipe. The cake flour is brand new. I used a different batch of eggs and butter for each. Eggs and butter were well creamed. Whipped egg whites were incorporated and not over-mixed with the batter, in my opinion.

Each recipe produced two cake layers that did not seem to rise at all. They are about 3/4” tall, certainly not tall enough to cut in half. All recipes tasted great raw. (And before you ask, no, I did not eat most of the batter!)

I’ve tried a variety of cake pans (non stick dark finish, Wilton aluminum performance pans), in a variety of sizes (8”, 9”, 6”). I’ve tried wrapping them with homemade baking strips. I’ve tried placing them in the oven on cookie sheets, and off. I’ve tried multiple rack heights. I’ve tried turning midway. I’ve tried convection vs. traditional baking. Toothpicks come out clean and usually the edges are just browning. My oven, a Thermador Professional, is 3 years old and I am otherwise happy with it; other foods (quick breads, meats, muffins, etc.) come out just fine.

The finished cakes are dense, almost rubbery, and sticky, not light, spongy or crumbly.

Any other avenues to test/explore, or ideas about what’s going on?
posted by cocoagirl to Food & Drink (37 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
What kind of flour are you using? Gluten will affect the fluffiness and rise of cakes, and if you're using whole wheat, it may be heavier as well. I would try using sifted "cake flour" or otherwise a very light, white flour and see if that makes a difference. It's also possible your flour is stale and not absorbing liquid the way you expect it to.
posted by epanalepsis at 6:35 AM on May 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Are you sourcing your recipes from a scientific baker who actually knows what they're talking about (Rose Levy Beranbaum, Shirley O. Corriher, or the Cook's Illustrated / ATK folks)?

And forgive the dumb question since you are clearly experienced--but you didn't by any chance mix up baking powder and baking soda?
posted by bcwinters at 6:38 AM on May 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Does it dome up before it sinks? Or just never rise? If the former, problem could in theory be too much baking soda and/or baking powder, causing the air bubbles to over expand.

You mentioned the oven thermometer so I assume you don't have problems with the oven temp being inconsistent. Do you have a stompy kid something like that that might knock the cake as it's rising? Slamming the oven door will do it too.
posted by Wretch729 at 6:44 AM on May 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

epanalepsis: I used sifted cake flour for these last two recipes. I typically don't but thought it might help the issue.

bcwinters: the two most recent lemon cake recipes were from Dorie Greenspan and Epicurious. And I triple-checked-cleaned-my-glasses-made-no-assumptions about baking powder vs. soda. I was definitely using baking powder.

Wretch729: they never rise. I do have stompy kids, but they weren't home during these last batches.
posted by cocoagirl at 6:49 AM on May 5, 2016

- Could you post the exact recipe you used for one of the latest cakes? The most "boring" one if possible.

- This is a long shot, but have you tried weighing your ingredients (flour, for example) to make sure you're adding the right amount?
posted by amtho at 6:49 AM on May 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

It's not clear from your question whether this happens every time you make a cake, or if you sometimes get good results.
posted by Dolley at 6:53 AM on May 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

Baking powder vs. baking soda isn't so much a "I must use The One Ingredient that the recipe prescribes" thing... baking powder is baking soda + some other stuff. You use baking powder when there isn't enough acidity in your batter to cause a (acid + base -> CO2) reaction when it's heated. For something like a lemon cake (which is super acidic), I'm honestly surprised to see that they have you using baking powder rather than baking soda. Maybe try it again with an equal quantity of baking soda?
posted by Mayor West at 6:57 AM on May 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

Are you creaming the eggs and butter in a stand mixer, for several minutes? (I ask because until I started using one, I never really got things creamed properly, and I'd had no idea. The color and volume (which is crucial) change profoundly.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:05 AM on May 5, 2016 [5 favorites]

If nothing is really coming to mind, my immediate suggestion would be to bake this cake, which is virtually no-fail, and see if you can get it to rise normally. If you can't, that suggests to me that the problem is not the ingredients but your oven, air, pans, etc. If you can, try baking a similar but non-vegan chocolate cake and try to pinpoint the ingredient issue that way.
posted by Frowner at 7:08 AM on May 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

That sounds insanely frustrating. If quick breads are fine, this could just be two bad recipes or bad batches of baking powder.

More testing to rule out two bad batches of baking powder, if you want:

1. Fresh bp should foam in hot water: about 1 tsp to a half cup of hot water from the tap.

2. Not all all bp's are really double-acting. Single acting reacts in the presence of liquid; true double-acting requires heat. If the first test passed, repeat with room temp water. If it bubbles, you've got single-acting for all intents and purposes*. That batter can't sit around and needs to get into the oven as quickly as possible.

3. What's your ration of BP to flour? Shirley Corriher recommends 1 to 1 1/4 tsp per cup of flour (about 140 g of flour). Too much BP will make your cake rise fast and fall. On the other hand, (Rose Levy Berenbaum increases the bp for small cakes, and decreases it for larger cakes, because it will have less or more time to react, but 8 - 9 inches is well within "normal" range.)

4. If the ratio seems rational -- this being Greenspan, that's really likely -- is the cake flour self-rising?

Do you have links to the recipes? Some helpful MeFites could double-check.

* Yes, yes, Rumford brand claims to be double-acting, but most of the action happens without heat. It's really obvious when making pancakes: the batter bubbles up and up, then deflates before the last batch even hits the griddle.
posted by JawnBigboote at 7:10 AM on May 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

Oh, and from the "things you might not know you're doing wrong" file: it sounds like you're fussing with the cakes a lot while you're baking them. With good reason! But every time you open the oven to, for example, check how it's rising or turn it, you let in a blast of cold air that will cause any rising progress to immediately be lost. Monitor progress through the window, and see if that helps.
posted by Mayor West at 7:12 AM on May 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

oh, and how sure are you about your oven temperature? I've had ovens that were reasonably new and yet were 75 degrees too cold (and God forbid I open them to look at anything; they'd never heat up again.) Amazing how my baking improved when I got a really good oven.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:21 AM on May 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

To rule out oven and pan questions vs recipe/ingredient questions: if you baked a Jiffy just-add-water cake mix, would that fail too?

(oh, update, nevermind, you answered that in the post. Interesting.)
posted by aimedwander at 7:25 AM on May 5, 2016

How frustrating! Next thing I would do is to buy a different brand of baking powder, and check its expiration date before buying. If you've already done that, I'm stumped.
posted by sheldman at 7:45 AM on May 5, 2016

I was going to say not beating eggs and sugar long enough, but maybe you're somehow overmixing? Check this out.
posted by cabingirl at 7:51 AM on May 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Seconding cabingirl. "Sticky" means an over-creaming issue. See also this King Arthur link for photos of butters of different temperatures creamed. Slow creaming and room temp butter are crucial.
posted by mal de coucou at 7:59 AM on May 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

Nthing the importance of creaming - the initial whipping of butter and sugar. This is where you should be getting most of your air in a cake. Cream thoroughly, mix everything else just to combine.
posted by STFUDonnie at 8:03 AM on May 5, 2016

You mention that your cake recipes call for whipped egg whites. Are you whipping them until firm? My understanding is that whipping the whites until they are actually "stiff"/airy/foamy can cause them to "break"when you fold them in, and the cake won't rise as high.

Also, are you using the size egg called for in the recipe?
posted by little mouth at 8:09 AM on May 5, 2016

Have you tried recipes that don't require separating the eggs and beating the whites separately? How do those do? There are (many, many) recipes like that that still rise quite a bit, and if those work, that could be helpful in narrowing things down.
posted by needs more cowbell at 8:21 AM on May 5, 2016

I'm gonna vote combination of overbeating, overwhipping, overfutzing.

Because honestly that's the only thing that makes sense.

Get a Rose Levy Berenbaum recipe. Follow it to a t. If the cake still fails sell your home, its a portal to another dimension or something.
posted by JPD at 8:38 AM on May 5, 2016 [9 favorites]

a cakeless dimension
posted by JPD at 8:40 AM on May 5, 2016 [6 favorites]

Not all all bp's are really double-acting. Single acting reacts in the presence of liquid; true double-acting requires heat. If the first test passed, repeat with room temp water. If it bubbles, you've got single-acting for all intents and purposes*.

I don't think this is right. Double acting should react in both hot water and room temp water. For your test to work you'd need to hit it with room temp, have it bubble, then hit it with hot and have it bubble. All BP should foam on initial contact with water. True double acting will foam a second time on contact with heat. The second foaming should be bigger tho.
posted by JPD at 9:05 AM on May 5, 2016

I can't think of anything besides a baking powder issue or technique. And it's hard to see how technique could be consistently bad in the face of so much thought and experimentation. So I second the idea of trying a different brand of baking powder.

Have you tried muffins? The recipes are a bit different, the oven temp is different, so it might work. Also, if you have an older edition of Joy of Cooking, the muffin section has a series of drawings of imperfect muffins with a guide to the cause of the failure.

Box mixes are oil cakes that eliminate the butter creaming issue. In your place, I might try one of the homemade substitutes for a box mix.
posted by SemiSalt at 9:19 AM on May 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Baking powder isn't good forever. It can go flat.(it is baking soda and usually tartaric acid in some form. ) it reacts and makes the bubbles when it's in a wet batter. It's still reacting when it's dry in the cupboard, just very slowly, but still enough to go bad over time.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 9:23 AM on May 5, 2016

I'm seconding fingersandtoes's suggestion to check your oven temperature. You can buy a little internal oven thermometer for pretty cheap. I had this problem with cookies awhile back and it turned out my oven was running a good 25-degress below what it was displaying, resulting in flat flat cookies.
posted by LKWorking at 10:18 AM on May 5, 2016

Lots of good ideas here but one I didn't see was how you are preparing the cake pans? I think I recall reading a while back to not grease and flour the sides of the pan, only the bottom. If the sides are dry, the cake batter can rise and stick to the sides and stay put. (I read this a long time ago so I may be remembering it incorrectly.) (And dammit, now I want cake.)
posted by Beti at 10:24 AM on May 5, 2016

that's true for certain kinds of cakes (angel food?) , but a traditional butter cake or a genoise needs buttered sides.
posted by JPD at 11:29 AM on May 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

I had another thought. Most box cakes specify a lot of beating with the mixer, many as much as three minutes. A scratch cake would probably call for just enough to get most of the lumps out. So, no excessive beating once the dry stuff goes in.
posted by SemiSalt at 12:11 PM on May 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

If box cakes are coming out okay, then you can rule out your oven and pans. Since you are able to put together the box mixture and comprehend recipes, I would rule out technique. That leaves ingredients. You've changed up your baking powder but, I would change up again, as well as your flour. I love King Arthur's All Purpose Flour for baking. Look for recipes that call for baking powder and baking soda. Use filtered or bottled water if the recipe calls for water. Use Irish butter instead of the cheap junk. The better your fat, the better your crumb. Try baking on a dry day as humidity can affect results. And, if all else fails, crumble the rubbery mess into pudding and call it a trifle.

This one is supposed to come out dense:

The Cake

2 cups sugar
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup special dark cocoa
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
2 eggs
1 cup milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup boiling water

Preheat oven to 350º. Grease 2 round pans, 1 13x9 pan, or 1 bundt. In large mixer bowl, stir together the dry ingredients. Add wet except for water. Mix for 2 minutes, then add water (have the water in your microwave and heat for 2 minutes, timing your mixing and boiling your water at the same time). Add water carefully and mix well. Pour into pans and bake for just under 30 minutes. Do not overcook. If it seems a little undercooked in the middle, then it is done. Cool for 10 minutes then release from pans and let cool.
If you are making the 4 layer version, you will have easier results if you chill the cakes for a bit. Use a long, serrated knife to carefully make a horizontal cut through the middle of the cake. Flip your round pan over, place the cake on it, start at the shallowest edge and work around, turning the pan to get easy access to all sides.

Truffle filling

16 ounces dark chocolate
1 cup heavy cream
6 tablespoons butter

The chocolate should be in small bits and slightly melted. If you are not using a high quality chocolate, you may have to use your hand mixer to achieve a smooth finish. Do not over-mix.
Prepare your chocolate and have ready in a large bowl. Cut butter into small pieces and have ready. Bring heavy cream to a simmer over med. high heat. Pour over chocolate and stir until smooth. Add butter and stir until smooth.
Depending on the temperature of the kitchen, your ganache may need to cool a little before using. You can put it in the fridge or freezer for a few moments. Check frequently and stir every time. Avoid precipitation or it will leave streaks. Once it begins to hold it's shape, then you can use on cake. I adapted this from a recipe for truffles. If you make a 4 layer cake, then you will only have the bowl to lick. If you make a 9x12 cake then you will have extra. Allow extra to firm up in fridge, roll into balls and roll in crushed nuts, hot cocoa mix, coconut, whatever. Put frosted cake in the fridge to set. Once it is set, you can cover it without it sticking.

Serve fresh, serve cold, serve room temperature or heat for a few moments in microwave for molten cake.

I use Hershey's special dark chocolate when making 'the cake' but any chocolate will do. Ghirardelli cocoa is lovely in the bundt cake version.
4 layers dark chocolate with truffle filling
the cake
posted by myselfasme at 12:51 PM on May 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

I concur with the overmixing. It is very easy to overmix, especially with a Kitchenaid stand mixer. I ignore time suggestions for mixing and rely upon the look of the mix - you cut the time by half, to start with.
posted by Sweet Dee Kat at 4:21 PM on May 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

Weighing your ingredients jumped out at me as a possibility. Scooped flour is so much more than weighed in my experience, and sifting might not even help if you sifted after you measured. Would also explain differences with a box mix.
posted by Lady Li at 5:55 AM on May 6, 2016

This method of measuring flour works well for me:

Lay out a square of wax paper
Scoop out roughly two cups flour into a fine sieve.
Sift flour into a mound onto the wax paper.
Gently take small spoonfuls from the mound and pour them into your measuring cup.
Once the flour is a bit above the lip of the cup, level it by sweeping a the back of the blade of a butter knife across the cup's lip (holding the butter knife as in these images.)

This way you've done nothing to pack the flour down.
You can pour the excess flour back into its container using the wax paper.
posted by pickles_have_souls at 5:03 PM on May 6, 2016

Have you tried different brands of baking powder? I had a batch of Bob's Red Mill baking powder that didn't rise. Also, another brand from a cardboard can from Whole Foods. Now I buy a more "standard" aluminum free type or make my own from baking soda and cream of tarter.

I don't know if over mixing would produce such consistently flat results. When my kids bake with me they each insist on stirring the crap out of the batter and while it affects the texture a bit, our stuff still rises.
posted by defreckled at 9:34 PM on May 6, 2016

While I'm on team-over-fussing, this article might be worth studying.

Good recipes have clear indications of how a batter should look and feel - you really have to be careful with many cake recipes. I always fold in the egg-whites with a spatula, rather than in the machine.

(Kids stirring a batter for 15 minutes are not at all like a Kitchenaid stirring at medium for 3 minutes).
posted by mumimor at 2:08 PM on May 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

I will be blunt in the name of science. Egg white cakes are not for the weak. I have trouble with them, too. My best guess is that you aren't folding properly. Can you stick to whole egg recipes until you're around someone who knows how to fold? My mother's technique just involves a bunch of cursing. When I don't feel like I've really "got it" that day, I cut the beaten whites in half, mix half into the batter gently but thoroughly, and then barely fold in the second half.
posted by 8603 at 4:43 PM on May 28, 2016

Also, to follow mumimor's point, you are folding by hand, aren't you? Try to learn from an expert. Anyone would be flattered if you demanded to see their folding technique up close and personal.
posted by 8603 at 4:47 PM on May 28, 2016

Final note: as others have hinted, get those layers in the oven FAST. Literally clear a path in your kitchen, pre-adjust the oven racks, have the pans lined up right next to the oven, get other people away from your area, pot holders ready, and only THEN do you start folding. You should all but sling the pans into the oven. It should seem like huge overkill.
posted by 8603 at 4:54 PM on May 28, 2016

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