Chemistry of Baking

We’re delighted to welcome back the awesome Sandra with her latest post. Last time she managed to combine her wise words with her clever science mind to bring us an innovative take on why you shouldn’t sweat the small stuff. This time she tackles the science of baking, making baking numpties like me feel so much better in the process. I am forever grateful. 

Over to you, Sange: 

So, hands up who can’t reliably bake a cake? Go on, you’re amongst friends. I know I can’t. I envy the pictures I see on the Clandestine Cake Club when I receive their updates. I go green (with envy, obv) at the sight of friends’ outstanding creations. I can cook up a storm, regarding recipes as a set of guidance notes rather than carved in stone. So why does the humble sponge elude me? Even if I *shudder* follow the recipe to the letter? The only cake I can reliably make is the sort which isn’t required to burst forth from the vessel containing it like a WAG bikini top on the Daily Mail website.

But, have I got news for you. It’s not our fault, ladies. We can, in fact, blame Chemistry. It’s all I hold dear, but it is also responsible for one of my greatest sources of frustration. I. Cannot. Bake. A. Chuffing. Cake.

Reasons why its’ nothing to do with you, gov. 

1)     Flour

Flour is mainly comprised of starch and proteins, glutenin and gliandin. Different flours have differing amounts of protein. And you can’t tell by looking at them. If you add water/moisture to flour, the two proteins are drawn to each other and chemically bond to make the kind of sticky mess that makes you wish you’d taken your rings off first-a new, larger protein.  In cakes, too much gluten can make them heavy and dry.

In bread baking, a higher protein content is required – you experience stiffer dough. The kneading helps to build these new protein networks. See?

Conclusion – if you find flour that works for you, stick with it. I haven’t found my flour yet.

2)     All rise

Baking soda and baking powder are your friends here, as well as a bit of elbow grease. They react with acids in the liquids in the mixture, and then release more carbon dioxide when exposed to heat. Powders will work for you whatever, but unless you have slogged your heart out until your arms is dead getting some air into the mixture, they’ll have nothing to work with. They make the existing air pockets bigger. No existing air pockets = a cake as flat as a witch’s tit.

Conclusion – put your back into it. Give then lovely chemicals something to work with. More effort required from me, I think.

3)     Fats

The fat in a cake is a v. good thing. It prevents the protein binding together by helping to coat the protein in flour and preventing the formation of gluten. Good for bread, not for my blummin’ sponge. Too much gluten in a cake makes it tough, so effectively the fat makes the cake tender. Awwww.  Oil is better then butter as it coats the proteins better, making the cake more likely to be moist.

Conclusion – fat makes you tender (if you’re a cake, but feel free to gloss over this part if you’re not. Tell ‘em Sange said so)

4)   Eggbound

They put air into the mixture and help to stick it all together – like dough to rings. The beaten white can act as a leavening agent but the protein content of the white can release water when heated, making a cake light but dry. Use yolks only and the cake will moist but tending towards wet. Look, no-one said this was easy – oh hang on, I’m told cake baking is easy all of the time. Damn you, perfect bakers!!

Conclusion – Always use room temperature eggs. Don’t beat yourself up if it fails *see what I did there?*

5)     Sweet additions

Now I don’t know about you, but I like a sweet cake. If I’m going to feel a little (or sometimes massive) pang of guilt when indulging in a little slice of perfection then I require sugar. But guess what? Sugar brings a little more to the party than its’ inherent flavour. It brings chemical usefulness too. Remember Glutanin and gliandin from your flour? They combine with the sugar to prevent, you guessed it, gluten formation.

Conclusion – it’s useful, you can’t make a cake without it. Ergo, it’s good for you.

Well that’s the bare bones of it, but it should be enough to get you out of a sticky situation when you’re expected to provide a cake. Or take one of my life tips – if you need a home baked cake, get to your local WI / farmers market or find a great cake shop. Feel no guilt, have no shame. Some people can fly aeroplanes, some people can fix cars, and some people can bake cakes. I can’t do any of these and I no longer care.



Categories: Food, Frippery
15 interesting thoughts on this


  1. Becca
    Posted August 21, 2012 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    I use self raising flour and no baking powder. If you don’t get the baking powder right, down to the smallest mm then you’re in trouble. As I don’t weigh anything (except myself after eating said cakes obvs) I never get it right. I find Tesco basic does the job. None of this posh fancy flour.

    Really want cake now. For breakfast.

    • Katy
      Posted August 21, 2012 at 9:11 am | Permalink

      Cake for breakfast is a totally valid and awesome thing. Sometimes I have a banana as well to make myself feel “healthier” (I am aware this probably doesn’t help…)

      I once baked half a dozen buns (or “cupcakes” as southerners say) in the morning and ate 4 for breakfast. Un-iced.

      See, super healthy.

  2. Katielase
    Posted August 21, 2012 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    Sange, you’re ace. This made me laugh. I use plain boring flour, I always end up with over-risen cakes when I use self-raising (because I don’t measure baking powder).

    K x

  3. Alex
    Posted August 21, 2012 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    My husband tells me that Bero flour is the only flour we ever need haha. And I put baking powder in with self raising for extra bigness. Yep..I like my cakes big like my bonce!!

    I can bake a cake. I can bake buns. But I have to follow a recipe. I have no natural flair for baking at all. I really really wish I could whip up delicious toppings however as I have yet to do more than buttercream, fresh cream whipped up, or peanut butter topping…which is quite yummy on a chocolate cupcake…tastes like a snickers!!


  4. Zan
    Posted August 21, 2012 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    When I first tried to bake, my fatal flaw was thinking I could just ‘wing it’ like I did with other cooking. But no. I discovered the hard way that you need exact measures or it just doesn’t work!

    PS. Is this week cake-themed on AOW?

    • Posted August 21, 2012 at 10:35 am | Permalink

      Zan, it’s been an unprecedented cake start to the week, I don’t think we intended it to be that way! No more cake until….oooh, at least the weekend I promise x

      • Zan
        Posted August 21, 2012 at 10:39 am | Permalink

        Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about the cake-theme! Just asking ;)

        • Posted August 21, 2012 at 10:43 am | Permalink

          It’s actually physiologically impossible to complain about cake. DNA repels it. From Dr K (PhD, Cake)

          • Posted August 21, 2012 at 11:00 am | Permalink

            Is it too late to make this my thesis? I would really have enjoyed the practical testing of this theory.

            K x

            • Posted August 21, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

              I’ll willingly volunteer as a test subject Katie!

    • Posted August 22, 2012 at 9:14 am | Permalink

      My mother has a saying she used to bring out for the Christmas baking every year: “Bread is forgiving, but cake holds a grudge”. Basically, you can ‘wing it’ with breads (particularly Irish soda breads, yum) but you need to follow every instruction and measure every ingredient, sometimes down to weighing the eggs to get a cake right. I’ve even found this with pre-mixed cakes- if you do’nt beat it just as long as it says on teh box, you get a completely different texture!

  5. PiriyaP
    Posted August 21, 2012 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    1 tsp baking powder to 250g self-raising flour, works every time! I know just about one recipe off by heart in the world and that is my mum’s sponge. Interesting post Sandra, I’ve always wondered how such basic ingredients come together to make such yummy goodness :)

  6. Posted August 21, 2012 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    I’m normally really quite handy when it comes to baking, but my main downfall is whenever I move house (which I’ve done a fair bit) and have to adapt to a new oven. I’ve found, particularly with older ovens, that you need to be flexible by a good 10-20 minutes in your baking time, and check it with the obsessive compulsion of a new mum checking a sleeping baby!

    However, I’d never really gotten the concept of “the flour that works for you” until recently. My husband was sent to the shops for baking goods (he’s pretty awesome at that) and came back with flour and cocoa I’d never used before, but both were phenomenal. The flour is an Aussie brand, so no good for most AOW readers, but Droste cocoa is Dutch, so probably easy enough to get in the UK and is simply divine!

  7. Helena
    Posted August 21, 2012 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    This is great, thank you!

  8. Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    I learned the trick (which I have since forgotten) of the wet to dry formula. And I always add separated eggs to my best cakes with the whites made fluffy. Sponges are hard to get right though and I love this post.

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Hello! We're Clare, Aisling and Anna and welcome to a corner of the world where smart, flawed, real women talk about the bigger picture; about their experiences, stories and opinions on all aspects of being a woman today, from marriage to feminism to pretty, too.

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