Who knew there was so much interest in high ratio cakes and box cake mixes? Reader Pete wants to know if store bought cake mixes contain high ratio flour, and while I’m on the subject, would I mind telling him how box cake mixes work? Pete, I’ll do my best.
As far as I know most box cakes contain high ratio flour, for reasons that I outlined below. It delivers cake layers with an even crumb that rise high, yet are still moist and flavorful. As for how a cake mix works, that’s an interesting subject.
Most of us could probably improvise our own dry just-add-water cake mix without too much trouble. Flour, sugar, salt, leavening, those are the easy part. Eggs and milk are a little more challenging, but both of those have been around in powdered form a while now. Powdered milk was invented in 1833 and powdered eggs came along in about 1910 (both were originally invented for military use). You can find them without much difficulty.
It’s the fat that’s the rub when it comes to a dry cake mix, and indeed the problem of fat kept commercial cake mixes from becoming truly popular all through the first half of the 20th century. Prior to 1950 or so box cakes were considered acts of desperation by most housewives. The powdered eggs they contained tasted pretty nasty, but more imortantly the fat (shortening that was simply stirred in) picked up off flavors from the box which made it taste, well, like cardboard.
But commercial cake mix makers were in something of a box themselves when it came to fat. Neither butter nor margarine would keep on a shelf at room temperature. Shortening or vegetable oil were the only alternatives, but liquid oil was out since it not only picked up off flavors faster, it would weep into the cardboard box. Actually shortening did the same thing on a hot day, creating unsightly (and unappetizing) stains on the boxes when it melted.
That changed in 1948 when researchers at Beatrice Foods discovered a way to encapsulate tiny blobs of shortening within a coating of milk protein (casein). The little coats kept the shortening fresher and also didn’t melt on hot days. The innovation was called “powdered shortening” and it’s still used in cake mixes to this day.
As for the powdered egg problem, cake mix makers never really solved that, which is part of the reason why most cake mixes call for a fresh egg (home bakers also like to feel involved, manufacturers discoverded, even when making a box cake). So that’s pretty much what I know, Pete. I hope this answers your question!