Better Cakes Through Chemistry

Not many questions on bao this week, but plenty on cake additives. So…why not? Reader Wale wants to know what the difference is between cake stabilizers, cake emulsifiers and cake improvers. These are products that are mostly used by commercial cake producers use in the U.S., but in some parts of the world are used by home bakers. Kitchen cabinets in Southeast Asia often contain so-called “cake gels” which produce very moist, very fluffy, very fine-crumbed cakes.

These gels are usually combination cake improvers that contain several different functional ingredients, almost always an emulsifier or two, some sort of stabilizer and maybe a humectant. Some of the additives they contain do double or even triple-duty. The food world is full of ingredients like that. Fat, for instance, can be seen as a combination tenderizer, a flavor improver and a preservative.

As I mentioned earlier, emulsifiers generally cause fat in a cake to disperse to a very fine degree, creating a very fine crumb that is at once higher in volume, stronger and more tender. Common emulsifiers are mono- and di-glycerides, polysorbate and polyglycerol. Polyglycerol simultaneously acts as a fat substitute for people who don’t like a lot of butter (many Asians). Since many of these sorts of compounds are also acidic they further function as cake “stabilizers” helping egg proteins to coagulate early before heat is applied. That helps eggs whip higher and allows batters to hold longer before baking without collapsing.

Humectants are a class of additives that help foods retain moisture, both during baking and on the shelf. A humectant commonly found in cake gels is propylene glycol.

None of these additives are anything to fear in my personal opinion, but then I don’t use them in my baking, either. For emulsification I turn to lecithin in egg yolks. For stabilization I use the citric acid in lemon juice or the tartaric acid in cream of tartar. Sucrose and glucose (table sugar and corn syrup) are my go-to humectants. All these work great for my purposes, though if I were a commercial food producer or a high-volume cake baker I’d probably lean on some of these more high-tech ingredients to give me an edge. Many, many do.

21 thoughts on “Better Cakes Through Chemistry”

  1. One day I need to attempt to understand acid/alkalinity chemistry, both for baking and ceramics. I should throw gardening in there too, I suppose. I tend to associate acid with bitter or tart, but that’s not always the case, eh (especially when discussing glazes or dirt)?

  2. I’m sure there is nothing wrong with them but they don’t sound appetizing. 🙂

  3. Hi, Joe,

    Your mention of “very moist, very fine-crumbed cakes” makes me wonder: when I lived in North London, in Tottenham, there was a large local population of Jamaicans and Bajuns. On the High Street there was a Jamaican bakery that made the most fantastic bread you’ve ever met. The mouth-feel was amazing; it was like licking velvet.

    I’ve googled for some years trying to find a similar recipe. Do you suppose it had anything to do with the additives to the dough? And have you any idea how to replicate that mouth-feel?

    1. Hi Philiip!

      Can you tell me what the bread tasted like? Was it sweet? I have a Jamaican neighbor who might be able to tell me…and perhaps supply a recipe!

      – Joe

      1. Hi, Joe

        Yes, actually the bread was slightly sweet. The overall mouth-feel was a lush softness. It was something I’d not experienced before or since.

  4. Thanks for the explanation. I guess all the additives make the cakes taste so good that we cannot control ourselves from over eating thus expanding waistlines…makes us sound like hooligans!

    1. Heh. They supply the characteristics we love in cake! It’s as simple as that!

      – Joe

  5. Hello Mr. Joe

    Thanks for the explanation. The only thing left is to decide which emulsifier will deliver. Infact, manufacturers states some safe guard as to the application of their emulsifier or stabilizers, including powdered ones and not all cakes can stand well to my believe, especially German chocolate cake, I love a particular recipe of such from Chef Gale Gand


    1. Yes, too many emulsifiers and humectants can create a cake so tender that it falls apart. There’s a limit to everything!

      I love Gale Gand. I’ll have to try that cake!

      – Joe

  6. I have just go through your website it is great. Especially this article Better Cakes Through Chemistry is really wonderful your substitutions are great (instead of chemical). If you don’t mind please share your recipe (with exact measurement) with your great substitutes.

  7. Hi, Joe.
    Good day to you.
    I wonder if I add emulsifier to the cake will it help to make the cake ‘stronger’ to hold roll out fondant?

  8. Thanks Joe 🙂
    I am planning to do rainbow cake with added emulsifier then cover with rolled out fondant.
    Everytime I added color I am sort of worrying to over mix the cake batter. I heard about with added emulsifier will help.
    But I do worry that it may ‘weaken’ my cake which I need it to be strong enough to hold rolled out fondant.
    I will give it a try and then feedback! 🙂

    1. The emulsifier should have the opposite effect — strength. But let me know!

      – Joe

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