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.