Tell Me About Cake Mixes

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!

21 thoughts on “Tell Me About Cake Mixes”

  1. This is a fascinating series of posts, Joe. I recently bought a book called “How Baking Works” (which I haven’t been able to read yet), but I see I didn’t need it, I just need your blog! (I hope you’re considering writing your own book.)

    If I used skim milk powder instead of milk in the basic high-ratio cake you gave us, how would that affect the rest of it? Would I just use 50 grams of water instead of milk for the liquid, or would it need additional water because of the higher ratio of dries it would have? Or would I reduce the weight of the flour accordingly?

    Same question if I wanted to add some cocoa for a high-ratio chocolate cake.

    Separate from this stuff: my stand mixer is about to die, alas. It’s a Kitchen Aid Artisan, 5 qt capacity, it’s about 11 years old or so. The thought of being without a stand mixer is turning my hair grayer than it already is. Do you have particular recommendations about stand mixers? I don’t know if you can do a post on this since it would involve brand names, but if it interests you and won’t cause blog trouble, I’d appreciate it. I was very happy with the Kitchen Aid, but in truth I use it a lot more now than when I first bought it, and for more demanding recipes. I’ve been researching stand mixers, but the amount of information is making my head spin and I’m not so sure what to trust. (But I know I can trust you!!) Thanks.

    1. Hey Chana!

      The easiest way it probably to just make milk with the powder according to the directions and add it in! Regarding a chocolate version yes, you can add cocoa powder. Swap it out for about one fifth of the cake flour. So, if you were going to add 100 grams of cake flour, use 80 grams of flour and 20 grams of cocoa powder. Make sense?

      I’ll happily put up a post about mixers tomorrow!

      – Joe

  2. This post is terrific–what an amazing amount of little known info. I’d always heard that home bakers liked to be involved and add fresh eggs (and also suspected that leaving out the eggs was a cost saving for the makers). I never thought about the fact that dried eggs taste nasty–though they certainly do. I didn’t know about the encapsulation of shortening blobs–fascinating!

    Wishing you a happy, healthy 2013!

    1. Wonderful as always to have you stop by, Nancy! I nearly made Glühwein this year, inspired by your post, but alas I came down with flu!

      We muddled through however and had a very happy holiday season all the same. Here’s wishing you and yours a fabulous 2013!

      – Joe

      1. I got the flu (or maybe just a super-bad cold), and when I was mostly over it, I drank some Glühwein and felt a LOT better! The steam helped open the sinuses too :-)!

        1. I’ll remember that the next time I get sick!

          Sounds like a lot more fun that Tylenol!

          – Joe

  3. Re: using powdered milk… We use mostly powdered milk at my shop, both skim and whole. I originally started during a spell when my walk-in fridge walked out but have stuck to it. I like that I can adjust the “milkiness” as I see fit (OK, maybe not a word, but it should be).

    You can mix it and use like milk, or you can use it as a dry ingredient. I make idiot-proof pastry cream by using milk powder as a dry ingredient and simply boiling water rather than heating milk (which has a certain tendency to burn if you turn your back on it)


    1. Very interesting, Paul! I also like to use milk powder as an ingredient. It’s a fantastic tenderizer for brioche-type doughs, and for other applications. Thanks for the terrific comment!

      – Joe

  4. I used to get a powdered milk from food co-ops and health food stores that was more expensive but you could make it up and drink it unlike the usual stuff off the shelf that makes me gag. I’m trying to remember what they called it. It didn’t mix as easily but the flavor was much better. Seems like it was something like low processed dried milk or something like that. I found out about it years ago…I think from the Supermarket Handbook that was my epiphany about what is in what we eat…back before everyone else started telling us the scary stories about what we eat.

    1. Yes you know, for me dry milk powder is only an ingredient for breads like challah and whatnot. I don’t think I’d be too interested in drinking milk made from it. But I believe that there are higher quality products out there. I’d be curious to try them. Thanks again, Linda!

      – Joe

      1. Let’s see if we can’t change your mind about powdered milk, or, at least expand your uses for it.

        Easy Pastry Cream
        Water 500g
        Whole egg 3 (150g)
        Sugar 125g
        Cornstarch 25g
        AP Flour 25g
        Milk Powder 45g
        Vanilla 15g (1tbs)

        1- Boil the water
        2- Whisk everything else together in a bowl
        3- Temper mixture with boiling water
        4- Strain tempered mixture back into pot
        5 – Heat to thicken
        6- Chill and use


        1. Alright Paul, you’re on! This looks like a great recipe, actually. I shall try it this weekend!

          – Joe

  5. Hello,

    I realized from the comments about powdered milk that its use is not as common your part of the world as it is in mine. Where i am from when we say ‘milk’ most times we mean powdered milk. Otherwise we’d specify, e.g ‘box milk’, ‘evaporated milk’ or cow milk. Personally, i prefer to drink ‘milk’ hot; i can’t stand it warm or cold. But one can determine the ‘milkiness’ of milk when when it’s made from powdered milk easily.

    Might i add that i enjoy your posts very very much.


    1. A delight to have you comment, Melody. That’s very interesting since most milk here is liquid and consumed cold ( or as a liquid ingredient). Where are you writing from?

      – Joe

  6. Hello Joe,

    I’m from Guyana, South America. Oh, might i add that here too alot of people don’t think that using cake mixes is making ‘real’ cake. My mother being one of them. I only started using cake mixes occasionally a few years back. There is alot of pride in making cakes from scratch.

    1. I think that’s true here too, Melody. Most people would certainly rather eat a homemade cake, but very few people know how to make them anymore, which is a real shame. I hope that’s changing to some degree, though I see so few homemade baked goods at all these days…not even cookies! Sigh…

      – Joe

    2. Melody!

      I’m sorry, I just realized I hadn’t replied…I meant to do so right after I received this. What about knishes? You can put just about any filling into them and the dough is quite simple.

      – Joe

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