The other day while browsing at Barnes & Noble, I saw what I consider a horrible disservice to would be bakers, a majority of the cookbooks were calling for boxed ingredients in their “recipes”. I suspect this is to answer a need for quick solutions in our busy lives or possibly a compromise to the intimidation some fear when contemplating the decision to bake vs. buying ready made treats.
Do boxed cakes save time? I don’t think so. Boxed cakes might vary slightly but most call for the addition of ingredients usually eggs, oil and water (the latter 2 which have to be measured out) as well as the contents of the box – let’s call that 4 ingredients. A basic scratch cake calls for flour, sugar, butter or oil, eggs, milk and a leavening agent such as baking powder. That’s all of 6 ingredients, 2 ingredients more than the box mix. Furthermore, the box adds several other ingredients that are not only hard to pronounce, their necessity is questionable given the simplicity of a true cake recipe. All in all, the time it takes to measure out your own flour, sugar and baking powder is nominal, making scratch vs. boxed a push when it comes to saving time.
Did you know that when the first boxed cake mix hit the shelves in the early 1930’s it’s maker was attempting to do as suspected, help homemakers bake a cake quicker and easier. It didn’t take long however, that the boxed recipe was modified to include the necessity of fresh eggs. Research at the time revealed the addition of fresh eggs preserved the “baking experience” consumers required with their now fast and easy mixes. To me, this only reinforces that deep down we desire to bake from scratch, so why not. It’s really not that hard. As someone who once thought the box was the peak of my baking abilities, I learned that with a little practice I could scratch bake and you can too. We can all bake outside the box. I had a few misses at first, which is a testament to my lack of initial competence but I’m happy to share, I bake even faster from scratch now than I ever did with a box. For those who are still hesitant, here are some of my mistakes and how to correct them. I hope sharing them will help you to realize you can scratch bake too.
Mistake #1: Using cold ingredients (i.e butter, eggs and milk)
First and most important: Bake with ALL, yes all, ingredients at room temperature. Take your butter out first. It takes longer for the butter to get to room temp. If you don’t have time to wait, microwave a glass of water till it’s boiling. Toss the water, place the stick of butter inside, cover the glass and wait a few minutes and your butter will be soft. That works by the way, whenever you want a soft stick of butter. Personally, I prefer to bake with butter but if you really can’t wait or bake vegan you can use oil, which is already at room temp (I think this is why the mixes call for oil). For the eggs and milk, I usually take those out about 30 minutes before I want to bake. If your baking vegan and your applesauce is cold, bring that to room temp as well. Boxed cakes call for water (tap water or RO water is usually close to or at room temp, another reason I suspect they call for water) and you can certainly use water too but I think milk will give you a better cake in the end. Most traditional recipes call for milk, if not buttermilk but water will work too.
Mistake #2: Stressing about making exact measurements
Second: When measuring dry ingredients don’t stress to much trying to be exact. As long as you are mostly correct, the fact that you have 2-1/4 cups or 1-7/8 cups of flour for a recipe calling for 2 cups will not ruin your cake. Sure you strive for 2 cups but don’t worry if your a little off.
Mistake #3: Beating the flour and leavening into the cake
Third and last: Follow the recipe and after you’ve creamed the sugar, butter (or oil) and eggs (or applesauce), you will be ready to add the flour/leavening and milk. Turn your mixer to the lowest speed. You want to alternate these ingredients as you incorporate them into your creamed butter/sugar mixture not beat them in. If the speed is too high you can add unnecessary air to your batter which can wreak havoc in the oven or worse after your done baking, causing the cake to sink upon cooling.
It may be possible that boxed mixes have some of those “other” ingredients to idiot proof the process and for the most part they do. However, with just a little practice you can ditch the mysterious ingredients and bake your own cake from scratch, outside the box.