How to Prevent a Dry or Dense Cake

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These 9 crucial baking tips help prevent a dry or dense cake. Applying these lessons in your kitchen helps promise a soft and moist cake!

6 inch chocolate cake on a teal cake stand with a slice on a cake server

Dense. A cake crumb’s enemy.

Dry. A cake crumb’s nemesis. 

Dry or overly dense cakes have absolutely no room in this world. However far too often, a seemingly innocent looking cake can fall victim to one or both of these texture tragedies. It’s happened approximately 3,520,958x to me and I’m always working to save my cake (and myself!) from the dense or dry cake catastrophe again.

There are ways to prevent and avoid these unfavorable textures. I’ve been practicing with cake recipes for several years and have learned a lot in the process. Most of the time I can look at a recipe and predict the texture outcome. But sometimes I’m not that lucky, so I wrote 9 crucial lessons that will help us the next time we’re baking a from-scratch cake.

I promise you SOFT & MOIST cakes!


1. Use Cake Flour

Reach for cake flour instead of all-purpose flour. Cake flour is a low protein flour that’s milled into a superfine consistency. This soft, tender texture directly translates into your cake. However, this isn’t an ALL or NOTHING rule. Some recipes simply cannot withstand cake flour’s fine consistency. Chocolate cake, for example, already has cocoa powder– which is a soft dry ingredient and takes the place of some flour in the recipe. More often than not, the combination of cake flour and cocoa powder results in a flimsy cake. Likewise, carrot cake and banana cake contain additional wet ingredients (the fruits or veggies), so cake flour isn’t ideal because it’s not strong enough.

However, when making vanilla cake, white cake, red velvet cake, vanilla cupcakes, and other cakes/cupcakes where a fluffy texture is favorable, try using cake flour. I’ve also been successful substituting cake flour for all-purpose flour to create softer pineapple upside-down cake and funfetti cake. (Make a 1:1 substitution with no other changes to the recipe. My pineapple upside down cake recipe has been updated to include it!)

Swans Down and Softasilk are my preferred cake flour brands (not sponsored!). I use unbleached when I can find it, otherwise I just stick with bleached. Both brands provide quality results for a decent price. Find cake flour in the baking aisle next to the all-purpose flour. If you can’t get your hands on cake flour, use this cake flour substitute.

homemade cake flour substitute in measuring cup


2. Add Sour Cream

To help prevent a dry, dense cake, let’s add a creamy and light wet ingredient. Milk is usually required in a cake recipe to thin out the batter and lighten up the crumb, but sour cream is often overlooked. In addition to milk, add a spoonful or 2 of sour cream. Of course this depends on the recipe, but you’ll find that a lot of my cake recipes call for sour cream. Don’t underestimate the power of this ingredient! I even add it to my cheesecake and no-bake cheesecake recipes. Plain yogurt is a fine substitution.


3. Room Temperature Butter / Don’t Over-Cream

I sound like a broken record on this one, especially if you’re a regular SBA reader. But when a recipe calls for room temperature butter, use room temperature butter. Most cakes begin with creaming butter and sugar together. Butter is capable of holding air and the creaming process is when butter traps that air. While baking, that trapped air expands and produces a fluffy cake. No properly creamed butter = no air = no fluffiness. Aka a dense cake.

But let’s say your butter was at the proper room temperature. You began creaming it with sugar, but then left the mixer running. There’s a big chance your butter and sugar will over-cream, meaning the butter will trap more air than it should. As the batter bakes, that extra air will deflate and leave you with an overly dense cake. It’s all science!

For best results, cream butter and sugar together for about 1-2 minutes.

Additionally, the cake recipe may call for room temperature sour cream, milk, and/or eggs. Make sure they’re each at room temperature. Room temperature ingredients bond together easier and quicker since they’re warmer– thus reducing over-mixing. Over-mixing = dense cake. (See tip #6.)


4. Add a Touch of Baking Powder or Baking Soda

When a cake is too dense, one might think that adding extra flour will soak up more moisture and lighten up the crumb. However, that’s not usually the case. The cake likely needs more leavening support from baking powder or baking soda. This tip isn’t exactly a cakewalk (ha!) because these two ingredients are scientifically particular. If a recipe includes a lot of acid such as lemon juice and buttermilk and isn’t lifted with enough baking powder, the cake will taste dense. In that case, you may need the addition of baking soda which will react with the acid and create a fluffier crumb. Depending on the recipe, adding more baking powder or soda could leave a bitter aftertaste… so don’t go overboard.

This depends on the recipe, but I generally use around 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda per 1 cup of flour or 1 teaspoon of baking powder per 1 cup of flour. Sometimes recipes call for both baking powder and baking soda.

baking powder with a teaspoon


5. Add Oil

The ratio of wet to dry ingredients determines a cake’s moisture level. If there’s simply too much flour and not enough butter, a cake will taste dry. On the other hand, if there’s too much milk and not enough flour, a cake will taste too wet. Finding the right balance between wet and dry ingredients is key. If you notice that a cake tastes too dry, add a little oil the next time you make it. My strawberry shortcake cake kept tasting a little too dry no matter what I did, so I added 2 Tablespoons of vegetable oil to the batter. It’s so moist!

Some cakes use oil instead of butter. This is because there’s another flavorful ingredient in the recipe and butter’s flavor isn’t necessary. See my carrot cake and pumpkin cake.


6. Don’t Over-Mix

As mentioned in tip #3, over-mixing cake batter produces too much air. That trapped air expands then deflates in the oven. A deflated cake is a dense cake! Only mix the wet and dry ingredients together JUST until combined. I usually run a whisk or spatula through the batter a couple times at the very end to ensure there are no large lumps at the bottom of the bowl. Whether you’re using a mixer or mixing by hand, don’t over-mix.


7. Don’t Over-Bake

If you’re looking for a dry cake, simply over-bake it!

In all seriousness though, over-baking cakes dry them out. It could only be a 30 second window between perfectly baked and over-baked, so make sure you’re keeping an eye on the cake. Begin checking it 1-2 minutes before the recipe instructs.

Use these as indicators that your cake is done:

  • Cake should be very slightly pulling away from the side of the pan.
  • A toothpick inserted in the center of the cake will come out clean or with a couple lightly moist crumbs.
  • Gently press down on the cake. If the cake bounces back completely, it’s done. If your finger left a dent in the cake, it needs more time.

8. Brush With Simple Syrup/Other Liquid

When things go totally awry and you have a dry cake on your hands, all is not lost. A quick brush of simple syrup adds moisture. When the cake has completely cooled, brush a thin layer of simple syrup on top. Instead of simple syrup, you can even use Sprite (yes, I’m serious).

To make simple syrup, boil equal parts granulated sugar and water together until the sugar dissolves, then let it cool before brushing it onto your cake. Use a pastry brush. You can flavor the syrup, too. When the simple syrup comes off the stove, stir in a touch of vanilla extract, prepared coffee, lemon juice, Amaretto, or other liqueur. Let it cool before using. You could even place some vanilla bean, lemon peel, or culinary lavender in the cooling syrup. Once cool, strain out the chunks/add-ins using a fine mesh sieve.

It’s a very thin layer of syrup, so it won’t make your cake too sweet.

2 images of brushing lavender simple syrup on cake


9. Don’t Double the Recipe

For absolute BEST taste and texture, never double a cake recipe. Make the batter twice instead. Doubling the recipe risks over-creaming (tip #3), over-mixing (tip #6), or under-mixing. And the baking powder and/or soda may not completely distribute which could leave bitter aftertastes in sections of the cake.

Only work with the amount of batter the recipe instructs. When I need extra cake batter, I make the batter twice– separately.

Pound cake batter in mixing bowl


More Baking Tips

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83 Comments

  1. Kerry Stapleford says:

    Hi Sally!
    Can you tell me which oils are best to use when the recipe asks for ‘vegetable oil’? Would coconut oil work, say in a carrot cake/muffin?
    And could I combine butter/oil instead, or definitely stick to oil in the recipe?

    Love your recipes, K ♡

    1. Hi Kerry! There is an oil in markets sold as “vegetable oil” and that’s what should be used when a recipe calls for it. In some cases, melted coconut oil works in its place. Melted coconut oil should be ok in most muffin recipes that call for vegetable oil.

  2. Brenda Russell says:

    Hello my sponge cake was very spongy but when cut it had a bit dense texture why? It also look very open texture. Many thanks Brenda.

  3. Hi Sally, thank you for these tips. However, no matter how hard I try my cakes either fall or are too dense. It is quite frustrating, please help!

    1. Stephanie @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Hi Shonnie, The #1 thing that causes cakes to be too dense is having your butter too warm. Here is What Room Temperature Butter Really Means. For even more tips you can take a look at the post 10 Baking Tips for Perfect Cakes. I hope it helps!

      1. Shona Grimes says:

        Yes, it does help. Thank you

  4. I love everything I’ve tried or yours, but the last two times I made cakes (one chocolate and one vanilla) I’ve had an issue I can’t figure out. The cakes straight out of the oven are soft and fluffy and lovely. But by the time they’re cooled, frosted and sliced, they’ve become a little dense and a lot dry/crumbly. What am I doing wrong?

    1. Hi JoJo! Thank you so much for asking. Are you refrigerating these cakes before slicing into them? The more time a cake chills in the refrigerator, the more it tends to dry out. Additionally, it could be as simple as your cakes being over-baked. You might also find this post helpful, too: 10 Baking Tips for Perfect Cakes

  5. Sally, these are all great tips. Many of the tips talk about not overmixing the ingredients. Is there a way to tell when I’ve overmixed my eggs or my batter? How should the eggs and batter look/feel when they’ve been mixed properly? Thanks.

    1. Stephanie @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      The best thing to do it to mix just until your ingredients are combined – do not mix past that point. I hope this helps!

  6. Banana and zucchini bread cake , what ingredients added to give’m that beautiful brown color.?

  7. I don’t see a traditional Neapolitan cake on your site. (strawberry, vanilla, chocolate) I made one recently and the whole thing was too dry, and the layers didn’t rise enough, the chocolate layer in particular. Do you have a recipe?

    1. Stephanie @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Hi Pamela, We don’t have a recipe for a Neapolitan cake. You can always cut each of the following recipes in half so you have one layer of each: Strawberry Cake, White Cake, Chocolate Cake.

      1. Pamela Lang says:

        Thank you! Wish me luck!

  8. Would my slightly dry chocolate cupcakes turn soggy if I lightly brushed on some Irish cream or coffee liqueur? I’m thinking they’d be fine but if you’ve tried it, I’d love to hear about it. Thanks!

    1. The brushed cupcakes should be just fine– and yes, it will absolutely add more moisture!

  9. Maria Gabriela says:

    Hi! You tech us how to double, but what about how to reduce the Recipe? I don’t need a Big Cake, i just want a small one version, what should i do? Divide?
    Tell me please!
    I write you from Colombia, i live in Bogota; Do you have any tips about Baking at high altitude, my last cakes have flopped ???
    Thanks

    1. Stephanie @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Hi Maria, You can cut most cake recipes in half. For example if the recipe is for a two layer cake, you can cut the recipe in half and bake a single layer. Or for a smaller cake, use cupcake batter that produces about 12-15 cupcakes, which is the perfect amount for a 3 layer 6 inch cake. For more details see that post 6 Inch Cakes.
      I wish I could help, but we have no experience baking at high altitude. I know some readers have found this chart helpful: https://www.kingarthurflour.com/learn/high-altitude-baking.html

    2. I live in Denver one mile 5280 ft above sea level. Here’s the chart I use:
      Ingredient. 5000 ft. 7500 ft
      Liquid. +15%. +22%
      Eggs. +10% +15%
      Flour. + 4%. +10%
      Baking Powder or Baking Soda
      -40%. -60%
      Sugar. -6%. -10%
      Fats. ——. -10%
      I believe Bogota is at 8675 ft so use the second column of 7500 ft. You may have to adapt your percentages based on your outcomes. Happy baking!

  10. Thank you very much I appreciate the tips so far and I hope my cakes come out better.
    My question is how long should mixing take if done manually?
    Thanks

    1. Stephanie @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Hi Nwaka, When you are mixing the wet and dry ingredients together mix them until they are just combined, once everything is incorporated stop mixing.

  11. Will adding jello mix to my cake help it get moist? Is it a bad idea?

  12. I made banana cake yesterday using your recipe and it came out dense. I think this was due to the fact that the I used melted butter which was a little bit hot. Thanks for sharing these great tips.

  13. Hi! If a cake recipe calls for 1 tsp of baking soda and no baking powder, should I add baking powder anyway? if so, how much? (2 cups of flour in the recipe)

    1. Hilari @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Hi Nickie, it’s best to follow the recipe as written! If the recipe doesn’t call for baking powder, there’s likely a reason why. Happy baking!

  14. Hi Sally! Thank you so much for these tips. I was having troubles with dense cakes/cupcakes for a while and realized I’ve been using old baking powder.

    I’ve noticed different people say to add simple syrup when the cakes are hot so it can be absorbed more readily but here you say to add it in when the cakes cool down. Is there a reason for this? Thanks!

    1. Stephanie @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Hi Tina, We are so glad this post has helped! We add simple syrup to cooled cakes for two reasons. First, once a cake is cooled (and especially after you level off the top), it is easier to see if your cake is dried out and actually needs a syrup rescue. Also, it’s possible for simple syrup to actually make a cake more dense when added to a hot/warm cake.

      1. Wow! Thank you so much for the quick and informative response.

  15. Hi Sally! Would baking a banana cake with both oil and butter create a nicer texture and richer taste? If so, what ratio could I use..?

    Thank you !!!

  16. Hello Sally, thank you for the tips
    How would I know if I’ve creamed my sugar and butter just well enough

  17. Connie Nordmark says:

    Hi,
    Any tips on Gluten Free flours? Sadly my household can not tolerate gluten, and we are missing a yummy tasting cake.
    Thanks,
    Connie – Denver, CO

    1. Hilari @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Hi Connie, we haven’t tested our recipes with gluten free flours but many readers have had success using 1:1 gluten free flour substitutes (like Cup4Cup or Bob’s Red Mill 1:1). Happy baking!

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