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 Tablespoon 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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135 Comments

  1. Your recipes are wonderful. Thank you for thinking through the potential issues and providing solutions in your recipes. It makes your recipes stand out in the crowd.

  2. Dear Sally, I stumbled on your website looking for yellow cake mix and why they are yellow? Trying bake from scratch instead of box mix for dear friend undergoing cancer treatment. I never made CAKE from scratch. I’m an easy way out girl. However, I’m blown away of the knowledge you input such detail. It’s downright encouraging! I never knew cake flour and all purpose? Well…this will be interesting or a flop. LOL.. just in case I’ll buy a box mix as well. Thank you for all the fine tips and sharing so much. I truly learned many things this morning. I’ll be back! Betsy:)

    1. Trina @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Would love to hear how the cake goes, Betsy. Hope it’s a hit!

      1. Betsy Baker Gratland says:

        Hello, YES! It was a hit and they all raved about how they could tell it was made from scratch. The texture and taste was truly better than store bought. Thank you! I’m a believer!!

  3. I made a really great tasting gingerbread cake at Christmas. Room temp butter, unsulphered molasses (room temp) and the flavor was great. Only problem was it was dry except for the center. I was thinking some oil but cooking with molasses is new to me. Used a 9″×9″ square pan. Ideas?

  4. Shruthi Shetty says:

    Hi Sally, I have never been able to cream butter and sugar successfully. The sugar does not dissolve and stays grainy and then I end up over creaming it. I use kirkland organic cane sugar which is fine granulated. I also make sure butter is at room temp using a digital thermometer. What am I doing wrong?

    1. Trina @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Hi Shruthi! You’re only creaming butter and sugar together until the two are light in color and creamy. The mixture won’t be smooth– there will still be gritty sugar granules. Unless you’re cooking or heating sugar, it will still be gritty when mixed with butter. Hope this helps!

      1. Shruthi Shetty says:

        Thank you so much for the tip. Will try again.

    2. Thank you I often wondered why my cake would come out dense I didn’t even know that’s what it was called. But you explained it very well. Thank you again

  5. This is very nice. Thanks for the tips it was really helpful

  6. Thank you, I have been struggling with dry cakes, your article is really eye opening on some mistakes I have been making.

  7. Hi Sally,
    Any advice on baking in Chicago Metallic cake pans; raising over temperature or any other? My cakes turned unsightly white and they looked like steamed cakes instead of baked cakes! I have been baking these same cakes for so many years and perfectly. The color always turned into a beautiful dark golden. What is the trick? I have read many good reviews about Chicago Metallic so I do not understand why did this happen or more importantly, how to avoid it from happening next time?
    I hope you would have an answer for this.
    Thank you!

    1. Hi Laleh, I really wish I could help but I have no experience with Chicago Metallic pans. If the cakes aren’t browning properly, you could try turning up the oven temperature (use an oven thermometer) to see if that helps.

    2. Hi Sally.

      Thank you for replying to my inquiry. I appreciate it very much. Chicago Metallic finally replied to my email. It seems that the pans that I bought were unfortunately faulty. It had nothing to do with my oven or oven’s temperature.
      Which non-stick cake pans would you recommend that I try please? I don’t like the color to be pale. I like dark golden cakes. For shape and size, I like Fat Daddio’s but I don’t like how the sides of the cakes get big holes in them when baked and how crumbly they turn. I tried Wilton’s, same problem as Fat Daddio’s. Which company would you highly recommend please?
      Thank you very much.

      Laleh

  8. Sally,
    I was once told that if I substitute vegetable oil for butter in every cake recipe, I will get a moister cake. Is this true?

    1. Hi Otis, vegetable oil isn’t a suitable replacement for butter in recipes that call for room temperature butter that is creamed with sugar. (Since you cannot cream liquid oil.) However, my recommendation above for adding a little oil can help.

  9. Anne Caiden says:

    Hi Sally
    I made a a chocolate/hazelnut Bundt cake yesterday and it is sooo dry and dense! I can’t seem to get it right.
    Having read your tips on making a light cake I now have something to work on. I’m probably guilty of over mixing when using my KitchenAid. My friend told me when using hers she leaves it on high for over 5 minutes plus when creaming her cake mixture. I think I may have over mixed when adding the eggs and flour also. What you are suggesting is mix until just combined. Is the lightness coming from the initial creaming of the butter/sugar only?
    Thank you for your tips
    Anne

    1. Trina @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Hi Anne, when creaming, you’re only creaming butter and sugar together until the two are light in color and creamy. No need to cream for so long. Over-mixing the batter is the most common cause of a dense cake. It traps air in the batter that deflates when baking. You want to mix the ingredients until just combined. A light cake comes from all the ingredients working perfectly together (especially the leavening agents – see tip #4). Happy baking!

  10. Thanks so much Sally have learnt much from you. I was told that for butter and sugar no problem with over mixing so you beat them until light and fluffy it’s only when you add the dry ingredients. Then also a friend told me that it’s good to first beat the eggs separately until light and fluffy then add it gradually to the butter and sugar mixture then gently fold in the dry ingredients

  11. Thank you so much for the tips. Now I realized my mistakes and why my cakes are a bit dry. Next time I will use these tips to better my cakes

  12. Varsha Pushpachandran says:

    So I made mug cake.. cake was very good and good taste but the cake was not soft.. it was more like a sponge type..so I didn’t like it..I used only 3 ingredients. Any idea to make it soft

  13. Lonan Brigid Mooney says:

    I have a chocolate cake recipe that calls for 1 1/4 cup milk that is scalded and then is cooled. I was thinking of adding some sour cream to it to make it fudgier, would you recommend this and would it still be structurally sound as a bottom layer of a two tier cake? If so, I’m don’t know when I should add the sour cream . After creaming the butter and sugar or with the milk alternating with dry ingredients? Thank you as always for your recipes! Your chocolate cake recipes look scrumptious but can only get dutch processed cocoa powder in Ireland!

    1. Stephanie @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Hi Lonan, If you would like to try adding sour cream you can add it with your wet ingredients (butter, oil, eggs, etc). Without knowing the recipe we can’t say for sure if it would make it sturdier for a bottom tier. Let us know if you give it a try!

  14. Mary Ann Fido says:

    I’m making a coffee cake recipe that has sour cream. I’ve made it several times even with gluten free flour for my GF friends. While it turns out good…I’d still like it a little more moist. Would your tips also apply to gluten free cakes? I usually use Bobs 1-1 GF flour. Thank you!

    1. Lexi @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Hi Mary Ann! We’d love to help but we are not trained in gluten-free baking. For best taste and texture recommendations, it may be more useful to find a site that is specifically focused on gluten-free recipes. Thank you!

  15. Hi Sally,
    I was wondering if you could substitute coconut oil for the canola oil in your chocolate mousse cake?

    1. Lexi @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Hi Sharon, you can try using melted coconut oil in place of the canola oil in our Dark Chocolate Mousse Cake. It may not be as moist and the taste will be slightly different. Enjoy!

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