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

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.)

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


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.

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


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18 Comments

  1. WOW Sally…..you amaze me more with every post!!! You have such a wealth of baking knowledge and are so willing to share it with us so that we can have it too….it is so much appreciated and I would definitely not be the baker I am today without you for so many reasons – THANK YOU SALLY!!❤

  2. Thank you for the cake flour info, Sally. Never thought of that before for cakes, since in my country (Indonesia) low-protein flour is known mostly for baking cookies.

  3. Hi Sally, using some shortening instead butter will do the trick like oil?? Just wondering if oil and shortening makes cakes more moist.

  4. Sally you are a food scientist at heart. That is why I love your website so much, because you explain what is actually happening to the ingredients, thus insuring bakers like myself understand how important little things are! I’ve been baking for forty years, and some of the things you mention I’ve also discovered, but it’s been through many many failures and scratching my head and trying over and over again. You do such a good job to remind us of what’s really important, so as to get those consistent results. You appeal to us “foodies” out there who aspire to make the most delicious food for our loved ones. Your recipes are always spot on and so incredible. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

  5. Thank you so much for this tutorial. I have been baking cakes for over 40 years and I have experienced some huge failures. I’m learning so much from your posts and I appreciate your thoughtfulness in passing on your tips to those of us who will benefit from your hard work.

  6. As I read through these tips on how to adjust a recipe, I find myself thinking, “I’ll just follow Sally’s recipe as written and I’ll be fine! No need to modify!”

    1. Been there! Done that! Will never be there or do that again thanks to Sally’s Wise and Wonderful instructions! I have learned so much in just a few days about the WHY of it all! Will never, never have to wonder again about the why! (Why is it so dry, why did it not rise correctly, why is it dense, etc. , etc., etc.!) Thank God for Sally!!!!!!!!! You are Appreciated!!!!!!

  7. Hi Sally,
    I have tried so many of your recipes and they are ALL excellent and turn out perfectly everytime. However, yesterday I made the chocolate sheet cake and I feel like its not how it is supposed to be. We don’t really have ‘sheet cakes’ here in Australia, so im unsure if this texture is normal. It is dense and stodgy. I did notice it has no baking powder in it which I did think was odd when I was making it but since your recipes have always been right for me I went ahead. Could this be the reason? Also I didn’t cool the cocoa water butter mixture before adding to the flour mix (it didn’t say too) should I have? Any insights would be great as I like the convenience of sheet cakes now I have made one.

    Thanks again,
    Hailey

      1. Hi Sally, thanks for getting back to me. Yes the chocolate sheet cake with peanut butter frosting. Yes added the baking soda and used natural cocoa. I’m thinking maybe I over worked the flour when adding the hot cocoa butter water. Could this be the cause? I’m stumped lol. I don’t usually have baking fails. In any case I will try again because the flavour was great!

  8. Hallo Sally..
    Thank you for ALL the tips.. want to ask you if i cannot find sour cream or buttermilk how do i make my own sour cream.. thank you again..

  9. I completely agree with Katherine. I will never bake another cake that is not from a Sally recipe. That being said “I am still very much enjoying this segment on cake baking. You lay everything out so well and the science is wonderful and I can remember every cake I ever made that wasn’t perfect and your tips help me understand where I went wrong.

    Thank you as always!

  10. Thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge with us. The idea of substituting cake flour for all purpose is one I’m going to use from now on. Your tips and videos are an immense help for me.

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