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. 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


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


More Baking Tips

I have more lessons for you!

74 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. If you see the cake pulling away from the edge of your pan—it’s definitely cooked. Try to watch it closer!

  4. Since moving to France I have not used cake flour. I will make the homemade version and give it a try the next time I bake.

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

    1. Hi Karina! Shortening doesn’t really change a cake’s moisture level like oil would.

  6. 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!!!

  7. 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.

    1. It pains me when the cake doesn’t come out as imagined. I am struggling so much with a carrot cake.

      1. I’m not sure if you’ve tried this carrot cake yet– very moist!

  8. 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!!!!!!

  9. 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 Hailey, I’m so happy to help. Which recipe are you using? This chocolate sheet cake uses baking soda– did you add that ingredient? Make sure you’re using natural cocoa powder, not dutched cocoa.

      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!

  10. Marianna Froehlich says:

    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..

  11. 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!

  12. 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.

  13. Good Afternoon Sally! I have followed your instructions to the T EVERY time & thus far, no MAJOR issues. I may have left out vanilla or cinnamon while making your crumb cake donuts (first batch went like crazy, rushing & NOT paying proper attention). Overbeating USED to be an issue, now I simply use a timer LOL.

  14. What? No mention of cake strips? Wilton has a nice set of strips you can buy, but you can get the same effect by safety pinning some damp (wet, but not dripping) tea towels around your pans. Note that you will have to increase your baking time somewhat.

    They significantly reduce browning along the edges, which translates to less drying. As an added bonus, the cakes come out more level.

  15. I’ll try it this weekend and will surely share my experience with you !!! And thank you so much Sally for all your recipes they are just amazing

  16. Perhaps a foolish question but in regards to the simple syrup tip-how are you to know if a cake is dense or dry without cutting into and tasting the cake thus ruining it anyway? How would you know if the cake could benefit from a syrup rescue?

    1. You can almost always tell if a cake is too dry by the look and feel of it before cutting it open. However I usually cut off the very top to level my layers and this is where you will definitely be able to tell if it needs a simple syrup rescue!

  17. Thank you Sally, this is really helpful.

  18. Hi Sally,

    I just came across an article about cake strips… I had never heard of them before! Do you use cake strips?? I trust you 100%, so would appreciate your feedback! Thank you:)

    1. Hi Jamie! I have actually NEVER used cake strips before. I feel like I’m missing out, but I don’t personally find them necessary as my cakes are fine without them!

  19. Sally, I just found your site and love it — thanks, you are a godsend to us who are not professional. Question — If I am going to bake early and freeze my cake layers for a day or two — should I use simple syrup ( to moisten ) before I freeze the layers, or should I wait till they thaw?
    Thanks

    1. You can actually do that either way– adding the simple syrup before or after freezing/thawing.

  20. Cynthia Howard says:

    I am so bummed out. I just made my partner a Pineapple Upsidedown Cake for her birthday and it came out too dry and dense. This same thing happened last year, and I blamed it on old flour. So, this year I used fresh flour and followed the same recipe (a family favorite), and got the almost the same result, although it wasn’t quite as bad as last year. Thing is, I have been making this same recipe for 30 years and it used to come out great. I have read all of your tips and look forward to trying some of them, such as Cake Flour, adding Oil, not mixing too much and not over-baking. Wish Me Luck! Oh, and Thank You for the info.

  21. I tried you red velvet cake and I cuatros the recipes because Ian making a tier cake. But turns out dry and falling apart when cutting it. I read now you are not suppose to double receipts:however, what should one do with limited space and time? Love your chocolate mouse by the way.

    1. Hi Vivian, I don’t recommend doubling a cake recipe. I recommend making it one at a time and you can either follow the notes at the end of the recipe on how to store the cake layers or see my post on How to Freeze Cakes if you want to get started ahead of time.

  22. Hi Sally,
    I am looking for a recipe for a golden sponge cake my mother made 50 years ago. She never wrote anything down; she used 12 egg yolks for the sponge cake and 12 egg white for an angel food cake. The sponge was dense and was extremely good with fruit, especially fresh strawberries. She didn’t even ice the cake. My parents raised 10 kids, 6 children of their own and 4 foster kids prior to my mother’s death at the age of 39. Thus, when she baked an angel food cake, she always used the yolks for a sponge cake. Would you have a similar recipe for said cake? Most recipes I find use 6 egg yolks and 6 egg whites beaten and folded into the batter. My mother did not use egg whites in her sponge cake. Thank you in advance for any information you can provide.

    1. Hi Judy! I don’t have a recipe like that at this time. The base of my Boston Cream Pie is a delicious sponge cake though. I love it.

    2. Debbie Lynn Conway says:

      Hi Sally I work at a self assisted retirement home. I am the baker there, we generally just get in pre-made cake mixes AKA white yellow Swiss chocolate in a 5lb bag. when I make a cake I always doctor it up by using oil and buttermilk and it comes out always moist and delicious. the one I’m trying to make a strawberry cake I try to cut back on the oil and buttermilk cuz I know adding the strawberries will make it to dence, can’t seem to find the right balance of a premade cake mix of the strawberries and oil and buttermilk can you help?

  23. Hi Sally!
    I made an orange cake from Morocco called “Meskouta” for a project I’m doing in math class. This cake is not like a birthday cake- I made it in a loaf pan. It came out pretty dense and dry. I read through your tips, but I’m not sure if I should use them for this type of cake. Any ideas of what I can do to make it more moist? Thank you!

    1. Hi Evie, While it’s difficult to comment on a recipe that I have not personally tried, these tips should work for this particular cake. It looks like it’s already made with oil and leaveners, but all of the other tips from this post apply!

  24. Hi, thanks for all the useful info here!
    I’ve spent months working on a vanilla cupcake recipe. It’s not dry, but seems too moist to the point where it’s rubbery…? I’ve tried reducing the yogurt and milk to 1/4 and 1/3 cup, but it still doesn’t create that nice light and fluffy box mix-like texture. Do you have any recommendations? I don’t know if whipping the egg whites, maybe, or increasing leavening or flour would help. Thank you so much!

  25. Hi Sally! I love this post. I am struggling with making the perfect white cake. My chocolate, gingerbread, spice, carrot cakes all come out perfectly airy and moist but my white cakes are always a little dense.

    I will apply a lot of these techniques and see what happens. But one other problem I have with my white cakes is they always puff up way way too much in the middle and make a huge dome. Like, this always happens, it’s been years. It makes them unattractive and harder to stack. Do you have any insight as to what might be going on here? Thanks in advance!

    1. Hi Jess, I’m glad you enjoy this post! A cake domes when the outside bakes faster than the middle. This could be from a variety of reasons such as your oven runs hot, using a pan that is too small, over-filling the pans, or even using poorly made pans. One easy fix is to use baking strips to insulate the outside of the pan to help it bake evenly. I also always level my cakes if I am stacking them to make a layer cake.

      1. Jessica Wyatt says:

        Thank you for replying! I definitely use high quality pans (from Nordic Ware). I worry I overfill my pans, if I am making a recipe for 3 8-inch cakes it tends to look like there is too much batter but then I will have batter leftover?

        I will try filling less and if that doesn’t work I will look at the insulation strips!

  26. I have baked a lot of cakes and cookies and usually don’t have an issue with moisture when it comes to my cakes. However I have been voted to be the one to make my boyfriend’s father’s favorite cake which is from 1951 it’s called the starlight double delight cake and of course the first odd thing was that you put two cups of the frosting in the cake batter. I made the cake exactly as the recipe calls for and it’s not oh my god dry but it could be so much better and more moist and I’m not sure if I should add oil or a couple extra egg yolks or some mayonnaise or some applesauce to the cake mix itself before I bake it to get a moist cake. I always use simple syrup on my cakes when I’m layering but what do you suggest that I could add to this cake to make it more moist while baking and not ruin the flavor of the cake? Any help with this would be great.

    1. Hi Lisa, Without knowing and testing the exact recip you are using it’s hard to say exactly what would work. I would start by adding 2 Tablespoons of vegetable oil to the batter if it doesn’t already have oil and making sure to follow all of the other tips here! Good luck!

  27. If only I had read this before I used cake flour and ruined the chocolate cake…will making it into cake pops help, or is it a lost cause?

    1. Hi Lily, Making the cake into cake pops is a great way to use the cake if it crumbled! This is how I make chocolate cake pops.

  28. Hi Sally,

    If I reduce the sugar in a recipe, it will result in a dryer cake right? Because I know many who love cakes but don’t like it too sweet; hence, I reduce the amount of sugar. But, it does seem the cake becomes less moist. So does this mean as I reduce the sugar, I can add 1 or 2 tablespoons of oil to make it moist? Even for cakes that have butter?

    1. Hi Beth, reducing sugar in cake affects a couple things besides the sweetness and flavor. There’s less sugar for the butter to cream with (assuming it’s a cake with a creamed butter/sugar base) so the butter won’t contain as much air. This can create a denser cake. Likewise, the ratio of wet to dry ingredients would be off. The cake could taste dense and greasy instead of light and moist. I wouldn’t recommend extra oil, but you can definitely test things out based on how much you reduce and what recipe you are using. It’s a lot of trial and error!

  29. Hi Sally,

    Thank you for all of the tips!

    This may be a silly question, but when “doubling” the recipe, after I mix each batch separately, do I just combine the batters? I’m trying to take a recipe that yields 2 9” rounds and make it a half sheet cake.

    Thanks for the help. =)

    1. Yes, you can combine the batter from two batches!

      1. Awesome, thank you for the quick response! All the best.

  30. Hi Sally can I combine Butter and Vegetable oil when baking because I noticed my cakes are always dense and dry ?
    And also I use powdered milk ratio 1:1 with water is it Advisable or I should stop it?

    1. Hi Cynthia, it depends on the recipe but typically a touch of oil will help produce a moister crumb in cakes. It always takes a little recipe testing. Powdered milk mixed with water according to the package instructions is usually a fine substitute for milk in cake recipes, but fresh is definitely best.

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