Our contributor, Summer Stone of Cake Paper Party, is back today with a new baking science experiment….
Sugar plays an important role in any cake recipe. Without the inclusion of sugar, a cake would be bland and uninspired in relation to flavor, but did you know that your cake would also be pale in color, squatty and dense? Sugar’s effects on cake are quite diverse. To really get a feel for the importance of sugar in a recipe, I baked cakes with anywhere from no sugar at all to one and a half times the standard sugar weight (2:3 sugar to flour). How does changing sugar volume affect your cake? Read ahead and you may be as surprised as I was by the results.
Sugar is first and foremost a flavor maker, but it has other critical roles in cake baking as well. Here is a list of its known jobs:
- Flavoring – While we first think of sugar providing sweetness, it also provides a platform for caramelization and browning. Without sugar, cake has a raw-like flavor, devoid of nuances that come out as sugar decomposes in caramelization and as it contributes to browning in Maillard reactions. The result of sugar’s presence is a “baked” flavor in cake.
- Tenderizing – Sugar essentially weakens structural agents in a batter; it slows and reduces protein-protein interactions such as gluten formation and egg protein solidification. Sugar can also slow starch gelation and increase bake time.
- Moisture – Water molecules are attracted to sugar so the presence of significant sugar in a cake will help capture and hold on to liquid. This results in a moister cake.
- Leavening – When sugar is creamed with butter, the sugar crystals help drive air into the mixture. As the cake bakes, these air pockets expand causing leavening.
Before this baking experiment I believed I had a fairly good understanding of how sugar contributed to a final cake product. Nonetheless, I was very surprised by the outcome of testing. I expected the sugarless cake to be relatively fluffy since sugar would not be present to undermine the structure due to its tenderizing effects. I also believed that the high-sugar cake (150% sugar in relation to the standard) would collapse due to structural modification. The result was quite the opposite.
I failed to predict the great effect of moisture attraction on leavening. In this experiment, I did not cream sugar with butter, so I did not believe the leavening differences between a sugarless and high-sugar cake would be incredibly noticeable. Instead, the leavening seemed to be the most obvious dissimilarity between cakes. The cake with no sugar was very short and dense while the high-sugar cake was the most light and fluffy. Shocking! It seems that as the sugar holds on to water, it provides a venue for liquid to gas expansion that creates a great deal of rise in the cake.
In addition to the height/leavening differences, it was clear that the no-sugar and low-sugar cakes were quite pale compared to the golden-brown color or the normal and high-sugar volume cakes. This translated to taste as well, with the higher-sugar cakes having much greater depth of flavor than their low-sugar counterparts.
In the above photo, you can see the effects of tenderization, especially between the cake with a normal amount of sugar (100%) and the high-sugar cake (150%). The high sugar cake is fluffy but also crumbly and loose. This cake was so tender it was barely holding itself together. The high-sugar cake, with 150% the weight of sugar in a standard recipe, was quite sweet but it was still amazingly unoffending. The cake with half the sugar was mild but maintained a nice, sweet taste. This goes to show, there is a lot of wiggle room when playing with the sweetness factor in a cake recipe.
Sugar has a wide variety of properties in a cake but leavening and flavor seem to be the most noticeable factors. While sugar in a standard volume of 2:3 sugar to flour results in moderate sweetness and leavening, you can easily modify your cake by either increasing or reducing the amount of sugar you use. Let me know how much sugar you like to use in your cake recipes.
Best baking wishes!