On High Ratio Cakes

Reader Jack writes:

Joe (actual name?),

I live in Chicago and want to reproduce the Jewel grocery store plain old yellow cake. They sell it by the piece and I want to reproduce the texture and taste. It has a very fine crumb, it is very firm, almost sponge like. It has tiny uniform holes, and would be perfect for a few baking “projects” I have in mind. I have tried a dozen yellow cake recipes from the net and they taste fine, but the crumb is soft, and does not have the sponge-like pores of the Jewel cake. I read your article regarding creaming, but that alone does not convert the existing recipes I have into what I am looking for. I tried separating the eggs, beating the whites, folding in…nope. I deconstructed the Jewel recipe using their ingredients list, but that list flies in the face of all cake science (no yolks, no butter). I am getting fat with all the experimentation!!! Do you have a recipe/technique that will help me achieve the desired results?

Hey Jack (if that IS your real name)! Interesting you should mention this since I get regular requests for cakes of this type. I know exactly the sort of cake that you mean. It’s firm with a very tight crumb (small holes). It’s slightly dry, very sweet and above all holds its shape under most forms of cake duress. It leaves only one or two crumbs when you take a forkful.

Cake layers in this style are popular with big commercial shops for their long shelf life and sheer durability. They’re also favored by some cake decorators, especially those that specialize in elaborately carved, extremely vertical cake “sculptures.” The cake is very resilient, rises high and can carry a heavy load of frosting, fondant and other decorations.

These are what are called “high ratio” cakes in the baking industry. What’s “high” in the ratio? Unsurprisingly it’s the sugar in the recipe. High ratio cakes have at least as much, if not more, sugar than flour by weight. The label of your Jewel cake will probably reflect this, since all those labels are required to display ingredients in descending order by weight.

The thing about high ratio cakes is that they’re best with high ratio flour, something most stores don’t sell. What makes this type of flour special is that it’s ground very finely and treated with either heat or chlorine. What does that do? It allows the flour to disperse very, very evenly through the mix. That’s important because small, evenly dispersed flour granules gelate (“come apart”) more readily during baking, then tangle up with the egg proteins to create a very fine, tight mesh. This mesh is extremely strong and able to hold the cake up despite all the sugar, which usually weighs a cake down.

Another hallmark of a high ratio cake is that it employs shortening instead of butter. The shortening is good for shelf life, but more importantly it contains emulsifiers that help the fat disperse evenly, just like the flour and the sugar. This is also important for that strong, tight crumb we’re talking about. Typically the shortening accounts for 15% – 20% of the total weight of the recipe, and again is often of a special type.

And while we’re talking fat we need to talk eggs, because in a high ratio cake the amount of fat and eggs are also equal. So there’s that.

Liquid-wise, high ratio cakes have quite a lot since sugar is hygroscopic and tends to hold on to it. A typical high ratio cake will have as much liquid as flour by weight, but before you start pouring remember that eggs count as liquid as well. You want to make up the difference between the egg weight and the flour weight with milk.

Confused? So am I a little. So let’s just start applying all these rules to see what a sample recipe would look like. Assuming we’re making a batter with, say, 100 grams of flour (a very small cake), the recipe would look something like this (yes folks I’m using grams believe it or not, since it’s easier to get the point across!):

100 grams high ratio cake flour
100 grams granulated sugar
50 grams shortening (ideally emulsified)
50 grams eggs
50 grams milk

In terms of leavening the general rule is that you want half a teaspoon per 100 grams of flour. So we’ll add that plus an 1/8 teaspoon of salt and maybe a half a teaspoon or so of vanilla extract and we’ll have a perfectly good high ratio yellow cake recipe going. You didn’t see milk or eggs on the Jewel label, Jack, because they use mixes and mixes contain dry milk and egg powders instead of actual dairy for convenience and food safety reasons. They mostly just add water!

All this make sense? Now then, about substitutions. Since high ratio flour and emulsified shortening aren’t available to most home bakers, you can use cake flour and regular shortening. If you hate shortening you can use butter, just make sure it’s thoroughly creamed with the sugar. You might might consider splitting it between butter and olive oil since olive oil is packed with emulsifiers. If you’ve ever made olive oil cakes you may recall how tight the crumb is on those things.

So that’s it! Keep using the creaming method to get the best incorporation of the ingredients. Pro cake bakers use the one-bowl or two-stage method for this, but you’d need emulsified shortening to really make that work. This basic formula alone should help you on your way to getting the cake you want without so much cake intake! ;) Let me know when you achieve perfection and send the recipe if you will. Other readers will want to know!

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30 Responses to On High Ratio Cakes

  1. jackL says:

    Joe,
    Yep, Jack is the real name…:) You are spot on regarding the ingredient list sugar ration, the list is as follows: water, sugar, enriched bleached flour, soybean oil, shortening, egg whites, milk solids, etc. Little surprised by “water”. Will try your ratios tonight!

    Thanks again
    JackL

    • joepastry says:

      Hehe…you’ve got me beat since Joe isn’t actually mine, it’s Jim. But don’t tell anyone, OK? ;)

      Yes it’s interesting that they actually list “water”. You’d think they wouldn’t need to do that. The reason there’s so much is because the egg whites are dehydrated as is the milk. Interesting that they split between soybean oil and shortening, probably to give the cake a softer, richer feel. Best of luck and please do get back with me!

      - Joe

  2. Kitty says:

    interesting. Before I got into scratch cakes (mostly by fact of the mix does not exist here) I used olive oil as the vegetable oil as I tended to have it and never bought ordinary vegetable oil. I just subbed it, and people were always eager to eat my box cakes. And I quote “I dunno what you do but if I didn’t know better I would swear you make these from scratch”

  3. Bronwyn says:

    So does this sort of cake actually taste good? Your description of its properties make it sound like sweet polystyrene.

    • joepastry says:

      Hm. Well that’s a good question. There are even firmer cake layers out there (I’m putting up a short post just now about it). If you’ve ever had a box layer cake then you know what it tastes like. There are gradations along the continuum just as with everything. Some very good cake shops use recipes that are high ratio, but craft them well enough where they’re quite good. Others are nightmares as you might expect. An all-shortening layer cake is, at least to me, a bit of a waste of time since I love the taste of butter. But some people love them!

      Thanks Bronwyn!

      - Joe

      • Bronwyn says:

        The term “layer cake” doesn’t exist here, so I’m not quite sure what one is, apart from having layers, which can be of many textural types in my experience. I have also never tasted a cake made with shortening as far as I know. It’s not something we do, and sounds pretty gross to me. By shortening you mean some sort of white fat, yes? Not margarine? The sturdiest sort of plain cake I know is what we call a Madiera cake. My stepmother took to making them out of packets when she got old – pretty dry and uninteresting as far as I remember. Packet cake mix is another thing that does exist here, but is not used much. I haven’t eaten any other than those Mum used to make. I think that most of the people who would use cake mix just buy ready made cake! No doubt also made from mix.

        • joepastry says:

          Yep. White, solid vegetable fat. It was extremely common here during the war years and is still used quite a bit, though more as a frying medium than anything else these days. I’ll have to look up some Madeira cakes. I’e definitely heard of them but to my knowledge have never tried one.

          - Joe

  4. jackL says:

    I could not wait to try your ratios so I had a late and very sweet lunch. I emailed you a more detailed response with the “recipe”. The taste was great, perhaps the best yellow cake I have eaten. So good, I ate the whole batch. The crumb was not as fine and uniform as the store-bought version, but much closer than anything I have tried so far. I will experiment again with a larger batch. Knowing they were just ratios, I stuck with your quantities which resulted in a very small mix, so I decided to bake cupcakes (made exactly six). I also whacked granulated sugar in my blender to create superfine sugar, and think that may have been a mistake. Had a hard time incorporating it with the shortening for some reason. But the taste and the soft texture (in non-baker terms) of the cakes were incredible. I need to play closer attention to “ratios” in my baking!

  5. Sally says:

    My first thought on reading your descriptions of the cake was “that sounds like a standard pound cake.” I use the recipe found in the old Pepperidge Farms cookbook, which calls for beating egg whites separately (I add an extra white) and folding them into the rest of the batter. No leavening but air in this one! I can post ingredients for a “half-pound cake” if you like.

    • joepastry says:

      Good observation, Sally. There are “pound cake” formulas for cake layers, though they tend not to follow strict “four quarters” rules and are generally lighter on the sugar relative to flour. But that’s an excellent catch!

      And I’m always interested in a recipe!

      - Joe

      • Sally says:

        A half-pound cake: 1 C. butter, 1 C. superfine sugar, 2 3/8 C. sifted cake flour, 1/8 t. salt, 5 eggs, separated, 1/2 t. vanilla, 1/8 t. mace

        All ingredients at room temperature. Cream the butter until very, very light and add sugar slowly, creaming until very fluffy. Beat yolks well and add, mixing well. Add vanilla, mace and salt, then stir in flour. Fold in stiffly beaten egg whites, in quarters or thirds. Bake in greased and floured pans at 350° for about 1 1/4 hours. Makes 1 large Pyrex loaf, + a few cupcakes, or 2 small loaves, or a bundt pan.

        Our favorite use is sliced, toasted and buttered, at breakfast. It’s very delicate after toasting; be warned!

  6. mark says:

    At some point, can you add a topic in your Ingredient Basics section to cover the different types of fats and when to use them? Thinking of solids vs. liquids and then some of the common ones between those groupings – especially on the solids. Butter, margarine, shortening, coconut ‘oil’, lard, ‘bakers shortening’, etc…

    Thanks :)

    • joepastry says:

      Hi Mark! That’s an excellent idea. I thought about it after the sweetener series but wasn’t sure where I’d start or how I’d organize it. I guess there’s nothing for it but to begin eh? I’ll see if I can do so soon. Thanks for the prod!

      - Joe

      • Kitty says:

        When you do it can you also mention the substitutes for each fat and how it could/will change the recipe? I’m curious about lard and shortening and how switching them with butter will change them (though the cheapest margarine I’ve seen here reminds me of shortening, except it has to be refrigerated. awful stuff.)

      • mark says:

        Not sure how I’d do it either – maybe room temp solids vs. liquids at room temp as one grouping and break out (as Kitty suggests) have a substitutions/trade-off’s. No idea if that makes sense from the educated perspective you’re coming from, but it’s the way I think I’d go try to look up something…

        • joepastry says:

          I don’t see why that wouldn’t work, Mark. We’re sort of inventing as we go here, I think. Thanks for the comment!

          - Joe

  7. Malini says:

    Is high ratio flour treated with heat or chlorine = bleached flour?

    • joepastry says:

      Yes you’d call it bleached for sure, though the heat and/or chlorine also partially gelate it.

      - Joe

      • Brian Shaw says:

        Wondra? Or is that something entirely different?

        • joepastry says:

          Hey Brian! A good thought. Wondra is fully pre-gelatinized wheat starch, dried out. However the granules are much too big for this sort of application. Great thinking though!

          - Joe

  8. Zahn says:

    Hi, I just came accross this site looking for hi-ratio shortening and it is very intresting. I would like to make a hi ration cake but have no clue as where to begin. Is there a good recipe you can give me for a cake. I am going to get some Sweetex Sunday and I also saw hi ratio flour at the store. What will I need. I do not know grams soooo, if you will please use cups and lbs please. thank you, Zahn

  9. benjamin says:

    Hi Joe,

    Still on the “high ratio” cakes if you don’t mind. I’ve got one myself, 240g -flour, 220g-sugar, with a shelf life of about 14 days but with a pronounced sweet taste and I’d like to tone down the “sweetness” without compromising on shelf life. Any ideas how I can achieve this. Increase salt – an option? Thanks.

    Ben

    • joepastry says:

      Hey Ben!

      That’s a bit of a tricky one since the sugar not only helps preserve the cake, it also help it retain moisture. But if you’re going to take the sugar down, the logical thing to do to compensate is bring the fat up. It’ll help do both of those jobs: preserve and maintain a tender texture.

      Best of luck and let me know how it turns out!

      - Joe

  10. Elisabeth says:

    Hi! I live in Japan and use the standard Japanese recipes for pound cake. I did that because the cake pans are a completely different size here, and I needed to know the proportions. Anyway, using this recipe, I have made the best poundcakes I have EVER made.

    100g of butter
    100g of sugar
    120g of cake flour
    2 large eggs
    about 3 or 4 tbsps of liquid, according to what kind of cake.

    Best eaten after a day or two.

    Really, it is so simple and always turns out brilliantly.

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