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What Ingredient Makes a Cake Rise?

Name someone who doesn’t like cake. Bet you can’t. It’s very hard to resist a moist, fluffy, decadent sponge and you find yourself going back for more and more.

Cake is a centerpiece in every occasion, whether it’s a birthday, a wedding or an anniversary. And let’s not kid ourselves, most of us go to these events just for the free dessert anyway! Better yet, you don’t even have to use a celebration as an excuse to have cake. There is nothing wrong with whipping up a nice chocolate sponge to enjoy while melting in your couch watching Netflix. 

Sometimes, though, it’s not as simple as just mixing a few ingredients together with the hope that your cake will come out perfectly risen, moist and fluffy.

There have been many times where my bakes have not risen enough, which made me question, ‘What am I doing wrong?, ‘Am I not that good of a baker like I thought I was?’. There is nothing more frustrating than putting in so much effort in making the cake batter, just for your cake to come out looking flat, sunken and sad. Making you sad too.

The key to a perfectly risen cake is knowing what ingredient makes a cake rise. Once you have a clearer understanding of the different raising agents available and know how to use them properly, you will (hopefully) never have a flat cake again. 

 

The Raising Agents

1) Baking Soda and Baking Powder

When I first started baking, I thought baking soda and baking powder were the same thing. They are both white and powdery, they pretty much sound the same and they come in similar containers, so you can see why I thought that. But, I’m not alone. A lot of bakers just assume that too. How naive of us! In fact, baking powder and baking soda are completely different from each other and they are each used in different bakes. 

Baking Soda

Baking soda, or bicarbonate of soda, is an alkali that reacts with an acid. That’s as far as my science knowledge goes, so if you want to find out more about the science behind baking soda, have a look here. Basically, baking soda needs to be mixed with an acidic ingredient, such as vinegar or brown sugar. Once you mix baking soda with an acid, bubbles start to form which expand in the oven, making your bake rise. 

Baking soda starts to react as soon as you mix it with the rest of your ingredients so you need to pop your mixture in the oven as soon as possible otherwise you will get a flat bake. Baking soda only raises your bake once, that’s why it’s perfect for cookies. Baking soda is what gives cookies their soft, chewy texture. Be aware of how much baking soda a recipe asks because it’s very strong. if you put too much, you will end up eating cookies that taste like soap. No one wants soapy cookies! 

Simply put, you would use baking soda in foods such as, cookies, fruit cakes, lemon cakes, gingerbread and soda bread because they all use some sort of acidic ingredient. 

Baking Powder

Here is where it can get a bit confusing because baking powder already contains baking soda mixed with cream of tartar, which is an acid. Since it’s already mixed in with an acid, baking powder is usually used in recipes that don’t ask for an acidic ingredient. Still with us? Good. 

Just to confuse you even more, baking powder is double acting. Double acting means that baking powder initially reacts once you mix it with wet ingredients, just like baking soda. Then, it further reacts in the heated oven, causing the cake to rise even more. Think of it as two stages of rising. 

So, baking powder is used to help raise a simple Victoria sponge cake, chocolate cake, and cupcakes.

Top baking tip: You can substitute baking soda for baking powder, but you will have to add x4 baking powder in your mix, which will alter the taste of your bake, making it quite bitter. You can also substitute baking powder for baking soda, but you will have to add an acid, which again might alter the taste of your bake. 

 

2) Self-Rising Flour

Flour can be found in every house. It’s probably one of the most versatile ingredients out there as it is used in pretty much everything we bake. From breads, to cookies, to molten lava cakes, to pastries, flour is in literally EVERYTHING. I actually panic when I’m nearly out of flour because I feel like I can’t make anything without it!

Flour is most commonly made from wheat, but there are many varieties of flour, not just plain wheat flour. You can get whole wheat flour, bread flour, rice flour, oat flour, and even chickpea flour! There is an abundance of flour variety out there!

Self-rising flour is used for its ability to raise a bake. Self-rising flour is simply a mixture of plain flour and baking powder. Plain flour itself won’t rise a cake, but what will help rise a cake is the baking powder, just like we discussed above. If you ever run out of self-rising flour, just use plain flour and add some baking powder and you will get the exact same result as if you had used self-rising flour. 

It’s very easy to understand what self-rising flour is and how to use it. If you want to make a fluffy, sponge cake with a good rise, then self-rising flour is the one to use.

Top baking tip: If you want fluffy, thick pancakes, mix self-rising flour and add an extra teaspoon of baking powder. Your pancakes will be humongous!

 

3) Eggs and Egg Whites

Eggs. You can beat, poach, scramble, fry, bake, whip them… the list goes on! What can’t eggs do?! They are so versatile and are great in cakes as they help bind and create stability in a batter. They are also great for thickening sauces such as custards. 

If used correctly, eggs can also be used as a raising agent. When an egg is beaten, air gets trapped in the mixture, causing it to increase in volume. This increase in volume is what makes the cake rise with a very fluffy and aerated texture. There are all sorts of different beating methods used to increase volume in an egg mixture. 

You can beat eggs and egg yolks over simmering water (bain-marie) to increase its volume. This method emulsifies the mixture, giving it a very smooth and creamy texture. You will find this technique used in many Italian recipes, like in tiramisus and genoise cakes. Whisking egg whites is also a great method used to add height to a dessert. Whisking egg whites are more popularly used to make meringues, macarons and souffle, adding to the light and airy texture. But, if you want to add some volume to your cake, separate the egg whites, whisk them up and fold them gently into your cake batter. This will make you sponge tall, light and fluffy.

Top baking tip: Always use room temperature eggs in all your bakes. They break down easier and mix better. 

Also, whip up some egg whites to mix in with your pancake mix for souffle-like pancakes. Trust me, you will not be disappointed! (can you tell I’m obsessed with pancakes?)

4) Baker’s Yeast 

Although yeast is not an ingredient that makes a cake rise, it is commonly used in bakery products. Yeast is what makes bread, donuts and cinnamon rolls fluffy and doughy and absolutely delicious. Again, I am no scientist, so if you want to know more about how yeast works and why have a look here. There are different types of yeast, like fresh, active dry, liquid and instant. Bakers tend to either use active dry or instant yeast as they are more widely available and pretty easy to use. 

For active dry yeast to be activated you need to dissolve it in a warm liquid (110F or 43C), usually milk or water. It can be sold in sachets or jars. If you get yeast in a jar, be sure to refrigerate it once opened as I made the mistake of leaving it in my cupboard which left me wondering why my bread wasn’t rising!

Instant yeast is my favourite to use as it doesn’t need to be dissolved in warm water or milk and can be mixed directly with your ingredients. It’s also very easy to store as you can just leave it in your cupboard until the end by date. It’s usually sold in individual sachets in a pack of 8 or more so you will always get fresh yeast each time you use a sachet. 

Conclusion 

Now, you never have to wonder what ingredient makes a cake rise because we just gave you a deeper understanding of all the most commonly used raising agents. Knowing what raising agents are available and how to use them will ensure you get perfectly risen bakes every time. Happy baking everyone!

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