The Great Debate - Scratch Baking Vs Mixes
It’s a question as old as time. It has probably been asked more than, “what came first - the chicken or the egg?” I’m talking about what is better – cake mix or baking from scratch? Just like politics and religion, the parties are divided on this one too.
At a recent gathering of the Canadian Cake Decorator’s Guild, we did a blind taste test of mixes (a basic chocolate from Icing Inspirations and a gluten free courtesy of Virgin Ice) as well as my go to chocolate cake – a vegan chocolate cake courtesy of my friend Joshua John Russell. My guild chapter is composed of cake artists of various levels, so the feedback is quite representative. Cake mix is pretty much fail safe – add some eggs, oil and water et voila! Yumminess in a pan! Scratch mix on the other hand is a bit more involved requiring precise measuring and scaling of ingredients, but the result is slightly different from a mix – a denser, tighter crumbed cake, but still – yumminess in a pan!
We felt the taste of the basic mix and scratch were pretty close, with the mix having that slight edge in terms of airiness. The gluten free mix tasted good too, but was just slightly drier. Cost comparisons were also looked at, and when costing out my vegan recipe and looking at yield, I get more bang for my buck.
One thing became more evident over the course of the meeting….preference for box mix or scratch baking is extremely personal! The point of this article is not to stand on a soap-box and preach as to which is better. The point of the article is to help people to embrace their preference and produce the best product they can! If you have great success with a box mix and your customers are happy, why change? Same goes if you are a scratch baker – if clients enjoy what you’re putting out there, you are doing something right! For me, the desire to be able to offer scratch based desserts came from memories of the awesome desserts my grandmother’s made when I was growing up – scratch cookies, bars and pie crusts were the norm. I wanted to offer my clients the same ability to have similar memories….again this is just my preference!
When I started baking cakes for clients, I relied on mixes. The general public is accustomed to mix cakes. Most of us grew up on them. Heck, my wife still wants funfetti cupcakes from a mix with canned frosting for her birthday! Although I took a course in pastry and can whip up a mean genoise, the texture of a genoise is totally different from cakes people are used to. I used my co-workers, friends and family as guinea pigs, testing many scratch recipes to see what they liked best. It wasn’t until I found a recipe that I liked and that my clients would like did I make the switch. This took me a few years, but I am glad I took the time to play around and get the right fit. My repeat clients noticed the change (they were given a heads up when they ordered) and were very happy with the results! The recipe remains my go to base recipe for chocolate (and I have modified it for vanilla and red velvet as well). Using chocolate and vanilla as bases, I can build any flavor profile imaginable. This recipes yields a moist, delicious cake with a medium crumb (somewhere between mix cake and a dense buttercake). It holds up will under fondant , but I would not use it for carving 3D pieces – the crumb still isn’t tight enough.
So now I ask you….which is better – scratch or mix? My answer? BOTH! Neither is really better than the other. If anyone is interested, here is my basic chocolate cake recipe. Feel free to try it out and enjoy it! It will make 2 9-inch rounds about 3 inches tall each.
Mark’s Go-To Chocolate Cake:
2c AP Flour
2c Granulated Sugar
3/4c cocoa powder (use the best quality cocoa you can afford – I use Valrhona)
2tsp Baking Soda
2 large eggs
1c vegetable oil
1c hot coffee
½ vanilla extract (like cocoa, use the best you can – I make my own)
Heat oven to 300F. Grease & flour cake pans. Place all ingredients in mixer bowl and mix at medium speed until combined and smooth. Pour into prepared pans and bake for 1 hour (or until toothpick comes out clean). Cool, ice and decorate as desired!
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