Before this cake flour experiment, and before the next couple of posts you’ll see here, it had been a while since I had done baking experimenting and side-by-side comparisons like this.
They’re a LOT of work, but I really missed having fun in the kitchen in this way!
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it pains me to intentionally make batches of anything that I know aren’t going to come out exactly right, but the photos I’m able to create are so valuable. They actually show you how different ingredients and techniques impact your favorite treats.
And I don’t know about you, but I’m such a visual person that the best way I can learn about the magic and science of baking is by seeing it in action.
If you like these kinds of posts and find them helpful, then you’ll LOVE The Magic of Baking online course + community I recently created. It dives deep into baking science in a fun, visual, & approachable way so you can enter the kitchen with complete confidence.
Now let’s get on with this Cake Flour 101 experimenting…
Tools and Ingredients Used:
I made every effort to replicate each batch as perfectly as possible, using the same exact tools and ingredients whenever applicable. I used a kitchen scale to measure ingredients to ensure 100% accuracy and used an oven thermometer to gauge exact baking temperatures. Each batch was baked for exactly 20 minutes.
I used Bleached Gold Medal All-Purpose Flour for the control batch and DIY cake flour, and Sofasilk Cake Flour for that batch. Lastly, I baked the batches in my Wilton Cupcake Pan, using a large spring loaded OXO scoop to fill each cavity evenly with batter.
Also note that the photos I took in comparing these are a little darker than I would normally like, but I wanted to avoid excess post editing so you could see the color and texture as true-to-life as they were when I baked them!
What is cake flour?
Cake flour has a lower protein content than all-purpose flour:
All-purpose flour: 9-12% protein content
Cake flour: 6-8% protein content
This lower level of protein discourages gluten formation. Lower levels of gluten equal more softness and tenderness in a baked good. Think of something that has a really high level of protein like steak. It’s tough and chewy. When we want the opposite of that texture, we want lower levels of protein.
Cake flour is actually made from soft winter wheat and is extra finely ground, giving it a softer, finer and more delicate texture. That fineness is actually why cake flour should be sifted before use, it’s more likely to clump together.
Lastly, cake flour is typically bleached, which further weakens the proteins which again prohibits gluten formation. Bleached flours in general soak up more water and produce thicker batters.
Testing Cake Flour & Substitutions
Those three elements make cake flour very different than all-purpose flour in terms of it affects the chemistry of a recipe. Since it’s made from a different wheat using different manufacturing techniques, it’s impossible to recreate cake flour exactly at home using “DIY” substitutions. That’s why I was so eager to compare side-by-side cake flour vs. all-purpose flour vs. DIY cake flour.
I had a suspicion of how this experiment would turn out, but I wanted to be 100% sure either way. I know many of us don’t always have cake flour in our pantries so it’s kind of an annoying ingredient when you see it called for in a recipe!
Yet because of all of the baking experiments I’ve done in my Ultimate Guides, I know one small seemingly insignificant change can have significant results in baking.
Control Recipe – All Purpose Flour
The cupcakes I baked were based off a standard cupcake recipe found at the bottom of this post. This recipe uses all-purpose flour. I re-made the same recipe each time, simply changing out the flour for each batch you see below.
These control cupcakes were soft yet sturdy with a slightly open crumb. They weren’t super tall and had some cracking on top that I think visually reflects the slight chewiness they had. Basic yet delicious.
I used the same amount of Sofasilk Cake Flour in place of the all-purpose flour in this batch. These cupcakes baked up pale and tall with a spongier and softer texture. The softness actually reminded me slightly of a more commercially produced cupcake but not necessarily in a negative way. They were so soft that I don’t think they’d hold up to a heavy or generous frosting or filling.
DIY Cake Flour
For this batch I followed this technique for making “DIY” Cake Flour:
1 cup all-purpose flour minus 2 tablespoons + 2 tablespoons cornstarch
Then I sifted this flour + cornstarch mixture 5 times with a fine mesh strainer.
These cupcakes looked more like the control / all-purpose flour cupcakes than the cake flour cupcakes which I thought was interesting. They definitely had a softer, more tender texture than the control batch however, and a finer more delicate crumb. However, they weren’t as soft and delicate as the real cake flour batch.
I think visually this comparison does a good job of proving the belief I’ve always held that nothing is quite as good as the real thing. 90% of substitutions you make in baking will alter the taste and texture of the final result. Sometimes substitutions are necessary and I understand that. However, I think it’s always best to follow the recipe exactly as it’s written… at least the very first time you make it so you understand how it’s supposed to turn out.
Luckily, since cake flour is refined and bleached it will keep in your pantry for a long time. So why not have some on hand for those few recipes that use it so you can really take your baking to that next level?
More Baking Science Articles:
(191 grams) all-purpose flour
(200 grams) granulated sugar
stick (113 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
plus 2 tablespoons whole milk
In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the sugar and butter until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg and vanilla and beat until combined. Add the dry ingredients and milk alternatively, starting and ending with the flour, beating well after each addition. Continue beating for one minute. Divide the batter between the cupcake cups, filling each about 2/3 full.
Bake at 350°F for 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Let cool for 10 minutes before removing to a wire rack to cool completely.