Butter cakes are probably the most popular type of cake. Classic American cakes typically consist of two layers of buttery cake that are filled and covered with a sweet frosting.
Butter cakes contain some form of fat, usually butter, margarine, oil, or shortening. Early cakes were leavened only by the air beaten into the butter and eggs during the mixing process.
Most cakes today include some sort of leaveners, such as baking powder or baking soda, along with proper mixing techniques to produce a lighter-textured cake.
Pound Cake, along with white and yellow cake, fruit cake, and coffee cake, are all variations of butter cakes. Butter cake recipes are easily doubled if you have extra baking pans, and any butter cake recipe can be baked as cupcakes.
In many recipes, the first step in making butter cakes is mixing the sugar and fat in creaming. The recipe typically states something similar to cream the sugar and butter until light and fluffy. Creaming incorporates tiny air bubbles into the butter and sugar, which expand during baking to help the cake rise.
Next eggs and flavorings are beaten in. Eggs provide moisture, flavor, and color, along with helping to aerate the batter. Finally, the dry ingredients and liquids are added to finish the batter.
Instead of cream, some cake recipes will use a one-bowl method which means all the ingredients, including the sugar and butter, are simply mixed together in one easy step.
These cakes usually have less volume than cakes using the creaming method; therefore, they may be heavier and denser but very delicious.
European cakes are commonly called tortes and often have more layers and complex elements, such as a combination of a sponge cake, meringue, filling, and jam.
How to Make a Butter Cake:
Step 1. Preparing Dry Ingredients
Adding dry ingredients to the cake batter is typically the last step in the mixing process; however, I like to have the ingredients combined and ready to use.
Dry ingredients typically include flour, leavening agents such as baking powder or baking soda, salt, and ground spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg. Sugar, even though dry, is not generally added to the flour; instead, it is combined with butter in the “creaming” process.
Having the dry ingredients already pre-measured, sifted, or whisked together, makes preparing the cake batter a smoother and easier process.
If the flour is to be sifted, do it now; add the dry leavening agents, salt, and spices at the same time to the sifter to help distribute them evenly throughout the flour. Sift the ingredients onto a piece of wax, parchment paper, or paper towel.
If the flour is not to be sifted, use a medium size bowl to combine the flour and other dry ingredients; use a wire whisk to blend the ingredients and evenly distribute them throughout the flour. A spoon can also be used, but a wire whisk works best.
The dry ingredients won’t be used until the end, so just set the bowl aside until ready to use.
Step 2. Creaming Butter and Sugar
Making a batter for butter cake recipes typically begins with combining two ingredients, such as butter and sugar, in a step called “creaming.” The purpose of creaming is to incorporate air into the butter.
When the sugar is added, the sugar granules trap and hold the tiny air bubbles in the butter. The recipe typically states something similar to “cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy,” meaning a pale yellow color and a whipped or fluffed-up texture.
Air is the primary leavening agent to help the cake rise while baking, giving the finished cake a tender and light texture. Chemical leaveners (baking powder or baking soda) only increase the size of the air bubbles; they don’t create new ones.
Vegetable shortening may be substituted for butter and actually creams and holds air easier than butter; however, butter adds a better flavor to your baking.
Margarine can also be used but doesn’t hold as much air and may not have the best flavor.
Creaming can be done by hand with a wooden spoon, but this task is much easier when done with an electric mixer. A stand mixer with a paddle attachment is most straightforward if you have one or use an electric hand mixer.
Creaming Step 1
In a large and deep mixing bowl, add the room temperature butter; with the mixer on medium speed, begin by beating the butter for 1 to 2 minutes until it is smooth and light in color.
If creaming by hand with a wooden spoon, use the backside of the spoon and move your arm in a circular motion to spread the butter over the bottom and up the side of the bowl. Move your arm quickly to beat or “whip” the butter.
Tip: if the recipe includes lemon or orange zest, add at the same time as the butter to infuse the oils from the zest into the butter for added flavor.
Creaming Step 2
To maintain the air incorporated into the butter in step one, the sugar must be added slowly, either one tablespoon at a time or in a very slow steady stream. Adding the sugar will typically take 4 to 8 minutes, depending on the amount of sugar in the recipe.
With the mixer still on medium speed, gradually add the sugar and mix until the butter and sugar are incorporated.
Stop the mixer occasionally to scrape the mixture off the paddle and scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula so the mixture blends evenly.
Continue beating until the mixture is a pale yellow with a fluffy texture, and then stop; you don’t want to continue beating it at this point since over-beating will cause the butter to soften and lose its ability to hold air overly.
The entire process of creaming the butter and sugar with an electric mixer typically takes between 5 and 10 minutes.
After creaming, the volume of the butter and sugar is increased, the mixture is a pale yellow, almost ivory color, and the texture appears fluffy.
Once you start adding additional ingredients to the creamed butter and sugar, no additional air bubbles will be created.
Step 3. Adding Eggs
After the butter and sugar are fully creamed, the next step is to add the room-temperature eggs. Eggs act as emulsifiers, holding the previously creamed butter and sugar together so they don’t separate. If cold eggs are added, the batter may seize into clumps and collapse the air bubbles.
You can add each whole egg directly to the batter, but just cracking the egg into the batter can also cause the creamed mixture to separate and deflate.
It is best first to crack each egg into a small bowl and whisk with a fork to thoroughly break up the egg before adding. This also allows you to remove any small blood spots from the egg or any pieces of eggshell so they don’t go into the batter.
For each egg, start with the mixer on low speed so the liquid from the egg doesn’t splatter.
Once the egg is partially mixed, increase the speed to medium. Add eggs one at a time to the creamed mixture. Each egg should be fully incorporated into the mixture before adding the next egg; blending in each egg should take about one minute.
Adding the eggs slowly and one at a time will help to ensure the creamed butter and sugar mixture doesn’t break apart or curdle.
If too much egg is added at once, the mixture may seem to “break apart,” looking curdled. This will typically correct itself if you keep beating the mixture longer.
However, if the batter doesn’t want to smooth out, don’t worry; just continue with the recipe.
Some recipes may have a large proportion of egg compared to the creamed butter and sugar, and there is no way to prevent the batter from breaking down and curdling.
But once the flour is added, the batter will smooth out, and your cake should turn out just fine.
A general rule is to add liquid flavorings, such as vanilla, while the last egg is added.
Alternatively, flavorings can be stirred together with liquid ingredients in a small bowl or in the liquid measuring cup before adding to the batter.
Step 4. Adding Liquid and Dry Ingredients
The last step in preparing a butter cake batter is adding the dry ingredients, or the flour mixture, that you previously measured and sifted or whisked together, along with the liquid ingredients. Liquid ingredients are typically water, milk, half-and-half cream, heavy cream, sour cream, buttermilk, coffee, etc.
Recipes instructions may state first to add the liquids and then finish with the dry ingredients; however, many times, the dry and liquid ingredients are added alternately to help prevent the batter from deflating.
When adding alternately, begin and end with the dry ingredients, which prevent the batter from separating or curdling. Usually, you can add the dry ingredients or the flour mixture, one-third at a time, and the liquid one-half at a time.
For larger recipes or if you have doubled a recipe, add the flour mixture one-fourth at a time and liquids one-third at a time.
Add one-third of the flour mixture with the mixer on low speed (you don’t need to measure precisely, just a guesstimate is fine.) Gently mix the flour in just until it is almost completely blended. It doesn’t need to be 100% blended; you don’t want to over-mix because you want to retain the air that was beaten into the batter previously.
Scrape the bowl down, add half the liquid, and blend until mixed.
Scrape the bowl down again and continue alternating with the flour mixture and liquid, ending with the last portion of the flour. When finished, all of the ingredients should be thoroughly blended, and the batter should still be light and fluffy.
Step 5. Fill the Cake Pan and Bake
The general rule of thumb is to fill a cake pan two-thirds to three-quarters full, leaving enough room for the cake to expand and rise as it bakes.
Preheat the oven before baking unless the recipe directions state to start with a cold oven. It usually takes 15 to 20 minutes to preheat the oven, but allow enough time for the oven to reach the correct temperature before you are ready to put your cake in the oven.
When a cake is made, it will start shrinking in height a bit and pulling away from the side of the pan.
A cake tester or toothpick inserted near the center of the cake should come out clean with no crumbs attached, and the cake should spring back when pressed lightly in the center without leaving an indentation.
Enjoy your delicious creation.