Home-prepared baked goods are always special, but it can be hard to hide your disappointment when you spend hours in the kitchen only to end up with a dry, crumbly cake. Checking it often to avoid overbaking is one potential fix, but there are also ways to get a great texture before you even put your cake in the oven.
Most cakes call for some type of flour. Using too much, however, can make your cake dry, and so can using the wrong kind. If you typically just plunge your measuring cup into the flour sack and level off the excess, you're probably adding too much, since the flour is packed down and compressed. Whisk or stir the flour in the sack first, then scoop it into your measuring cup with a spoon before leveling it off and adding to the batter. And speaking of flour – unless your recipe calls for another type, use pastry flour or cake flour in your cake batter, and stop mixing as soon as the dry ingredients are incorporated.
The Skinny on Fat
Health consciousness and moist cakes don't always go hand in hand. You may do a double take when you see how much butter or oil a cake recipe calls for, but there's a reason for it besides simply improving the taste: Fats help keep cakes moist and tender. So while it may seem odd to find mayonnaise in a list of cake ingredients, that condiment is doing the work of adding fat and creating a voluminous, moist batter that will bake up into a tender cake. You further encourage that tender crumb to develop when you beat the mayonnaise or softened butter and sugar together in a traditional cake recipe. This step aerates the batter and naturally leavens the cake. By leaving eggs, butter, milk and other refrigerated ingredients out at room temperature for several minutes before mixing them in, you're also more likely to achieve a moist cake.
Sweeten the Deal
You might think sugar is only present in a cake recipe for taste reasons, but as is the case with the fats and flour, its inclusion can help you achieve a great texture in the final product. Using less sugar than a recipe calls for may result in a dry, crumbly cake, and not blending the sugar in thoroughly can result in a coarse final texture [see Ref 4]. If your cakes are consistently dry, consider using a sugar that is more moist, such as muscovado, or a liquid sweetener instead of granulated sugar. Liquid sweeteners, such as simple syrup, maple syrup, honey, agave nectar or brown rice syrup, add moisture to baked goods. Some of them are also sweeter than granulated sugar, though, so start with smaller amounts when substituting.
Adding fruit puree to your batter can make any cake recipe turn out more moist. A classic addition is applesauce. Use applesauce as a substitute for up to 1/4 the amount of oil or butter in a recipe or simply as an addition – in a small amount – to the batter. Applesauce and other fruit purees, such as pineapple puree or mashed banana, keep cakes moist without contributing an overpowering flavor.