To Mix or to Scratch…Box Cake is the Question!

One hot topic among bakers, both professional and casual, is whether or not it is acceptable to use a box cake mix for their creations. Many people detest a box cake mix! I have read where bakers get into ridiculously heated debates on forums and blogs about this very topic. The simple truth is that bakers, experienced and novice, use box mixes. Some use them exclusively, some use them periodically while others may modify or add things to the box to make it their own. I have known of bakeries that buy cake mix in bulk. It is easier and more economical to dump a large bag of mix into a mixer than it is to use all ingredients separately sometimes. No matter how you decide to bake I would encourage you to experiment with different recipes (both scratch and box modifications). You never know what you may find that works well for you, your family and your clients. Here we will discuss a brief history of the box cake mix, what is in a box cake mix,  and how they can compare to scratch recipes. I will also give you some tips for making your box cake mix taste better. So lets begin!

A Little History…

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Once upon a time, 1936 to be exact, there was a young woman from Germany who moved to the United States with her young daughter and her name was Charlotte Cramer Sachs. In 1945 she married Alexander Sachs who a leading economist of the time. Alexander introduced Albert Einstein to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and was an advisor to President Roosevelt. 
Charlotte had an entrepreneurial spirit and a love of learning. She never went to college, as it wasn’t appropriate at that time for women to go. However, Charlotte became a composer (“A Salute to Berlin”), a poet, artist, established a publishing company, and spoke three languages! In the early 1940’s she developed Joy Products where they produced boxed mixes. She was a pioneer in her time. The Joy products were marketed as a great gift for the boys overseas. These products could stay fresh in transit around the world to our military. They also targeted housewives who were short on time, exploiting the ease and convenience of baking a home made treat from a box. Now, I have read before that some of these early boxes only required a person add water or milk. The early boxes included powdered eggs and a dehydrated oil (which is still found in many mixes today). I guess people didn’t buy into that box mix idea because they couldn’t understand how you could get a tasty product without eggs, water and an oil (fat). However, I had difficulty finding reliable sources about this, and I’m not clear if it was Joy products or some other. (The information about Charlotte and Joy products is from the Smithsonian, link below)
Charlotte refused an offer to sell her company and secrets. Later these secret mix recipes were copied and used by larger manufacturing companies supposedly without her consent. Charlotte went on to produce many more patents and inventions. She’s probably best known for her wine cabinets that monitored temp and humidity. She was a brilliant woman who was fearless, clever and extremely talented. 
What’s in a mix?

Box cake mix include the same ingredients you would find in your scratch recipes. There are however a few extra ingredients. Below is a list of ingredients from an off brand holiday confetti box cake mix that I had in my kitchen. The ingredients are all similar from brand to brand and even in the off brands. You really won’t see very much of a difference.  I bought this holiday box on clearance for $0.59! And it will make 2, 8-inch 2 inch deep cakes. Just to give you an idea on cost and size of cake comparison. 
Now, I’m not going to go into each and every ingredient and how bad it all is for you, because let’s face it, I think we all know cake in any form is not a power food. It is spongy fluffy carbs covered in a creaming frosting of carbs and fat. Yum, Yum. But that’s not what we are talking about here. We are comparing box cake and scratch cake recipes. 
Some of the things that stand out are things like Carnauba Wax. This wax comes from the leaves of a palm tree in Brazil. It can be found in food items like sweets as well as shoe polish, car wax, and dental floss. Another item you wouldn’t find in a scratch recipe is Xanthan Gum. This is an additive that thickens the cake and enhance texture. It is derived from natural sources and is considered safe by the FDA, however it is questionable how safe it really is according to some. Modified Corn Starch is another. It isn’t harmful but could be made from genetically modified corn. Anyway, the point is you will find some extra things in the box cake mix that you wouldn’t use in a cake from scratch. I read that in the 1960’s some food scientist/chemist gained a patent on an additive to cake mixes for soap. Supposedly the soap would make it thicken up. Maybe Xanthan Gum is a biproduct of that, who knows. *I couldn’t find anything where soap is still used.* Just an interesting tid bit.  
Scratch Cake:

Making a cake from scratch isn’t difficult at all. I think many people are intimidated by trying recipes from scratch whether it be a cake, entree or side item. We live in a society that mass produces everything including the food we eat. Many people complain that buying fresh foods, like produce or even meat without hormone injections, is more expensive than buying all of the prepackaged goods like hamburger helper or spaghetti-o’s. This can most definitely be true. But one important thing to remember is that you may be saving money now but in the long run those boxed dinners and fast foods will take a toll on your health. So it may actually cost you more in the long run with health problems, doctor bills, medications, etc. And trust me, I’m not innocent here, and I’m most definitely not throwing stones. I may buy things like spaghetti-o’s from time to time to fix in a pinch. In general though, I do stay away from the boxed dinners and hormone injected meats.  But, nonetheless, people have become accustomed to pulling through the drive-thru, ordering carry out or eating one of those pre-packaged dinners with mystery meat. I even know many people that hardly use their kitchen for it’s main function….cooking! In fact, a lot of people I’ve talked with think that a box cake mix IS a scratch cake! They would never know the difference! Cake comes in a box, and chicken nuggets are naturally shaped like dinosaurs, that’s the way it’s always been. Seriously though, don’t ever be afraid to step out onto that limb and try your hand at baking a cake from scratch. Some scratch recipes are amazingly delicious and you would never be able to duplicate them with a box mix.  
Below is a basic yellow cake recipe that I use pretty regularly. It is a good standard yellow cake that goes well with many variations of filling and frostings:
  1. 1 cup (2 sticks of butter brought to room temperature)
  2. 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  3. 8 egg yolks
  4. 3/4 cup of milk
  5. 1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
  6. 2 cups flour
  7. 2 tsp baking powder
  8. 1/2 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Either grease and flour 2 8 inch round pans or spray with something like Wilton’s Bake Easy (can be found at many large craft stores in the Wilton aisle). Then mix the flour, baking powder and salt, set aside.
Next in a large bowl or mixer cream together butter and sugar until it is light and fluffy. Add egg yolks one at a time, then add vanilla. Now add in the flour mix and milk alternately until mixed. Pour batter into your prepared pans. 
Bake for 25-30 minutes. The baking time will vary depending on your altitude, sometime humidity in the air and your oven. Many ovens do not register temperatures correctly. So start watching your cake at around 25 minutes. You will know it is done when the sides are pulling away from the edge of the pan, but are not burned and by the top bouncing back when lightly pushed on. You can also stick a toothpick or a butter knife into the center of the cake. If it comes out clean (no liquid mix) then it is done. 
Let the cake sit in the pan for 10-15 minutes then flip them onto a cooking rack. If you let them sit for too long then the cake will re-stick to the pan and it will be very difficult to get the cakes out in one piece. 
Messin’ with the Mix

There are many little tricks you can do to tweak a box cake mix. Books have even been written on how to mess with the mix and change it to make different flavors of cake. One book series is called The Cake Doctor. There are countless recipes in her books to change a box cake mix into something that tastes like it came from a bakery. My favorite trick is to use milk instead of water, add one extra egg to what the box calls for and butter instead of oil and double it. So let me demonstrate:
Lets say the box calls for:                      Then use:
1 1/3 cup of water                                     1 1/3 cup of milk  
1/2 cup vegetable oil                                  1 cup of melted butter
3 whole large eggs                                     4 whole large eggs
Whenever I do use a box cake mix I always make it with the modified ingredients above.  I have had people tell me that it is even the best cake they’ve ever had! Even people who have told me they despise box cake mixes have been fooled by this.  Even if you don’t want to use all of the modifications, you could use one or two. Maybe just use milk instead of water or butter instead of oil. You can also add a pack of pudding mix to the batter to add a bit of extra moisture. If you are a die hard box cake fan then I highly recommend checking out the book series The Cake Doctor and tweaking your own recipes. I’ve even seen where people just add a can of crushed pineapple to a yellow box cake mix, bake it and it makes some delicious treat. Who knew right? 
In conclusion, box or scratch is really up to the baker. I know some may read this and snub their nose at it, and that’s fine. I encourage each and every reader to try different things, find something that works well for you. Use family, friends, neighbors, co-works etc to be your taste testers. Keep a notebook or journal about your recipes you’ve tried. I can’t tell you how many times I tried something new I found online or in an old cook book and didn’t write it down! Keep track of your failures and successes and you will soon find that you have a collection of recipes that people will ask for and enjoy!

2 thoughts on “To Mix or to Scratch…Box Cake is the Question!

  1. Especially Made says:

    I’ve done both. I like the ease of a box mix with some minor variations. It’s kind of funny because I know people who say they would never use box mixes for their cakes, then I make something from the Cake Mix Doctor cookbook, and ask for the recipe.

    • Christina says:

      I do both as well. I have a couple of box mix recipes that I LOVE! And, yes people are always fooled. lol. I’ve had people tell me that they love the cakes I make and these are the same people who swear up and down that they will never eat a box mix. It’s funny. 🙂

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