Published December 1, 2006. From Cook's Country.
Can any come close to homemade?
While we prefer the rich flavor of a homemade cake, we know that many cooks do use a cake mix to help speed up the proceedings. But does it matter which cake mix you buy at the supermarket? Can any really compete with homemade? We bought eight boxed yellow and gold cake mixes and headed into the test kitchen to find out. We served the plain, unfrosted cakes to 22 tasters, who rated each cake for flavor, texture, and overall appeal.
Our tasters weren't fooled by these mixes. All eight cakes had an unnaturally uniform crumb and extremely light, fluffy texture. Cake mixes are formulated to maximize the volume of air and moisture the batter can hold, which results in a very moist, tender, and delicate cake. Ingredients such as shortening, emulsifiers (mono- and diglycerides as well as lecithin), xanthan gum, and cellulose gum give cakes made from boxed mixes their distinctive texture.
Without these ingredients, a from-scratch cake doesn't rise as much and you end up with a tighter, more irregular crumb, which is able to withstand a heavy coating of frosting. Fluffy boxed cakes almost collapse under the weight of a rich frosting. Several of the cakes in our tasting were particularly fluffy (more like cotton candy than cake) and were downgraded by tasters.
The flavor of a boxed cake mix, even one that calls for the addition of butter, won't fool an observant taster, either--but some came surprisingly close. Tasters said that the cakes made from top-rated mixes tasted like butter and vanilla. Other mixes had an obvious artificial smell and flavor, which landed them at the bottom of our ratings.