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Yellow Cake Mixes

Published December 2006

How we tested

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.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*