Many cake recipes instruct, “Alternate adding flour and milk, starting and ending with the flour.” Why start and end with flour? What happens if we change the order? At the end of the day, you’ll get cupcakes, but adding the flour first gives you lighter, fluffier cakes.
Goal: To taste a difference between cupcakes that have the flour added first and those that have the milk added first
Recipe: Vanilla Cupcakes from Pretty. Simple. Sweet.
Method: Cream butter and sugar, add eggs and flavoring. To half the butter mixture, alternate adding the flour and milk as directed in the recipe. To the other half, add the milk first, then the flour. Divide into cupcake tins and bake.
Results: Comparing the milk-first to the flour-first (control) cupcake, we noticed
– Thicker batter
– Firmer texture
Conclusions: If you get all the ingredients into the bowl, you’ll get a yummy cupcake. But to get the best texture, add flour to the butter first to decrease gluten formation.
Ingredients and Equipment
- 1 1/3 c (185 g)Baker’s Corner all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp Baker’s Corner baking powder
- 1/4 tsp Stonemill iodized salt
- 1/2 c Countryside Creamery unsalted butter, softened
- 1 c (203 g) Baker’s Corner granulated sugar
- 2 large Goldhen cage-free eggs, at room temperature
- 1 tsp Stonemill vanilla extract
- 1/2 c soured Friendly Farms skim milk, at room temperature
- 12-tin muffin pan
- KitchenAid 5-speed mixer
Baking the Cupcakes
- Grease a 12-muffin pan and preheat the oven to 350°F.
- Combine flour, baking powder, and salt (190 g total). Divide into two portions (95 g each).
- Divide the milk into two 1/4-cup portions.
- Cream the butter and sugar together, then add eggs and vanilla extract as directed in the recipe (408 g total). Divide into two portions (204 g each).
- To one portion of the butter mixture, add half (52 g) a portion of flour, an entire 1/4-cup portion of milk, then the remaining flour. Mix until just combined. This is the control batter, which follows the recipe.
- To the second portion of the butter mixture, add half (1/8 c) a portion of milk, an entire (95 g) portion of flour, then the remaining milk. Mix until just combined after each addition.
- Divide each batter into six muffin cups. Bake 20 minutes and remove to a rack until completely cooled.
As you can see in the tins above, the milk-first batter was thicker than the flour-first (control) batter because more of the milk was absorbed. As we discussed in the introduction to gluten, when we combine flour with water, the flour proteins absorb water until they are fully hydrated, then bond together to form gluten. However, if fats sequester the flour, the proteins can only reach a limited amount of water, which limits their hydration and the amount of gluten they can form. (Read more about this in the section on fats in “Gluten in the Kitchen.”)
In the control cupcakes, we first add flour to the butter mixture. This gives the butter a chance to coat the flour before the milk, which contains the majority of the water in this recipe, is added. Because the flour is coated with butter, its proteins cannot absorb as much liquid, so the batter is thinner. On the other hand, when we add milk to the butter first, there is already a lot of liquid in the mixing bowl by the time the flour joins the party. The flour proteins, unencumbered by butter, are free to grab a lot of this liquid, leaving less water in the batter. This results in a thicker batter.
If it’s important to grease the flour to minimize gluten development, why not add all the flour, then all the milk? Butter and milk do not mix well, so adding flour after the milk ensures that the milk is absorbed and that the batter is homogeneous. But the more times you alternate, the more you have to mix, and mixing develops gluten. (See this post for more on mixing and gluten.) Thus, the number of flour and milk additions is a balance between texture and homogeneity. Some recipes add all the flour, then all the milk, prioritizing tenderness. Others tell you to add more than half the flour in the first addition. Still others separate the ingredients into five additions (flour, milk, flour milk, then flour again), only greasing the first third of the flour with butter but ensuring a well-combined batter.
Whereas the control muffins were light and airy, the milk-first cupcakes had a tougher bite. As we discussed above, more gluten formed in the milk-first cupcakes. Since more gluten results in more chew, the milk-first cupcakes were firmer. Think about biting through a single cooked spaghetti strand versus a bundle of cooked spaghetti. The single strand, like the less developed gluten in the flour-first cupcakes, breaks easily, while the bundle of spaghetti, like the developed network in the milk-first cupcakes, is harder to bite through. The tight, firm texture of the milk-first cupcakes was unexpected for a cake.
Both the flour- and milk-first cupcakes baked up into tasty treats, but the limited gluten formation in the flour-first cupcakes, as evidenced by the thinner batter, resulted in a fluffier, more desirable texture. When we prepare cake batters that alternate adding flour and liquid to fat, we can try adding more flour in the first addition. The more flour we grease in that step, the less gluten forms, and the lighter the cake that comes out of the oven.
Corriher, Shirley O. Bakewise; Scribner: New York, 2008.
Figoni, P. How Baking Works, 3rd ed.; John Wiley & Sons, Inc.: Hoboken, 2011.