Learn the science behind:
Most cakes nowadays become airy thanks to the use of frothy eggs, or more commonly, by adding baking soda or baking powder. However, just like we can leaven bread with yeast, we can do the same for cakes! Though nowadays they’re not as common, yeast-leavened cakes have been around for a long time, longer than those made with baking powder and baking soda.
Yeast cakes may take a little longer to make since they need to prove, but, they have a few distinct features. Yeast enables the use of more flour and sturdier textures but does limit the amount of sugar as well as fat. As a result, these cakes tend to be less sweet and fatty than ‘regular’ cakes. But not less delicious 😉.
- What's special about a yeast-leavened cake?
- Types of yeast-leavened cakes
- Yeast and baking powder cakes are not interchangeable
What’s special about a yeast-leavened cake?
Yeast works very differently than whipped eggs, baking soda or baking powder. As such, how you make a yeasted cake can be quite different than a ‘conventional’ cake. It’s all about understanding the yeast and letting it do its thing, in the right amount of time.
Yeast is a living microorganism, keep it happy!
First of all, keep in mind that yeast is a living microorganism. It can only leaven a cake when it’s alive and likes the conditions it’s at. Make it too hot and the yeast will die, so that’s a definite no-go. For most baking yeasts, temperatures well above 40°C (104°F) kill off (part of) the yeast cells, reducing the activity. Yeast cells also don’t do well when there’s too much sugar, and the same applies for fat.
Once it’s under conditions it enjoys, yeast leavens a cake batter by converting sugars into gas, carbon dioxide through a process called fermentation. The carbon dioxide bubbles this creates form little air bubbles within the cake, which lighten up the cake. Fermentation proceeds more quickly at higher temperatures and needs enough sugars to proceed at a reasonable rate. Nevertheless, fermentation will generally take an hour or more. During this time, the cake batter needs to be strong enough to hold onto the gas bubbles that were created.
Baking powder and baking soda are chemicals that react once heated. The warmer it is, the faster they go. It’s generally best to place a cake batter made with either of these in the oven as soon as possible to prevent them from being ‘finished’ before the cake starts baking.
Less sugar and fat, more flour
As a result, compared to a cake made using baking powder yeast cake generally contains:
- Less sugar: else the yeast would grow too slowly
- Less fat: same story, else the yeast would grow too slowly
- More flour: this is an automatic result of the other ingredients being present in lower quantities. But, there’s another reason. Flour is often the core structural component in these cakes. It ensures the cake batter and cooked cake can hold onto their own texture and are sufficiently stable.
This different ratio of ingredients impacts your cake’s overall texture. A cake made with baking soda or baking powder tends to have a light, slightly crumbly texture. However, by using yeast the cake will be less crumbly and a little denser.
Yeast cakes don’t need cake flour
Non-yeast cakes often benefit from being made with cake flour. This flour is ground more finely and contains a low amount of proteins, aka gluten. However, a yeast cake generally works best when made with a higher protein content flour, such as all purpose flour or even bread flour. The protein helps create that structure you need to hold onto the air bubbles created during leavening.
Nevertheless, there’s no need to extensively develop gluten proteins when baking a yeasted cake. Instead, regular mixing, as when making a regular cake is enough. The cake simply doesn’t need to rise as much as a bread and has all that sugar and fat to help create an nice texture.
Yeast adds flavor & moistness
Yeast doesn’t just bring air into a dough or batter. While it’s fermenting away, it also produces all sorts of flavor molecules. These aren’t necessarily very apparent but do improve the overall flavor profile of the cake, especially when left to prove for some time..
You might also know that sourdough bread tends to dry out less quickly than conventional yeast-risen bread. The same goes for yeast-leavened cakes versus conventional ones. They tend to hold on to moisture a little better and can be kept quite ok, although the difference isn’t as clear as for bread since both the high amounts of sugar and fat in cakes help increase its shelf life as well.
Uneven hole texture
Yeast cakes tend to have a different hole structure as well. You might end up with some larger and some smaller holes. This is due to the nature of fermentation. In some areas it might happen just a little faster than in other areas.
Types of yeast-leavened cakes
A lot of cakes leavened with yeast are location-based recipes, stemming from a specific (often European) region. To name just a few:
- Gugelhopf / Guglhopf / Kugelhopf: This yeasted cake stems from central Europe and may have originated in several different countries, people don’t agree on which. The different names all refer to a similarly shaped round cake with a hole in a middle (similar to cakes made in a Bundt pan). Nowadays you’ll be able to find plenty of “Kugelhopf” recipes though which use baking powder or soda. But since yeast does require a different environment to thrive, these cakes do taste different.
- Panettone: Is it a cake or a bread? In any case, it’s risen using yeast and it’s sweet, filled with fruits. It has its origins in Italy and has a distinctive dome shape.
- Bara brith: This is a typical Welsh cake (or is it a bread?) risen with yeast. It also commonly contains fruits.
- Savarin: The savarin has its origins in France. It has similarities to a brioche, but it turns out relatively dry, requiring a soak in syrup to soften up again.
A fine line between bread and cake
There’s a fine line between calling some a bread or a cake, especially when those cakes are made with yeast. Brioche and babka are often referred to as breads, but some may call them cakes. Banana and pumpkin bread on the other hand, might actually have more in common with cakes than with bread. Since both are made with similar ingredients, be it in slightly different ratios, it’s hard to distinguish the two.
Here, we’ll call something a cake if it doesn’t require extensive kneading to develop gluten, tends to be on the sweeter side and if you’d generally regard it as being a snack, as opposed to part of a wholesome meal. The definition isn’t perfect, but neither is the world, so it’ll do.
Yeast and baking powder cakes are not interchangeable
Yeast cakes are fundamentally different than cakes made with baking powder/soda. As such, you can’t simply replace these for one another. The overall formulation of the cake will have to change and most likely, you’ll still end up with a cake with a different overall texture and flavor profile.
Development of baking powder, ACS, link
The Oxford companion to food, Cake, p.129, link; goes back to Roman times to understand how bread & cake have developed over the centuries
Bakery product, Elementary food science, p.299, link; mentions that cakes aren’t made with yeast, but chemically leavened
Yeasted cakes, Classical German baking, p.95, link; on the origin stories of Gugelhopf, this book contains a lot more recipes for yeasted cakes!
The Oxford companion to sugar and sweet, p. 92, 225-226, 286, 311-313, 387, 589, link; a great book if you want to learn more about the history of cakes and other sweet goods, it has extensive sections on different countries all around the world
Road to pastry, Savarins, link; nice summarizing article on savarins and related products (e.g. baba au rum)
Yeast-risen pound cake, Food52, link
Ruby Tandoh, The hard-won pleasures of a yeasted cake, Aug-7, 2022, link