Brow Beat

A One-Ingredient Trick to Make Any Cake 1,000 Times Better

Three loaves of pound cake with the ends sliced off, in three different shades, from bright yellow to brown.
Bobbi Lin

A dollop of whipped cream is just about the easiest way to top off any baked good. Pound cake? Add whipped cream. Fudgy brownies? Add whipped cream. Shortcakes? Add whipped cream. But all of these are an afterthought.

Why not add whipped cream to unbaked goods—you know, before they go in the oven?

Probably because most recipes don’t tell us to. In fact, out of all the cakes and brownies and shortcakes and muffins and quick breads I’ve baked (of these, there are a lot), not one ever told me to stir whipped cream into the batter instead of dolloping it on top.

Then I read BakeWise by Shirley O. Corriher. This work won the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Baking and Dessert Cookbook in 2009, so it’s no surprise that it’s stuffed with aha! moments.

Like wringing whipped cream for all its worth. If you discovered this cookbook when it was first released, then maybe you already know all about this trick. (Psst: Tell us how you’ve put it to good use in the comments!) Or maybe you’re just like me and still wondering:

Wait, whipped cream in cake batter? But why?

The best part? Going from cream to whipped cream is pretty dang easy—especially if you own a hand or stand mixer. (For by-hand tricks, look no further.)

As Hurlbert put it: “Just a simple and quick technique can make such a difference in the texture, flavor, and enjoyment.”

And that’s what Corriher loves about it, too—low effort, big reward: “You are introducing more air for a slightly lighter cake, and the texture of whipped cream introduces a softness and a moistness,” she writes in BakeWise.

Which is to say, the air is an additional leavener in the baked good. I got in touch with Corriher to talk cake and she explained this even further: “The difference in cream and whipped cream is the bubbles in the fat. Baking powder and baking soda do not make a single bubble in a dough. They only enlarge existing bubbles. This is why the bubbles in the fat (and in the whipped cream are so important. Whipped cream is a major leavener.”

In other words: a major game-changer.

Of course, it’s not totally new. Nothing ever is, right? There’s a whipped cream–based cake in the 1975 edition of The Joy of Cooking. And in Rose’s Heavenly Cakes by Rose Levy Beranbaum, there’s a recipe for Whipped Cream Cake—no butter, just whipped cream (which is sort of funny since whipped cream is halfway to butter).

When I got in touch with her about the recipe, she told me, “My version of this cake is one of my all-time favorite cakes in texture and flavor.” And coming from Beranbaum, that means a lot.

“By whipping the cream you are adding structure and air bubbles,” she said. Moreover, cream itself has a purer, brighter flavor than butter: “Processing always destroys some flavor, so by churning cream into butter you still have delicious flavor—but you sacrifice some of the lovely floral notes resident in the cream.”

And, surely, there are other whipped cream cakes out there. Do you know ’em? Share in the comments so we all can have an excuse to bake something else.

What fascinated me most about the whipped-cream technique wasn’t just the lighter texture—or the moister crumb or lovelier flavor. What fascinated me most was Corriher’s unabashed excitement that this unusual ingredient “changes everything” when it comes to baked goods.

Hurlbert’s recipe calls for 1/2 cup heavy cream, whipped—so Corriher started adding just that to other recipes: her own pound cake, and yellow cake layers, and pear-walnut muffins, and French-style fruit cake.

“There is a whole world of cakes and other baked goods that may be improved by folding in 1/2 cup (118 ml) heavy cream whipped to soft peaks,” Corriher writes.

Cue: Me scurrying to the supermarket, buying all the cream, scurrying back home, and turning on my oven. You with me?

The Experiment

I selected four very different recipes to get a lay of the land:

Marian Burros’ Plum Torte. A buttery, fruit-studded cake that’s as legendary as they come. Food52 Co-Founder Merrill Stubbs describes it as “arguably the most famous recipe ever to grace the pages of the New York Times.” But can it get even better with whipped cream? (Oh, and since it’s not plum season in N.Y.C., I used apples instead.)

Nigella Lawson’s Dense Chocolate Loaf Cake. The word dense is in the very title (in a proud way!), making this a prime candidate for a lil’ whipped-cream aeration. Will the whipped cream make the cake lighter and fluffier? Plus, how will the trick fare in chocolatey situations?

Nancy Silverton’s Bran Muffins. “A bran muffin that’s somehow both more wholesome and more delicious than the rest,” writes Genius recipe–hunter Kristen Miglore. Unlike the other three here, this one is oil-based. Will that have any effect? And can the whipped cream stand a chance against something as sturdy as bran? (P.S. I used oat bran instead of wheat. Just for fun!)

The Easiest Shortcakes. The wild card test: This recipe already has cream—dun dun dun!—1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons to be exact. Instead of adding more cream (that’d be crazy, right? But also, if you want to try it, please let me know how it goes), I want to see what happens if I whip the amount called for. Will the shortcakes turn out even lighter and fluffier?

The Results

Two slices of torte on plates. The slice labelled "whipped cream," is twice as tall as the slice labelled "original."
Emma Laperruque

Marian Burros’ Plum Torte. This was my favorite makeover of the bunch. After one bite of each, all I could say was, “Wow!” Such a noticeable difference here. The whipped-cream cake has a domed center (while the original is flat), shrunk more around the edges (I suspect from the additional fat), and has a bouncier consistency when gently poked. After being sliced, the whipped-cream version showed off a higher rise and fluffier crumb. And it’s significantly more tender and moist. Okay, okay, one more bite to triple check. Verdict: Whipped cream made me love this cake even more.

Nigella Lawson’s Dense Chocolate Loaf Cake. “Don’t worry if it sinks in the middle,” Lawson writes in the recipe. “Indeed, it will do so because it’s such a dense and damp cake.” Which is to say, if you add more liquid, the middle will sink even more and the sides will scrunch up . Should I have seen this coming? Maybe. Did I learn something from it? Totally. The original is as moist as a cake can be without turning into pudding or fudge, which is what the whipped-cream version reminded me of.

My coworkers loved it, though, and couldn’t care less about its appearance. “Honestly, it doesn’t even matter,” Assistant Buyer Louise de Verteuil said. “I would just fill the canyon with more whipped cream.” Verdict: Whipped cream threw off the structure of this already-moist-as-can-be cake—but who are we, to judge a cake by its looks?

Nancy Silverton’s Bran Muffins. Coming out of the oven, these looked pretty dang similar. The original recipe had more cracks in its top, while the whipped-cream version was smoother. Coming out of the muffin tin, both had sound structure, and slicing them in half revealed nearly look-alike crumbs. But the taste and texture was where they differed: The whipped cream version had a, well, creamier flavor, and a noticeably softer consistency. If you’re feeding a bran muffin skeptic (everyone should love bran muffins, there I said it), the whipped cream made these even more convincing. Verdict: Whipped cream lightened up these bran muffins—both in the nutty, wheaty flavor and hearty, grainy texture.

Two shortcakes, halved. The shortcake labelled "whipped cream" is craggier the the shortcake labelled "original."
Emma Laperruque

The Easiest Shortcakes. I had no idea what to expect here. The good news is: The whipped-cream variation totally worked. In fact, it worked so well that, at first glance, I could barely tell the two apart. If I looked closer, the whipped cream shortcakes had bumpier tops—curious since the whipped cream bran muffins had smoother tops. After many bites, I decided that the whipped cream shortcakes were lighter and more tender in texture. If you listened closely when you broke one apart, you could even hear an exhale of all that air! Verdict: The whipped cream made some small, but positive changes here. But is the difference enough to warrant the extra effort? You tell me.

The Takeaway

Whipped cream is a baking secret weapon—not just a last-minute garnish. But, like any secret weapon, you have to use it strategically. Here are the big dos and don’ts:

Don’t try this with a recipe that you haven’t made before. If you aren’t familiar with a recipe, then how can you anticipate how it will react to a new ingredient? Try it with an old favorite that you want to give a new spin. Or a cake you are really into, but wish were a little more fluffy, moist, or tender.

Don’t use this on already-moist cakes. Or do! It all depends on how moist you like your cakes. If the batter is runny and pourable—like that chocolate loaf cake or Maialino’s famous olive oil cake—it’s a proceed-at-your-own-risk candidate. These recipes have moisture covered, so the structure will likely suffer. But maybe the ultra-fudgy consistency will be just what you want.

Do add whipped cream to thick-batter baked goods. Like the plum torte or a pound cake or sturdy muffin. One easy litmus test: Will you have to fold the whipped cream into the batter? (That is to say, incorporate it super gently, so you don’t deflate the whipped cream.) If the batter is so thin that you only have to stir it in, see the above paragraph.

And do have fun experimenting. Can I promise that it will always go perfectly? Course not. But if reading BakeWise taught me anything, it was this: Be curious. Try something new. See what happens. Maybe you’ll make one of your go-to recipes even better. And if not, there will still be cake. And even when cake isn’t great, it’s great. Plus, you’ll have some leftover cream—to whip and dollop on top.

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