A quick cake recipe typically uses a leavening agent, commonly baking powder, and a flavoring like vanilla. If you don't have either of these ingredients in your pantry, there are some easy substitutes you can use to still make a tasty cake without baking powder or vanilla.
How Does Baking Powder Work?
Light, fluffy cakes rely on a process involving a chemical reaction between acidic and alkaline compounds that produce carbon dioxide, which inflates the batter. Baking powder and baking soda are common types of leavening agents used in cakes that produce these gases. Each has a different role in how they affect baked goods.
Baking soda contains only one ingredient: sodium bicarbonate. It requires the addition of an acid, such as vinegar, lemon juice, buttermilk or yogurt, to initiate a reaction that produces gas bubbles that make the batter rise, according to NC State University.
Baking powder contains both baking soda and acid. The acid comes from salts like sodium aluminum sulfate and calcium phosphate. These acids react with the bicarbonate ions to release carbon dioxide. One of the acids is fast-acting, and it's triggered when you add liquids to the recipe; the other acid is slow-acting and reacts with the addition of heat from cooking, explains the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service.
Making Cake Without Baking Powder
Most cakes, including basic white, yellow, chocolate and pound cakes, contain shortening or butter along with flour, eggs, a liquid and a leavening agent, such as baking powder or soda. Baking powder and baking soda contain no carbs or fats, but they're high in sodium.
If you need to control your blood pressure or you're on a low-sodium diet, choose a type of cake that doesn't call for traditional chemical leaveners. Making a dense cake that is dairy-based and doesn't require rising, such as cheesecake, is one option.
Foam or sponge type cakes — like angel food cake — typically use egg whites for leavening and lightness. Whipped egg whites have foaming properties that trap air bubbles in liquid albumen causing an increase in volume, according to the report in the March 2019 Food Science and Nutrition study.
Traditional European tortes are another form of cake you can make without baking powder or other chemical leavening agents. They incorporate eggs as a leavener and are often made with little or no flour, which is ideal for those with Celiac disease or wheat sensitivities. Tortes are typically multi-layered with fruits.
A quick and easy cake that doesn't require baking powder or vanilla and it's also a cake without butter is the chocolate mug cake, like our Peppermint Brownie in a Mug. It is made by combining eggs, flour, cocoa powder and sugar or stevia in a mug and cooking in a microwave for about 90 seconds. For a more nutritious dessert, add banana, peanut butter, avocado or other fruits.
Read more: Chocolate Kale Cake With Sea Salt
Substitutes for Baking Powder
If your recipe calls for baking powder, you can still make a tasty light cake by using baking soda and an acid. Examples of acids that help develop gas bubbles are cream of tartar, lemon juice, buttermilk, sour cream, molasses or brown sugar, states the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension.
Baking soda reacts almost immediately when moistened with any of these acids, so it should be combined with the dry ingredients, mixed and then placed in the oven as soon as possible. Beware that baking soda is about four times more powerful than baking powder. Adding too much of it will result in your cake tasting soapy with a coarse, open crumb.
Even without baking powder, certain milk products that easily ferment when combined with baking soda can be a good replacement. The fermentation of sugars produces the acid needed to act with baking soda and help make your cake rise.
The Diabetes Council recommends substituting 1 teaspoon of baking powder for a half-cup of buttermilk, plain yogurt or sour milk, plus a quarter teaspoon of baking soda. You will need to adjust the amount of other liquids in your cake recipe to compensate. For example, if you use a cup of milk in the recipe, reduce that amount to half a cup.
Read more: Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Bundt Cake
Substituting Vanilla Flavoring
Vanilla is the most popular flavor worldwide, according to Harvard University. It is often used in cake recipes to enhance the perception of sweetness and other flavors, such as chocolate, fruit and nuts. Vanilla extract comes naturally from vanilla beans or can be chemically produced as an inexpensive flavor for baking goods.
If you suddenly find that you're out of vanilla and your cake recipe is calling for it, you don't need to make an extra trip to the store. There are other flavors that will still make your dessert taste great. Consider some of these options:
- Maple syrup: Substitute an equal amount of maple syrup for vanilla. The flavor may be a little sweeter than vanilla.
- Extracts: Almond, rum, orange, lemon or peppermint extract.
- Vanilla flavored almond or soy milk: Use any of these to replace the vanilla measure for measure.
- Sweet liqueur or brandy: These can be a flavorful substitute to vanilla.
- Honey: This is a good replacement for vanilla, but you may need to reduce the sugar in your recipe to compensate for the extra sweetness.
By matching up these flavor substitutes with the type of cake you are making, you'll never miss the vanilla and might achieve a better-tasting result.
- NC State University: "The Difference Between Baking Soda and Baking Powder"
- University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service: "Quick Breads"
- USDA FoodData Central: "Baking Soda"
- Food Science and Nutrition: "Can Acceptable Quality Angel Food Cakes be Made Using Pasteurized Shell Eggs? The Effects of Mixing Factors on Functional Properties of Angel Food Cakes"
- University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension: "Baking and Breaking Bread Together"
- Diabetes Council: "9 Great Substitutes for Baking Powder"
- Harvard University: "The Flavor Rundown: Natural vs. Artificial Flavors"
- USDA FoodData Central: "Baking Powder"