How A Professional Baker Elevates Boxed Cake Mix

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Though most seasoned bakers will tell you their favorite recipes are scratch-made, the truth is that even professionals lean on boxed cake mix sometimes. Food Republic talked to Jessie Sheehan, a recipe developer, podcast host, and author of several cookbooks — including "Snackable Bakes: 100 Easy-Peasy Recipes for Exceptionally Scrumptious Sweets and Treats," along with the forthcoming "Salty, Cheesy, Herby, Crispy Snackable Bakes: 100 Easy-Peasy, Savory Recipes for 24/7 Deliciousness" — to get her expert tips for elevating cake mix. Sheehan told us she recommends getting creative with swapping in different liquid ingredients and flavorings.

A few simple substitutions can take the dessert beyond the box's recommended instructions. Since cake mixes are usually designed to be beginner-friendly, relatively fail-proof, and made with universal pantry ingredients, they often suggest adding neutral-tasting components like water and vegetable oil. These liquid ingredients are key to the moisture and binding properties of the cake, which give it a nice, tender texture and open crumb structure. 

However, using more flavorful liquids is an easy way to make your boxed cake taste homemade and unique. Sheehan suggests using liquids like milk instead of water "for a richer-tasting cake," or replacing vegetable oil with melted butter. The result is more flavor without the fuss of a homemade treat.

Swap in moisture-rich ingredients

When making your own recipe adjustments, it's important to consider the cake mix's base flavors, and what alternative ingredients will play well with the boxed dry mix. "For chocolate boxed cake mixes, I recommend substituting black coffee for the water," Jessie Sheehan says. Coffee amplifies the cocoa flavor, and gives the baked good a super fudgy texture. You can also sub in alcoholic beverages like red wine for a portion or all of the liquid called for on the box to craft the ultimate chocolate cake with complex richness. For more flavorful chocolate cakes from a mix, buttermilk is a great swap for water or regular milk. This acidified dairy ingredient will give the cake extra moisture and a subtle tang, which makes it great for red velvet cake mix, too.

In addition to liquid substitutions, you can play around with other ingredients that contribute to a moist, tender crumb. For example, Sheehan likes to add in an extra egg yolk to enhance her boxed cake. The fat and emulsifying properties in the additional yolk can up the luxurious texture and taste of your favorite strawberry cake mix. For a similar boost in richness, you can also add full-fat sour cream to give boxed vanilla cake a pleasant richness and complex flavor.

Experiment with flavor twists

It's true that baking is a science, but there are ways to bake without following all the rules — especially when it comes to flavor. It's easy to transform a standard boxed vanilla cake into a treat with more intrigue by adding bright extracts and a variety of spices. Jessie Sheehan boosts her cakes' taste by adding vanilla extract to the batter. You can also fold in some almond extract into white cake mix for a nice nutty complexity, or mix some peppermint extract into chocolate cake during the holidays. Adding small amounts of your favorite warm spices — like cardamom or cinnamon — or spice blends can customize your cakes even further.

Don't be afraid to diverge from the box's directions with less common yet flavor-packed ingredients, too. Sheehan tell us that she sometimes adds store-bought pudding mix to cakes because "it adds moisture and flavor." Play around with adding different fruit juices and citrus, for instance, to transform a vanilla cake mix into a vibrant lemon cake for spring. And of course, once you have finished whisking up your batter, you can always add in desired extras like chocolate chips, nuts, or tart berries. Truly, anything is possible when you explore different ingredients to make your cake mix pop.