Over the years, I have tried a TON of different cake recipes that called for a variety of different ingredients. Some called for butter, others for sour cream, yogourt, buttermilk, you name it! What I concluded was the following:
Buttermilk is the unsung hero of the cake world.
Wait, what? Why is buttermilk such a superstar? And what is it exactly?
For starters, the buttermilk we know and love today is different from the buttermilk of yesteryear. Traditionally, buttermilk was the liquid left over from the butter-churning process. Today’s cultured buttermilk is similar to yogourt in its processing, as bacterial cultures are added to milk and then the mixture is heated.
In the baking world, buttermilk performs some pivotal functions. Firstly, due to its acidic nature, cakes made with buttermilk are generally very moist. Secondly, the acidity unleashes the power!
THE POWER OF BAKING SODA!!!
Okay, maybe that was a little anticlimactic, but buttermilk’s acidity is key to activating the leavening power of baking soda, aka sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3). As soon as the baking soda is added to the wet ingredients, it releases carbon dioxide gas. The heat of the oven causes the resulting gas bubbles to puff up the cake, leaving you with fluffy deliciousness in a pan.
If all that weren’t enough, buttermilk breaks down the long strands of gluten in the batter which results in a light, tender crumb. What’s there not to love?!
While buttermilk is a wonderful ingredient, plain old butter can be tricky. Butter firms up in the fridge, and it will firm up your refrigerated cake as well. A few recipes I tried were great if never refrigerated but terrible once chilled. They never regained their soft texture even when brought back to room temperature.
This recipe does call for butter *gasp*, does firm up in the fridge *gasp*, but it softens up nicely when brought back to room temperature *yay*.
Speaking of butter, one of the most important techniques I learned was how to properly cream butter and sugar. I used to just pop room-temperature butter and sugar into the bowl of my stand mixer and crank it up to full speed for several minutes while I worked on something else. Wrong! Butter is best creamed on medium speed (between 4-6 on a Kitchenaid mixer). Creaming is less about beating the butter into submission and more about aerating! More air contributes to more fluffiness.
Additionally, contrary to my former set-it-and-forget-it approach, the bowl should be scraped down several times during the creaming process. It is, unfortunately, possible to cream the mixture too little or too much, so you really need to keep an eye on it. Butter that is improperly creamed will affect the cake’s texture negatively. You’ll know it’s creamed properly when the mixture reaches a very pale yellow colour and has increased in mass.
The best part of this recipe is its flavour – it is D-E-L-I-C-I-O-U-S! I made it a few weeks ago and forgot to freeze the leftovers, so we ate it when it was four days old. My husband gobbled up his piece, which says a lot because the man does not have a sweet tooth. You can play with the flavourings – I use vanilla but you can use whatever you like.
I strongly recommend adding some simple syrup to the finished product if you are planning on baking it a couple of days in advance, especially if you plan to refrigerate. The syrup will help retain moisture.
This recipe is sturdy enough for fondant and suitable for carving. It would be a great choice for a wedding cake!
Note: the chemical reaction between the baking soda and buttermilk is time sensitive so this must be prepared and put into the oven immediately. Do not get sucked into a rabbit hole of Facebook comments and forget about your batter. Trust me on this one.
Here’s how to make it:
You will need the following ingredients for this recipe:
Preheat your oven to 325°F/165°C and prepare two 6″ pans, or two 8″ pans. Sift the flour, salt and baking soda into a bowl and combine well. Set aside:
Cream the butter and sugar together at medium speed until pale yellow and fluffy. Scrape down the bowl a few times to ensure that the mixture is creamed evenly:
Add 1/3 of the dry ingredients to the creamed mixture, then alternate with 1/3 of the buttermilk. Repeat until all has been incorporated. Add the vanilla and mix well but be careful not to overmix.
Move the mixture into a separate bowl and wash the bowl of your stand mixer. Add the egg whites and beat until frothy:
Add the cream of tartar and 2/3 cup of sugar and beat until stiff but not dry:
Fold the egg-white-sugar mixture into the batter carefully:
Pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake. For 6″ pans, bake for 50 minutes. For 8″ pans, bake for 40 minutes.
Once the cakes test done, place the pans on a cooling rack, then turn them out after ten minutes. Wrap the cakes in plastic wrap while still warm to lock in the moisture.
I added simple syrup to this cake to help preserve moisture as the cake would be refrigerated. I will have a detailed post about simple syrup coming up, but it is very easy to make.
Place one part sugar and one part water in a medium saucepan over medium heat on the stove. Bring to a boil, then remove immediately from heat. Let cool.
I use a bottle to apply simple syrup to my cakes:
Alternatively, the simple syrup can be brushed on via a pastry brush.
Your cake is now ready to be iced and decorated! I frosted and filled the cake below with vanilla Swiss meringue buttercream. You can find the full recipe and tutorial here. The post about how I decorated the cake can be found here.
Buttermilk White Cake
- 3 cups (12.75 oz or 360 g) cake flour
- 1/2 tsp (0.10 oz or 2.84 g) salt
- 1 tsp (0.18 oz or 5 g) baking soda
- 1 cup (8 oz or 226.8 g) unsalted butter
- 2 cups (14 oz or 400 g) granulated sugar (divided)
- 1 cup buttermilk (8.64 oz or 245 g)
- 2 tsp (0.3 oz or 8.40 g) vanilla extract
- 6 egg whites
- 1 tsp (0.12 oz or 3.38 g) cream of tartar
- Preheat oven to 325°F/165°C and prepare two 6″ pans, or two 8″ pans.
- Sift the flour, salt and baking soda into a bowl and combine well. Set aside.
- Cream butter and sugar together at medium speed until pale yellow and fluffy. Scrape down the bowl a few times to ensure that the mixture is creamed evenly.
- Add 1/3 of the dry ingredients to the creamed mixture, then alternate with 1/3 of the buttermilk. Repeat until all has been incorporated.
- Add the vanilla and mix well but be careful not to overmix.
- Move the mixture into a separate bowl and wash the bowl of your stand mixer. Add the egg whites and beat until frothy.
- Add the cream of tartar and 2/3 cup of sugar and beat until stiff but not dry.
- Fold the egg-white-sugar mixture into the batter carefully.
- Pour into prepared pans and bake. For 6″ pans, bake for 50 minutes. For 8″ pans, bake for 40 minutes. Once the cakes test done, place pans on a cooling rack and turn out after ten minutes. Wrap with plastic wrap while still warm to lock in the moisture.
- Optional step: add simple syrup once the cake has cooled completely.