Absolute Best Tests

The Absolute Best Way to Hack Box Cake Mix

Ella Quittner tackles (and zhuzhes) so so many box cake mixes.

May 16, 2023
Photo by Julia Gartland

In Absolute Best Tests, columnist Ella Quittner destroys the sanctity of her home kitchen in the name of the truth. She's boiled dozens of eggs, mashed a concerning number of potatoes, and seared more Porterhouse steaks than she cares to recall. Today, she tackles the childhood bake sale favorite: boxed cake mix.

Layer cake is among the most idealized of foods. How could fleecy layers of sweet crumb—painted with blankets of satin-soft buttercream and towering high on a pedestal—not be playing on an infinite loop in our minds? It has been the center of cinematic scenes of cultural import and is nestled deep in nostalgia for many of us. It's emblazoned across the covers of lauded culinary zines and cookbooks. It is pushed to the front of bakery display windows, casting its shadow onto forlorn cookies.

The iconic sweet owes its ubiquity in part to its versatility. Some prefer to fantasize about their youth's ever-consistent grocery store sheet cakes, sweet as a riesling, with stiff-piped rosettes standing sentry at the corners. Others fall asleep dreaming of dense bakery cakes with rich interiors like weighted blankets and frosting that holds its shape three or four inches in the air. One friend confided to me that she has spent much of her adult life on the hunt for the Platonic slice of airy Korean cream cake. In her mind, it's a cloud of whipped icing, yellow cake, and ripe strawberry that's no heavier than the plate on which it sits. There are New World cakes (domes with sculptural squiggles and artfully placed meringue adornment) and Old World cakes (Marie Antoinette-style affairs, mimicked by John Derian candles). There are hyperrealistic layer cakes and there are cakes-as-works-of-art, piped with precision and decorated with long-stemmed fresh flora.

And, important to many of us, there are layer cakes that come from a box. Some 186 million Americans use a boxed mix at least once a year, with the market for the stuff expected to grow at 3.9 percent until it reaches $1.5 billion in 2027. What first emerged in the 1930s as a pantry convenience has since exploded, spawning not only a bevy of flavors, but mixes that feature alternative flours, organic ingredients, and in some cases, an opportunity to imitate favorite bakery cakes at home.

But when it comes to the common options available in most grocery stores, home cooks in search of a shortcut to professional-quality layer cake may falter.

“These boxes are engineered for consistency,” says Natasha Pickowicz, pastry savant and author of the brilliant More Than Cake. “You’re getting something designed to be shelf stable for who knows how long.” Besides stabilizers, those who wish to use a more generic boxed mix may contend with ultra-processed flour blends and, as Pickowicz points out, “less control—you can’t reduce a certain aspect like sweetness when all of the dry ingredients are already mixed together.”

There are, however, a number of aspects one can manipulate, from additions and omissions, to ingredient swaps. Which is why we gave it the Absolute Best Tests treatment. I spent weeks mixing, whipping, substituting, and prodding. I thumbed through every cookbook I had to better understand what makes a cake dense, light, moist, tender, or airy. What follows are the results of my trials.

The Controls

  • I tested across a variety of brands and flavors, to identify tricks that would work interchangeably.
  • I baked each cake at the temperature suggested by the box, and pulled it from the oven when the center had set and the sides were firm; when in doubt, I inserted a metal skewer into the center to check for any remaining batter (an indication the cake needs more time).
  • I greased pans with sprayed avocado oil, and used parchment on the bottom in the case of cakes that had an element that was liable to stick.
  • I tested in half and quarter batches as much as possible, to try to keep the (infinite-feeling) trials as sustainable as I could.
  • As a general rule of thumb, when substituting in, say, dairy for the prescribed water, or butter for oil, and so on, I mostly followed Pickowicz’s recommendation to keep the overall amount of liquid added consistent; the small fistful of exceptions are noted.

How To Make Boxed Cake Denser

1. Add 2 extra egg yolks

Denseness Ranking (1-5): 3.5
Pros: Eggs yolks act as an emulsifier in baked goods, and adding two additional yolks (without the whites) both enhanced the perceptible richness of the cake layers, and produced a slightly tighter crumb, creating the overall impression of density, even if they weren’t necessarily heavier.
Cons: Will you ever use those two whites you separated out and place in a covered bowl in the back of your fridge???

2. Swap out oil for melted butter

Denseness Ranking (1-5): 3.5
Pros: It’s important to note that here I swapped melted butter for oil—not solid butter, which, as you’ll read below in the reverse creaming trial, could have aerated the batter, leading to the opposite of a denser cake. The melted butter did create a denser cake as compared to one with oil, which was surprising since common baker lore is that oil (which is liquid at room temperature) leads to a wetter, and thus heavier-seeming crumb. But, and perhaps for that same reason—perhaps because at room temperature, butter is solid—the cake was firmer, with a tighter texture. It also had more flavor as compared to the neutral oil trial.
Cons: None. Love you, butter.

3. Add 2 mashed ripe bananas, fold in just before baking

Denseness Ranking (1-5): 4.5
Pros: Okay, bananas! I am impressed! The ripe bananas brought so much moisture and weight to the batter that the resulting cake layers looked denser, as though they wanted to slump in on themselves (although they managed to retain their structure). The velvety-moist interior texture persisted for days, with the cake becoming denser and denser each time I checked in on it. (Read: took a fork directly to its middle like an animal—AN ANIMAL!)
Cons: The cakes had an easily perceptible banana flavor, so, this method might not be right for you depending on the final product you have in mind.

4. Add 1 cup pumpkin purée, fold in just before baking

Denseness Ranking (1-5): 5
Pros: The addition of pumpkin produced the densest cake by far, with an almost doughy texture not so different from Play Doh. Anyone who loves a dense crumb as much as I do would adore this variation in a layer cake, though you’d have to frost it with something especially light (like fortified whipped cream) to keep it intact.
Cons: The (light, but apparent) pumpkin flavor and coloring may not jive with your vision.

5. Swap out water for coconut milk

Denseness Ranking (1-5): 2.5
Pros: The crumb was luxuriously creamy and plush, and didn’t dry out for days. The coconut flavor was extremely subtle (at least one taster didn’t even know it was there), but could easily be amped up with shredded coconut and/or extract if desired.
Cons: This swap did not actually make the cake much denser. If that’s your goal, look to adding extra egg yolks, or swapping in melted butter for oil or for water (see above) should you want to avoid extra flavoring, or turn to mashed banana or canned pumpkin if additional flavoring intrigues you.

6. Swap out oil for ricotta cheese

Denseness Ranking: 2.5
Pros: This produced a delicious, somewhat dense cake that had an uneven crumb.
Cons: The texture of the ricotta was perceptible in the baked cake, which for me was a pro, but if you’re going for a classic layer cake, you may want a smoother, more consistent interior.

On the Cutting Room Floor:

7. Add 4 ounces of chocolate, melted

Denseness Ranking (1-5): 1
Pros: This was a tiny bit more chocolatey, but not nearly as chocolatey as the batch where I added cocoa powder (see below).
Cons: It feels wasteful to add chocolate to batter and see minimal discernible results. Chocolate is precious.

8. Swap out water for heavy cream

Denseness Ranking (1-5): 2
Pros: The crumb of this cake was certainly moister than the crumb of the cake made with the water called for by the box, but it was not denser.
Cons: Actually, when tested with a chocolate mix, the cream weakened the chocolate flavor relative to the chocolate cake made with water. Save your cream to whip up for a topping.

How To Make Boxed Cake Lighter Or More Tender

1. Separate called-for eggs, then whip the whites plus 2 additional egg whites to stiff peaks; fold in just before baking

Lightness Ranking (1-5): 5
Tenderness Ranking: 2.5
Pros: As expected, this produced a tall, airy cake that was downright bouncy. It was much taller, not that it bragged, with a consistent, downy crumb closer to an angel food cake than a classic bakery layer. When, in subsequent trials, I applied a soak, this cake received it with extreme thirst. (Note that in lieu of adding extra egg whites, you could also just separate out the whites from the eggs you’re already adding and whip those before folding them in; the lift won’t be quite as dramatic, but it’ll be noticeable for sure.)
Cons: On its own, this cake wasn’t particularly moist; it would benefit from a soak (see below).

2. Swap out water for 1 cup of heavy cream, whipped to stiff peaks; fold in just before baking

Lightness Ranking (1-5): 3
Tenderness Ranking (1-5): 4
Pros: The genius baker Emma Laperruque—a former colleague, and current friend—taught me this trick after she read about it in BakeWise by Shirley O. Corriher. It produced a cake with more lightness than a control, and an especially tender interior with rich, creamy flavor.
Cons: Whipping the cream requires an extra bowl. Or a martini shaker. Or jar.

3. Swap out oil for room-temperature butter and reverse cream it into the package mix before adding water and eggs, then beating to combine

Lightness Ranking (1-5): 2
Tenderness Ranking (1-5): 4
Pros: Reverse creaming—which goes by other names, but essentially means beating the butter into the dry ingredients before adding the wet—is an older technique, more recently popularized by Rose Levy Beranbaum, that mitigates the possibility of a tough, dense crumb. According to King Arthur Baking, it works because coating the flour in butter in the initial mixing phase limits gluten development later. The trial produced an exceedingly tender cake. It wasn’t quivering and bouncy like the egg whites trial; it was sturdy and buttery and, to the fingertip, velvety. Notably, the top of the cake lacked almost any dome, which was a thrilling development when it came time to frost.
Cons: This—getting out a hand mixer, or a stand mixer, and creaming things—is quite a bit more work than simply pouring in oil, water, and eggs and whisking.

4. Swap out water for buttermilk

Lightness Ranking (1-5): 2.5
Tenderness Ranking (1-5): 4
Pros: Buttermilk, which is most often now made of milk that’s been boosted with lactic acid (it used to refer to the leftover liquid after churning butter), is known for its remarkable ability to tenderize, not only baked goods, but proteins too. It also imparts a characteristic tangy flavor. The resulting cake had a medium-light crumb, lighter than a control batch with water, and lighter than an off-books trial I conducted with milk. The cake was the tiniest bit crumbly, with an extremely delicate crumb, like a cashmere throw. Buttermilk also contributed a subtle tang.
Cons: If you keep buttermilk in your fridge, your husband may accidentally put it in his coffee and then blame you for the rest of both of your lives.

5. Swap out water for sour cream

Lightness Ranking (1-5): 2
Tenderness Ranking (1-5): 4.5
Pros: The logic of this trial was the same as the logic behind the buttermilk trial, except that sour cream is made when lactic acid-producing bacteria is added to cream, so it results in a substance with a higher fat content and lower water content than buttermilk. The ensuing cake was noticeably denser than the one made with buttermilk, and even more tender; it read to the palate as the tiniest bit wet, like wet velvet that was wrung out and left to dry an hour ago.
Cons: While this cake was more tender than the buttermilk cake, it was also more dense.

6. Swap out oil for mayonnaise

Lightness Ranking (1-5): 2.5
Tenderness Ranking (1-5): 3
Pros: The use of mayonnaise as a cake constituent dates back to the first half of the 20th century. It makes sense: Mayo is just egg yolks, oil, salt, and either lemon or vinegar (or another acid). So, in theory, swapping it in for the oil in a boxed mix would just change the composition to be heavier on the yolk, with an extra hit of tenderizing acid and a boost of salt. I actually originally had this under the “Denser” tests, but in practice, it produced cake that was moist and light, with a higher rise than the one with just two added yolks and no other manipulations. I wasn’t especially impressed when the cake came out of the oven, but it held its moisture well over the subsequent few days on the countertop.
Cons: Getting out the mayonnaise will make you want a sandwich. And you’re in the middle of baking a cake.

How To Improve & Enhance The Flavors Of Boxed Cake

1. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons of fresh lemon zest and 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

This is one of the simplest ways to vastly improve the flavor of a yellow cake; couple it with a swap out of vegetable oil for olive oil, and water for milk, and you’ll find yourself with an absurdly delicious specimen. The acid will make the crumb more tender, and the zest adds dimension to the citrus flavor contributed by the juice. This can work with any citrus you love—blood orange is a personal favorite.

2. Soak in a coconut-vanilla mixture

After the cake is out of the oven, flip and use a pastry brush to apply about ⅓ cup of a coconut milk-vanilla soak, stopping before the cake becomes mushy and no longer wants to absorb. To make the soak: Combine coconut milk, 1 tablespoon vanilla paste, 1 tablespoon granulated sugar, plus a pinch of kosher salt. Stir over low heat until combined; cut the heat.

Pickowicz is a soak evangelist; More Than Cake features several ingenious combinations, like prosecco and strawberry, or tequila and coconut. The basic principle of a soak is this: Use a pastry brush or spoon to apply flavored liquid to a cake after it has baked, either to enhance or complement its existing flavors, or fix a problem (i.e. if the cake is too sweet, apply a salty soak). It also somewhat obviously adds extra moisture, and, as Pickowicz pointed out when we spoke, is a superb way to add flavors that might otherwise mellow too much if baked. This combination I tested—coconut milk, vanilla paste, sugar, and salt—exemplified her advice. The delicate coconut flavor and bloomed vanilla were much more apparent on the palate than they would have been as a baked addition.

3. Swap olive oil in for neutral oil

This swap is a no-brainer for extra flavor; just be sure to select an olive oil you love the taste of. For cake, I gravitate toward something fruity and not overly acidic.

4. Soak in a maple-brown butter mixture

After the cake is out of the oven, flip and use a pastry brush to apply about ⅓ cup of a maple, brown butter, and vanilla soak, stopping before the cake becomes mushy and no longer wants to absorb. To make the soak: Brown 1 tablespoon butter; cut the heat. Add room temperature milk, 1 tablespoon vanilla paste, 1 tablespoon maple syrup, and a pinch of kosher salt. Stir to combine.

This was a flavor combination borrowed from More Than Cake, and it added endless dimension to a—so sorry—funfetti mix. I’ll never make it another way! As far as soak application, Pickowicz suggests using sensorial cues to know when you’ve applied enough. “The cake will pull the soak out of the brush,” she says, when it’s ready for more. A cake should never be dripping with liquid; you’re going for a wrung-out sponge. She also points out that a soaked cake will taste even better the following day, when the flavors have had time to mingle.

5. Add 3 tablespoons of Dutch process cocoa to ½ cup of coffee to bloom, then add that to batter

This did wonders to deepen the flavor of a chocolate cake mix. 10/10.

6. Soak in a chocolate-coffee mixture

After the cake is out of the oven, flip and use a pastry brush to apply ⅓ or so cup of a chocolate and coffee soak, stopping before cake becomes mushy and no longer wants to absorb. To make the soak: Melt 2 ounces of chocolate in milk and whisk until smooth; cut the heat. Stir in 2 teaspoons of espresso power and a pinch of salt, and whisk to combine. This should be the consistency of thick hot cocoa.

This soak produced a much stronger chocolate milk flavor than another trial I did in which I added chocolate milk to the chocolate cake mix batter as a swap for water; I’d definitely do it again, especially to add milky flavors to a dark chocolate mix.

A few other wonderfully simple tweaks that produced vastly superior cakes

  • Add 2 tablespoons poppy seeds, 2 tablespoons lemon juice, 1 tablespoon lemon zest to the cake batter.
  • Before baking, line the bottom of the cake pan with parchment. Then, spray the baking pan all over the inside with cooking oil; sprinkle 3 tablespoons coconut sugar on the bottom, then, rotating the pan at an angle, cover the inside sides of the pan in sesame seeds. To the bottom of pan, before adding the batter, add 1 ½ cups pitted dates. Let it rest 5 to 10 minutes in the pan after baking before inverting to reveal a beautiful date crust on top. (This is another technique from More Than Cake, and it’s beyond brilliant.)
  • Add 1 cup shredded unsweetened coconut, 1 teaspoon coconut extract, and 1 teaspoon rum to the cake batter.
  • After you pour the batter into the pan, before baking, add a few tablespoons of raspberry jam across the top—maybe 6 tablespoons in total. Use a knife or skewer to swirl it, then bake.
  • Swap melted butter for oil in the cake batter, but before you add it, whisk in ⅓ cup black sesame paste to the melted butter.

Which hack are you most excited to try? Let us know below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • KayCee
  • SophieL
  • AntoniaJames
  • judy
  • rcks
Ella Quittner

Written by: Ella Quittner

Ella Quittner is a contributing writer and the Absolute Best Tests columnist at Food52. She covers food, travel, wellness, lifestyle, home, novelty snacks, and internet-famous sandwiches. You can follow her on Instagram @equittner, or Twitter at @ellaquittner. She also develops recipes for Food52, and has a soft spot for all pasta, anything spicy, and salty chocolate things.


KayCee July 12, 2023
Ella, this is one of the best blogs I’ve ever read. So educational and helpful! Thank you for sharing! One question: which brand of vanilla/yellow cake mix have you found to have the least artificial vanilla flavor and one which can easily make flavor additions shine? For example, I made a mango cake using Betty Crocker yellow cake and had to add 4 teaspoons of mango extract to be able to taste any mango flavor. Even after that, most of the mango flavor came from my mango buttercream.
SophieL June 1, 2023
I tried the mashed banana hack and it works! I used a box of Pillsbury chocolate cake mix and followed the directions for cupcakes; then I stirred in a tsp of espresso powder and two very ripe bananas. The results were excellent - very tender and moist, with a perceptible banana taste, which went well with chocolate. I didn't frost the cupcakes, but I think a frosting (peanut butter, mocha or vanilla) would mute the banana taste a little more. Up till now my box-mix hack had been the vodka-kahlua bundt cake (which has never failed me). Now I'm inspired to try the other great ideas for improving box cake mixes. Thanks!!
AntoniaJames May 17, 2023
I find these various ideas - in the comments, too! - so intriguing. I've never used a cake mix before. When I was about 5, while at the grocery store with my mother, I asked her why she never bought cake mixes. Her reply: "I tried one once and your father said it tasted like yesterday's Wall Street Journal." I wasn't reading the Journal at the time, but I fully understood what she meant. (In retrospect, I am wondering if my father made a conscious distinction, in his response, between the Journal and the Washington Post, the other paper consumed every day at our house by those old enough to read it.). ;o)
judy May 16, 2023
One better. Make a depression cake. Easy to modify and no additives or preservatives. And not much more effort. I often use buttermilk, sour cream, milk, milk alternative, coffee or juice instead of water. Add ins of all kinds. Easy to make chocolate version. and NO Eggs. I like that it uses baking soda and vinegar for the rise. I generally reduce the sugar by 1/3 to 1/2. Easy to add frosting or glaze, spice up or not. I figured this out when I realized that I was allergic to baking powder!
rcks May 16, 2023
What about milk instead of water ?
emilyandaubergine May 16, 2023
A favorite for us is one box chocolate cake mix, 1 cup of water and 1 cup of applesauce plus a dash of cold coffee. That’s it. Bake as directed. No frosting needed. It makes a light but moist cake that we can’t resist snacking on. The applesauce and water can be used for other cake mix flavors though you might taste the apple through a white cake mix.
Jill M. May 16, 2023
you must try Wild Rye Baking Company (https://wildryebaking.com/) whose mixes are perfection!! available in gluten free / almond flour versions as well as light and fluffy pancake mixes and frostings! if nothing else read the story of the ballerina turned pastry chef founder, Sara Chisholm…. and read her blog and recipe tips / ideas.
leah K. May 16, 2023
The best boxed yellow cake mix I've found is King Arthur's Gluten Free cake mix, although we are not 100% gluten free. I use full fat coconut milk rather than milk. I always add 1/2 a package of vanilla instant pudding mix. You can make it any flavor you like. The best are adding lemon juice and zest or orange juice and zest. Always add a tablespoon of vanilla. Cardamon is nice, too. Glaze with a powdered sugar and coconut milk glaze. Comes out perfect every time. People can't believe it's a boxed mix.
MilletteofSd May 16, 2023
So great to read your notes as I’m trying to incorporate more Coconut milk vs, regular milk which I’ve been so disappointed in several major brands. Thanks!
MilletteofSd May 16, 2023
Thank you Ella (& Food52), her article was so educational and learned many ways to adapt, add flavors and achieve baking goals ,although it’s always my goal to create from scratch. Ella, your a fantastic author, Thank you!
Niquie May 16, 2023
Trader Joe's boxed cake mixes are fantastic! I take the yellow mix and make what my dear friend and neighbor calls "Winnie the Pooh" cakes. I bake as instructed, but add some rum, bourbon, whatever suits the berry topping. Then I make a glaze with sugar, vanilla and a tad more booze, prick the cooled cake with long toothpicks and spread it over the cake to soak in. The frosting is whipped cream/cream cheese, vanilla, lemon juice, or....wait for it....a tad more booze! Then I top that off with macerated berries. Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries...any berry. Yes, they are adult Winnie the Pooh cakes but really now, isn't Winnie the Pooh really meant for every adult who ever had a childhood? " 'Cake, said the mole' "
Karl May 16, 2023
American butter cakes have flavor and firmness, but often come off as relatively dry. Boxed cake mixes deliberately rely on oil for moistness, and are engineering for flavorings to make you not notice the absence of butter as much. The recipes on all the standard box mix makers can be adapted by replacing half of the oil with melted butter, which gives more flavor, but without losing all that moist perception as one might get from using all butter.

There are people who prefer to eat their cakes at chilled temperature rather than at room temperature, and that itself is a major variable in the best adaptations to make.