Retail bakers know how temperamental cakes can be. And producers of any volume of cakes know that consistency in cake size, shape, texture and flavor are the keys to minimizing waste while keeping both decorators and end customers happy. Too many retail bakers, though rely on the eyeball test to maintain consistency-making minor corrections on the fly. The problem with this is twofold. A bakery can, over time, distance itself from the central formulations that made the bakery successful in the first place. And even for those that stay true to what brought them, often the owner or head baker is the only one with the requisite skills to successfully make on-the-go adjustments. It thus behooves bakeries to formalize the troubleshooting process, making the process more accessible for all skill levels while helping with quality control.
According to Kirk O'Donnell, vice president of education at AIB international, troubleshooting for cakes requires benchmarking three categories: temperature (of both oven and final batter), specific gravity, and pH.
Temperature of the end batter makes a big difference in cakes that use double acting baking soda (which is most of them), as too hot of batter (in general, batter over 75 degrees F) will begin aerating the batter too early and not have enough aeration and lift during the baking process. This low gas production during the bake results in a deflated cake.
Oven temperature is important as well. No two ovens bake the same, and thermostats/thermometers can be significantly off, especially as ovens age. scheduled calibrations will help to maintain specific temperatures. Benchmarking temperature for both batter prior to baking and of the oven itself, and occasional checks against the standard, will save money on ingredients and eliminate waste in the long run.
A batter's specific gravity is one of those things that many long-time bakers know intuitively, having developed a feel over many years for how high a batter should rise in a specific mixing bowl, or what hue of yellowish eggshell white denotes a batter that's sufficiently aerated. But not every employee shares the years of experience needed to make such judgments. But specific gravity can easily be benchmarked by comparing the batter's aeration/volume to that of water. Weight a standardized (say, 10 mL) amount of batter, then weigh the same amount of water.
By dividing the batter's weight by the water's weight, any bakery employee can arrive at a percentage. Some heavier cakes may be .95, or 95 percent the water weight. An extremely light batter, for, say, an angel cake, may be as little as 40 percent or less. The important thing is to measure what works for each formula. If a certain formulation does best at 75 percent aeration, that can be recorded as a benchmark and used as a yardstick to ensure future cakes are hitting the mark.
One of the easiest measurables in cake production, given the correct tool, is its pH. This measure of acidity vs. alkalinity should hit anywhere between 7 and 8.5 percent (slightly alkaline due to the basic nature of baking soda), and the alkalinity can have a difference on the flavor profile. Upping the pH, for instance, can really make a chocolate flavor pop–but too basic of a pH can result in saponification, lending a soapy flavor. These soapy-flavored cakes aren't big sellers outside of the mother-of-a-foul-mouthed-kid demographic. A few hundred dollars or less should be enough to get a pH tester for the interior of the cakes. Establish a benchmark pH for a good flavor profile, and every so often, check to ensure the pH standard is being met.