“So, what kind of cake does he want for his birthday?”
“Hang on, I’ll ask…. He says he wants a ‘moist’ cake.”
Pause while I process this. “Like a pudding cake?”
“No. Just a moist cake.”
“A moist cake. As in a cake that isn’t dried out?”
“When I said ‘what kind of cake’ I actually wanted to know what flavor he wanted, not instructions for baking.”
The most prized feature of cakes and cupcakes is moistness. It can really make or break a cake, even one that otherwise has an excellent flavor. It is also a sticking point for a lot of home bakers who find that their cakes turn out to be too dry or somewhat dense, rather than tender and moist.
Moistness is not the same as being “wet.” Wet would be an undercooked chocolate cake with a “molten” cake-batter filling, or a cake that had so much applesauce added to it that it is actually mushy. Moist is a term that is descriptive of the freshness and softness of a good cake. In general, baked goods get their moisture from liquid ingredients and retain it best when fat and sugar are present, as both tend to hold on to moisture and prevent it from slowly leaving the cake.
Unfortunately, there is no one magical secret to getting a moist cake every time you slide a cake pan into the oven. If there were, every single cake out there would be perfectly moist and this question wouldn’t arise – nor would there be so many cookbooks published on baking cakes. It is possible to get a moist cake every time you bake, however. You simply need two things: a good recipe and to not overbake the cake. The recipes may come along via trial-and-error, from a particular source you like or on recommendations from friends and family. Not overbaking requires a good oven thermometer so that you can regulate the temperature your cake bakes at (and lengthen or shorten baking time accordingly) and a willingness to check a cake for doneness a few minutes before the baking time is up just to hedge your bets.
Practice makes perfect and, while we can all have a “dud” cake from time to time, if you bake a lot and are attuned to your oven and to the recipes you use, you should have very few problems. Store all your cakes in an airtight container unless specifically directly to do otherwise to minimize exposure to the air. And if all else fails, you can always throw some softened ice cream into the bowl with the cake to cover up a hint of dryness if absolutely necessary.