Baking a cake is a joyful process that leads up to an even more enjoyable occasion: eating the cake. If you take your first bite and find that, instead of a luxurious sweet delight you’re chewing a mouthful of bitterness, your entire day might be ruined.
Bitter cake is usually caused by a mishap involving either baking soda or baking powder. If you notice the bitterness before you start baking, what can you do?
Can you fix a bitter cake? You can fix bitter cake by adding an acid to your batter. The most common solution is cream of tartar, but depending on your recipe, you may also want to try lemon juice, sour cream, or even some cocoa powder. For a baked bitter cake, the options are fewer, but you can re-purpose bitter cake as an ingredient in various recipes.
In this article, we’ll explain what causes a bitter cake so that you can avoid this travesty in the first place, as well as provide you with a range of options for neutralizing the bitter taste of too much baking soda or baking powder in your baking.
What Causes a Bitter Cake?
Barring any freak accident or ingredients that have gone off, there are three reasons you may have accidentally baked a bitter cake:
- You used too much baking powder (or baking soda)
- You used a baking powder that contains sodium aluminum sulfate (next time use a quality baking powder that doesn’t contain aluminum, like my favorite one from Amazon.
- You accidentally used baking soda instead of baking powder
Too Much Baking Powder or Baking Soda
Too much baking powder or baking soda in a cake will not only cause it to taste bitter and metallic, but it will probably also make a huge mess in your oven as it rises beyond your expectations.
If you realize you’ve added too much before your ingredients are stirred, the easiest solution is to simply spoon out the baking powder or soda.
It’s better to err on the side of some wasted flour to make sure you get all the extra leavener out of the cake. Start your measurements over, adding a touch of flour if you think it’s necessary.
If you’re beyond the mixing, and you only realize you added too much baking powder or baking soda because you’ve tasted the batter and it’s bitter, you’ll need to take slightly more drastic measures.
You have three basic choices to fix a bitter cake batter caused by too much baking powder or baking soda.
- Increase the recipe until all the other ingredients match the amount of baking soda or powder you used
- Add a neutralizing acid (see chart below)
- Start over
Unfortunately, if you don’t know how much baking powder you used and you’re not familiar with doctoring your baking, you might just end up wasting more time and energy trying to fix your bitter batter than you would by simply starting over.
Baking Powder Formula: Sodium Aluminum Sulfate
Baking soda used to be the go-to leavening agent, but with the invention of baking powder, many cooks and recipe developers have changed their tactics.
Baking powder is an all-inclusive leavening agent, which makes it easier to use in many ways.
Baking powder is a multi-ingredient leavener. It contains sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), as well as 2 acids. One of the acids is monocalcium phosphate, which won’t react until it’s exposed to a liquid.
The other acid is either sodium acid pyrophosphate or sodium aluminum sulfate. Both of these acids require a combination of liquid and heat to react.
This formula creates a “double-acting” effect that is a more fool-proof way to make sure your baked goods rise properly.
Unfortunately, if your baking powder formula is made with sodium aluminum sulfate, it may also be the reason for a bitter-tasting cake.
Use Aluminum-Free Baking Powder
If your baking powder has sodium aluminum sulfate as an ingredient, the bitterness you might be tasting in your cake might not be due to an overdose of leavener, but rather to the presence of metal in your food.
Some people are more sensitive to this taste than others, but it’s never pleasant, nor is it particularly healthy. If you’ve noticed your cake tastes bitter, or perhaps any other recent baking, it may be time to switch to an aluminum-free brand of baking powder.
When you’re shopping, you may notice that Rumford is produced by Clabber Girl, which also offers a baking powder.
Clabber Girl baking powder is not aluminum-free, however, so be sure to check the label of your container.
Unfortunately, if the aluminum in your baking powder is the reason your cake is bitter, there’s no fix for the bitter, metallic taste.
Baking Soda vs Baking Powder When Making Cake
Baking powder and baking soda are both leavening agents used in baking to help your goods rise, but they shouldn’t be confused for one another.
They can be substituted for each other, but only with a few other tweaks to the recipe as well and the results may not be exactly as you hoped for.
Baking soda, also known simply as sodium bicarbonate in many parts of the world, needs to be paired with an acid and a liquid in order to activate. In any recipe that calls or baking soda, you’ll also see ingredients like apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, or buttermilk.
Is there aluminum in baking soda? No. Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate, which has no need for any additional acidification.
Baking Soda Taste in Cakes
Baking soda is a base or alkaline ingredient, which naturally has a bitter taste. If you accidentally (or purposefully) used baking soda instead of baking powder without making any other changes to the recipe, you will end up with a metallic, bitter taste.
Baking soda needs the addition of an acid to activate and help your baking rise, but also to neutralize the bitter taste. The reverse is also true: foods with acids such as lemon juice or sour cream need a little baking soda to neutralize the acidic taste.
Moreover, baking soda is much more powerful, so you need to use less. If you subbed baking soda at the same rate as baking powder, you’ll be over-saturating your recipe with sodium bicarbonate.
When You’ve Accidentally Used Baking Soda for Baking Powder
If you want to substitute baking soda for baking powder without suffering through a bitter cake, you have to alter the recipe ingredients a bit more.
Before you make this decision, you should be aware that baking soda will only activate once – as soon as the liquid is added. Baking powder activates twice – once when the liquid is added and then again when it is exposed to heat.
If you’re going to substitute baking soda for baking powder, your cake may not rise as much as you’re used to. But if you act quickly to get the cake in the oven as soon after the liquid is added as possible, it should be pretty successful.
Here’s the best way to successfully substitute baking soda for baking powder (even if it was an accident):
- Reduce the amount of baking soda. A general conversion rate is ¼ teaspoon of baking soda for every 1 teaspoon of baking powder.
- Similarly, per every cup of flour, you’ll typically require either ¼ teaspoon of baking soda OR 1 teaspoon of baking powder.
- Add a type of acid (lemon juice, vinegar, buttermilk) to offset the bitter taste and activate the baking soda.
How to Neutralize Bitter Taste in Cake
First of all, you’ll have to taste your batter before it’s baked in order to successfully neutralize a bitter taste caused by baking powder or baking soda.
So go ahead and dip your finger in, lick the spatula or clean the beaters with your tongue – you know you want to.
To fix a bitter cake batter, you need to add an acid. Here are the best acids to use in order to fix a bitter cake.
|Acid||Best Used When…|
|Cream of Tartar||You don’t want to offset your liquid balance|
|Lemon Juice||A slightly citrusy or sour aroma will enhance your cake|
|Apple Cider Vinegar|
|Buttermilk||Your recipe already calls for this ingredient|
|Cocoa Powder||You’re making something chocolatey|
|Molasses||You’re making something dense, dark or purposefully with a bitter edge (though not baking powder bitter)|
|Brown Sugar||You’re baking a cake that you can swap refined sugar for brown sugar without destroying the sweetness|
|Applesauce||When you’re reducing the oil or fat content as well|
I accidentally used baking powder instead of baking soda – now what?
I hate it when this happens, but you are not alone. I’m sure everyone who has baked more than 10 items in their life has accidentally done this. “Now what” depends on when you notice your error.
If your cake is baked and you notice the difference because the cake is flat and lifeless, there’s not a lot you can do except for repurposing the cake (see suggestions below).
If you notice it before it’s baked (there are plenty of people who enjoy eating batters of all kinds!), you can probably save the cake in one of two ways:
- Add baking soda, just a touch less than the recipe originally called for
- Add more baking powder
For the same leavening power, you typically need 2 – 3 times as much baking powder as baking soda. This is not foolproof and there is no guarantee it will work, but it should be pleasantly passable, at worst.
How much baking powder for a cake?
The amount of baking powder required for your cake will depend entirely on what size your cake is and what other ingredients are called for.
The general rule of thumb is 1 teaspoon of baking powder per every cup of flour, but for best results, always follow a recipe that has been tried, tested, and proven to be delicious and successful.
What to do with a failed cake?
Ther are many ways to save a cake, but how you do it will depend on why it failed. Here are some of our favorite cake fail rescue ideas:
- Over-cooked: crumble it, mix it with icing and make cake pops
- Broken or cracked: crumble it, add melted butter, press it into a pie plate and use it as the base for a cheesecake, creamy pie or no-bake pudding pie
- Bitter: Crumble your cake into some homemade ice cream before freezing