In the 1950s, it was said that when an elderly woman died, the "flour and shortening" business lost a customer, while when a young woman married, the cake-mix industry gained one. In short, two constituencies: those who baked and those who faked. Today, there's an audience that falls somewhere in the middle and proves the value of a different kind of mix — the kind that is versatile, ready to go and additive-free. The kind you make yourself.
Here's what convinced me: I received a recent email touting "the first and only baking mix brand in the category to sustainably source clean, regenerative and socially-aware organic ingredients." How preposterous, I thought, that those who are so deeply invested in the quality and origin of their ingredients would be baking cake from a box.
Then I remembered my neighbors, who regularly receive boxes full of premeasured and diced ingredients. They use them to "cook" dinner. These same people also like to go to the farmers market to appreciate, and maybe purchase, what is locally grown. While this, too, might strike one as amusing or contradictory, my dive into the modern cake-mix market reveals that, for many — especially millennials — this state of affairs is normal.
The cake-mix category comprises dry, ready-made bases for a gamut of baked goods. Those created expressly for cakes were introduced in the early 1930s, if not before that, but didn't hit it big until Betty Crocker, Duncan Hines and Pillsbury got in on the action in the late '40s and early '50s. "The very marketable premise behind cake mixes was, and still is, the ability to have fresh, 'homemade' cake with very little time and effort," Susan Marks wrote in "Finding Betty Crocker" (Simon & Schuster, 2005). The flour, shortening, powdered eggs, sugar and select flavorings had all been calibrated along with leavening agents, which, to this day, remain a concern because who knows whether they have lost their pep. A consumer need only add liquid.
Apparently, this premise was too easy and made the whole thing less appealing. Business psychologists — perhaps the original market researchers — determined that leaving out the dried eggs and having users crack fresh ones into the mixing bowl would solve the problem. The theory, Marks explains, was that this would give them "a sense of creative contribution," because "baking a cake was an act of love on the woman's part" and "a baking mix that only needed water cheapened that love."
Using fresh eggs undoubtedly improved the finished product, which might be the real reason that changing the formula seems to have led to the rise of the box mix. Over time, the recipe was altered and consumers were instructed to stir in oil along with the water and eggs. A task that could require up to a dozen separate ingredients could be accomplished with only four.
Sold in supermarkets, these boxed units became the de facto choice for American households. They were not a source of pride. In the '80s, when I was growing up, you did not try to pass off the Duncan Hines cupcakes you baked for your kid's birthday as homemade. But you didn't brag about having taken a shortcut, either. Convenience won the day.
Things have changed. An overview of the market from 2010 to 2020, generated by the market research firm Mintel, predicts the total sales of baking mixes in the United States will dip from $4 billion to $3.6 billion "as consumers opt for fresher, less processed alternatives." Cake-mix sales, specifically, are at $650 million and expected to drop to $460 million over the next three years. The loss in sales correlates with a broad change in attitude. A younger generation of potential bakers cares about "transparency," a concept that extends to what they put in their pantries and on their plates, and about the experiential aspect of cooking. Millennials are, as per that study, "more apt to say they use baking mixes because they enjoy baking than they are to use them for their convenience." In other words, shame is a nonstarter.
"Consumers are looking to bake 'from scratch,' " says Billy Roberts, a senior food and drink analyst at Mintel. Armed with a "greater degree of personal disposable income" and more confidence, they are going to bakeries, and, because of television shows such as "The Great British Bake Off," wanting to experiment in their own ovens. At the same time, they prioritize ingredients, rejecting anything artificial or unrecognizable, and seek out specialty products they cannot find in local grocery stores. When something is presented as higher in quality, they tend to perceive it as a more healthful option, he says.
Their problem with traditional cake mixes is unrelated to the idea of their being seen as an inauthentic form of baking; it has to do with the assumption that they are full of fake materials. Unsurprisingly, the one area of growth in this sector is in specialty brands that cater to dietary concerns or promote "better" ingredients. This would explain why, last summer, King Arthur Flour brought out a line of "clean label" Essential Goodness mixes or, the year prior, Pillsbury unveiled its Purely Simple products, and would account for that email I scoffed at.
Then there is Foodstirs, launched by Greg Fleishman, Galit Laibow and actor Sarah Michelle Gellar in 2015. "There is nothing like Foodstirs on the planet in terms of that purity and what we call 'clean ingredients,' " Fleishman said, throwing out all the appropriate jargon in a recent interview. The Santa Monica-hubbed brand's mixes are organic and do not contain genetically modified components. They include biodynamic sugar and "identity-preserved heirloom flour."
Foodstirs' founders also talked about the significance of spending meaningful time with their children, and baking as a way to do that. The brand offers a subscription service with regularly delivered baking sets for more- interactive projects such as the heavily decorated Ombré Pancake and the Darling Daisy Cookie Bouquet.
Foodstirs' existence led me to ponder other ways competitors might innovate, or pivot. How would you think outside the mix box . . . while staying in it? Sisters Arielle and Agathe Assouline-Lichten introduced Red Velvet NYC a year and a half ago. The meal-kit company distinguishes itself from the likes of Blue Apron by focusing solely on dessert, and from would-be competitors with its inclusion of perishable goods. Others, Agathe said, "send half-baked items. So they'll send a pie mold, or some type of crust. . . . We don't do any of that. We are vehemently against mixes. We want people to do everything. For me, homemade is homemade. That means no cheating." The majority of kits are for novices, but there are some recipes geared to more-practiced bakers and others that fall somewhere in between. Core products such as best-selling Celebration Cupcakes are joined by seasonal options. Like Foodstirs, Red Velvet NYC allows customers to order kits piecemeal or, serially, through a subscription. So far, it ships to 28 states.
I made some of those cupcakes. They were perfectly acceptable, although Foodstirs' rendition was notably better. Yet I enjoyed the Red Velvet NYC user experience more. That said, packages of dry goods could be more clearly labeled, especially when the same type of flour or sugar is used twice in one recipe. The vials of vanilla extract and nickel-bag-size portions of baking powder were a bit off-putting as well. Listing the amounts of ingredients to be used would better serve educational purposes.
If the intention is to instruct and engage the home baker, DIY mixes seem like a more progressive tool. Toward that end, I discovered food writer and stylist Caroline Wright's "Cake Magic!" (Workman, 2016) — a cookbook that, per its subtitle, lets you "Mix & Match Your Way to 100 Amazing Combinations." The author came up with a basic Cake Magic! mix that could be adapted for an array of layer cakes, each executed in a single bowl. Wright tacked on recipes for syrups, frostings and toppings, and provided copious examples of how to put those together. "I wanted to do a very simple baking technique that could really put the power and creativity in the hands of the baker," she told me via a phone interview.
Here's the upshot of my research: I wanted mixes with more versatility. Ideally, you could whisk a large quantity of dry ingredients together to create a base that could be applied to multiple styles of cake, and beyond. Then, whenever you felt like baking, you would have them at your fingertips.
No mix can do everything — or, it can't do everything well. But three of them could get you far. So I asked Abigail Johnson Dodge, author of "The Everyday Baker" (Taunton Press, 2015), to create one white mix, one chocolate and one cornmeal option that could go savory or sweet. She dug right in, making scones, upside-down cakes, loaf cakes, pancakes, muffins and corn bread. Once Dodge was satisfied with a mix, she sent the basic recipe my way, and I built from there.
To our great surprise, we have become attached to these mixes and are now preoccupied with ideas for those that do not yet exist — but could. (A brownie mix is at the top of our list; those that incorporate nut flours are another interest. Do we dare consider yeast?) Submitted for your approval: the formulas for the three mixes Dodge created, with information on substitutions and mix-ins, plus a few next-level recipes that may inspire you to take them in new directions.
Once you compose these dry mixes from scratch, I doubt you will want to give Betty, Duncan or the rest of their kind another look. A DIY baking mix makes for a thoughtful gift, too. You can put it in a box — a beautifully wrapped one.
Druckman is the author of "Stir, Sizzle, Bake: Recipes for Your Cast-Iron Skillet." She and Abigail Johnson Dodge will join our live chat with readers at noon Wednesday: live.washingtonpost.com.Correction: An earlier version of this story attributed a quote about Red Velvet NYC to Arielle Assouline-Lichten; the quote was from her sister Agathe Assouline-Lichten.
Each mix can be stored in airtight containers at room temperature for up to 3 months.
Makes 10 ½ cups; 1 cup equals 4 ¾ ounces
This plain, versatile mix can be used to make cakes, cupcakes, muffins, scones and pancakes.
Spelt flour is preferred here; it can be replaced with whole-wheat flour, or the mix can be made using 100 percent unbleached all-purpose flour.
5 cups (22½ ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
4 cups (18 ounces) spelt flour (may substitute whole-wheat flour; see headnote)
1⅓ cups (9⅓ ounces) granulated sugar
4 tablespoons (1¾ ounces/ 50 grams) baking powder
2 teaspoons (½ ounce/15 grams) table salt
Whisk together the flours, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large container with a tight-fitting lid (15- to 16-cup capacity), until thoroughly incorporated. Seal, label and store at room temperature until ready to use.
Makes 9 cups; 1 cup equals 5 ounces
Cornmeal can go sweet or savory, and there's no use in creating an all-purpose mix with it if you're not going to account for both.
4 cups (18 ounces) finely ground cornmeal
4 cups (18 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
⅔ cup (4⅝ ounces) granulated sugar
3½ tablespoons (42 grams) baking powder
1½ teaspoons (10 grams) table salt
Combine the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large container with a tight-fitting lid (15- to 16-cup capacity), until thoroughly incorporated. Seal, label and store at room temperature until ready to use.
Makes 11 cups; 1 cup equals 4 ½ ounces
Everyone needs a chocolate layer cake at the ready for those special celebratory moments. Muffins, scones and cupcakes, of course, are all doable as well.
4 cups (18 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
3⅓ cups (15 ounces) whole-wheat flour (may substitute spelt flour)
2½ cups (7½ ounces) unsweetened cocoa powder
1⅓ cups (9⅜ ounces) granulated sugar
4 tablespoons (1¾ ounces/50 grams) baking powder
2 teaspoons (½ ounce/15 grams) table salt
Combine the flours, cocoa powder, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large container (15- to 16-cup capacity). Whisk until very well blended, making sure to get into the corners and bottom of the container. Cover, label and stow at room temperature until ready to use.
More from Food: