If you’ve only got plain flour in the cupboard, don’t worry – you can still bake to your heart’s content. In fact, you can achieve the same light texture and raised shape usually associated with cakes made with self-raising flour by using plain flour and an alternative raising method, like baking powder or whisked eggs.
Here, we share our favourite plain flour cake recipes, plus we provide a lesson in plain flour, including tips on how to convert it to self-raising and the benefits of cooking with this versatile storecupboard flour.
Plain flour cookery tips
What is the difference between plain flour and self-raising flour?
Self-raising flour is plain flour that has had a raising agent such as baking powder added. If a cake calls for self-raising flour and you only have plain flour then you will need to add a raising agent to make the recipe work. The easiest raising agent to add is baking powder (or ‘baking soda’ as it is known in some parts of the world).
How to make your own self-raising flour
Wheat flours vary in protein content. Softer wheat flours with less gluten are used for baking and for making self-raising flour. As a rule of thumb, to make plain flour into self-raising, add 2 tsp baking powder to 150g of plain flour.
Advice on how much baking powder to add can vary. This is because flour can vary in protein content depending on the kind of wheat used to make it – soft wheat with less gluten is used for baking cakes and pastries, and hard wheat with more gluten is used for bread.
Soft wheat flour might need a little less than 2 tsp but unless you know what your flour is milled from, use this amount.
What is baking powder?
Baking powder is made of bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) and cream of tartar and some cornflour. It needs liquid (known as single acting), or liquid and heat (double acting) to activate it. You can buy baking powder more easily than its constituent parts but you can make your own by combining half a teaspoon of cream of tartar and a quarter teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda. This provides the equivalent of one teaspoon of baking powder.
How to test baking powder
Baking powder has a shelf life and it stops being reactive after a time. You can test it by adding ½ tsp to 2 tbsp warm water. If it’s working, it will fizz. If it doesn’t, then it will no longer work.
What is bicarbonate of soda?
Bicarbonate of soda or baking soda is another name for sodium bicarbonate, which is alkaline. This requires an acid such as cream of tartar and a liquid activate it. Bicarb can also be activated by an acidic liquid in baking such as buttermilk. Don’t add too much bicarb to anything, it is 3-4 times stronger than baking powder and too much often gives bakes a green tinge and an unpleasant metallic or soapy flavour.
Why do some recipes use plain flour with added raising agent instead of standard self-raising?
Plain flour plus a raising agent allows you to control the amount of raising agent you are using, and therefore the texture of your bake – self-raising flour contains a set amount. Heavier batters such as those containing fruit or a thicker batter, like the one for this banana cake, might need more raising agent.
Other ways to make a cake rise without self-raising flour
You can also use bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) plus an acid like cream of tartar, buttermilk or yogurt to make a cake rise. This lemon pound cake is a good example.
What result could you expect if you used plain flour instead of self-raising and didn’t add a raising agent?
This would depend on the recipe. If the cake has added air because the ingredients are whisked well to make lots of bubbles in the mixture, then these bubbles will expand when the cake is cooked and the cake mixture will set around them.
This is how you make a classic whisked sponge, a cake with a higher ratio of eggs to flour and sugar, and no fat, or a genoise. Whisked sponges are best within two days as their lack of fat means they don’t keep well.
If you make a whisked sponge or genoise be sure to follow the below method exactly. How much your cake rises will be entirely down to you beating the mixture thoroughly and using an oven at the right temperature.
How to make a whisked sponge
Makes one 20cm whisked sponge cake
- Heat the oven to 180C/fan 160C/gas 4. Oil and line an 18cm or 20cm cake tin and dust the inside with caster sugar and then flour, this will help the cake ‘climb’ the sides of the tin. Sift 85g plain flour and a pinch of salt onto a plate.
- If you are using a hand mixer, bring a pan of water to the boil that is big enough to sit the bowl for the cake onto. You will need to whisk the eggs and sugar in a warm environment.
- Put 3 eggs and 85g golden caster sugar into a large heatproof bowl and start to whisk with electric hand beaters on a low speed. Transfer the bowl to sit on the pan of just-boiled water and make sure the bowl is not touching the water. Continue to whisk the mixture on a low speed for 3–4 minutes until you have lots of small air bubbles.
- Increase the speed and continue whisking until you have a very pale, fluffy mixture. When you lift the whisk up the mixture on it should fall back in a ‘trail’ on the surface of the mixture in the bowl and stay for about 5 seconds before it sinks back in. If it doesn’t do this then keep whisking – it will take up to 6-8 minutes. Remove the bowl from the pan and whisk for 2 mins until the mixture has cooled slightly. Whisk in 1 tbsp warm water.
- If you are using a stand mixer, fit the whisk and whisk the eggs and sugar to a mousse. You don’t need to worry about putting the bowl over heat. When you lift the whisk up the mixture on it should fall back in a ‘trail’ on the surface of the mixture in the bowl and stay for about 5 seconds before it sinks back in. Whisk in 1 tbsp warm water.
- Sift the flour and salt over the mixture in the bowl and use a large spatula or large metal spoon to very carefully fold it into the mixture. You want to keep as many of the air bubbles in the mixture as you can as these will keep your cake light.
- Gently scrape the mixture into the tin and flatten the top. Tap the tin lightly down onto the work surface to bring any large air bubbles to the top. Bake for about 30 minutes. The sponge should be risen, golden and slightly shrunk away from the sides. 18cm tins may need a few minutes longer as the cake will be deeper. Do not open the door while the cake is cooking. When lightly pressed with your finger it should bounce back. Cool in the tin for 1–2 minutes, then carefully turn the tin upside down on a wire rack to cool completely. Run a knife between the cake and the tin to release it.
- To serve, cut the cake into 2 even layers and sandwich together with cream and jam or a buttercream of your choice.
Plain flour cake recipes
We’ve rounded up the best cakes on the BBC Good Food website that are made with plain flour.
Fruity sponge cake
This low fat cake recipe is a light sponge with an airy texture that’s achieved with plain flour, cornflour, baking powder and eggs that are separated before mixing.
Chocolate brownie cake
Switch up everyone’s favourite chocolate traybake by cooking a brownie batter in a round tin. This version uses whisked egg whites to make the cake rise, giving it a fudgy texture.
Triple ginger & spice cake
This cake uses bicarbonate of soda as a raising agent. Bicarb starts to react straight away so get this into the oven as soon as you can.
Blood orange pound cake
Two kinds of raising agents give this cake its particular flavour and texture. The cake mix also features soured cream.
Olive oil muscat cake
This cake uses eggs to give it an airy texture and is a brilliant way of using up a bottle of dessert wine you might have open.
Tres leches cake
One of the sweetest, stickiest and most delicious cakes in existence, this Mexican bake gets it name from the three types of milk used in the recipe.
If you like light, American-style cakes reminiscent of packet mixes, then this is the cake for you. Everyone will love it and it is very easy.
More like this
What are your experiences baking with plain flour? We’d like to hear your recipe ideas, tips and questions in the comments below.