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Food & Recipes

3 Ways to Upgrade Boxed Cake Mix — From a Former Pastry Chef

I’m not a baker by trade — or even by hobby — so baking from scratch isn’t my strong suit. But as a big fan of baked goods, I am also a fan of boxed cake mixes. Boxed mixes make baking a delectable cake easy for the low-skill, high-enthusiasm crowd I’m in. They’re usually pretty good on their own, made according to the box’s instructions — but if you’re really trying to impress, there are some easy ways to upgrade your boxed cake mix and take your dessert to the next level. Check out these tips from an expert pastry chef to help you rock that Betty Crocker mix. 

The Scoop on Boxed Cake Mix

Boxed cake mix has been a common consumer product for the better part of a century, says America’s Test Kitchen. It was invented in the ’30s by John D. Duff, one of the heads of a molasses company in Pittsburgh that found itself with a surplus of product. He dehydrated molasses and combined it with dried egg, sugar, and flour, then marketed the product as a convenient way to make gingerbread — just add water.

After World War II, the mixes took off, and eventually other brands like Pillsbury, Duncan Hines, and Betty Crocker began manufacturing their own. Boxed cake mix continues to be a popular choice: America’s Test Kitchen reports that over 186 million Americans used it in 2020. 

Before we get into remixing the mix, let’s address the fundamentals. Betty Crocker’s website lists the additional ingredients for making their classic Super Moist Favorites Yellow Cake Mix (Buy from Walmart, $1.58) as follows:


  • 1 cup water
  • ½ cup vegetable oil
  • 3 eggs

Once you combine these ingredients with the box mix, it’s simply a matter of popping the batter into the oven and baking it for about an hour. But since it’s so fast and easy already, why not take a few extra measures to make your cake even more delicious? Here’s how.

How to Boost Your Box Mix

Pastry-chef-turned-writer Pippa Allen shares her favorite tips for making cake from a mix taste like it’s homemade. Even though she’s a former professional pastry chef, she notes that “boxed mixes are a great way to deliver a surefire success with minimal effort.”

Baking Tip #1 — Use milk instead of water. 

Boxed cake mixes, like the one listed above, often call for a cup of water. But if you sub that out for milk, your cake will have a much richer flavor, says Allen. She notes that while whole milk will make your cake even more luxurious, you can also use any dairy or non-dairy milk, or even buttermilk. Cake blog Cakere claims this works for a few reasons: Because milk is denser than water, it will make your cake moister and softer. Milk will also keep your cake from tasting too strongly of eggs, since water has no flavor. Lastly, because milk has protein, it will help maintain the cake’s delicate structure, preventing it from becoming too thick. 

Baking Tip #2 — Add a splash of extract. 

There’s flavoring already incorporated into your boxed cake mix, but adding a bit of your favorite extract can boost the cake’s flavor, suggests Allen. Vanilla extract goes with just about any flavor, so a splash or two will make your cake even yummier. She also recommends adding almond extract to yellow cake mix for a richer flavor. Feeling adventurous? Food blog The Best Cake Recipes lists a variety of extracts you can experiment with in your baking, including coffee, lemon, and even butter extract.

Baking Tip #3 — Replace the oil with melted butter. 

You likely have butter in your fridge already, so melt ½ cup of it and use it in place of vegetable oil. Allen says this swap will make your cake taste scratch-made. However, keep in mind that vegetable oil is a classic choice for a reason: Oil tends to make cakes look prettier and have a more tender texture, since oil stays liquid, even when cooled, whereas butter solidifies. In a side-by-side baking test, though, baker Tessa Arias determined that butter simply tastes better than oil in cake mixes, since it has its own delicious flavor that enhances baked goods. She notes that if your cake has strong flavors like citrus or coffee, though, oil might be a better choice, since it has a less competitive and more neutral flavor. 

Feeling inspired? Try a jazzed-up boxed cake mix and see if anyone believes you when you say it’s not completely homemade. In the end, it doesn’t matter how easy it was — as long as you made it with love.

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