Why Does Boxed Cake Mix Need Eggs?
You’ve probably gone to the grocery for cake mix before. At least some of us have neglected to get the required eggs because we couldn’t afford them, didn’t have a use for like 10 extra eggs, or the store was just out. Or you were making boxed cake at home with eggs, and just… Forgot. We don’t judge. But most of us know that our boxed cakes can function (a little worse) without eggs, so then why does boxed cake mix need eggs?
Does the Cake Actually Need Eggs?
We’re not expert cooks here, but we can kind of pin down what eggs are used for. Mostly because other people into cake-baking did it for us and posted about it on the internet. It’s also not disputable that eggs change the properties of your cake–why would you throw something in there that serves no purpose?
Eggs are good at holding in stuff when you’ve added them to your cake batter. That’s where the general moistness of a cake comes from–how much liquid the batter has absorbed. Consequently, eggs are pretty good at that. They also take in sugar and air, so your cake can get fluffier.
When thrown into a cake, your eggs also serve as emulsifiers. Middle to high school chemistry aside, that just means eggs help the different liquids in your batter mix together. Many egg substitutes share emulsifying properties. So really this is the big one–if your batter can’t mix, you definitely need the eggs (or some other additive).
Most boxed cake mixes do have emulsifiers in them, so you could very much bake a functional cake by just throwing in some water and maybe vegetable oil.
That does not mean the cake will be better.
So while you could make a perfectly edible cake without throwing in a couple eggs, many find that the eggs just make them better. While that’s up to your opinion, boxed cake makers probably figured, on some level, that most people just liked eggs in the mix more.
Truth was, boxed cake mix wasn’t selling too hot for a while. Of course the big business execs at the top needed to throw a solution together. So they got cracking.
Cake mix was largely a failed product until the 1950s, though “big cake” (John D. Duff and Louis E. Dietrich) did apply for an egg-in-cake-mix patent in 1935. That patent application makes the following claim:
“The housewife and the purchasing public in general seem to prefer fresh eggs and hence the use of dried or powdered eggs is somewhat of a handicap from a psychological standpoint.”
The patent also cites that eggs were better emulsifiers fresh than powdered, so people have been looking for egg substitutes for a while, we suppose.
Many use this patent to debunk the myth that cake mix just added an egg because housewives just “felt guilty” about making a cake out of the box. By extension, many make the claim that the changes in cake mix had nothing to do with the sexist standards of the 1950s housewife at all.
But that actually isn’t the whole story; cake mix sales began to plateau again in the 1950s. Because we exist in an economic system that rewards only indefinite growth, “big cake” needed to figure out a solution.
The 1935 egg patent doesn’t really go into the “handicap from a psychological standpoint” all that much. Dietrich’s patent is mostly concerned with the properties of eggs and how they affect cake mix/dry dough.
It turns out, people wanted to feel like they had more agency in their cake-making experience. Thus, we get into cake decorating. Because psychologist Ernest Dichter did still come to those sexist conclusions. He concluded that the then-housewife felt guilty for not putting enough effort into their confections.
“This is typical of what the average housewife said: ‘Yes, I’m using a cake mix; it saves me a lot of trouble but I really shouldn’t.’”
Dichter’s advice was to throw in an egg, which we’ve also concluded just kind of.. Makes better cakes. Culinary historian Laura Shapiro makes a similar argument; eggs were likely added in part because they made the mix better. But Dichter’s claims about putting in effort for cakes did take hold–just in a different outlet.
Enter; frosting. A 1953 magazine (Better Homes & Gardens) probably puts it best:
“You can put your effort into glorifying your cake with frosting, dreaming up an exciting trim that puts your own label on it.”
So yeah, there you go. People lost ownership of their cakes in the baking process, so the market told them to take it back by buying their frosting.
Speaking of personalizing your cakes, look at some personalized ones here.