The Secret to an Uber-Spongy Cake Is … Ice Water

updated Jul 14, 2023
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Credit: Alice Gao

You might think the trick to achieving an extra moist white cake — the kind with a melt-in-your-mouth crumb — would be full-fat dairy, maybe, with a touch of acid for tenderness. Perhaps you typically use cream when cake-baking; or you always turn to buttermilk. But I’m here to tell you: The real secret ingredient for baking up the white cake of your dreams does not require a trip to the grocery store, costs nothing, and is dairy-free (you’re welcome, my lactose-intolerant peeps).

What is this magic elixir? It’s ice water, and its tasty effect on white cake is pretty special.

Why Ice Water in Cake Works

I first discovered the ingenious practice of making cake with ice water over a decade ago when I worked at Baked bakery in Red Hook, Brooklyn. So I asked my old boss, co-founder Matt Lewis, and he believes that, like in pie crust, the ice water may keep the fat in the cake batter from melting, which then contributes to the amazing mouthfeel of the cake’s crumb.

In fact, the melting of fat in a batter or dough contributes to the leavening of the baked good — and the slower the melting, the higher said baked-good rises. Thus, it follows that because the ice water delays the melting of the butter in the batter in an ice water white cake, for instance, it contributes to a cake with a lighter, softer crumb.

How to Make Cake With Ice Water

Whether that’s what is happening or not, however, I hope you try your hand at one. You can do so by substituting it cup for cup with the liquid ingredient already called for in your white cake recipe — or begin by substituting half, just to see what you think.

Even better, take a stab at my Silver Cake with Pink Frosting recipe, from my book, The Vintage Baker. The recipe is for a classic ice water white cake with a pretty, pale pink old-school American buttercream. I might not be able to tell you exactly why the inclusion of ice water makes this cake so delicious, but I can tell you that the cake’s crumb is not to be believed and might just make you pause next time you’re cake-baking and open the fridge to reach for that jug of milk or heavy cream.

Ice Water in Cake: Vintage Origins

Back when I worked at Baked, the white cakes there used nothing but ice water as their liquid ingredient (today you’ll find Baked white cake recipes online that include a combo of water and dairy).

Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito, the founders of Baked, had stumbled on a vintage “ice water white cake” recipe when developing the one for the bakery. (Old-school recipes often inspired their development process.)

Although my fellow bakers joked about it being some sort of trade secret worth protecting and coveting, I was new to the world of pastry, had never worked in a bakery before, and could count on one hand how many cakes I’d baked in my entire lifetime. So I had no context for understanding how surprising that was. But the white cakes at Baked were legendarily delicious, with the perfect spongy crumb, and when I left to write cookbooks and work as a freelance recipe developer, the ice water tip came with me.

In fact, when I wrote my second cookbook, The Vintage Baker, I included ice water in my white cake recipe. And since my book is a collection of vintage recipes, twisted and tweaked for the 21st-century baker, the inclusion of ice water in my recipe was nothing short of a given.

Interestingly enough, however, when I started researching “ice water white cake,” in order to unpack the recipe’s origins and flesh out my headnote, I came up short. “Ice water white cake” doesn’t have its own Wikipedia page, I’m sorry to report. Sure, there were various food bloggers musing that ice water had become a white cake ingredient out of necessity, either when dairy was rationed during WWII, or became too expensive during the Great Depression. But there wasn’t much actual research to be had.

There is plenty online about wacky Depression-era cakes. However, most of these are super-simple cakes mixed together in a single pan with a bevy of substitution-style ingredients — they’re known more for their ease than their incredible texture. And they do not actually call for ice water.

But despite the fact that the ice water in white cake’s provenance remains a mystery, I believe there is something more to it than saving a few bucks, or as a substitute for something more desirable. All you have to do is have a slice, and you’ll see why adding ice water to white cake is such a brilliant move.