slice of chocolate cake with frosting on white plate

Cakes are a classic dessert, used to celebrate everything from birthdays to bridal showers and anything in between. The yummy blend of moist, light cake and sweet, creamy frosting makes the sweet a popular crowd-pleaser. However, there’s one downside to this tasty treat. Not everyone wants to spend the time and effort it takes to bake an entire cake from scratch. Fortunately, that’s where boxed cake mixes come in.

Boxed cake mix was first patented in the 1930s by P. Duff and Sons, a Pittsburgh-based molasses company, according to a 2013 report from Bon Appetit. While the recipe has changed a bit over the years, the basic idea of selling convenience by premixing ingredients that only required one or two add-ins to make a whole cake became popular with busy consumers, particularly after World War II.

However, while boxed cake mixes’ popularity is based on ease and simplicity, people can still make mistakes when using them to whip up a semi-homemade dessert. According to Elizabeth Nelson, baking expert and Test Kitchen Director at Wilton Cake Decorating and Recipes, there’s one big mistake many people make when baking boxed cakes. "One of the most common mistakes people make is not thoroughly reading the instructions before getting started," Nelson told Mashed. It might sound like a no-brainer, but not being prepared can derail your baking experience. (You don’t want, for example, to start mixing the batter, only to realize you don’t have enough eggs or vegetable oil to finish making the recipe.)

Bakers should measure, not estimate, ingredient amounts

A hand stirring cake batter in a glass bowl

While reading the instructions is important, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to scrap the whole thing if you happen to make a small mistake. "Cake mixes are generally pretty forgiving," Elizabeth Nelson, Wilton Test Kitchen Director, tells Mashed. Still, "for best results, it’s important to follow the instructions on the mix."

Two of the most important things to pay close attention to are the mixing time and ingredient measurements. "Mixes generally have times listed for how long to mix," says Nelson. And although many people may simply guess how long they’ve been stirring the batter based on feel, she recommends "actually using a timer to make sure you’re not mixing for too long or short of a period of time."

Furthermore, it’s generally not a good idea to simply ballpark the ingredient quantities, as adding the wrong amounts can impact the cake’s texture and consistency. Instead, Nelson recommends home bakers "carefully check the ingredient measurements when you are adding the liquid to the cake mix," adding that "brands vary with how much water, oil/butter, and eggs are needed, and their instructions can change from time to time." Following these simple tricks will help ensure a moist and tasty finished product.

But if you do make a slipup, such as adding too much water to your batter, don’t fret. Nelson notes that if you add "a few tablespoons of all-purpose flour," it can save your over-watered box cake mix batter from disaster.

A few simple tricks can make boxed cakes taste homemade

round cake with white frosting, strawberries, and blueberries

For the ambitious home chef, there are also a few easy ways to kick a box cake mix up a notch. Making easy substitutions, like swapping water for more flavorful liquids like buttermilk or coffee, or even just adding one more egg than the recipe calls for, can help the cake go from good to great, suggests The Pioneer Woman. Adding some additional yummy ingredients, such as a citrusy lemon or lime zest, a little extra dash of vanilla, or homemade frosting can give the cake a boost of flavor that makes it taste just like a homemade dessert.

However, even bakers who don’t want to add anything extra can still make a perfectly tasty box cake with just a few simple tips. For example, softening butter before adding it to the mix makes it easier to beat, resulting in a smoother batter, per Simply Recipes. Wilton Test Kitchen Director Elizabeth Nelson also says that warming the eggs after taking them out of the fridge can make it easier to mix them into the batter, leading to a "fluffier cake." "They can easily be heated to room temperature by covering them in warm (not hot!) tap water while you pull together your other ingredients and prepare your pans," Nelson says.

These tricks might make cakes made from box mix a little tastier. But even if you just follow the basic recipe, your cake will probably still turn out just fine.