How to Make Sour Cream Pound Cake Moist and Tender Every Time

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

I have a lot of feelings about cake, in all its many forms. From feather-light angel food to downy squares of coffee cake or a rich and fluffy vanilla layer cake, most recipes aim for dainty airiness.

Not pound cake, though—it's a heavy hitter served in slabs. With a crumb as smooth as marble, it's dense to the point of creaminess, and velvety-soft as it melts on your tongue. The whole thing is encased in a golden crust, one that peaks so high it splits right down the middle as it bakes. It's a thing of beauty on its own, or a canvas for the season's best fruit.

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In the olden days, pound cake called for equal weights of sugar, butter, eggs, and flour (hence the name), with no leavening but the air naturally entrapped through proper creaming. Without any added liquid, the batter turned out especially thick, eager to dome up in the oven. That behavior is exacerbated by the limited surface area and volume of an eight-inch loaf pan versus an eight-inch round, creating an uneven baking environment in which the outer edges set far more rapidly than the middle, pushing the thick batter inward and up so it crests in one long peak, like a mountain range.

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To be honest, you can still make a fine pound cake with traditional methods and ratios, so I won't begrudge purists. But with a few strategic tweaks, I can exaggerate the qualities I love (golden crust, fine crumb, big crown) and avoid the ones that cause trouble—namely, pound cake's tendency toward dryness.

Starting from a base that uses an equal weight of each ingredient, my recipe diverts some of the fat and egg content toward sour cream. While butter is relatively low in lactose, the milk sugar responsible for the delicious Maillard browning of dairy products, sour cream is comparatively high. As a result, that shift boosts both flavor and browning in the crust, but without sacrificing the protein needed for structure (or the fat needed to keep the cake moist). The kicker is that sour cream's acidity prevents that delicious browning from happening too fast; even after almost an hour in the oven, the crust is even all around and golden, not burnt.

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Unlike other types of lactose-rich dairy, such as buttermilk, cream, and yogurt, sour cream won't thin the batter, instead keeping it thick enough to crown in the oven. And compared to strained Greek yogurt, which is appropriately thick, sour cream is low in casein—a protein known to improve volume in baked goods, but which can actually make the pound cake too fluffy. For that reason, Greek yogurt does best in recipes like my coffee cake, where added lightness is a welcome touch.

Aside from reducing the quantity of butter and eggs to accommodate the sour cream, my recipe uses just a touch more sugar than flour, rather than equal parts. This helps to limit gluten development, improve moisture retention, and enhance caramelization, a trifecta that ensures a tender, golden-crusted pound cake resistant to drying out. Last, and most controversially, I also use a small scoop of baking powder. By its nature, it won't release the bulk of its carbon dioxide until warmed above 140°F (60°C), which takes a rather long while in super-dense pound cake. (More on the mechanics of baking powder here.) In this recipe, that means baking powder doesn't provide leavening so much as a late-stage release of carbon dioxide that'll help blow open the top.

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The last "trick" to my recipe stems from equal parts compulsive pragmatism and science. Based strictly on math, my recipe requires five ounces of fat, but butter is typically packaged in four-ounce sticks. Rather than orphan a partial stick of butter to get that extra ounce, I scoop out an ounce of refined coconut oil. It's an easy swap, since I always have a jar or two on hand, and, since it's solid at room temperature, it creams up just as fluffy and light when mixed into the butter. Plus, its lower melting point makes the finished pound cake seem even creamier on the tongue. But no harm, no foul if you'd rather use butter!

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Despite its unique configuration of ingredients, my pound cake comes together like any other butter cake. That means creaming the butter, sugar, oil, salt, vanilla bean, and baking powder up front, then adding whole eggs and beating only until the batter looks smooth.

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From there, the all-purpose flour and sour cream (plus vanilla extract) are incorporated in alternating additions. If you're not already familiar with the finer points, I've written about those steps in depth here.

Unlike layer cakes, which use a thin batter that should never fill the pan more than halfway (more on that here), pound cake batter is thick, and should fill the pan within an inch of the top to encourage a prominent crown. Using a bigger pan (or a recipe that calls for less batter) will lead to flat-topped loaves.

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Flouring the pan is big no-no for delicate layer cakes, but crucial for crust development in pound cake. Just as crucial? The use of reflective aluminum, which will conduct heat quickly and evenly to the crust, without the exaggerated browning of nonstick or the delayed timetable of stoneware and glass. The longer the cake's in the oven, the greater its moisture loss and the tougher its crust, so the type of pan used is of make-or-break importance! Look for cheap and simple pans from companies that aren't charging you for overengineered details; mine is a traditional "one-pound" loaf pan from Chicago Metallic.

Bake the pound cake until it's golden on top, about 55 minutes at 375°F (190°C), or to an internal temperature of about 200°F (93°C). Set aside until the pan is cool enough to handle, then loosen the cake with a butter knife, remove it from the pan, and wrap tightly in plastic to minimize moisture loss while it's cooling.

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In the course of recipe development, I discovered that my pound cakes universally tasted better the next day. Loaves that seemed a bit dry and crumbly when warm cooled and aged overnight into something far more velvety and moist. It's not that you have to wait 24 hours; only that pound cake has unusual keeping qualities that make it a smart make-ahead dessert for picnics, care packages, and much more.

Once it's fully cool, serve it up however you like—with ice cream, as a stand-in for shortcake, toasted with butter, or as a vehicle for fresh summer berries. To that end, a coordinating batch of chantilly made with freeze-dried fruit is a great way to underscore (or contrast!) the flavor of whatever fresh fruit you have on hand.

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