Gluten-Free Tuesday: Chiffon Cake, and Tips for Making the Best Chiffon Cake Ever

Elizabeth Barbone

For a cake with such whisper-soft texture, chiffon cake certainly made some noise when it entered the food scene. The recipe was created—and kept top secret for around two decades—by a salesman-turned-caterer named Harry Baker. Before Baker sold the recipe to General MIlls in 1948, he made chiffon cakes for the Hollywood Brown Derby and the light cake quickly gained a following.

Capitalizing on its popularity, General Mills released the recipe along with the claim that it was, "The first new cake recipe in 100 years." (Sounds like something Don Draper would write, doesn't it?)

Leavened mostly with whipped egg whites, chiffon cake bakes up light and airy, similar in texture to angel food cake. Unlike angel food cake, which only uses egg whites, chiffon cake uses the entire egg. The yolks are mixed into the batter before being folded into the whipped egg whites. They bring richness and a subtle yellow hue to the cake.

The original recipe for this cake relied on pastry flour; this low gluten flour gave the cake a soft, tender crumb. So converting it to gluten-free was relatively easy because the cake never fully relied gluten structure to give it structure. White rice flour, potato starch and tapioca starch replaced the pastry flour nicely; heavier flours, like brown rice flour and sorghum proved too heavy for the cake, leaving it with a dense crumb and unpleasant, gritty texture. Made with white rice flour, it baked into the lightest, softest cake I've ever had (!). In this case, the lack of gluten seems to have benefited the cake.

To achieve that light, soft texture, it takes a bit of care to put the cake together. No one would call this a quick recipe! Keep these tips in mind when putting the cake together.

Gluten-Free Chiffon Cake Tips

  1. Degrease your mixing bowl and whip. Egg whites and fat are enemies. If any fat is present, the egg whites won't whip to full volume. Before you crack your first egg, check your mixing bowl and whip. If any grease is present, get rid of it by washing the bowl with soap and water. (Some bakers swear by using lemon juice or white vinegar to wash the bowl.)
  2. Start with cold eggs. While egg whites are best whipped at room temperature, they're harder to separate when warm. To get around this, separate the eggs when they're cold and then allow them to come to room temperature before whipping.
  3. Keep egg yolks out the egg whites. Be sure no egg yolk finds its way into the bowl of whites. It's a good idea to separate your egg over two bowls, a small one for the whites, and a large one for the yolks. After separating the egg, inspect the white. If no yolk is present, transfer the white to a large grease-free mixing bowl. This way, you're sure that each egg white that goes into the bowl is yolk free.
  4. Use a large bowl for the batter. You'll be folding the whipped egg whites into the cake batter. Therefore, it's essential to select a bowl that can hold a lot of batter. I used my 5 quart bowl for the recipe.
  5. Add the whipped egg whites in stages. For the first addition, you want to lighten the batter by gently folding in about a quarter of the whipped egg whites. After that, fold in each addition of egg white until no lumps remain. (More about lumps in a second.)
  6. Keep the spatula under the batter. Here's a little egg white folding trick: As you fold the egg whites into the batter, keep your spatula submerged in the batter at all times. Don't lift it out of the batter after each "fold" Rather, slide the spatula into the center of the bowl, then "fold" the batter by pulling the spatula toward the edge of bowl, lifting batter over the egg whites. Then bring the spatula back toward the center of the bowl to incorporate the whites into the batter. As you fold, it helps to slowly spin the bowl.
  7. Check for lumps in the batter. Before you stop folding the egg whites into the batter, check for unincorporated egg whites. None should remain. If they do, the finished cake will bake unevenly with large air holes throughout. If you see any lumps of egg whites, fold a little longer.
  8. Don't "whack" the spatula on the side of the bowl. It's tempting to clear the egg whites that cling to the spatula by whacking the spatula on the side of the bowl. This deflates the batter. Same thing goes for when you add the batter to the pan. Don't whack the spatula on the side of the cake pan to get rid of excess batter.
  9. Don't grease the pan. During baking, the batter clings to the side of the ungreased pan, helping the cake stay nice and high. This is one time where a cake sticking to a pan is a good thing!
  10. Cool it upside down. Even after baking, chiffon cakes require a little extra TLC. To prevent the cake from collapsing, cool it upside down. Today, many tube pans include little legs that you can invert the pan onto. However, if your pan doesn't have legs or if your cake rises higher than the legs, carefully slide the center of the cake pan onto a glass bottle--like a wine bottle or gluten-free beer bottle.

And while this cake requires almost-scientific precision, it still welcomes creativity. As written, the recipe makes a vanilla-scented chiffon cake. But flavor it as you wish—orange and lemon are always popular variations.

*Low-gluten pastry flour contains gluten and is not suitable for those on a gluten-free diet.