Scratch Baking Versus Pre-Mix

The debate about selling scratch baked cakes versus using pre-mix has been going on as long as people have had the fold-or-scrunch debate over toilet paper. In my mind, it’s an equally ridiculous argument to have, because there are distinct pros and cons for each, and situations where you’d need one or the other.

Those who want to have this argument based on taste – go right ahead. I’ll just hang out here and watch the show while you waste a lot of time and energy on that argument. Popcorn anyone?!

Spoiler alert: I don’t see a problem with preferring to use one over another, and I think both have their purposes. Which one you choose to use (or a mix of both) falls under the “your business, your rules” category. Ultimately, you’ve got to be happy with what you’re giving your clients and they need to be happy with what they are getting.  That’s it.

As an interesting aside, we don’t seem to have this same argument about fondant. The majority of bakers I meet use store-bought, and some special unicorns make it themselves (I did it once. NEVER again!) and still others have some crazy hybrid of buy-some-make-some-mix-it-together going on. Yet it’s rare you see keyboard warriors coming to blows over fondant.  Bring up the topic of scratch-versus-mix and again, sit back and watch the show.

Here’s what I think.

Pros to scratch baking:

  • Can be cheaper to produce – raw ingredients are sometimes cheaper than mixes and easier to find at short notice
  • You have total control over the outcome (you can mess about with it as much as you like)
  • It can be a selling point and a point of difference in your marketing
  • Some people prefer the taste
  • Can change things as needed – such as, provide for egg-free clients or tweak to be sweeter, more dense etc etc.

Cons to scratch baking:

  • You have total control over the outcome (in other words, you can screw it up!)
  • Sometimes unreliable. Scratch baked recipes often have a higher fail rate and sometimes for no reason, and often at stupid o’clock in the morning when you just want to BE IN BED.
  • Takes longer to produce (more measuring etc)
  • More room for human error – you’ve got to teach someone to do it, it’s not always easy to do and has several points at which they can mess it up.
  • Sometimes hard to source special ingredients

Pros to box mix baking:

  • Those mixes are created to no-fail so you can’t really screw it up (unless you really try)
  • Consistent product every single time – from a taste, appearance, crumb etc point of view
  • It’s designed to be VERY easy to do, so hiring people to make it is easier than teaching people to bake
  • No special stuff needed (as opposed to running around looking for speciality ingredients)
  • Easily doctored (plenty of books on this topic!)
  • Easier to cost out – you’re not at the mercy of vanilla/egg/etc shortages and the price tends to fluctuate down more often than up

Cons to box mix baking:

  • Not a great selling point. Nobody shouts “box made!” the way they shout “made from scratch!” no matter how good it tastes
  • As a raw product, it’s often more expensive to buy (although yes of course, you can find specials)
  • You’re at the mercy of producers – if you can’t find it on the shelf for some reason or your local supplier runs out or they change the formula significantly, you’re screwed
  • Other cake makers will hate on you. (Okay I’m kidding. I mean they probably will hate on you, but who cares? It’s not their business and not their customers, therefore not their problem or issue. if they are wasting their time hating on you, spend your time making your business awesome.)

Should you disclose to clients if you use box mix?

I certainly would not lie about it but nor do I need to a”disclose” from the get-go because I honestly think it’s no big deal to use box mix. If you’re using box mixes because you hate baking, you’re no good at it, you’d rather spend your time decorating – that’s totally cool. In your marketing, talk up all the things you ROCK at; the customer service, the decorating, the unique designs. You can still talk about the flavour and taste (because let’s face it, they are still good otherwise you wouldn’t sell them). If someone asks, be honest. It’s totally okay to say, “We use a high quality box mix because it gives us a consistent product and allows us to concentrate on decorating, which is where the real magic happens.” It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Don’t lie about it but no, don’t hold up a flashing sign either.

Here’s my not-a-secret: In my business, every flavour other than white chocolate mud cake was scratch baked. I tested DOZENS of white chocolate mud cake recipes (over a period of YEARS) and never found one I liked and which baked consistently. I ended up using a box mix which I doctored significantly. I didn’t feel any shame about that, because I wanted to give my clients the best product every time and this was the best way I’d found to do that. I didn’t lie – if they asked (which rarely happened) I’d say, “All our flavours are scratch baked other than white mud, because I’ve found that box mix is better than any one I’ve ever made.”  Later when I started selling undecorated cakes to other bakers, that entire product line was all box mixes, because it was fast and easy to produce AND it was a distinct line of differentiation between my custom orders and what I was providing to others.

There is no real way to end this debate and we need to acknowledge that a LOT of people out there love the decorating yet hate the baking. My overall philosophy on selling food is this: customers will often buy something once because of how it looks. They’ll come back a second time because of how it tastes.

Whether you scratch bake or box mix bake, taste AND looks BOTH come into it, so pick something you’re proud to serve and you can’t go wrong.

One thought on “Scratch Baking Versus Pre-Mix

  1. Love it! I’m so glad I’m not the only one who has this attitude. I am a scratch baker, but have had many box mix cakes that were delicious! I also used to work at a bakery who uses mixes and I recommend them to my clients when I can’t fit them in. Can’t we just say to each their own and quit being ugly about it?!?! Love your blog!

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