Welcome to your Ultimate Guide to Baking With Protein Powder- “cakes” edition! If you want to see my visual guide for protein powder substitutions in cookies, check out my post here.
In this post, we’re going to take a simple chocolate cupcake recipe and swap the flour out for 9 different types of protein powder to see how each affects the final product.
Whether you’re following one of my high-protein recipes, or another recipe you come across, I hope this guide can help you better understand why you should stick with a specific protein powder.
To be clear: no single protein powder is best for baking. With the proper substitutions, any protein powder can work out great, but you’ll quickly see that they are all certainly not the same.
And remember, we are testing a regular cupcake recipe here and swapping out the flour for a protein powder to see the differences more cut-and-dry. When it comes to high-protein recipes with larger quantities of protein powder required, the results may be even more drastic.
Why Bake With Protein Powder?
If you’re new to my blog, I create a lot of high-protein recipes using protein powder.
I won’t dive too deeply into why protein is important, but this graphic I put together summarizes it briefly for you:
Personally, I find it very important to eat a high-protein diet, so I love baking high-protein desserts to help me reach those goals.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying treats that aren’t high-protein, but I love making treats that not only taste delicious but also help me reach my goals.
When you bake with protein powder, the final product is generally lower in carbs than the original recipe. This is because protein powder will take the place of flour (at least some of it) in your recipes, so it naturally makes the carbs lower.
Carbs are NOT a bad thing, but you generally won’t find a recipe that is very high in both carbs and protein. Yes, the two can co-exist, but for our purposes, protein powder will typically replace some of the flour required.
The Science of Baking: Cakes vs Cookies
This guide is going to specifically break down how different protein powder affects cakes.
I also put together a guide specifically for cookies, which you can find here.
Cookies and cakes are very different, so it makes sense to look at them separately.
Cakes are light & fluffy, as the base of them is made up of mostly flour and baking powder to give them a nice rise.
Cookies are higher in fat (generally a combination of butter & sugar) with only a little bit of flour, resulting in a soft cookie that spreads instead of rises.
Baking really is a science, and you can tweak the ingredients or processes in a recipe to create different end-products. I mean, just think about how many different cookie recipes there are, and how different the cookies end up turning out.
When you add protein powder to the mix, that science becomes even more complex, which is why I want to help you make sense of it all.
General Tips & Substitutions
When it comes to cakes, they are typically high in carbs and low in fat. This is because the main ingredient is flour. And while they will contain some kind of oil or butter to help keep them moist, it is not going to be a huge amount.
By adding protein powder to the mix, we’re going to create a very dry result. When it comes to baked goods, more protein almost always leads to a dry result. Think about any high-protein cookie or cake you may have purchased- odds are that it was much more dry than desserts you know and love.
When we add protein powder to cake recipes, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- Add Fat. Protein will dry out your cake, but fat will keep is moist. Instead of trying to keep your cakes completely fat-free, make sure you add some butter or oil to the recipe. Without fat, you’re going to have a very dry cake.
- Use a leaving agent. If you’re opting for protein powder to replace some of your flour, you don’t want your recipes to fall flat. Since you are removing a lot (or all) of the gluten, make sure you utilize baking powder in your cake.
- Lessen the bake time. Protein powder bakes up faster than flour, so your cakes will become overcooked when you make the substitution. When protein powder is involved, check on your cakes before the recommended bake-time is up. I’d much rather pull them too early rather than wait until they are overcooked and dried out.
There are lots of tips & tricks I can give you, but the best thing to do if you aspire to bake with protein powder is practice. Check out my high-protein recipes here. I do my best to provide tons of notes and tips to make things as easy as possible for you.
Types of Protein Powder
There are tons of options for protein powder out there. The most common type of protein powder is whey protein, but there are plenty of others to choose from: casein, egg, plant-based, and more.
We aren’t going to cover EVERY protein powder in this guide (because I had to draw the line somewhere) but I did my best to cover the main types.
Let’s quickly look at what makes each protein different.
Whey protein is by far the most popular option out there. It’s advertised as the best protein powder to consume post-workout because it is fast digesting. And, between us, it’s actually the cheapest to manufacture, which is why it burst onto the fitness scene so prominently.
Whey protein is drived from milk- it’s what you get when cheese or yogurt is made. When you see that gross-looking liquid on top of your yogurt, that’s actually whey protein, so be sure to mix that in!
There are actually two main types of whey protein: whey concentrate, and whey isolate.
Whey Concentrate: This is the type of whey protein you’re most likely to find. A concentrate means that 80% of the product is protein, so it will likely have a small amount of carbs or fat. Don’t worry, it’s still typically only 1-2g of fat per serving, and maybe 3g carbs total.
Whey Isolate: Isolate is a “stronger” protein powder that must contain at least 90% protein. It will be virtually carb & fat free, but may contain small amounts of each (typically less than one gram per serving). People automatically assume that this is a better type of whey protein, but the differences are very minimal.
Casein is the other protein found in milk. When you drink a glass of milk, you’re getting plenty of casein.
Casein protein is slower digesting, which is why you’ll see many people drinking it at night in an effort to remain full throughout the night.
Casein is much thicker than whey protein. If you put whey protein in a bowl with a little bit of water and mix it up, you’re going to be left with a very gritty goop. If you were to do the same with casein, you end up with a pudding-like consistency. Overall, casein is much thicker and absorbant than whey protein.
If your body dislikes dairy, egg protein can be a great choice. Since egg whites are packed with protein, you can dehyrdate them into a powder to make a quality egg protein powder.
If sodium is a concern, it’s worth noting that egg protein tends to be relatively high in sodium. Since one egg white contains 55mg of sodium, it can add up in a concentrated powder.
For reference, the brand that I used for this experiment (“It’s Just” brand) contains over 400mg per scoop serving, whereas the whey protein contains only 100mg.
Plant-based protein powder can come from a wide variety of sources: peas, hemp, almonds, brown rice, and many more.
Most plant-based protein you find on shelves will be some type of blend of various sources. If not, then pea protein is going to be the most common plant-based protein you’ll see.
Generally speaking, plant-based protein has a very strong “earthy” flavor. No matter which brand you try, and whichever flavor you choose, you will absolutely taste a difference between the plant-based protein and a dairy-based protein.
How Different Protein Powder Affects Cakes
For this experiment, I started with a very basic small-batch cupcake recipe.
It took a few tries to get the texture just right, but I ended up with a cupcake that was light, fluffy, and still fudgy. Think of it almost like a cakey brownie.
I chose to go with a chocolate cupcake because cocoa powder is a very dry & absorbant ingredient, so when you combine that with protein powder, I knew it would create obvious results.
I swapped out the flour for protein powder in each experiment, and I actually just used vanilla-flavored protein powder for each. Life hack for you: chocolate protein powder is basically just vanilla protein with cocoa powder added, so I just stick with vanilla for most of my recipes!
Basic Ingredients: Butter, Sugar, Vanilla Extract, Egg White, Baking Powder, Cocoa Powder, Salt.
Process: Mix all the liquid ingredients together, then stir in the dry ingredients until a thick but pourable batter is created. Pour into cupcake molds and bake.
Bake Time: 350 degrees F for 18 minutes (note that this is the bake time for a full batch of cupcakes. If you were to just make 1-2 cupcakes, they’d bake up faster).
Cooling Time: 10 minutes
Whey concentrate is a dairy protein that is at least 80% protein, meaning that it has a very small amount of both fat and carbs per serving, vs whey isolate that is more of a “pure” protein.
Baking With Whey Concentrate
Brand Used: Bob’s Red Mill
Result: Extremely dry cupcake that ended up becoming very stiff and difficult to bite. The protein powder flavor became overpowering to the point where you could not taste much of the cocoa powder or sugar.
Tips: This cupcake was WAY too dry. If using whey protein for cakes, do not use any additional protein (in the case of this recipe, that would mean removing egg white) and cut the total bake time. As you can see, it baked up so dry that some of the interior exploded out of the side, so I would pull these from the oven with much less bake time.
Whey isolate is known as a “better” form of whey protein because it contains almost all protein, with very little fat or carbs. For baking purposes, it is quite similar to whey concentrate.
Baking With Whey Isolate
Brand Used: Dymatize
Result: This cupcake came out extremely dry and was very similar to the cupcake made with whey concentrate. From the top, this looks like a decent cupcake, but once you cut or bite into it, it’s clear that it is way too dry and inedible.
Tips: Just like the cupcake made with whey concentrate, this substitution requires lowering the total bake time way down to prevent it from completely drying out.
Whey Isolate + Concentrate Blend
Many whey protein products on the market are a blend of whey concentrate & isolate, so I mixed the two to test the result.
Baking With a Whey Isolate & Concentrate Blend
Brand Used: Dymatize + Bob’s Red Mill
Result: It’s no surprise that the blend of whey concentrate and whey isolate resulted in a very dry cupcake considering the previous tests produced the same result.
Tips: No matter which type of whey protein you use for cakes, be sure to eliminate any other protein sources (in this case, egg white) and lessen the time in the oven to prevent it from drying out.
Bonus Test: Whey Protein Formulated for High-Temperatures
In my pantry, I also had Bowmar Nutrition protein powder, which is a blend of whey concentrate and whey isolate.
You would expect the same result as the above, but look at just how different this cupcake turned out…
Surely it seems like something is wrong there.
Upon a little bit of research, I found out that Bowmar Nutrition is specifically formulated for high temperatures. Their “Protein Hot Chocolate” was made to mix with hot water, which is something most other whey protein powders do not do particularly well.
Because of this, when I used it in the cupcakes, it worked surprisingly well for whey protein.
I did not want to use this as the official test for a whey protein blend, but I wanted to be sure to note this difference. Most protein powder out there is not going to be formulated specifically for baking, but if it is, then you may find it working significantly better in your recipes.
Casein, the other main protein found in dairy, produces a drastically different result than whey protein.
Baking With Casein
Brand Used: Legion
Result: The casein in this cupcake caused it to completely collapse and become very dense. When biting into it, the consistency was very similar to play-doh… which is not very appetizing.
Tips: Casein is extremely absorbant, and when you mix this batter up, you’ll notice that it becomes extremely thick (more like a dough than a batter). It was clear that this one would not turn out. When baking with casein, if the goal is to have a batter, be sure to add extra liquid to compensate.
Casein + Whey Isolate Blend
Blends of both whey & casein are very popular, but there are two main variations I’ve found: one that utilizes just whey isolate, and one that utilizes both whey isolate AND concentrate. This one is the former.
Baking With a Whey Isolate + Casein Blend
Brand Used: Quest Nutrition
Result: The structure of this cupcake was great overall (minus the small cavity in the center) but ended up being too dry.
Tips: The addition of casein helps this cupcake retain moisture, but it still ends up too dry from the whey isolate. To compensate, you’ll want to bake these cupcakes for a few minutes less than the recipe calls for.
Casein + Whey Isolate + Whey Concentrate Blend
This is my go-to blend, as it gives you the properties of all three protein powders together. If you follow along with my recipes, you’ll almost always see me use this type of blend.
Baking With a Whey Isolate, Concentrate, & Casein Blend
Brand Used: PEScience
Result: A cupcake with a structure that most closely resembles the original cupcake, but more on the dense side than light & fluffy. The taste was very similar to a dense brownie rather than a chocolate cupcake.
Tips: Even though this result was solid overall, it was still a bit dry. As with all other protein powders, I recommend baking for a few minutes less than your normally would.
Collagen powder is very unique. As you’ll see here, it’s best used as an addition to your recipes rather than a replacement.
Baking With Collagen
Brand Used: PEScience
Result: Just like our cookie test, the collagen powder ended up providing absolutely no structure. The cupcake was impossible to pick up or cut, and it remained extremely sticky.
Tips: Don’t use collagen as a replacement for flour in any recipe. You can use it to add some collagen protein to your recipes, but on its own it will not provide any kind of structure.
If you have a dairy allergy, you can either turn towards a plant-based protein or egg protein.
Baking With Egg Protein
Brand Used: It’s Just
Result: This cupcake turned out shockingly dense. The interior of the cupcake began to ooze out because it expanded too much, and the final product was very difficult to cut (not to mention, impossible to bite).
Tips: When you add eggs to recipes, it’s generally to give it some rise. But when you use whole eggs, you also get egg yolks, which help to retain moisture. When you use a concentrated form of egg whites, you get all of the rise with none of the moisture. If you need to use egg protein in cakes, you’ll need to significantly bump up the fat content.
There are many different types of vegan protein powders out there, but for this test, I went with one that is mainly pea protein. In most cases, other plant-based protein powders will react very similarly.
Baking With Plant-Based Protein
Brand Used: FLEX
Result: Since plant-based protein is very absorbent (even more so than casein protein) the batter turned into a chocolate dough instead. Because of this, it was clear that the result would not be cakey. These cupcakes were very crumbly and did not resemble cupcakes, and the plant-based protein created a very strong, earthy flavor.
Tips: When using vegan protein, you’ll need to use significantly more liquid in your batter. Adding milk to thin out this batter definitely would have helped, but you’ll also need to bump up the amount of sweetener used in order to improve the flavor.
You’ve made it. You’re now an expert when it comes to baking with protein powder.
Like I’ve mentioned, baking is truly a science. To make a perfect recipe, you need precise ingredient measurements and precise directions.
Throwing protein powder into the equation certainly complicates things, but it doesn’t need to be too complicated!
If you follow a recipe from someone who uses protein powder, I HIGHLY recommend you use the same type of protein powder they used. As you can see by this guide, changing out the protein powder can result in a drastically different recipe.
In most cases, you can take a “normal” recipe and swap out some of the flour for protein powder, but it will obviously depend on the type of protein you use and the total amount required. As a 1:1 replacement, it likely won’t work out well, but you can typically swap out about 1/4 of the flour in a recipe for protein powder and still end up with a great result.
Here are some of my final observations for these cupcakes:
Whey Protein (any type): Bakes very dry, so will lead to dry cakes very easily. To compensate, be sure to use more liquid ingredients, and preferably some with a little bit of fat (like butter). I also recommend less time in the oven.
Casein: Casein is significantly more absorbent than whey protein, so your recipes will require much more liquid. Casein will also lack structure, so it’s recommended you don’t swap it out for ALL the flour in a recipe.
Casein Blend: In my experience, the best protein powder to use for cakes. The whey protein helps to provide structure, and the casein retains moisture. However, it still bakes dry, so be sure to bake for less time in the oven to prevent your recipe from drying out.
Plant-Based Protein: Not great for cakes, but will work fairly well in bread or muffins. Since plant-based protein is the most absorbent of all the protein powders, it will be tough to achieve a light & fluffy texture.
General Tips: When baking cakes with protein powder, you will want to lessen the bake time to prevent them from completely drying out. Since cake starts with a batter to achieve a fluffy texture, be sure to assess your batter before baking. If it seems too thick (or ends up doughy) add additional liquid to thin it out into a batter. Typically, some extra milk will do the trick, but it depends on the recipe.
Cake Recipes For Each Type of Protein Powder
Whey Protein: Protein Donuts from The Clean Eating Couple
Casein Protein: Peppermint Oreo Protein Cupcakes from Macro Chef
Plant-Based: Vegan Peanut Butter Protein Muffins by Fit Mitten Kitchen
Collagen: Chocolate Collagen Muffins from Meghan Livingstone
If you bake with protein powder, I’d love to hear which is your favorite! I know there are other types I didn’t test here, so let me know if your didn’t make the cut.