Testing Vanilla Cakes

Every cake artist is searching for the ideal scratch vanilla cake recipe. Wait, most bakers want a great tasting vanilla cake too! I’ve been seriously searching for and testing vanilla cakes since 2001 trying to find that elusive perfect vanilla cake. I have no delusions; I may never find it.

Testing Vanilla Cakes

Cake mixes create a wonderfully textured cake, but they always taste artificial. Even if you add pudding or a bunch of other ingredients, you can’t hide the fake taste of a mix.

If I wanted to be picky, I’d search for the perfect white cake and a different perfect ‘yellow’ cake. But, what is a ‘yellow cake’? The name seems to come from cake mixes that are titled ‘yellow cake’, but it’s not a recipe you are going to find in the history of baking. Instead, you’re going to find; butter cakes, pound cakes, sponge cakes and genoise. A ‘yellow cake’ doesn’t exist, it’s just any vanilla cake that’s yellow in color. White cakes recipes are much easier to find and define; many baking books have recipes for them. A white cake should be snow white in color, and to achieve that shade it can’t include egg yolks because they turn the batter yellow.


Testing Vanilla Cakes

For me, it’s not important if a great scratch vanilla cake is a white or yellow in color. More importantly, it must meet the following factors:

  • Taste Great!
  • It should stay soft and fresh for four days (well wrapped) at room temperature.
  • It must stand up to freezing for several weeks; without a change in its texture. It must still taste great after defrosting.
  • It can’t be; too sweet, too dry, too heavy, too greasy or too light.
  • It has to be firm enough to be stacked (with doweling), frosted and carved without falling apart.

When I began searching and testing for a great vanilla cake, I didn’t take photographs of the insides of my cakes. I never thought I’d share this quest with other people. It was my private mission; it was a recipe I needed to own, to feel good about my skills as a pastry chef.

Most of the recipes were chosen for this testing were suggested to me in FaceBook caking groups, and I also revisited a few cakes I had liked in the past. I focused on testing recipes with different fats for this first round of testing. I believe there’s a majority of people that firmly believe that butter cakes taste best because butter is the most flavorful fat among the options. Butter is a luxury food. The problem with butter cakes are; when butter gets cold it gets firm, and that happens to the cakes containing all butter. Oil is just the opposite of butter; it’s cheap, neutral tasting, and it starts as a liquid and remains soft even when very cold.

I wanted to capture the visual differences in cake recipes to put some myths I’ve read to rest. This current round of tests I kept good records and took the best photographs I could. The day I baked and shot the cake photos my point and shoot camera was failing (sorry). However, I did buy a professional level camera before I shot the photo of the cake samples together


We’ve all have seen baking tests elsewhere that change out one ingredient at a time; to see how that one element affects the cupcake or cookie. Rarely can you perfect a cake recipe by changing one ingredient. Each ingredient change sets off a chain reaction with other ingredients; that’s compounded by the number of ingredients, the amounts of ingredients, and the method used to mix them together.

If you’re anything like me, you are tired of recipes that look great and promise to be the best, but aren’t. I’m not going to lie to you if I can’t find a great vanilla cake; if I give you less than stellar results I’ll lose my credibility with my readers.


How Is This Cake Testing Different?
  • A vertical wedge doesn’t show you how well the cake baked. Was there enough leavening or was there too much? Did the cake sink in the center while it was baking? Those are the important factors that you can’t see in a side photo of a slice of cake.
  • You’re also going to learn that the top view of a baked cake is not enough information to judge what the inside of any cake is like. Top views or even bottom views of cakes are NOT sneak peeks, they tell you nothing.
  • I’m confident that I followed each recipe and its directions closely. I used the same raw ingredients throughout (same brands), used the same oven, baked each batter right after mixing it, used room temp. ingredients, etc… I am a professional pastry chef, with twenty-five years of experience baking cakes and following directions.

horizontal view of cake


Vanilla Cake Testing Can Be Broken Down Into Categories:
  • All butter cake.
  • Part butter and part oil cake.
  • Cake with only oil.
  • No egg yolks.

All recipes have been converted into weights so you can see the subtle differences in ingredient quantities among each recipe. If you’re not interested in the minor details, feel free to scroll further down the page for my results.


Butter Cakes:
Testing Butter Cake RecipesDetailed Comparisons:

These four cake recipes are relatively similar in flour and butter weights. Here’s where they vary:

  • The King Arthur recipe; is mainly egg whites (whites have a drying effect) and only one egg yolk. Strangely, it doesn’t include vanilla for flavoring, and it has a tiny fraction of the milk/liquids compared to the other recipes.
  • Add A Pinch recipe; uses all-purpose flour (which tends to create a coarser, darker crumb than cake flour).
  • Mailbox News recipe; has a total of eight yolks (yolks aid in moisture), that’s more than the others.
  • Val’s recipe; has the most egg whites and a little more flour, but it also has more sugar (for moisture).

KingArthur Cake RecipesKing Arthur’s recipe; has a nice even crumb, it’s dense and could be carved into a 3-dimensional cake. It’s very pale like a white cake because it only has one yolk. The lack of yolks and vanilla made this dry. In the top view, it appears to have a touch too much leavening because the middle of the cake sinks.

Add A Pinch RecipeAdd A Pinch recipe; the crumb of this cake was dense, not spongy at all, with visible air pocket tunneling. The top photo fools you into thinking it’s got the right amount of leavening because there is an even rise top. The funky looking bottom happened because our parchment paper rose up while pouring in the raw cake batter (so please excuse that issue); regardless, the bottom of the cake looks shows how dense the cake was.

Mailbox News Recipe

Mailbox News’ recipe; had an even, spongy crumb structure throughout the cake, yet the cake was dry and sweet.Val 's Vanilla Cake RecipeVal’s recipe; baked up even on top, but I’m perplexed by the inside structure of the crumb. The center almost looks under-baked, but the sides have nice air pockets forming making a sound structure. I wondered if the cake wasn’t baked long enough, but it did test done with a toothpick. If you look closely at the horizontal view, you can see the texture varied throughout the center 4″ of the cake.


Oil Cakes:

Oil has a remarkable ability to coat flour quickly. That slows down and blocks some gluten formation in a cake, which should make a cake more tender.

Oil Based Vanilla Cake Recipes

Detailed Comparisons:

Both of these recipes use oil in place of butter, but the rest of the ingredients vary quite a bit.

  • Food52’s recipe; has whipped egg whites folded into the batter to lighten it. Egg whites can also have a drying side-effect.
  • Food52 recipe; has more leavening, and significantly less oil.
  • Mine Adjusted recipe; packs a huge amount of fat in the liquids; choosing sour cream over milk, plus added whipped cream. It’s also has more sugar which is a moisture retaining ingredient.

Food52 Vanilla Cake Recipe

Food52 recipe; baked beautifully. The top was fairly level and didn’t sink at all. The inside crumb structure is very open with evenly spaced air pockets, and the texture is consistent from the edges to the center. We do find it perplexing that the crumb is so loose and similar in texture to bread making this a dry tasting cake. No one guessed this was an oil based cake.

My Cake Recipe Adjusted With Soda

Mine Adjusted recipe; baked evenly, although the top view has a dense dark center. The cake had a spongy compact dense crumb, but it was oily and sweet too.


Cakes With Oil & Butter:
Butter & Oil Cake Recipes
Detailed Comparisons:

I see many similarities in these three recipes. Cake Paper Party’s recipe is almost double the amount of Cupcake Projects recipe. You see a steady decrease in the amounts of each ingredient as the recipes volume gets smaller. Ingredient amounts that vary between these recipes are:

  • Artisan Cakes’ recipe; uses almost double the amount of baking powder, then the larger recipes.
  • In contrast, Artisan Cakes’ recipe doesn’t have the additional baking soda the other two recipes have.
  • Baking soda is four-times more powerful than baking powder and you need an acidic ingredient for baking soda to work. Cake Paper Party has (10.625 oz. buttermilk) far more acid compared to Cupcake Projects’ (2.5 oz. of sour cream), but they use the same amount of baking soda. What happens with the extra soda in Cupcake Projects recipe?
  • Cupcake Project has double the amount of oil Artisan Cakes does; but it’s a smaller volume recipe. Will it be moister?

CakePaperParty Vanilla Cake Recipe

Cake, Paper, Party recipe; baked evenly from the edges to the center. The cake texture was good, although dense and oily, and lacking flavor.

Artisan Cake Vanilla Cake Recipe

Artisan Cake recipe; baked up evenly from edge to center, but it was very fragile. The cake slices broke into pieces when I moved them. The delicate crumb was dry, although it does makes the cake very light and fluffy.

CupcakeProject Vanilla Cake RecipeCupcake Project recipe; domed nicely on the top, so it appeared as the leavening was correct. The very bottom of the cake was riddled with air pockets (which is highly unusual). When you cut horizontally into the center, you can see it has tunneling air pockets. The cake was dense and sweet but lacked flavor.


Cakes With Egg Whites Only:

Egg White Only Vanilla Cake Recipes

Detailed Comparisons:
  • Kara Andretti’s recipe uses all-purpose flour, and Lady Biltmore uses cake flour.
  • They both have similar amounts of butter and sugar.
  • Lady Biltmore has more than double the baking powder of Kara’s, will it rise more?
  • Kara’s cake has more fat; an additional .5 oz. of oil and 100% whole milk. Where as Lady Biltmore has less fat because it uses half water and half milk.
  • Because neither cake has egg yolks you’d expect them to be very white colored cakes. But all-purpose flour seems to always bake a darker colored cake than cake flour cakes, will that happen here?

Kara's Vanilla Cake RecipeKara’s recipe; might have too much baking powder looking at the top because it sinks in. When you examine, it’s inside the crumb looks nice and even from the edges to the center of the cake. I may be under baked the cake a touch; that would explain the sunken top. The color is off-white from the all-purpose flour choice. The cake is dense and moist with a pleasant texture, but it lacks a little vanilla flavor even though it uses premium priced vanilla bean paste.

Lady Biltmore Cake Vanilla Cake Recipe

Lady Baltimore’s recipe; revealed the whitest looking cake of all, but that was predictable since it didn’t have any egg yolks and used cake flour. The leavening seems to be spot on, there a slight dome on the top view of the cake. The texture is very even throughout the cake making a dense crumb. Unfortunately, the taste is dry.


Which Is The Best Vanilla Cake?

Honestly, most of these cakes would be perfect with frosting or fillings. When we were tasting these cakes it was pointed out to me; “this is really hard to judge, because they all taste great compared to the cakes I’ve eaten elsewhere.”

Food52’s recipe scored the highest in our taste test, and Mine Adjusted was second; poor Lady Biltmore turned out to be our least favorite.

I hope you find my testing helpful and that you’re happy you got to see what some of these recipes look like when baked by an independent source. Although I didn’t find my ultimate vanilla cake recipe in this group, I’m one testing closer. My testing will continue, if you have a great vanilla cake recipe you use and you’d like me to include it in my next round of testing; please leave a comment below.

The Results:

Results of Round 1 Testing Of Vanilla Cakes

Please share this post with your friends on Facebook, and don’t forget to pin one of our photographs to your Pinterest board so you can remember where you found this information. Thank-you!

 

Save

Save

Save

  1. This is fantastic information. I would like to see how Yolanda Gampp’s vanilla cake recipe would test, according to your standards used here. She soaks all of her cakes with sugar syrup, which you didn’t do to any of the other cake recipes you tested. Curious about your views on that and how it would have affected the overall scores of some of the other recipes you tested.

    • What a great question! My goal is to have that perfect vanilla cake that doesn’t need syrup to make it moist. One of the consistent responses I get from people tasting vanilla cakes is that they are “sweet”. If you did a blindfolded taste test of your vanilla cake, you’d discover the underlying taste is sweetness, not vanilla. By taste alone, people can’t detect this is a ‘vanilla cake’; like they can when they eat chocolate or lemon cake. Getting the vanilla flavor into a vanilla cake is very challenging! If you look at the notes I had on Kara’s cake you’ll see that even using premium vanilla paste the vanilla flavor bakes out.

      So by adding a sugar syrup into your cake you are adding more sweetness to a cake that doesn’t need it. Plus, most of the time you’re eating cake with frosting; and that’s adding more sweetness. What one of the most common complaints people have with desserts is they are too sweet. So I would never intentionally add more sweetness to an item that’s already very sweet.

      When I was a younger baker, I did try adding simple syrups to regular American type cakes. I had made genoise’s, and they are incredible once they absorb a flavored syrup. So I tried doing the same with my non-French cakes; it was an epic fail. I learned that syrup soaks only work with specific cakes types. If the cake was; fragile, with a light crumb the liquid made the cake fall apart. I don’t think any of the cakes in this testing would have been a good candidate structurally with a liquid soak.

      • Thank you for clarifying. Her cake recipes tend to be quite dense, because she does quite a bit of carving or stacking high and needs structure. I think that’s why she prefers the syrup soak. The most vanilla tasting cake I ever made I actually used a combination of vanillas…paste, Tahitian, and Mexican. It was a very complex vanilla flavor. I loved it, but some thought it was TOO vanilla, if you can believe that. I also used all three vanillas in the buttercream, so perhaps it was too overwhelming.

        • Hum, that’s very interesting. I’m a vanilla lover so I’d love a strong vanilla flavor. I’ll have to use your combination of vanilla’s in a testing; can’t wait! Thanks.

          • I don’t have exact amounts because I was winging it, but I know I used less Mexican vanilla than the other two, because it’s a bit stronger and more woody, and I didn’t want it to overpower the lighter, fruitier Tahitian. Can’t wait to see your tests!

  2. Would it be possible to get the Food 52 and Mine Adjusted recipes before they were converted to weight measurements? I don’t have a kitchen scale.

    • Hi Kristen,

      Thanks for reading my post, here’s a link to the Food52 recipe: http://food52.com/recipes/11618-tender-yellow-cake

      Mine adjusted; it originally began with a recipe in Buddy Valastro’s book and I never made this cake with imperial measurements. I did like his recipe a lot, you can find Buddy’s recipe here: http://www.rachaelrayshow.com/recipe/14376_The_Cake_Boss_Vanilla_Cake/

      Mine adjusted isn’t perfect yet, but I’ll keep everyone updated when I do more testing. So please check back.

      Wendy

      • I just made the Buddy recipe for the first time today–I halved the recipe and used it for mini cupcakes (made about 34, in case anyone reads this and is curious). Like you, I’m continuously on the quest to find the perfect vanilla cake. I usually steer toward butter cakes…because it’s butter! vs. oil. I was hesitant to make this one because it’s all oil but figured I’d give it a shot and I am very pleased with it so far! We’ll see how it holds up in the next day or so. I primarily like it with oil because–as you mentioned–butter cakes gets cold/seemingly dry when refrigerated and I don’t want that to happen to client’s cakes! –Also like your final analysis states: they’re all still very GOOD with frosting! It’s still…just perfect yet!

        • Thanks for letting me know your results with the Buddy V. recipe. Please come back and tell us how it held up for you over-time. After I wrote this post, I realized both top spot cakes are 100% oil cakes.

          Hope to hear from you again.

          Wendy

  3. Thank you so much. This information is invaluable!!!
    Totally related… your search is mine as well, recently found “Vanilla Dream Cake” from Jessica Segarra the girl behind The Novice Chef that has a lot of comments, half declaring this is the best, the other half saying it’s the worst. Would love to see it among the next batch in your testing as you are very thorough and precise in your comments.

  4. Such a detailed post. So much time and work dedicated and extensively covered! I wish my cake looked like the sliced cake u have put up! I have tried Ann reardon’s from how to cook that vanilla cake it tastes good and moist too.and also is gretchen’s vanilla cake from gretchens bakery! We are on the same journey as you! To perfect the vanilla cake. But with an experience of 25 glorious years in the pastry line I bet yours would be the best !!!

    • I have to admit I’m grateful people see how much work did go into this post. Baking the cakes was fun and easy!! Figuring out how to write this and make photo collages was really hard. It gave me a whole new level of appreciation to writers and professional bloggers.

      I’ll continue on with this vanilla cake testing and searching; its become an obsession……………..

      Thanks for the kind words, they mean a lot to me.

  5. Thank you ! What a fantastic post and such a fun read. The photographs made me feel like I was right there , baking, testing and tasting!

    • Thank-you Kajal, I appreciate you taking the time to write me a note! I’m so new to blogging, it’s really helpful to know if people read or like your articles.

  6. The air pockets are actually a sign of over mixing and overdevelopment of the gluten. Liz Marek is correct that the photo you showed of her recipe does not look like it’s mixed properly. The one cake with the doughy looking center is also a result of over mixing your batter. The crumb on any cake should be even, with no tunneling.

    • Hi Kelly,

      I agree with you, “the crumb on any cake should be even, with no tunneling”. That is the goal! I only created one of the recipes in this testing, I didn’t create the recipes where you thought the crumb was mixed wrong. Either the recipe was not balanced, or possibly the directions for mixing the recipe was ‘off’.

      After 25 years of baking, I know from experience that you are incorrect about the science of why the cakes mentioned having air pockets. But I’m glad you had the guts to write your thoughts!

      Instead of me telling you in my words why your science theory is incorrect; I’d rather find some useful links to food scientists that will explain what’s happening. I’ve been writing an article on how to read the crumb of cakes; and I’ll address your concerns in that post. I hope you’ll give me a chance and read it.

      thanks,
      Wendy

  7. I so appreciate someone else (YOU) spending so much time measuring, baking, tasting, etc. not only on your behalf, but ours too.! I’ll be trying 2 of them, also I recently fell in love with Kara’s. I add a bit more vanilla paste to time, and love the flavor. One thing I need to do is test the freshness/moistness after 5 days at room temp.

  8. This was amazingly helpful and timely as I dealt with another failed yellow cake earlier this week and have such trouble finding a good recipe that WORKS. Chocolate cake I have down pat, but that elusive yellow cake! My best success is with modifying a box mix — I want a scratch cake that comes out just like that but have yet to find it. I will try the Food 52 recipe next, though am not stoked about the whole whipping egg whites separately thing :). As a fellow cake maker, I thank you so much for this detailed analysis!

    • Hi Olivia,

      I totally get it, we are all looking for the “elusive yellow cake” recipe. I want to mention that all though all of these cakes were very good, I wouldn’t switch recipes yet. None of them were ‘great’. I’m currently not working (broken collar-bone) and I’m working on finding that elusive recipe, I will share as soon as I find it.

      thanks,
      Wendy

  9. This is a very interesting article which I enjoyed particularly because I’ve been on a similar mission recently. It would be fun to compare notes, but I’d rather not do so publicly.

    I am wondering why you didn’t do comparisons in baker’s percentage, however. Is it not a system you personally use? To me it’s the best-kept secret of the professional baking world, and the one which many home bakers would be wise to learn despite the [modest] learning curve. Not only does it allow you to scale recipes [a.k.a formulas] with ease and accuracy, but it allows very accurate comparisons of similar recipes — more accurate than what you’ve been able to do in this round of testing.

    If by any chance you’re not currently using B.P., I’d be happy to teach you — just shout?

    • Hi Anna,

      Thanks for the response. I want to keep my thoughts & experiments as simple as possible. Although I write for serious bakers, I wouldn’t want to eliminate new bakers from the conversation.

      I only use bakers percentages with breads; and don’t find the need to do so with many other baked goods. But thank-you for mentioning it.

      If you want to compare notes or talk about specific recipes, I’d LOVE to!! You can reach me thru email at realcake.inc at g mail. com

      all my best,
      Wendy DeBord

  10. A follow-up to my previous comment which I’m hoping is simply not showing as published because you have a moderation time lapse built in to this site. If that’s the case: perhaps would be nice to have a pop-up saying so. It’s a bit unnerving as a reader not to know if a comment’s dropped in to a black hole or not 🙂

    Also, I see you’ve built your site with Genesis Framework. By any chance did you do so on your own, or did you have a developer’s help?

    • Hello again Anna,

      What happens from time to time is a message goes into a spam folder; and for some reason (I don’t know of) I found yours there. I did build my own site on the Geness Framework. I am such a novice, but learning as I go. I did not hire a developer.

      If you want to ask me any questions about blogs etc, I’d be happy to talk via email. I put my address in your first comment.

      sincerely,
      Wendy

  11. Great post! My go-to vanilla cake recipe is from Confetti Cakes (Elisa Strauss). I add some vanilla bean purée, and add one more ounce of AP flour than the recipe calls for. The structure and flavor are amazing! And any crunchy bits around the edges taste like Nilla Wafers.

  12. I use Buddy’s recipe and replace the milk with half and half. I can’t explain the difference it makes as eloquently as you, but you should try it!

  13. Once you make that final decision on the best vanilla cake, I definately want to try it. I dont get alot of time to be able to just look at pages or post, But I definately appreciate all the time and efforts you have placed on doing this. I also would like a specific recommendation on the best richest vanilla to purchase to use. Thank you very much

    • Hi Patty,

      If you sign-up for my newsletter it will tell you when I find the perfect vanilla cake. I use several different vanilla’s because each has different applications. I should write an article on this (if your signed-up you see when that’s posted); I’ll put it on my list.

      Thanks for taking the time to let me know what you’re interested in!

      all my best,
      Wendy

  14. This is fantastic! Thank you so much for the time you are taking to do this extensive testing! It’s great to see so many others on a mission to find the most amazing ‘vanilla cake’. I’ve tried Artisan Cake and the flavour is great, however you do have to be very careful not to over mix. Anne Reardon – How to Cook That, is the one I currently use and it has a great taste & texture and somehow I have found it easier to get the right balance on mixing (not over mixing). Not sure if being a butter/oil cake makes a difference.
    I would love to know how Yolanda Gampp’s – How To Cake It, vanilla cake is.
    Thank you again for your time taken & hard work to do this for all us fellow cakers!

  15. Just wanted to say thank you for taking the time to post and share your findings! I would love to try out your “favorite” white cake recipe when you find it or every one of the top recipes along the way! Good luck!

  16. Wow, this is extensive and well done. Thank you for documenting and publishing it. It was a lot of work. I am also still looking for a great vanilla/yellow cake. I like many of them but I am still trying new recipes. I will keep an eye out for your article about the crumb. I enjoy a nice, even crumb. Almost no one cares when I launch into a conversation about it. Go figure. Also, all the comments others left are very good and informative. Good luck with the search. I’ll let you know if I find one I really like. And I hope your collar bone is healing well.