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.
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.
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.
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).
King 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 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; had an even, spongy crumb structure throughout the cake, yet the cake was dry and sweet.Val’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 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.
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 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.
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:
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?
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 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.
Cupcake 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:
- 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 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 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.
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