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Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani | Food Stylist: Jesse Szewczyk | Graphics: The Kitchn
Recipe Review

We Tested 4 Famous Carrot Cake Recipes and Found a Clear Winner

updated Dec 15, 2022
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To me, lightly spiced layers of cake studded with freshly shredded carrots and slathered in cream cheese frosting is the stuff of dreams. It’s my favorite type of classic cake, and I refuse to settle for just any ol’ recipe.

That’s because the perfect carrot cake recipe has to be warmly spiced, moist, and tender. It needs enough carrots to give it a subtle earthy flavor, but not enough to make it taste vegetal. The cream cheese frosting has to be tangy enough to balance out the sweetness, but not sour. The whole thing needs to be beautiful, too.

Until recently, I hadn’t found a recipe that checked all those boxes. After all, carrot cake recipes vary greatly, each producing cakes with different tastes and textures.

Some add crushed pineapple to the batter for moisture, while others rely solely on the moisture from the carrots. Some recipes stir in nuts, some add raisins, and some even mix in crystalized ginger to give it a spicy kick. The spices, leaveners, and oils also vary.

I was eager to find out which combination would yield my perfect slice, so I chose four of the most popular carrot cake recipes and baked them off in a side-by-side taste test. At the end of the day, I found a carrot cake recipe that was worlds better than any other carrot cake I had ever had. It was moist, flavorful, and carrot-forward — and I can confidently say it’s the only one I’ll ever make.

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani | Food Stylist: Jesse Szewzcyk

Meet Our 4 Carrot Cake Contenders

To keep things fair, I only tested carrot cake recipes that were fairly traditional and didn’t stray too far from what I considered “classic.” Sure, recipes made with cocoa, berries, and other add-ins looked delicious, but I consider them a whole different category of cake.

From there, I searched the internet to find the most popular recipes, looking for carrot cakes with loyal followings and positive reviews. I also asked my coworkers for their personal favorites. This led me to four recipes that each had a devoted following and took a unique approach: King Arthur Baking Company, Ina Garten, Grandbaby Cakes, and Cook’s Illustrated.

King Arthur Baking Company’s recipe was a traditional take on the classic, spiced with ginger, cinnamon, and cloves. It comes together quickly and doesn’t require a mixer. Ina Garten’s was a bit more unique and gets finished in a mascarpone frosting that’s made with a generous amount of chopped crystalized ginger.

Grandbaby Cakes’ recipe also spices up the frosting, using brown butter to give it a rich, nutty flavor. And last but not least was Cook’s Illustrated: Their recipe is a four-layer cake made by baking the batter in a rectangular baking pan and cutting it into four equal parts. I was eager to give them all a try!

How I Tested the Carrot Cake Recipes

Each recipe for carrot cake was baked on the same day and compared in a side-by-side taste test. I followed each recipe exactly as written and tried my best to keep all outside factors to a minimum. I baked them all in the same oven, used carrots from the same bag, and tasted them all at the same time. I wanted the test to be as fair as possible.

I also had a few friends taste the cakes to see what they thought. At the end of the day we all picked the same cake as the winner.

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani | Food Stylist: Jesse Szewczyk

1. The Most Disappointing: Ina Garten’s Carrot Cake with Ginger Mascarpone Frosting

I hate to say this, but this cake was a major disappointment. Sure, the cinnamon was pleasant, and the crystalized ginger added a nice unexpected pop of heat. But the cake was sticky and slightly marshy — as if it had been soaked in simple syrup.

But the main issue I had with this recipe was the frosting. It was way too loose and hard to work with, making the presentation of the cake look sloppy and unfinished. No matter how much I tried to chill it, it kept melting off of the cake when I tried to assemble it.

It could have been the brand of mascarpone cheese I used (maybe I used a wetter one?), but it just didn’t work. As much as I love Ina and her recipes, this just didn’t do it for me.

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani | Food Stylist: Jesse Szewczyk

2. The Reliable Classic: King Arthur Baking Company’s Carrot Cake

This cake is exactly what I imagine when I think of a classic carrot cake: moist, lightly spiced, and all held together with a tangy cream cheese frosting. The cake has nothing unexpected or unique going on, but that’s precisely what made it so good. It was a classic carrot cake through and through. The combination of cinnamon, cloves, and ginger was bold without being too strong, and the carrot flavor was pronounced.

The cake was also super easy to assemble. The cakes held together nicely and the frosting with smooth and easy to work with. Baking the cake (and eating it!) was an overall enjoyable experience — and I would happily make it again. It was a no-frills carrot cake that is a safe bet for anyone looking to bake up a classic.

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani | Food Stylist: Jesse Szewczyk

3. The Most Unique: Cook’s Illustrated Carrot Layer Cake

This cake is a four-layered rectangular cake that gets coated in chopped nuts. Although it was a bit of a project to make, it was totally worth the effort. The cake was light and fluffy and perfectly moist. It gets a generous amount of dried currants added to the batter, lending it a nice tart flavor and chewy texture.

Because the cake is baked in a sheet pan, it cooks quickly, and cutting it into four equal pieces is surprisingly easy. The frosting was also delicious and tasted like a classic, straightforward cream cheese frosting. (Which is always good!)

The presentation of the cake was super unique and unlike any of the other recipes I tested. It made the cake feel a bit more fancy — as if it came straight from a bakery. The only thing I didn’t like about the recipe was the amount of pecans it used. In order to cover the sides of the cake you need to use a lot of chopped pecans. While I generally like nuts in my carrot cake, I found that there was just too many.

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani | Food Stylist: Jesse Szewczyk

4. The Clear Winner: Grandbaby Cakes’ Carrot Cake

This carrot cake is hands-down the best carrot cake I have ever had. The cake is light and fluffy with a moist crumb that isn’t dense or marshy. The carrot flavor is pronounced without being vegetal and the spices are perfectly balanced and provide a nice warmth. But beyond the cake itself, the thing that made this recipe special was the frosting.

It’s made with brown butter, lending it a nutty and complex flavor — a perfect complement to the cake itself. I don’t think I’ll ever be making cream cheese frosting without browning my butter again. It was a revelation! If you’re looking for a carrot cake that’s rich, flavorful, and delicious, this is for you. It’s as close to perfect as a cake can get!

Do you have a favorite carrot cake recipe? Let us know in the comments!