Recipe Review

We Tried 6 Famous Vanilla Cakes, and the Winner Forever Changed the Way I’ll Bake Birthday Cake

published Apr 11, 2024
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Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Food Styling: Brett Regot

Although I’m a lover of all cakes, many people I know fall staunchly into one of two camps: team chocolate cake or team vanilla cake. We’ve already reviewed six popular chocolate cake recipes, so it’s time to show some love to the other side. There’s nothing “vanilla” about vanilla cake. It’s absolutely dreamy, boasting more buttery, creamy richness than its rival. Plus, vanilla cake makes for a stunning centerpiece (and is a great birthday cake option, to boot). 

But which elements contribute to the best vanilla cake? Does more butter matter? What about vanilla extract versus vanilla beans? Should you add buttermilk, sour cream, milk, or a combo? Is a buttercream frosting the way to go, or does a meringue-style frosting boast the best flavor and texture? 

To find out, I rolled up my sleeves, grabbed all my cake pans, plugged in my stand mixer, and got to work testing six of the most popular recipes on the internet. 

Quick Overview

So, What’s the Best Vanilla Cake Recipe?

Cupcake Project’s vanilla cake had the deepest vanilla flavor, with wonderfully soft, moist layers and a well-balanced frosting.

Meet Our 6 Vanilla Cake Contenders

We scoured the internet to uncover the most popular and highly rated vanilla cake recipes. Unlike white cakes, which tend to use only egg whites to keep the color pristine, vanilla cakes typically employ whole eggs, possibly even adding additional yolks for more richness (one recipe here is an exception to that rule). 

For the most part, the recipes begin by creaming together butter (or other fat) and sugar, but some recipes vary the technique a bit. Four of the recipes are two-layer affairs, while two give you three-layer cakes. Most of the accompanying frostings follow the buttercream format, but a couple are variations on meringue.

  • Stella Parks: This recipe emphasizes using ingredients at the proper temperature — eggs, butter, and milk brought to a specified optimal temperature (not too cool, not too warm) — and the impact that will have on the finished cake. The frosting is a Swiss buttercream that incorporates a vanilla bean and five sticks of butter!
  • Martha Stewart: The cake batter here uses a large amount of butter, adds whole eggs and egg yolks, and incorporates buttermilk for a flavor boost. The suggested frosting is a meringue-style whipped one made from egg whites and granulated sugar.
  • RecipeTin Eats: This is the top recipe that comes up when you search for vanilla cake, perhaps in large part because it boasts that it will stay fresh and moist for four days. It uses Japanese techniques to create tall, plush, fluffy cake layers that are then draped in a super-simple buttercream frosting.
  • Cupcake Project: This recipe calls for a scraped vanilla bean in the cake batter instead of vanilla extract. It also uses a combination of butter and oil instead of just butter, and the recipe instructions alert you that the batter will be thin as it goes into the pans. The one noticeable difference in the straightforward buttercream is that you beat and aerate the butter for a few minutes at the beginning.
  • Divas Can Cook: For this recipe, vanilla makes an appearance in three forms (extract, yogurt, and almond milk) for layers upon layers of flavor. For moisture, it skips butter and instead uses a combination of oil and butter-flavored shortening. And the frosting adds a touch of almond extract along with vanilla.
  • Magnolia Bakery: With the shortest ingredient list, this recipe uses a combination of all-purpose and self-rising flours and incorporates no other leavening. It makes a 3-layer cake with plenty of vanilla buttercream frosting to go around.
Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Food Styling: Brett Regot

How I Tested the Vanilla Cake Recipes

  • I baked them on back-to-back days. Six full-on layer cakes were a bit too much to take on in one day, so I made three on one day and three the next. I baked them all in the same oven, outfitted with an oven thermometer.
  • I used the same brand of common ingredients. One recipe specified Gold Medal bleached all-purpose flour and recommended Watkins All Natural Original Baking Vanilla, so I used those for all of the recipes. I chose the brand of butter to use, opting for Land O’Lakes.
  • I used shiny, light-colored aluminum cake pans. Dark pans, including dark-colored nonstick pans, tend to overbrown cakes’ exteriors. I greased light-colored aluminum cake pans and lined the bottoms with parchment paper to ensure a clean release.
  • I weighed critical dry ingredients. For more precision, I used our weights chart to measure flour, powdered sugar, and granulated sugar by weight instead of by volume.
  • I tasted each cake at least three times. I made sure to cut into and taste each cake as soon as it was assembled and frosted. I also tasted them all the day after they were baked, and again the day after that (two days after baking).

Why You Should Trust Me as a Tester 

I have spent the last 25 years in food media (20 as a magazine editor, five as a freelance recipe developer and food writer). Over the course of my career, I have written, tested, and developed literally thousands of recipes. I know how to evaluate a recipe for flavor, texture, and clarity and success (or failure) of the process.

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Food Styling: Brett Regot

1. A Gorgeous but Disappointing Cake: Martha Stewart’s Versatile Vanilla Cake 

The directions for making the cake are fairly classic: Cream two sticks of butter with granulated sugar, and then beat in eggs, egg yolks, and vanilla. You alternate adding the dry ingredients with buttermilk; the resulting batter is very thick. The suggested frosting is whipped frosting, which is basically a thick meringue. 

Surprisingly, the cake seemed a little on the dry side — especially when compared to the other recipes here. And while I adore a thick, weighty meringue, I didn’t love it with this cake; it was beautiful but felt too light in texture. 

When storing the cake, the meringue didn’t hold up as well as the other frostings. It deflated a bit after one day and even more the next. If you plan to serve the entire cake in one sitting, this will be fine. But if you plan to nosh on the cake over a couple of days or so, this frosting isn’t ideal.

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Food Styling: Brett Regot

2. The Frosting-Lover’s Cake: Magnolia Bakery’s Vanilla Birthday Cake and Frosting

This recipe is unique, in that it uses a combination of self-rising and all-purpose flours and does not incorporate any other leavening (no added baking soda or powder). You divide the batter among 3 (9-inch) pans, and the layers are a bit thin and have a slightly coarser crumb than the other cakes. But you have more than enough fluffy, soft buttercream to slather between the layers, so if you’re a frosting fiend, you’ll love that there’s a high frosting-to-cake ratio here. 

The cake part uses only one teaspoon of vanilla extract, so the flavor is very mild. There’s no salt in either the cake or the frosting, so the whole thing tastes a bit flat — one-note without any overt vanilla notes. 

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Food Styling: Brett Regot

3. The Softest, Fluffiest Cake: RecipeTin Eats’ My Best Vanilla Cake

This recipe relies on a Japanese sponge technique for its cake layers — whipping eggs and sugar for several minutes until light-colored and tripled in volume. The dry ingredients are incorporated to form a thick mixture, which is then gradually incorporated into a melted butter and milk mixture. When baked, the cake layers are impressively tall and level. 

The cake is soft, plush, and squishy, similar to store-bought packaged snack cakes. While many folks will love this, I found it a bit off-putting, as it seemed a bit spongy and reminiscent of a Twinkie (which, again, many folks will love). 

Even with a full tablespoon of vanilla extract in the layers and the same amount in the simple buttercream frosting, the flavor fell a little flat. The batter contains just a quarter teaspoon of salt, and there’s none in the frosting — more would help to balance and enhance the flavors.

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Food Styling: Brett Regot

4. The Moistest Cake: Divas Can Cook’s Best Vanilla Cake 

This is the one cake that used egg whites only instead of whole eggs, and it skipped butter in favor of oil and butter-flavored shortening. The combination of vanilla extract, vanilla bean yogurt, and vanilla almond milk yielded a deep vanilla flavor in the finished cake, but the layers felt a bit oily when I turned them out of the pan. 

The cake layers themselves were extremely moist, verging on moist to a fault — coming off almost dense instead of fluffy. In addition, the shortening gave the cake a flavor reminiscent of boxed mix which, while nostalgic, does not compare to real butter. 

The buttercream frosting was very dense and thick, tasting buttery-rich and delicious. My family loved this cake, so I might make it again in the future — especially because I have leftover butter-flavored shortening that I need to use up.

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Food Styling: Brett Regot

5. The Sky-High Stunner: Stella Parks’ Classic Vanilla Butter Cake

There’s a lot of emphasis on temperature in this recipe. You’re instructed to soften the butter to around 60°F and the eggs and milk to 65°F for proper aeration and emulsion. Those tips worked, as the three cake layers baked up soft, tall, moist, and wonderfully plush. The flavor was vanilla-rich, thanks to a tablespoon of extract and enough salt to bring out the flavor. 

The frosting was a bit more involved to make than a standard buttercream. The Swiss meringue involves a double boiler method for heating egg whites and sugar together. Then the meringue is beaten to stiff peaks, and five whole sticks of softened butter are incorporated. The frosting uses a scraped vanilla bean, and the flavor and texture are nothing short of dreamy. There’s plenty of smooth, extremely buttery, vanilla-rich frosting to cover the three layers. Overall, it’s a stunning dessert, but it’s definitely a project.

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Food Styling: Brett Regot

6. The Best Overall Cake (So Tender!): Cupcake Project’s Best Vanilla Cake 

There’s so much to love about this recipe. It starts by working vanilla bean seeds into granulated sugar to infuse the batter. A combination of butter and oil lends both richness and moisture to the cake, while sour cream perks up the flavor with subtle tang. The batter is quite thin when it goes into the pans, but the layers bake up tall, velvety, and wonderfully moist. 

The buttercream frosting is simple to make and uses enough vanilla extract and salt for a rich vanilla taste with a balanced flavor — and that made a significant difference. Most of the other cakes’ frostings (with the exception of the one by Stella Parks) tended to be cloyingly sweet, with not enough salt to balance and deepen the vanilla notes — but this one tasted more vanilla-rich because there was enough salt to coax out and deepen that flavor. 

I wondered if using vanilla bean in the cake batter would make much of a difference, due to the extra expense and effort. The answer is a resounding yes! This cake had the deepest vanilla flavor by far, truly setting it apart from the other recipes.