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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk
Recipe Review

I Tried 4 Famous Vanilla Cupcake Recipes and the Winner Is Perfect in Every Way

published Aug 6, 2021
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A really great vanilla cupcake is hard to come by. All too often, what I hope will be a moist and delicate single-serve cake turns out to be dry, unsatisfying, and cloyingly sweet. Even after baking personally and professionally for several years, I’ve yet to find a classic vanilla cupcake recipe I deem perfect.

Enter: my vanilla cupcake mission. I was determined to find a flavorful, moist, decadent vanilla cupcake with the perfect cake-to-frosting ratio. It needed to be simple and fuss-free, yet worthy of a celebration. To find it, I chose four of the most popular vanilla cupcake recipes on the internet and baked them off in a festive side-by-side taste test.

To my surprise, every recipe impressed me! They were all fairly easy to make and would be gobbled up at any party. But there was one recipe that rose above the rest, boasting the perfect combination of textures and flavors. It will forever be my go-to recipe — and once you bake a batch yourself, it will be yours, too.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Meet Our 4 Vanilla Cupcake Contenders

To keep things fair, I eliminated any recipes with mix-ins (such as sprinkles) or flavored frostings (such as chocolate). From there, I searched the internet to find the most popular and beloved vanilla cupcake recipes, looking for ones with passionate comment sections and glowing reviews. I also asked my coworkers for their personal favorites. This led me to my four finalists: Preppy Kitchen, Magnolia Bakery, Grandbaby Cakes, and Cupcake Project.

The easiest recipe comes from Preppy Kitchen, a popular baking blog written by baker and YouTuber John Kanell. His simple no-mixer recipe uses only egg whites (not the yolks) for a lighter, brighter cake, and the cupcakes are topped with a simple vanilla buttercream. It has a five-star rating from almost 900 votes, and he says it’s the recipe his friends request most often.

The next recipe comes from Magnolia Bakery, the beloved NYC bakery that attracts cupcake-lovers near and far. The recipe, which is published in their cookbook, is made with a mix of all-purpose and self-rising flour, and the cakes are topped with their iconic swooshed frosting.

Grandbaby Cakes, who has won several of our recipe showdowns, goes all-in on her vanilla cupcake recipe, adding a generous amount of both sour cream and vegetable oil to keep it moist, and a full tablespoon of vanilla extract for flavor. Although she gives two options for the frosting (American or Swiss buttercream), I chose the American buttercream to stay consistent with the other recipes.

And last but not least, Cupcake Project — the winner of our chocolate cupcake showdown — makes her cupcakes using an unusual mixing technique that has you combine the softened butter directly with the dry ingredients rather than creaming it with the sugar. Hers was also the only recipe to use vanilla bean seeds in addition to vanilla extract, and is topped with her popular vanilla buttercream.

How I Tested the Cupcake Recipes

All of the cupcakes were baked on the same day, in the same oven, and compared in a side-by-side taste test. I paired each recipe with frostings written by the same authors. I also had some friends taste the cupcakes to see what they thought. At the end of the day, we all picked the same recipe as our favorite — and a cupcake winner was crowned.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

1. The Best Blank Canvas: Preppy Kitchen’s Moist Vanilla Cupcakes

This is your average simple, no-frills vanilla cupcake recipe. They tasted great, but they didn’t wow me. They’re exactly what you expect from a good vanilla cupcake, making them a reliable option for parties or potlucks, but not one that would stand out in a dessert spread. Because the cake itself is pretty plain, I could see them being the perfect option if you’re looking to riff on the recipe a bit. You could absolutely amp up the spices, try a different-flavored frosting, or give them a Funfetti spin.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

2. The Picture-Perfect Cupcake: Magnolia Bakery’s Vanilla Cupcakes

I can definitely see why these cupcakes are famous. They were very good. The cake had a delicate crumb and airy texture similar to a sponge cake, with just a faint vanilla flavor. The frosting was delicious and the smoothest out of all the recipes I tested, which helped create that iconic swooshed look. In fact, even novice bakers could make these cupcakes look great — they practically styled themselves.

But while the cupcakes were delicious, I personally prefer a slightly moister, denser cupcake with a bolder vanilla flavor. If you like light, airy cupcakes, this is the recipe for you, but read on if you’re looking for a less delicate option.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

3. The Moist, Pound Cake-Like Cupcake: Grandbaby Cakes’ Vanilla Cupcakes

The texture of these cupcakes was incredible. They were impossibly moist and dense in the most enjoyable way. They had the texture of pound cake but were still somehow delicate. A combination of both sour cream and vegetable oil made the cake an absolute dream to eat and kept them moist for days, making them a great make-ahead option. The frosting was also spot-on — the addition of salt kept it from tasting too sweet.

If you’re looking for a classic, quality cupcake recipe that mimics the texture of pound cake, this is a great choice. It’s not as light as some of the other recipes, but it’s delicious in its own way.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

4. The Clear Winner: Cupcake Project’s Best Vanilla Cupcakes

All of the taste-testers agreed these were, hands-down, the very best cupcakes of the bunch. Mixing the softened butter directly into the dry ingredients (a technique called the reverse creaming method) was brilliant: It gave the cupcakes a super-airy texture that was light yet moist. It’s like they had all the best features of a sponge cake (the delicate texture, airiness, and soft crumb) without any of the dryness.

This batter also called for a combination of vanilla extract and vanilla beans, giving the cupcakes a double hit of vanilla flavor that tasted just like a birthday cake. The sour cream and milk kept them moist and gave them a subtle dairy tang that cut through the sweetness. The vanilla buttercream was great, too. It was easy to make and not too sweet. I can’t wait to bake these again and share them with more friends — they are serious showstoppers.

Do you have a favorite vanilla cupcake recipe? Let us know in the comments!