yellow cake comparison

I was going to wait to post this because now I want to do more yellow cake experiments. But this week I have a couple batches of cookies I want to make, and last week it was bread pudding and chocolate mousse, and next week it’ll be something else. By the time I find an opportunity to make more yellow cake, I’ll have forgotten everything about this batch.

The three recipes I chose for this comparison are Cooks Illustrated’s Fluffy Yellow Cake (CI), Martha Stewart’s Yellow Butter Cake (MS), and Smitten Kitchen’s Best Birthday Cake (SK). Like all yellow cakes, they all include butter, whole eggs (unlike white cake, which only uses the whites), granulated sugar, vanilla, salt, leavener, flour (cake or all-purpose), and dairy (whole milk or buttermilk). I baked them all as mini cupcakes at the same temperature for the same amount of time.  I used the same size scoop to transfer the batter to the muffin cups.

CI (blue wrappers), which uses cake flour and buttermilk, is unique among these recipes in its inclusion of oil and extra egg yolks. It is also mixed like a chiffon cake, in which the dry ingredients and liquid ingredients (including melted butter) are combined, then beaten egg whites are folded in.

MS (red wrappers) uses a mixture of all-purpose flour and cake flour, as well as whole milk instead of buttermilk (it is therefore missing the baking soda the other two recipes require to balance the acidity of the buttermilk). It is mixed using the creaming method, in which the butter and sugar are combined, the eggs are added, then the milk and dry ingredients.

SK (yellow wrappers) also uses cake flour and buttermilk. There are no tricks up this cake’s sleeves. It is also mixed with the creaming method.

CI (blue) was buttery and moist with a nice sponginess. The top was a little sticky (easily covered up with frosting, but we were testing them plain) and crisp. It was my and Dave’s favorite.

MS (red) was less sticky and fluffier, but it was also less buttery, and, to be honest, a little bland. It has half the salt as the other recipes, so that’s probably the culprit, although it could be the use of whole milk instead of buttermilk.

SK (yellow) had a nice, buttery flavor, but a solid, flat top. For cupcakes, the flat-topped spreading is a deal breaker for me, but I believe it would be fine for a layer cake. And because this cake has over three times more baking soda than CI, I suspect that cutting it in half would solve the spreading problem, which I attribute to overrising.


(sorry I switched the order around in this photo)

So the cake with the best texture (MS) – fluffy, slightly domed, with no stickiness or overly hard tops – had the least impressive flavor. I’m inclined to think that it would be easier to bump up the flavor of that recipe than it would be to adjust the texture of the others. I would also love to try SK as a layer cake and/or with less baking soda. To complicate matters further, a reader recently pointed out another yellow cake comparison with several more recipes I’d like to try.

In the meantime, Cooks Illustrated’s Fluffy Yellow Layer Cake has the best balance of these three recipes of full, buttery flavor and a light texture. And once the cakes were smothered with chocolate frosting, I couldn’t tell the difference between them anyway.

(Oh, were you wondering what the best chocolate frosting is? It turns out I compared three chocolate frosting recipes in the same (exhausting) night. I’ll discuss those next.)

One year ago: Oatmeal Pancakes
Two years ago: Red Velvet Cake comparison (odd coincidence)
Three years ago: Potstickers

Printer Friendly Recipe
Fluffy Yellow Layer Cake (from Cooks Illustrated)

Makes two 9-inch round cakes

2½ cups (10 ounces) cake flour, plus extra for dusting pans
1¼ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon table salt
1¾ cups (12.25 ounces) sugar
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
6 large egg yolks plus 3 large egg whites, at room temperature

1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 9-inch cake pans and line the bottoms with parchment paper. Grease the paper rounds, dust the pans with flour, and knock out the excess. Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and 1½ cups (10.5 ounces) sugar together in a large bowl. In a 4-cup liquid measuring cup or medium bowl, whisk together the melted butter, buttermilk, oil, vanilla, and yolks.

2. In the clean bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites at medium-high speed until foamy, about 30 seconds. With the machine running, gradually add the remaining ¼ cup (1.75 ounces) sugar; continue to beat until stiff peaks just form, 30 to 60 seconds (whites should hold peak but mixture should appear moist). Transfer to a bowl and set aside.

3. Add the flour mixture to the now-empty mixing bowl fitted with the whisk attachment. With the mixer running at low speed, gradually pour in the butter mixture and mix until almost incorporated (a few streaks of dry flour will remain), about 15 seconds. Stop mixer and scrape the whisk and sides of the bowl. Return the mixer to medium-low speed and beat until smooth and fully incorporated, 10 to 15 seconds.

4. Using rubber spatula, stir ⅓ of the whites into the batter to lighten, then add the remaining whites and gently fold into the batter until no white streaks remain. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared cake pans. Lightly tap the pans against the counter 2 or 3 times to dislodge any large air bubbles.

5. Bake until the cake layers begin to pull away from sides of pans and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 20-22 minutes. Cool the cakes in the pans on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Loosen the cakes from the sides of the pan with a small knife, then invert onto a greased wire rack and peel off the parchment. Invert the cakes again and cool completely on rack, about 1½ hours.

Printer Friendly Recipe
Yellow Butter Cake (from Martha Stewart via Annie’s Eats)

Makes two 9-inch round cakes

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing pans
1½ cups (7.2 ounces) all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting pans
1½ cups (6 ounces) cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1¾ cups (12.15) granulated sugar
4 large eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1¼ cups milk, at room temperature

1. Preheat the oven to 350˚ F. Line the bottoms of two 9-inch round cake pans with parchment paper. Butter and flour the edges of the pans, tapping out the excess; set aside. In a medium bowl, combine the all-purpose flour, cake flour, baking powder, and salt; whisk together to blend well and set aside.

2. In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the butter and sugar. Beat on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes, scraping down the bowl as needed. Mix in the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Blend in the vanilla. With the mixer on low speed, add in the dry ingredients in three additions, alternating with the milk. Beat each addition just until incorporated.

3. Divide the batter between the prepared baking pans. Bake, rotating the pans halfway through baking, until the cakes are golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 30-35 minutes. Transfer the pans to a wire rack and let cool 20 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the pans to help remove the cakes. Invert the cakes onto the rack and peel off the parchment. Let the cakes cool completely before frosting. Level the cakes if necessary.

Printer Friendly Recipe
Best Birthday Cake (from Smitten Kitchen)

Makes two 9-inch rounds

4 cups plus 2 tablespoons (16.6 ounces) cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1½ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups (14 ounces) sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 cups buttermilk, well-shaken

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter two 9-inch round cake pans and line with circles of parchment paper, then butter parchment. (Alternately, you can use a cooking spray, either with just butter or butter and flour to speed this process up.)

2. Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium speed until pale and fluffy, then beat in vanilla. Add eggs one at a time, beating well and scraping down the bowl after each addition. At low speed, beat in buttermilk until just combined (mixture will look curdled). Add flour mixture in three batches, mixing until each addition is just incorporated.

3. Spread batter evenly in cake pan, then rap pan on counter several times to eliminate air bubbles. Bake until golden and a wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 10 minutes, then run a knife around edge of pan. Invert onto rack and discard parchment, then cool completely, about 1 hour.

Comments

  1. I know this may sound crazy, but I made SK’s recipe for bridal shower cupcakes using “homemade” aka milk and vinegar buttermilk and they came out tasting like corn muffins. No cornmeal or anything like that went into the batter or anywhere near the cupcakes before, so I just had a bride look at me like I was some Midwestern hillbilly!

  2. Thanks for the great comparison! I love Smitten Kitten’s yellow cake recipe and have to tell you that I always get the most beautiful domes (flat cupcakes are a deal-breaker for me, as well!). I use a little less batter when I scoop with my 3 Tablesspoon scoop and rotate the pan because if the batter touches the side while it bakes it will spread and make the edge dark (which I also dislike!). I’ll have to try the CI recipe now!

  3. What a labor of love! The SK cupcakes are a little homely – but you are right, in a layer cake they’d be fine.

    I made the MS cake a few weeks ago and received many compliments. Now I’m kicking myself for not making the CI cake, although I don’t like the appearance of the short and stubbier cupcakes. Maybe the MS cake was fine after all – I mean, cake is delicious anyway you cut it.

  4. I’d be interested to know if the CI cupcakes kept a nice amount of moistness the day after baking. I usually have to bake vanilla cupcakes the day of an event since they tend to dry out faster.

  5. I’ve made CI’s version before and was really happy with it. I can’t wait to see your frosting comparison because I’m a frosting fanatic and haven’t settled on a favorite yet :)

  6. I love that you made all three varieties and took such detailed notes. The secret baker nerd in me LOVES all the details…thanks so much for this post.

  7. Bridget, you must be reading my mind! I have been wanting to make yellow cake from scratch–so thanks for the post :) Any chance you’re doing white cake comparison soon? :) I made Dorie’s Best Party Cake, and loved it, but that’s all I have ever made.

  8. Love the comparison post! :)

  9. I LOVE it when you do these comparison posts! Your white cake comparison was excellent, and this one is too!

  10. This is an awesome post! Yellow cake is my favorite, so I’m really happy to see what you’ve tested and found out. I’m going to try the CI version first, since the buttery taste is what I love. I can’t wait to see the chocolate frosting comparison post!

  11. This is awesome.
    Now I want to know what you did with all the cupcakes.
    Shall I email you my address? I could judge the travel-ability of them for you. Along with freshness and frosting durability. I’d do that for you. Happy to help. :p

  12. bridget says:

    Yudith – I’ve done two white cake comparisons actually! Check the Recipe List page under cakes, and you’ll find them.

  13. I can not tell you how much I LOVE your comparison posts. I get so excited when one pops up on my reader. They are so interesting and educational. Thank you. Wish I could pop one of those minis in my mouth now! I have yellow cake on my menu next week sadly, none of the recipes you made but, can’t wait to compare my ingredients and baking technique to your test recipes. LOVE your blog.

  14. WOW! that’s a lot of yellow cake eating..but I appreciate the effort you went through to do this. looking forward to the chocolate frosting post.

  15. Thanks for the interesting comparison. I am anxiously awaiting the frosting comparison as I’ve really been on the hunt for a good go-to chocolate frosting! Many of the ganache-style ones just get too hard and/or cannot be finished cleanly or nicely piped.

  16. Yes! Yes! Yes!

    Thank you so much for the comparison. I am not surprised Cook’s Illustrated was the winner-everything I have ever made of theirs has been so delicious. What a great post!

  17. Thank you thank you thank you for taking the time to do this! This is exactly what I’ve been looking for! I always love your ‘comparison’ posts and they are one of my first places I look when I’m deciding between a few different recipes.

  18. that was so helpful! you baked your butt off! ha! ill have to make that cake asap!

  19. I love these comparisons you put out. It’s like Consumer Reports for bakers and is so helpful! Thank you!

  20. Wendy says:

    I just discovered Cooks Illustrated Foolproof Chocolate Frosting, and it’s so unbelievable! It’s very chocolately, but not too much (like ganache) and super easy to make. It doesn’t have that overly sweet/hurts your teeth flavor like most quick buttercreams either.

  21. You rock Bridget! Love this comparison. The flat spreading top on cupcakes is a deal breaker for me too.

  22. I just had an epic fail of a yellow cake recipe I found on a forum, so I went back to check here. I’m wondering how this CI version compares to the one in my “American Classics” by CI. It’s a different recipe altogether.

  23. bridget says:

    Chris – Is that the Rich and Tender Yellow Cake recipe? It’s in CI’s The New Best Recipe. I’ve made it, several years ago, and remember loving it. It’s denser than this version.

  24. Sharon says:

    Great post! I would love a how-to of your decorating. Love the swirls!

  25. wonderful experiment! i can state with certainty that i would have no trouble feasting on all three, particularly if lusciously silky chocolate frosting sat on top. :)

  26. Yellow cake with chocolate frosting is my favorite kind of cake, so I’m really glad you did this, and I can’t wait for the frosting post. :)

  27. Bridget, yes, it’s in that book, so it must be that one. I made it last night and you are right, it was denser than I was expecting, but still tasty. Sounds like the one you did might be more what I want. I will give it a try!

  28. Shoot! I misspoke. My book is their “American Classics”! So i guess there might be THREE versions!

  29. I love reading your recipe comparisons. I can’t wait to read your findings on chocolate frosting, because I want to lick the tops of those cupcakes. All of them.

  30. These comparisons are great! I just used your red velvet one recently and loved the results.

    A question–you mention that you’re in NM now. Did you adjust the recipes for altitude at all? (I’m also in NM, at 5000 ft. above sea level–don’t know if you’re in a higher or lower part of the state.)

  31. bridget says:

    Jen – I’m only at 3300 feet, and I haven’t had any problems with recipes baking up differently than I expect. As a member of Tuesdays with Dorie, every week I bake the same recipe as hundreds of other bloggers, and I have never had a result that differs substantially from everyone else. I count myself lucky!

  32. Hi Bridget – how long would you suggest baking the cook’s illustrated ones in regular cupcake tins? I’ve guessed on things like this before with disastrous results, so I thought I’d get your input!

  33. bridget says:

    maggie – Cupcakes generally need to bake 18-24 minutes; same temperature as a full cake.

  34. lauren says:

    Hey Bridget – great review!!!! I have tried your white cake from Cooks Illustrated and by far its my favorite. Did you ever figure out why the tops of CI’s cupcakes were sticky? I know it’s easily covered up by frosti g, but it happened to my white cupcakes as well. I am wondering if you had any suggestions as to what might help fix that (or at least make it LESS sticky)

    xoxo

  35. Hi Bridget – thank you so much for this post! I feel like I have been searching for the perfect yellow cake forever. I cant belive I just came across this. I made the CI recipe and I also made Shirley Corriher’s recipe from the other yellow cake comparison you reference on this post. They were both great, but SC’s had and incredible light and fluffy texture and were very moist. My only complaint is that SC’s were a little greasy (they use more oil than CI) and they came out flat and a little droopy in the middle. Any ideas to why this would happen. The CI cupcake was very pretty and had beautiful form. I would love for you to try SC’s recipe and tell us what you think and what you would do differently. Thanks again for your post!

  36. Love the comparison. And you did chocolate frosting in the same night! Wow, you’re strong. i find Cook’s Illustrated way too OCD for me! It’s too precise, I know baking is a science but seriously! I love SK’s. I was able to develop a killer cake recipe for banana,red velvet, yellow and chocolate ( not in the same night) using SK as a stellar base! Love the site and the pictures all these professional pictures on food blogs are killing me, so yummy! :)

    – Princess

  37. Regine says:

    I have tried countless number of yellow cake recipes, and the very best is CI’s Fully Yellow Cake. It is great for layer cakes, moist, tender, light. Just perfect. The only thing is that I HATE the acidic taste and powdery texture I seem to find in cake flour, so I replace the cake flour SUCCESSFULLY with all purpose flour. I use the formula of 1 cup cake flour is 3/4 cup (12 tbsp) all purpose flour with 2 tbsp cornstarch. Trust me, this formula ALWAYS works and delivers a superior cake.

  38. bridget says:

    Regine – Have you tried King Arthur’s cake flour? It isn’t bleached, it’s just made from a lower protein type of wheat. I think the bleaching cake flour normally undergoes might be contributing to the acidic taste you’ve noticed.

  39. Regine says:

    Bridget, good idea. Let me try it. However, I adore my cake flour substitution as discussed in prior posts.

  40. Liz chavez says:

    Yumm

  41. vicki White says:

    Being a researcher and scientist, I cannot beging to tell you how I appreciate this comparison. This was awesome!

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