I’ve spent my adult life chasing the perfect fluffy, moist vanilla cake recipe with a lofty, bouncy rise and a velvety soft and tender crumb. So many vanilla cake recipes are lacking, whether it’s a dense texture and coarse crumb, or a fluffy height but totally dry. After dozens, and I mean dozens, of repeated tests, I finally offer you what I consider my Best-Ever Vanilla Cake recipe.
Everything here from the ingredient list to baking time is anchored in baking science, with reason and testing behind every step. The result (I hope you’ll agree) is a foolproof, simple recipe that I dream will become your new go-to for every vanilla cake occasion.
Moist Vanilla Cake Ingredients:
- Cake Flour (or Cake & Pastry flour, as often found in Canada). Cake flour is lower in the toughening, gluten-forming proteins than all-purpose flour, which results in cakes with a finer texture and softer crumb. The secondary bleaching process used (different from all-purpose) allows the flour to absorb more liquid and therefore rise higher, making for a taller, fluffier cake.
- TWO kinds of fat: room-temperature butter (How to Quickly Bring Ingredients to Room Temperature) is first blended into the dry ingredients to provide flavour and prevent gluten formation. I call it the shortbread method (more on that below). Then vegetable oil (any neutral-tasting oil will do) is also added with the liquid ingredients. Oil is liquid at room temperature and butter is solid. A cooled cake is therefore softer when oil is included.
- Beaten egg whites to create the lofty, fluffy rise in conjunction with a moist, velvety crumb. Please don’t hit the browser back arrow. I know it’s annoying to beat whites. But trust me, the results are 100% worth it and I tried every other option under the sun.
- Whole milk and sour cream: a combination of dairy added the perfect balance of fluffiness and richness. The sour cream adds a beautiful depth of flavour and creates a soft, moist crumb.
- Both baking soda and baking powder: baking powder and egg whites are the key leaveners in this recipe. The baking soda is added primarily to tone down the tang of the sour cream for a perfectly subtle dairy cream flavour. The acid in the sour cream is neutralized by the alkaline baking soda (and this reaction creates rise) but there isn’t enough acid in the recipe to make that the only leavening.
4 Essential Tips for the Ultimate Moist Vanilla Cake:
- The GAME-CHANGING Shortbread Method. Instead of beating the butter with sugar to cream and aerate as a typical first step in cake recipes, we start by incorporating the butter right into all of the dry ingredients. Blending the flour with butter coats much of it in fat, inhibiting gluten formation and creating the most velvety, melt-in-your-mouth crumb I’ve ever experienced. In this recipe, once we beat the butter into the flour mixture will sandy crumbs but we will not truly cream it in the sense that air is incorporated, which is why I consider it a “shortbread method” and not “reverse creaming” (as in my Fluffy, Moist Vanilla Cupcakes recipe).
- Maximize the Volume. To give this moist vanilla cake a supremely bouncy and fluffy rise, we rely on folding whipped egg whites into the batter just before baking.
- WEIGH Your Ingredients. North America’s stubborn insistence on measuring dry ingredients by cups is baffling. One cup of flour by volume will weigh something different from cup to cup and from person to person. When using cake flour, which is silky in texture and therefore compacts even more than all-purpose, weighing becomes even more crucial to achieve the perfect results you want in exchange for your effort. Just order a cheap-o kitchen scale if you don’t have one. This $15 one is what I’ve used for 10 years.
- Minimize Beating Once Liquid is Added. Batter-toughening gluten can only start to form once liquid is added, and it continues to get stronger the more you stir. Our shortbread method is an AMAZING failsafe so you don’t need to stress, but be mindful and only beat on medium speed (no higher) and only until the batter is uniform (not necessarily smooth; it’s totally normal to look a bit curdled).
How to Make this Epic Vanilla Cake
- First, warm the eggs, butter and dairy to room temperature. I do it quickly all together in one big baking pan using this method.
- Whip the egg whites while you preheat the oven, prepare your baking pans and get out your remaining ingredients.
- Scrape egg whites into a bowl, quickly rinse the mixer bowl and dry it, then pop it on the scale and weigh the dry ingredients right in. You’ve saved yourself numerous measuring cups.
- Let the mixer combine and aerate the flour mixture for a minute.
- Toss in the softened butter and beat for 2 minutes. The mixture will go from lumpy and floury, to uniform dry sand texture.
- Stir together the liquid ingredients. Add to butter mixture and beat on medium speed in two additions.
- Fold in beaten egg whites.
- Divide batter between pans and bake.
How to tell when the cake is done baking:
- First, gently press on the centre of the top. If your finger leaves a squishy, deep fingerprint close the oven and wait 2 more minutes.
- If your finger meets a bit of bouncy resistance, pull out your cooking thermometer. The temperature in the middle should register 190ºF (definitely no lower, and ideally not much higher). At this temperature the starch is set and makes for perfectly moist cake. If lower, put it back for another 1-2 minutes. As you continue upwards toward 212ºF (boiling point), the moisture rapidly turns to steam and is lost.
- The cake will not necessarily be evenly golden across the top depending on your oven. I have two ovens. My gas oven does not result in as much browning at the point the cake is done. It will, however, have started to pull away from edges of pan.
- The toothpick tester is not reliable. There may be moist crumbs when the cake is done (it’s a moist cake!), and I’ve had testers come out clean when still underbaked (because the wet batter is pulled off by the browned crust as you remove it from the cake).
- VERY IMPORTANT: recipe suggested baking time is an estimate as ovens vary in temperature accuracy, baking pans vary in heat conduction, opening the oven can add minutes, and if your ingredients are too cold, this also adds to baking time. Also if one pan has more batter than the other, it will take longer. Using a thermometer every time is a simple way to take out the stress and guesswork.
The above photo represents a sampling of just one week’s testing. Multiply that by several weeks and that’s how many test batches I’ve done. The winner is the fourth from the top. Moist AND fluffy!
If you love this, you’re gonna love my Moist Chocolate Cake (it’s my #1 most popular recipe for a reason). You must also try my ultimate Moist Vanilla Cupcakes recipe, which uses a true reverse creaming method.
The Ultimate Fluffy and Moist Vanilla Cake
- 4 large eggs separated, room temperature
- 455 g granulated sugar (16 oz or 2 1/3 cups divided use)
- 397 g cake flour (14 oz or 3 1/3 cups well-fluffed or sifted flour, lightly spooned into a cup and levelled off)
- 2 ¼ tsp baking powder
- ¼ tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp fine sea salt
- 226 g unsalted butter, softened (16 tbsp/8 oz or 1 cup)
- 1 ½ cups whole milk room temperature
- ½ cup vegetable oil (Canola, sunflower, safflower or grapeseed - any oil as long as it's neutral tasting)
- 6 tbsp sour cream (85 g) room temperature
- 2 tsp pure vanilla extract
- ⅛ tsp almond extract OPTIONAL
- Preheat oven to 350ºF with oven rack positioned in the middle if you have a large oven, or with racks at top and bottom third positions if oven is too small to comfortably fit two 9" pans without touching sides of oven or each other. Grease and flour two 9x2" round cake pans and line bottoms with circles of parchment paper. Set aside.
- Place egg whites in stand mixer with whisk attachment and beat on medium-high speed until soft peaks form. Gradually pour in 1/4 cup (50 g) of the sugar then increase speed to high and continue beating until glossy stiff peaks form. Scrape the beaten whites into a bowl and set aside. Give mixer a rinse and dry (no need to properly wash it, but toss the towel in the laundry because raw eggs).
- Measure sugar, flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt into the mixer bowl (quick and easy if you put the bowl right on the scale). Switch to paddle attachment and beat the dry ingredients on medium-low speed for 1 minute (this replaces sifting to aerate and thoroughly combine).
- Toss in the chunks of soft butter and beat, starting on low until the mixture goes from lumps of butter to even small crumbs. The flour will fly if the mixer speed is too high while butter chunks are large, but you can increase it as they get smaller.
- Meanwhile, whisk together the yolks with the milk, oil, sour cream, vanilla and almond (if using) extract.
- Reduce mixer speed to low and drizzle in 1/2 the milk mixture. Scrape down the sides of bowl and paddle after just a few seconds, then beat on medium (no higher) until smooth, about 15 seconds. Reduce speed to low and drizzle in remaining milk mixture then gradually increase speed to medium until evenly combined. The batter may look a bit curdled, not smooth, and that's normal.
- Remove bowl from stand mixer and use a large rubber spatula to fold 1/2 of the beaten egg whites into the batter until mostly incorporated but still streaky. (This lightens the batter making it easier to gently incorporate the rest.) Gently fold in remaining egg whites until no white streaks remain.
- Divide batter evenly between the two prepared baking pans and smooth the tops. (I put the pans back on the scale to ensure they both have the same amount of batter for consistency in baking time).
- Bake cakes for approximately 35-45 minutes, swapping position of cake pans halfway through. The cake is done when internal temperature in the centre of the cake registers 190ºF with a cooking thermometer. **NOTE: See further doneness-testing details in blog post. Baking time is given as a wide-range estimate as ovens vary in temperature accuracy, baking pans vary in heat conduction, opening the oven can add minutes, and if your ingredients are not room temperature, this also adds to baking time. Also if one pan has more batter than the other, it will take longer. Mine took 34-36 minutes, but some readers have reported back that the full 45 minutes were needed. Use a thermometer for accuracy.
- Let cool 10 minutes in pans placed on cooling racks before running a knife around the cake edges and flipping them onto parchment-lined cooling racks (use parchment so the moist cake doesn't get stuck to the rack). Cool completely before filling and frosting.