Tender and fluffy cake with buttery vanilla flavor notes and smooth-as-silk Swiss meringue buttercream - put the recipe testing to bed, this is the Best Butter Cake Recipe yet!
What makes this vanilla butter cake recipe the best? Tender yet sturdy; moist (yes, moist); real butter and vanilla flavor; versatile; a velvety crumb - this cake takes the best qualities of some of our favorite vanilla cakes from over the years to make this crowd pleaser.
Calling is a “crowd pleaser” is pretty accurate. One thing that was learned over the years is that nearly every one of our recipe testers, customers, and readers all have their own perception of what a “perfect” cake should be.
Some think it should be cloud-like and springy (more of a chiffon cake), some prefer the use of only egg whites while others crave the richness of fatty egg yolks.
Some want a cake that resembles the boxed cake mix of their youth, while others want something not-so-sweet but also tender, light, and moist. It’s hard to please everyone, especially when a yellow or butter cake isn’t even what they are imagining, but this cake is the most balanced and widely enjoyed recipe of them all.
What is a Butter Cake?
Butter cakes reply on the creaming method to incorporate air into the batter in combination of chemical leaveners (baking powder and baking soda). The result is a super versatile, fluffy yet rich cake!
What makes a great butter cake? A great butter cake is a balance of flavor, texture, and versatility.
It’s moist and tender due to the correct ratio of fat (butter and eggs), tenderizers (fat and sugar), and structure builders (flour and leaveners).
It is light and fluffy by incorporating air during the creaming process and uses the right amount and types of flour. A great butter cake calls for high quality but readily available ingredients and method that is direct and intentional.
Ingredients in the Best Butter Cake Recipe
Butter - softened, unsalted butter plays three roles. It is responsible for creating a moist cake, fluffy crumb, and flavorful bite. When used in connection with the creaming method, sugar and softened butter are whipped together to create a light and fluffy cake (more on this later). Butter is used like oil to keep a cake moist, but imparts a real butter flavor onto the cake.
Eggs - different parts of the egg contribute different qualities to any recipe. Here, whole eggs aid in structure development, flavor, and fat. Early iterations of this yellow cake called for only egg yolks which created a velvety, melt-in-your-mouth crumb, but using whole eggs is more versatile and creates sturdier cake layers that are easily balanced with a wider variety of fillings and frostings.
Sugar - in its most obvious form, sugar provides sweetness. When creamed with butter, it also helps lighten and leaven a cake. Sugar is another tenderizer. When it begins to dissolve and absorb water in a batter, it interferes with and delays the gluten formation and structure building, making for a more tender cake. Also, the hygroscopic nature of sugar keeps cakes moist longer.
What is the Best Flour for Fluffy Cakes?
With varying amounts of protein, it is important to note the type of flour called for in a cake recipe. Cake flour has a lower percentage of protein (6 to 8%) than all-purpose flour (10 to 12%).
These gluten forming proteins play an important role when developing the structure of the cake. The higher the percentage, the stronger the protein (like using bread flour for more of a chewy texture).
After years of exclusively using only cake flour, we soon realized how different brands of cake flour yielded vastly different results - some so tender the layers nearly fell apart. A combination of cake and all-purpose flours made for better, more reliable cake layers all around.
And since most bakers using keep all-purpose flour in their pantries, we didn’t think it too unreasonable to call for a portion of cake flour. If you can’t find cake flour, try this cornstarch substitution.
What is the Creaming Method?
The Creaming Method is the process in which softened butter and sugar are mixed together to help aerate the batter. With the creaming method, sugar crystals literally cut into the butter to create little air pockets that help leaven cakes and make them light and fluffy.
As the mixer beats, air is being forced down into the mixture. That’s one reason butter cakes are usually more tender than say, a carrot cake, or other oil-based cakes that use the muffin method.
Dare we say that the creaming process is the most important part of creating a fluffy butter cake? Yup, it certainly is. This is typically the first step to any butter cake recipe and one that should not be rushed and skipped over. The process usually takes 2 to 5 minutes, mixing on medium speed, for the butter and sugar to become light and fluffy.
Note that the butter must be soft for this process to work! Too cold, and the butter will just clunk around the mixer. Too soft, and it will not aerate properly. Softened butter should be able to hold a thumb print without feeling greasy.
Tips for Making a Moist Vanilla Cake from Scratch
Room Temperature Ingredients -
To ensure a more homogenous batter (and one that will help prevent over-mixing), start with room temperature ingredients. This includes softened butter, eggs, and milk. To quickly bring eggs to room temperature, place them (in their shells) in a bowl of tepid water before gathering your remaining ingredients. Butter must be softened for proper creaming (see Creaming Method above).
Measure Flour Correctly -
Using weight measurements, especially for things like flour, is the most accurate way to measure. Too much flour may result in dense, dry cake layers. The ratio of ingredients in this recipe ensures a tender crumb. If you are baking up dry cakes, then consider weighing your flour. Alternatively, use the scoop and sweep method (be sure to fluff up and aerate your flour first!).
Cream the Butter and Sugar -
As emphasized above, don’t skimp on the creaming process. This should take 2 to 5 minutes in order to properly cream and lighten your butter and sugar. Fluffy cakes start with fluffy butter/sugar!
Don’t Over-mix -
Tough or dense cakes may be the result of the batter (especially after the addition of flour/gluten) being overmixed. To prevent overmixing, start with room temperature ingredients (see above). Alternating the flour and milk mixture helps the batter absorb the dry and liquid ingredients better. Tunneling within a cake is another sign of overmixing.
Don’t Skimp on Real Vanilla Extract or Bean Paste -
For the best flavor, use the best ingredients available to you. In this case, splurge on the real vanilla extract. Flavors can’t hide behind strong ingredients like chocolate or banana in this butter cake, so make sure the star of the show really shines! If you can’t use vanilla bean seeds or paste, pure vanilla extract will suffice.
Use the Correct Type of Flour -
As discussed earlier, different types of flour have different percentages of protein. Choose the correct type of flour(s) listed in the recipe to make sure the cake has the right structure and crumbs. Cake layers baking up too tough? Substitute a portion of the all-purpose flour with cake flour!
Check for Done-ness Beyond the Clock -
Not all ovens are alike, so it is important to know what to look for when the cake is done baking beyond time. A baked butter cake will have some browning on top (thanks to maillard reaction) and will spring back to the touch. A toothpick inserted in the center of a baked cake should come out clean or with a few moist crumbs. If there is significant pulling around the edges of the cake pan, the cake is overbaked.
Calibrate Your Oven (or use an internal oven thermometer) -
Since not all ovens are created equal (see above), it’s helpful to know what temperature your oven actually bakes at and not just what you set it at. An inexpensive grocery story oven thermometer is super helpful in knowing if your oven bakes too hot or too cold. Adjust the temperature accordingly.
Best Butter Cake
Best Butter Cake
- 1 ½ cups + 2 tbsp all-purpose flour
- 1 ½ cups cake flour
- 1 tbps baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup unsalted butter softened
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste or extract
- 4 large eggs
- 1 cup whole milk or buttermilk
- ½ cup sour cream or buttermilk
Swiss Meringue Buttercream
- 6 large egg whites
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 3 cups unsalted butter at room temperature
- 2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 2 oz dark chocolate chopped
- ¼ cup heavy cream
- 2 tablespoon white corn syrup
- 1 pinch salt
Best Butter Cake
- Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Grease and flour three 8-inch cake pans and line the bottoms with parchment paper.
- Sift together the flours, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium speed until smooth. Add the sugar and mix on medium until light and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. Stop the mixer and scrape down the bowl.
- Turn the mixer to medium-low and add the vanilla. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing until each is incorporated before adding in the next. Mix until combined. Stop the mixer and scrape down the bowl.
- Stir the milk and sour cream together. Turn the mixer to low and add the flour mixture in three batches, alternating with the milk mixture, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. As the last streaks of flour are combines, mix on medium for no more than 30 seconds or until smooth.
- Evenly divide the batter among the prepares pans. Bake for 25 to 28 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cakes come out clean or with moist crumbs attached. Let the cakes cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes before removing them from their pans. Allow to continue to cool completely before removing the parchment and frosting the cakes.
Swiss Meringue Buttercream
- In the bowl of an electric stand mixer, add the egg whites and granulated sugar. Whisk them together briefly by hand until just combined (so that the egg whites don’t scramble).
- Fill a sauce pan with a few inches of water and bring it to a simmer. Place the mixer bowl with the egg white mixture on top to create a double-boiler. The water should be kept at a simmer and should not touch the bottom of the bowl. This will indirectly being the eggs to a safe temperature without them becoming hard-cooked or scrambled.
- Occasionally stirring, heat the egg white mixture until it reaches 160°F on a candy thermometer. The mixture will be very hot to the touch and the sugar should be dissolved.
- Once the egg white mixture is hot, carefully return the bowl to the stand mixer. Fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the mixture on high speed for 8 to 10 minutes. When done, the meringue should hold shiny, medium-stiff peaks and the outside of the bowl will have returned to room temperature.
- With the mixer on medium-low, add in the butter - a couple tablespoons at a time.
- Once the butter has been mixed in, add the vanilla extract.
- Stop the mixer and swap out the whisk for the paddle attachment. Turn the mixer up to medium-high speed and mix until smooth and spreadable, 3 to 5 minutes (see Baker’s Notes for troubleshooting).
- For frosting a smooth cake, you will want to eliminate the air bubbles that were whipped into the buttercream during the process. Mix on low speed for a few minutes for the silkiest, smoothest buttercream.
- Place all of the ingredients in a small a saucepan and set on the stove over medium heat.
- Gently heat the ingredients until the cream begins to simmer and the chocolate starts to melt. Stir everything together until smooth.
- Pour the glaze into a heat-safe container and refrigerate for 10 to 20 minutes, or until it is no longer warm to the touch.