Tender and fluffy cake with buttery vanilla flavor notes and smooth-as-silk Swiss meringue buttercream - put the recipe testing to bed, this is Tessa’s Best Butter Cake Recipe yet!
What makes this vanilla butter cake recipe the best? After countless iterations over the last 12 years of baking professionally, this cake ticks all the boxes (except the one where it is made from a box). 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. And trust, we’ve been testing and getting feedback for a long time (even when it means going back to variations of this recipe that were created years ago after tweaking too far in the wrong directions - ie: don’t try to fix something that isn’t broken).
What is a Butter Cake?
When polling readers, it’s been proven that people often misunderstand what a butter cake is compared to other types of cake. The confusion over what consumers are really looking for in a cake make it that much harder to create the perfect butter cake recipe. Butter or Yellow Cakes are rich in flavor, tender in texture, and have a sturdy crumb. Think buttery pound cake! Slight variations to the original pound cake formula (a pound of each butter, sugar, flour, and eggs) give weight to different textures and lightness (not all as dense as the pound cake).
Butter cakes reply on the cream 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!
If you are craving something light and spongy, then maybe butter cake shouldn’t be on your agenda. Maybe what you are envisioning is something white and airy? White cake is made with only egg whites. To go the extra mile, some bakers even make it with shortening and clear vanilla extract to keep the interior light. But because of the absence of fat from the egg yolks, white cakes can be less tender.
Still not the type of cake you were salivating over or remembering from a specific celebration? Perhaps it is sponge cake that you are thinking of. Sponge cakes (think Angel Food, Chiffon, and Genoise Cakes) use the foaming method. Here, whipped eggs (either whole or just the whites) are used with or without the help of chemical leaveners for their springy, spongy textures.
What about vanilla cake? Well, vanilla is just the flavor. All three (butter, white, and sponge cakes) can be considered vanilla cakes, so it is better to take into account one of the other characteristics when selecting the right recipe.
How to Make the Best Butter Cake Recipe
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.
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.
Flour - 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.
Butter Cake Recipe
yields one 3-layer 8-inch cake; serves 12 to 16
1 ½ cups plus 2 tablespoons (200 g) all-purpose flour
1 ½ cups (195 g) cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (225 g) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups (400 g) granulated sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste or extract
4 large eggs
1 cup (255 ml) whole milk*
½ cup (120 ml) sour cream*
*Milk and sour cream may be replaced by equal parts buttermilk.
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 mis 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.