Is there anyone who doesn’t love this classic combo? In our quest to find the best yellow cake and chocolate frosting recipe, let me state my biases up front. My personal preference is for a light, airy, fluffy, tight-crumbed yellow cake. Coarse or spongy crumbs not preferred, and let it be moderately moist but not heavy (I tend to like drier cakes more than some). Also, I like pound cake, but it has its time and place (and it’s not in a layer cake).
Let’s just say that the winning cake won over both my and pretty much everyone else’s taste buds, so I’m very excited to share the results!
- 38 total tasters
- All 12 recipes were baked the day of (all 12 frostings were made the day before and re-whipped the day of)
- All tasters ranked each cake on a scale from 0-10 for 3 factors: cake alone, frosting alone, and cake and frosting as a whole (more on why I didn’t standardize the frostings later)
- All cakes were baked in 8 or 9″ anodized aluminum cake pans
- Gold Medal bleached all-purpose flour
- Swan’s Down cake flour
- Unsalted Land O Lakes butter
- Spice Island vanilla extract
- Bob’s Red Mill baking powder and soda
- Diamond kosher salt
- Daisy sour cream
- Kroger buttermilk, milk and heavy cream
- Imperial granulated sugar and dark brown sugar
Why Didn’t You Standardize the Frostings?
It’s a common and fair question! With so many factors going into the cake, frosting is another confounding variable.
My logic: these bake offs are focused more on comparing existing recipes rather than all possible permutations of different ingredients/techniques to find the best result (a la America’s Test Kitchen). Most recipe developers develop the frosting to complement the cake–i.e. the frosting might be more or less sweet to compensate for the cake. I felt that a) doing a bake off with unfrosted cakes wouldn’t be accurate and b) doing a bake off with a standardized frosting wouldn’t quite capture the full essence of each cake.
However, going this route led to its own set of problems. As you can imagine, it was difficult for tasters to separate the cake from the frosting when scoring. So as always, take these results with a grain of salt!
Happily, this is a bake off where my personal preferences align squarely with the data (at least in terms of the winner)! Divas Can Cook was easily my top choice cake, and most everyone else agreed.
Shirley Corriher was actually probably my second favorite cake, though her overall score was hurt by a low frosting score. The cake results generally reflect a preference for moist but light cakes in the top 3 spots while Modern Honey and Sarah Kieffer (with their moist but slightly heavier-crumbed cakes) hung out a little lower in the bracket.
Frosting-wise, recipes fell into 3 different categories and there was a clear preference for one type:
- Buttercream: the top rated frostings were all buttercreams, which I attribute to the nostalgia factor of buttercream on cake. While Divas Can Cook and King Arthur tied for first place, I slightly preferred King Arthur’s frosting (less sugar and slightly less cocoa powder). Those with more cocoa powder tended to do better; I feel like King Arthur had an ideal balance of cocoa powder and sugar.
- Buttercream with melted chocolate (ATK and Spun Sugar Run): these frostings tended to fall towards the middle of the pack with a texture that was a little silkier than buttercreams, but not as much cocoa flavor.
- Whipped ganache from Flour Bakery: This frosting calls for making a heavy cream/chocolate ganache before whipping this mixture into a mixture of butter and sugar for a super light and silky, extremely buttery frosting that wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
- Sour cream frosting from Shirley Corriher: This recipe is mainly melted chocolate mixed with sour cream. This received lower scores and many found it overly tangy (though some liked it!).
- Fudge frosting from Bravetart: I read multiple reviews that discussed how difficult this frosting is to make. Though I thought I nailed it, multiple people complained that it tasted burnt and rated it quite low. Whoops.
- Canned frosting: We won’t speak of this.
Buttermilk: There’s a certain inimitable “yellow cake” flavor that infused some of our contenders but not others, and I think the key was buttermilk. The subtle tang adds an extra dimension to the otherwise rather plain vanilla sweetness. The top two winners (Divas and Sally’s) both used buttermilk. During the day-after tasting, I noticed all of the cakes that I thought had the best flavor (including ATK, Flour Bakery, Shirley and Grand Baby Cakes) used buttermilk (or in GBC’s case, sour cream). For the best yellow cake results, I do not recommend using the DIY-style buttermilk (where you add vinegar or lemon juice to sour regular milk) because true buttermilk has a much thicker texture and stronger tang.
Eggs: While extra egg yolks certainly contributed to a deeper yellow hue in some cakes (see Bravetart, Sally’s Baking Addiction, Sarah Kieffer, ATK and Flour Bakery), it was certainly on a sliding scale. Modern Honey turned out surprisingly yellow despite using only whole eggs (perhaps due to the use of instant pudding mix). If a deep yellow color is important to you, I would choose a recipe that uses egg yolks.
However, the biggest egg insight is that the top two cakes (Divas and Sally’s) both use whipped egg whites. Hate to say it, but the extra step of whipping egg whites and folding them into the batter really does seem to pay off for a super fluffy and light texture. (Note that Shirley’s cake uses a similar technique, but using whipped cream instead of egg white.)
Fat: As in the chocolate cake bake off, I expected the cakes with both oil and butter to do well. Surprisingly, Divas and Sally’s took top rankings with all-butter cakes, though King Arthur and Modern Honey slid into third/fourth place with a combination of oil and butter. I think this is probably due to the prominence and importance of a butter flavor in yellow cake.
Sour cream: Sour cream is an ingredient oft-used to add moisture and fat to cakes. Both Sarah Kieffer and Grand Baby Cakes use sour cream in their cakes, and while Sarah had more of the traditionally denser, moister crumb that I associate with sour cream cakes, GBC was almost on the drier side (which I liked). But generally speaking, if you want a moister, heavier crumb, sour cream is the way to go.
All-purpose vs. cake flour: In the blueberry muffin bake off, I noticed that cake flour vs. all-purpose flour often doesn’t make a big difference, especially in the context of other ingredients. The same held true in this bake off. Though I expected cakes with cake flour to be notably softer, this was not the case. Again, there’s a variety of factors (creaming technique, fat ratio, egg ratio) that affect the tenderness of a cake. Cake flour is just a tiny part of the equation that didn’t have a noticeable impact on the rankings.
Creaming technique: Regular creaming is the traditional way of making a cake: you cream together the butter and sugar, then add the eggs and vanilla, and finally the dry ingredients. Reverse creaming generally means you mix the dry ingredients, then mix in the butter to coat the fat with flour to minimize gluten development. I believe Sarah Kieffer, Flour Bakery and Shirley Corriher were the only recipes to use reverse creaming, and there was also no clear pattern here that dictated whether reverse creaming really makes or breaks a cake. (Though all 3 cakes did bake up nice and flat, especially after cooling.)
Analysis of the Best Yellow Cake Recipe
Bravetart: a hefty, close-crumbed cake with a slightly drier texture and a sugary fudge frosting
Potato flour is the key gatekeeper of this cake. Stella explicitly states that nothing can replace potato flour in this recipe (though it’s fine to omit; the cake will just be less fluffy). After checking 4 stores, I finally found a bag at my local Central Market!
And was it worth it?! …unfortunately, the data says no.
In my opinion, it’s a darn good cake with a close, dry crumb that’s hefty without being overly heavy and dense. But I thought the flavor was a little plain (lacking the tang from buttermilk that gave others a distinctive yellow cake flavor). When considering the finicky ingredients of potato flour, 1/2 cup of egg yolks, and a tempermental fudge frosting, I just think you could make an equally good cake without all the fuss.
Although tasters vetoed the frosting, the sugary fudge frosting was one of my top favorites with a deeply rounded chocolate flavor (though some tasters found it a little burned tasting, which was definitely baker’s error). One taster called the frosting “a sophisticated adult version of canned frosting.” Generally, I preferred the thicker, more sugary texture of King Arthur’s buttercream, and I probably wouldn’t go to the trouble of making the rather involved fudge frosting again.
Tasters generally agreed this cake tasted more like pound cake than a traditional yellow cake. It was a bit denser, coarser and crumblier than some preferred (this could be due to baker error; maybe I overbaked it??), though I did appreciate the fineness of the crumb.
Betty Crocker: the cake mix control! Fluffy cake; bad frosting.
Unlike the funfetti bake off, I was gratified that Betty didn’t triumph over most of the from-scratch cakes. Although this cake had by far the airiest, fluffiest cake texture, the flavor was inimitably that of boxed cake–which some may think is a good thing until you taste it side by side with from-scratch cake, in which case it tastes like chemicals. The worst part by far was the frosting; the overly sweet frosting tasted plasticy, burnt and had a syrupy texture that sticks to the tongue.
“I’d eat this box cake with homemade frosting,” said one taster, and I actually agree. There an appealing nostalgia to that machine-perfect, fluffy crumb suffused with that artificial butter flavor.” The frosting, however “tasted like it had been sitting in a plastic bag in a car.” Most tasters agreed the cake was pleasingly light, but too some it was “too airy”/”too spongy” and the vaguely “wax-flavored” frosting left a weird aftertaste.
Sugar Spun Run: a dense, slightly spongy and very buttery cake topped with a very buttery and sweet frosting
This recipe was a last-minute addition as a contender that uses half butter, half oil. Both the butter and oil are creamed with sugar in a traditional cake mixing technique, resulting in a moist cake that I found a little dense and spongy and a bit lacking in flavor. Though I loved the salt balance in the frosting, it was a little too buttery for my taste (I prefer the straight up buttercreams a la King Arthur), though it did have a bit more body from the sugar compared to Flour Bakery, which I enjoyed.
Overall, tasters felt this cake was a bit bland with an overly sweet frosting. “More sponge cake, doesn’t scream yellow cake,” said one taster. Though some liked the nutty/buttery flavors the cake, others found the flavor quite bland and the texture a little too dense and spongy. Frosting-wise, some appreciate the hits of saltiness, but still found the sweetness overpowered the cake in many instances. *cake flavor has left the chat* unfortunately summed up many taster sentiments.
Grandbaby Cakes: a beautifully tight-crumbed cake that was on the drier side with a sweet chocolate buttercream
Jocelyn’s cake calls for cake flour, mostly butter supplemented with some additional oil, a whopping 7 eggs (for a 3-layer 9″ cake) plus a cup of sour cream: basically, a recipe for deliciousness. This cake baked up beautifully flat with a nice tight crumb that erred on the slightly drier side. Looking again at the ingredients, I’m surprised that it erred on the drier side given all the ingredients engineered for moisture (so the dryness could definitely be due to baker’s error in overbaking it). I loved the poundcake-esque flavor of this cake, though I found some bites ever so slightly chewy. The frosting was good, if a little too sweet for me (it’s quite similar to King Arthur, but with less cocoa to balance the sweetness).
One taster loved the “rich and complex flavor” on this cake while others agreed it tasted like pound cake, or even “boxed cake-like” in flavor. Others found the cake a little crumbly, slightly dry and underwhelming.” I think the light, airy texture of this cake is perfect for layer cakes, though I would probably look to pair it with a less sweet buttercream next time.
Shirley Corriher: a cottony, airy cake that most closely replicates a boxed mix cake (but better) with an oddly tangy frosting
Shirley’s cake uses the unusual step of whipping heavy cream into soft peaks before folding the cream into the batter (similar to beaten egg whites, except whipped cream is slightly easier to fold in). Her recipe also calls for slightly more oil than butter and additional egg yolks along with buttermilk, yielding a texture that was basically my ideal. Cottony and extremely light, on the slightly drier side, yet melt-in-your-mouth rich, this texture is my dream elevated boxed mix cake. It’s incredibly light and airy, but with a richer, finer crumb than Betty (and it’s also not as salty).
Unfortunately, the frosting dragged the overall score lower in the rankings. Made with mostly melted chocolate whipped with sour cream, the frosting is severely tangy–excessively so for most tasters. To me, it kind of tasted like an extreme cream cheese frosting. It wasn’t my favorite, but I didn’t hate it.
“Cake was airy like angel food cake but frosting killed it,” said one taster, which generally summed up the taster sentiments. What one called a “soft and perfect cake” was called the “mullet of sponge cakes” by another. “Cake is all business—good crumb, not a ton of flavor. But the icing is wild. I actually prefer its tanginess to others that are overly sweet. But it maybe goes a step too far into weird.” Some loved the chocolate frosting but most thought it was too bitter. “The tang catches you off guard,” said one taster. Overall, I would definitely make this cake again but pair it with a different frosting.
Flour Bakery: a dense, poundcake-like yellow cake with a slightly crumblier texture and a lustrous, creamy, lightly chocolate-y frosting
Flour Bakery’s recipe stood out for its high butter ratio (3 sticks of butter to 3 cups of flour!) as well as extra egg yolks and specific use of nonfat buttermilk. It uses a regular creaming method, which bakes up into a close-crumbed, airy, slightly drier-textured cake with a lingering flavor that reminded me of pound cake, though I still found the flavor a bit lacking.
The “fluffy chocolate ganache frosting” is a kind of hybrid ganache/buttercream, leading to a super buttery, incredibly smooth frosting that looked enticingly chocolatey with a flavor that didn’t match. Texturally, I found the frosting overwhelmingly fatty and unsettlingly silky. I loved the salt balance, though I wished for a stronger chocolate flavor. It also never really “set” up (I weirdly like when a buttercream crusts over after sitting out at room temperature)–this frosting stayed consistently creamy and malleable.
Some tasters praised this cake for its buttery flavor, though several noted it was a little on the drier side. Many comparisons to angel food cake and pound cake were made. “A bit mealy and dry,” said one taster. However, most found the balance between the slightly drier cake and satiny, buttery frosting to be more favorable than each component tasted alone. Tasters were split over the frosting–some liked the airy, whipped, “cloud-like” texture while others found it too “mousse-like” and excessively “soft and buttery.” The overall sentiment seemed to be summed up by: “good but unmemorable.”
America’s Test Kitchen: a flavorful and fluffy but slightly dry and a tiny chewy with a divisive frosting
Sally’s Baking Addiction and ATK’s recipes are quite similar with just a few changes–ATK has slightly more flour, a combination of butter and oil, more egg, yet ATK fared significantly worse than Sally. I think a big reason is because ATK calls for melting rather than creaming the butter, which may have led to a tougher crumb. While I loved the yellow cake flavor on this cake, the crumb wasn’t that impressive–a little dry and just the tiniest bit chewy.
I was also a bit disappointed in the frosting. Similar to Sarah Kieffer, the frosting calls for melted chocolate and corn syrup to be added to whipped butter and powdered sugar, but ATK also adds Dutch-process cocoa powder. Sadly, the dramatic hue of the cocoa powder doesn’t translate in flavor; the flavor of this frosting wasn’t nearly as deep as the King Arthur frosting (which uses natural cocoa).
While some tasters liked the pound cake notes of this cake and some found it enjoyably moist, the majority commented that this cake was a little too dry, dense, and a bit bland. “Pound cake imposter,” noted one. “Cake itself was bland but balanced well with the dark chocolate frosting,” said one taster. “Still, not memorable.” Some loved the rich, dark, fudgy frosting; some found it too dark and rich while others found it wasn’t rich enough. “Decent overall, but a little forgettable,” sums up the overall impression.
Sarah Kieffer: a dense, moist cake with a hefty, slightly spongy crumb and a silky melted chocolate buttercream
Sarah uses the reverse creaming method, all-purpose flour, a few extra egg yolks, and a mixture of buttermilk and sour cream to achieve a dense, extremely close crumbed cake that is moist and plush. (Note: for those curious about Mel’s Kitchen Cafe, the recipes are very similar except that Mel uses cake flour and a combination of milk and sour cream!) I loved the sweet, buttery flavor of this cake, though texturally it was just a tad denser and spongier than I prefer in a layer cake. The whipped frosting uses a little corn syrup in addition to a melted chocolate buttercream that whips up very similar to the Sugar Spun Run frosting–i.e. extremely smooth and buttery. It was a solid frosting, but again I found I preferred the texture of a classic buttercream.
Tasters were split on this cake–most LOVED the “squishiness,” the “moist texture,” “density” and “nice buttery smell and flavor.” Several called it a “textbook pound cake;” one called it a “softer version of a pound cake” (which I agree with). A few thought it was “too dense,” but overall tasters seemed to agree that they enjoyed the cake better than the icing. A few tasters noted that the frosting had an “oilier” texture and was a bit “grainy” (several found it melted easily in the Houston heat). However, plenty thought the whipped frosting had a “good salty balance” and overall loved the combination “better than the sum of its parts.”
Modern Honey: a dense, sweet and vanilla-scented cake that is stick-to-your-mouth moist with a delightful buttercream
Modern Honey’s recipe stood out for its use of instant vanilla pudding. Though someone warned me that this would make the cake taste artificial, I was curious to see the effects in a cake. While tasting the cakes blind, I personally couldn’t detect any artificial flavor–it simply tasted like a very vanilla-forward, buttery, sweet cake. It somehow rides the line of being moist and plush rather than spongy, perhaps because it’s so close-crumbed. To me, it’s one of those cakes that’s almost too rich to eat a lot of (but on the plus side, it holds up extremely well over time). I enjoyed the typically sugary chocolate buttercream, but I think King Arthur still edges it out in terms of having a deeper chocolate flavor.
Many tasters loved the dense butteriness of this cake, but others thought it was too dense and a little bland. “The cake is swinging on the cornbread style of dense,” said one taster. “Classic, dense, buttery, delicious,” said another. (No one commented on any artificial flavors.) For the most part, tasters thought the frosting was excellent, though a few noted it was too sweet for their palate. Overall, I enjoyed this cake but probably wouldn’t go out of my way to pick up instant pudding to make this (especially since it only uses a partial packet).
King Arthur Flour: a cottony, ever-so-slightly spongy cake with a slightly bland flavor topped with my new favorite chocolate buttercream
King Arthur Flour’s 2019 recipe of the year uses half butter and half oil, a classically brilliant combination for achieving a flavorful yet tender cake. Using a regular creaming method, this cake was fairly straightforward to make with the interesting addition of streaming in a hot milk/butter/oil mixture into the batter at the end. The result? A cottony soft, close-crumbed, slightly drier cake that I found a little spongy and not wholly remarkable. I found it slightly chewier than a comparable cake like Shirley Corriher (which I fully admit could be due to baker’s error via overmixing the batter or overbaking). However, the frosting I could eat by the spoonful–the dark hue of the natural cocoa buttercream perfectly matched all the deeply chocolatey, sugary, rich notes of my frosting dreams.
Like Flour Bakery, many tasters commented that while the cake alone was a bit dry and bland, the bold, flavorful frosting made for a superb match. “Light and airy cake with subtle flavor. Decadent frosting is nicely balanced with the cake,” said one taster. Although some thought the frosting was “gritty,” most found the bittersweet flavor and supple texture (which crusted over) to be flavorful, bold and delightful. The cake fared less well, with most tasters commenting that the cake was a bit “spongy” and dry. “Cake has body but not flavor,” said one taster. While I probably won’t return for the cake, I think I’ve found my new go-to chocolate buttercream.
Sally’s Baking Addiction: a perfectly fluffy, slightly drier, sweet cake that hits all the right notes of nostalgia
As I mentioned earlier, Sally’s Baking Addiction is very similar to ATK’s recipe, but Sally uses the creaming method, all butter, and slightly less flour and eggs. I can’t put my finger on why concretely, but both ATK and Sally’s nailed a perfect yellow cake flavor in my opinion. My theory is the buttermilk adds a nice level of tang that you need to bring a yellow cake to life (most cake flavors that I enjoyed used buttermilk), plus this cake had the perfect level of sweetness. Texture-wise, this is a fluffy and somewhat lighter and drier texture–the kind of cake I could eat a lot of. I thought the frosting was very similar to Modern Honey; excellent, but not quite as excellent as King Arthur.
Tasters praised this cake for “melting in the mouth,” having a “tighter yet soft crumb” and being “dense but in a good way.” It reminded one taster of Japanese castella bread: “airy but rich,” “great balance, cake has the perfect amount of sweetness.” A few thought the cake had a “good texture, but not flavorful” and one thought it was “eggy and too sweet.” Interestingly, a good number of tasters noted the nostalgia factor of the cake–perhaps it was the sweetness of the frosting (which a few called “too sweet”). Overall, tasters widely noted this as one of their favorite combinations of fluffy cake and thick, sweet frosting.
Divas Can Cook: a sumptuously moist yet fluffy, flavorful and sweet yellow cake with a perfect buttercream
Monique actually has two yellow cake recipes on her site–this is the older version from 2014 (I didn’t test her newer version from 2018 as it’s very similar to Sarah Kieffer’s recipe except that it uses all buttermilk instead of buttermilk + sour cream and less egg). Per Monique, “the  yellow cake has a very light and fluffy texture (almost melt in your mouth style) with an all-butter flavor. This  cake is fluffy but with a tighter crumb.”
This cake is a little more effort to make (it requires whipping the egg whites separately), but WOW is it worth it! It clearly stood out from the rest as soon as I tasted it–the cake is moist but not heavy, there’s a perfect level of sweetness and tang from the buttermilk, and it’s the right balance of airy yet close-crumbed. I love that it doesn’t require any extra egg yolks to make! There are some comments reporting that this cake sunk in the middle, and I did find a slight sunken spot in my cake, but it wasn’t noticeable enough to be detracting. The buttercream is fairly similar to King Arthur, but with more sugar and cocoa.
“Best cake flavor BY FAR,” raved one taster. “THIS IS LIKE BOXED CAKE MIX TERRITORY IN THE BEST WAY,” said another taster. “Moist and delicate crumb, very memorable. The use of salt in this cake makes it really stand out,” commented another. Interestingly, two tasters commented that they would prefer this cake with the frosting from Sarah Kieffer while one wanted it with the frosting from Sugar Spun Run. A few noted that this cake/frosting combination was too sweet for them, but tasters generally raved about this cake. I’ve already made it again for a friend’s birthday (paired with King Arthur’s frosting), and this will be my go-to yellow cake going forward!
Best Yellow Cake and Chocolate Frosting Recommendations
Best overall yellow cake: Divas Can Cook, Sally’s Baking Addiction
Best chocolate buttercream: King Arthur, Divas Can Cook, Modern Honey, Sally’s Baking Addiction
Best “boxed mix” style cake: Shirley Corriher
Best moist and dense yellow cake: Sarah Kieffer, Modern Honey, Flour Bakery
Best airy and fluffy yellow cake: Divas Can Cook, Sally’s Baking Addiction
Best subtle chocolate frosting: Flour Bakery, Sugar Spun Run
My personal picks: Divas Can Cook cake paired with King Arthur’s chocolate buttercream!
General Tips on Making the Best Yellow Cake with Chocolate Frosting
Making the best buttercream: This Buttermilk by Sam guide to buttercream is extremely helpful. One of her tips that I love most comes from Bravetart–it’s to use organic rather conventional powdered sugar (which uses tapioca starch instead of cornstarch, leading to a better mouthfeel). It’s a game-changer, and I’d highly recommend using it in any chocolate frosting you make!
Use cocoa powder for a more chocolate-y buttercream: Similar to my findings from the brownie bake off, I found that the frostings that used melted chocolate in combination with butter/powdered sugar tended to have a weaker chocolate flavor compared to those that used natural cocoa powder as the basis for a chocolate buttercream. Of course, the inverse is true: if you want a more subtle chocolate flavor, look for one that uses melted chocolate! A melted chocolate buttercream will likely lend the most subtle flavor (vs. a straight whipped ganache, for example).
Use all room temperature ingredients: Room temperature ingredients are much easier to emulsify, leading to a creamy, smooth batter. If you forgot to leave your ingredients out to temper, you can quickly bring an egg to room temp by placing it in a bowl of warm water. You can also microwave a stick of butter or cup of milk for a few seconds (try 10 seconds or less for a stick of butter) to take the chill off.
Sift your ingredients: Cake flour tends to clump up, as does old baking powder. Use a sifter to help evenly disperse all your ingredients!
Cream your butter well: When a recipe directs you to cream the butter and sugar together for 5 minutes, don’t skimp on this! Creaming is a key step that incorporates air into the batter, contributing to a light and fluffy texture.
Don’t overmix: Excessive stirring/mixing leads to more gluten development, which can lead to a tough, rubbery cake. Make sure to stir until ingredients are just combined, but it’s typically best to err on the side of less rather than more mixing.
Happy baking! If you end up trying one of these cakes, tag me on Instagram and hashtag your photos #pancakeprincessbakeoff; I’d love to see your bakes!
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