The Great Vanilla Cupcake Experiment

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I like baking perfect things.

Usually to get there I first have to bake a series of imperfect things–often over the course of years as I try different recipes and hope this next one is the one. Then, once I find it, we’re very happy together. Chocolate chip cookies and I have been together for several years now. It was love at first sight with cinnamon rolls. I just found brownies last year (post forthcoming), which is a small miracle.

I haven’t yet found vanilla cupcakes.

I’ve made decent vanilla cupcakes, but nothing that seemed… perfect. The cupcake recipe I’ve been using lately tastes good but is slightly dense, while cupcakes I’ve had at bakeries are light and springy. How does that happen? What makes a springy cupcake?

So, one Thursday evening after work I decided I wanted to bake four different cupcake recipes to pit them against one another in a fight to the death.

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I looked for recipes lauded as the best–not in a Pinterest hyperbolic way, but something that seemed very well proven.

The contenders:

Contestant #1: My Favorite Vanilla Cupcakes via Cookies and Cups

The writer of this post talked about her trials and tribulations looking for the perfect vanilla cupcake recipe. I also deeply identified with her because she said her husband wasn’t impressed with some of her batches but his gold standard was boxed cake mix. As someone whose boyfriend has been rather ambivalent about my homemade frosting and yet loves frosting from a can (?!?!), I could relate.

This recipe uses half cake flour and half all-purpose flour, all butter (no oil), and one leavener.

Contestant #2: Even Simpler, More Perfect Vanilla Cupcakes via Baking a Moment

In this writer’s earlier post on vanilla cupcakes, she did a fight-to-the-death test using four different recipes before selecting one (and then improving upon it with the one linked above). Thank you for testing those four other recipes so I don’t have to! I’ll gladly use your winning recipe as a contestant instead.

This recipe uses half cake flour and half all-purpose flour, all butter (no oil), two leaveners, and an acid (Greek yogurt).

Contestant #3: Perfect Vanilla Cupcakes via Natasha’s Kitchen

The page for this recipe has over 1,200 comments and it seems to be very well liked. Natasha (I assume) doesn’t detail efforts of trying tons of recipes, but the volume of positive comments and reviews speak for themselves.

This recipe uses all cake flour, all oil (no butter), two leaveners, and an acid (buttermilk).

Contestant #4: The Best Vanilla Cupcake Recipe via The Cupcake Project

The author spent a year developing and testing this recipe. She had a team of 50 test bakers to help her perfect the recipe throughout the process. (Side note: Her post is full of so much interesting cupcake science!)

This recipe uses all cake flour, half butter and half oil, two leaveners, and an acid (sour cream–though I used Greek yogurt because it’s what I had on hand).

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The Fight to the Death

Recipes chosen, I then did some math to reduce each recipe to make just a few cupcakes each and set out to bake these four recipes.

After the fourth batch came out of the oven, I cut one cupcake per batch into quarters–unfrosted, mostly because it was nearly midnight by then and I really needed to get to bed–and Matt and I stood in the kitchen, taking bites and judging. The next night Matt’s friend Steve came over and, ever eager for a test subject, I presented him with some day-old cupcake quarters, a tiny square from a cut-up index card placed next to each quarter to denote each cupcake’s number. Here are the results of these judgment sessions.

Best Dome: Contestant #1

Contestant 1

Everyone gets an award in this experiment. If this award is about a cupcake’s shape, you can assume the cupcake didn’t fare much in other areas like, oh, taste. Which isn’t to insult Contestant #1, the lucky recipient of this award; it did have a nice vanilla aftertaste. But texture-wise, it missed the mark. It came last in the Test of Springiness and was more dense than airy. It just didn’t have that fluffiness I’m looking for. It was also slightly gluey and made me want a drink of water after the first bite.

(Note: The image above doesn’t do justice to this cupcake’s dome, as it was a day old at this point and the container I was storing the cupcake in tragically ripped away part of the top center of the cupcake, hence why the top center is a little craggly. It was just too tall for my container. Reaching for the stars truly has a downside.)

(Another note: Why does the inside of this cupcake look like that “S” we used to draw growing up?)

Best at Getting Better With Age: Contestant #2

Contestant 2

I ate a lot of cupcake quarters over the next few days as I second-guessed myself and wondered if my judgments were off-base. They predictably began to taste drier with age, but Contestant #2 somehow defied all expectations and didn’t get dry like the others. It was just a nice, moist cupcake even three days later.

This doesn’t mean the cupcake was perfect, however. Matt and I both ranked it in dead last because it had not only the slight gluey-ness of Contestant #1 but also had an odd artificial aftertaste (which, where was that coming from? I made you from scratch!). But I don’t know. It aged well? Maybe age had something to do with why this cupcake was Steve’s second choice–perhaps it fared better among its competitors after a day of aging.

Runner Up: Contestant #4

Contestant 4

Runner up its own award, right? I can’t think of anything to distinguish Contestant #4, really, except that it was pretty good. It was Matt’s winning choice and my second place choice. And this is my blog and my contest, so Runner Up award it is. This cupcake had a light, fluffy texture and a pleasant vanilla flavor. The only thing I didn’t like was that it had that slight artificial taste to it (again, how?).

First Place: Contestant #3

Contestant 3

This leaves Contestant #3 as the winner of the competition! It was light, fluffy, and it excelled all the others in taste, texture, and springiness. This was mine and Steve’s first choice, and Matt’s second choice. I wasn’t expecting this because this is the cupcake that uses all oil! I thought for sure this one would come in dead last. Isn’t butter where the flavor is? Apparently not.

And then something strange happened. Over the next few days, the winning cupcakes soon got eaten, leaving me with Contestants #1 and #2, along with a few unfrosted quarters of 3 and 4. As I ate them, I held informal after-the-fact taste tests, second-guessing my rankings. I ate Contestant #1 and thought it was really a very delicious cupcake–was I sure about putting it so far behind the others? The same thing happened when I ate Contestant #2. They just tasted like… good cupcakes. Who am I to judge them?

Which I realize is kind of silly, to judge old cupcake scraps without all the contenders present and act like it’s a fair fight. So I won’t put too much stock in my existential cupcake meltdown.

But it’s something to keep in mind, and perhaps it speaks to how good each of these cupcake recipes are at their core. Compared against one another, yes, I have my favorites (although apparently that doesn’t keep me from hanging out with the non-favorites and second-guessing my life), but these were all good cupcakes I’d have been happy to have.

So… Contestant #3 was my favorite. But it might not be yours.

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Before we get to the recipe, a note on the frosting I used. This frosting recipe came about after several attempts at making a frosting Matt wouldn’t dismiss. It turns out he doesn’t like much vanilla (?!). Vanilla is his favorite flavor, but… not too much, apparently. So one evening I decided we would solve this and mixed together some butter, powdered sugar, salt, and milk, and I proceeded to add vanilla a quarter of a teaspoon at a time, having him taste it each step of the way so we could find out what his vanilla threshold is.

It is one teaspoon.

I would at least double that, but hey, that’s just me. I’m just, uh. Edgy like that.

Lastly, this post is dedicated to my dear friends Kate and Betty, both of whom recently reminded me, Hey, remember when you actually updated your blog instead of letting it fester like a rotting carcass?

Anyway, cupcakes!

Vanilla Frosting

Makes enough to frost 12-15 cupcakes or one 9-inch one-layer cake

  • One stick (1/2 cup) butter, softened
  • Two cups powdered sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1-2 tablespoons milk (depending on your preferred consistency)
  • 1-2 teaspoons vanilla extract (depending on whether you are Matt)

Cream together the butter, salt, and powdered sugar. Beat in the milk and vanilla, adding milk until it is your desired consistency.

Winning Vanilla Cupcakes (Contestant #3)

Source: Adapted from Natasha’s Kitchen

Makes 15 cupcakes

  • 1 1/4 cups cake flour
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup oil (I used canola oil)
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Place paper cupcake liners in a muffin tin and set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine cake flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

In a large bowl, beat together eggs and sugar, then beat in oil and vanilla.

Stir in half of the flour mixture, then add the milk and stir. Stir in the rest of the flour and the buttermilk, and beat until just combined. (This batter will be thin, and that’s okay.)

Pour batter into the muffin tin, filling liners about 2/3 full. Bake at 350 degrees for 12-14 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cupcake comes out clean (mine took 17 minutes to get to this stage).

Let cupcakes cool in pan for two minutes, then remove them from the pan and let them finish cooling on a wire rack.

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