The Ultimate Cupcake Guide

The Ultimate Cupcake Guide compares six batches of cupcakes to discover which ingredients techniques make cupcakes light, dense, greasy, crumbly, or moist.
The Ultimate Cupcake Guide shows how different ingredients and techniques make cupcakes light, greasy, fluffy, dense, crumbly, or moist!

Cupcakes have proven themselves to be much more than a fleeting baking trend. With the amount of cupcake bakeries, reality television shows, and recipes in general, it’s clear they’re here to stay. Cupcakes are much easier than layered cakes to bake and transport, not to mention their cute size makes them the perfect indulgence for just about any occasion or holiday, like Halloween! It’s no wonder they’re so popular.

Despite their popularity, many cupcakes you find at the grocery store bakery are either bland or cloyingly sweet. Not to mention so many have an awful crumbly or greasy texture and artificial aftertaste. Homemade cupcakes are always better, and most recipes out there for basic yellow cupcakes are fairly similar. Small changes in the flour, fat, baking times, and baking temperatures, however, can result in very different cupcakes.

For this round of kitchen experimenting, I tested six batches of cupcakes to discover what makes a cupcake domed or flat, rich or crumbly, soft or slightly chewy, to help you create your version of the perfect cupcake. Since most cupcake recipes are very similar, I used a very basic recipe that is from no one source in particular as my control recipe. From there I tested how cake flour, extra egg yolks, sour cream, oil, and a lower baking temperature affect the cupcakes. To keep the results as consistent as possible, I used the same ingredients, utensils, techniques, and bakeware when applicable. I also maintained a 350°F oven temperature and a twenty-minute baking time when applicable. Take a look at the results to see the ins and outs of cupcake baking; I hope they help you discover the tricks to making your version of the perfect cupcake!

Control

The Ultimate Cupcake Guide: Control

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Control Recipe: Basic Yellow Cupcakes

Yield: 12 cupcakes

Prep Time: 10 min

Cook Time: 20 min

Total Time: 50 min

Ingredients:

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (6.35 ounces)
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon fine salt
1 cup granulated sugar
1 stick (1/2 cup or 4 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 large egg
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons whole milk

Directions:

In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the sugar and butter until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg and vanilla and beat until combined. Add the flour and milk alternatively, starting and ending with the flour, beating well after each addition. Continue beating for one minute. Divide the batter between the cupcake cups, filling each about 2/3 full.

Bake at 350°F for 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Let cool for 10 minutes before removing to a wire rack to cool completely.

Cake Flour

The Ultimate Cupcake Guide: Cake FlourFor this test I substituted the 1 1/2 cups (6.37 ounces) all-purpose flour in the recipe with 1 1/2 cups of sifted Swans Down brand cake flour, which weighs 5.25 ounces after sifting. Everything else in the recipe was left as-is. The cupcakes were visibly lighter in color with very domed tops. The texture was super fine and soft but also on the dry side with a slight crumbly feel. In taste testing these cake flour cupcakes I felt that using all cake flour was too much. If you want to make your cupcakes softer you might consider using half cake flour, half all-purpose flour.

Egg Yolks

The Ultimate Cupcake Guide: Egg YolksIn addition to the one whole egg called for in the control recipe, I added an additional two egg yolks to test how they affect the cupcake’s texture and flavor. The additional egg yolks not only lended a deeper yellow tint to the cupcakes, they also domed slightly more than some of the other tests. The batter itself looked a little grainy, which concerned me, but the baked results were slightly chewy yet still soft, ultra moist, and full of rich flavor, all desirable traits in a cupcake. These egg yolk cupcakes would stand up nicely to a rich and thick frosting. I enjoyed the taste and texture of these cupcakes and will probably use at least one additional egg yolk in my yellow cupcake recipes from now on.

Sour Cream

The Ultimate Cupcake Guide: Sour CreamThe control recipe calls for milk, but there are many cupcake recipes that call for sour cream instead so I decided to test the difference. I substituted the exact amount of milk with plain sour cream. The batter itself was visibly thicker and tighter, not quite as loose as the control batter. The finished cupcakes were denser and slightly chewier than the control, with the perfect amount of moisture. They also had a slight tang, which added a nice depth of flavor. These sour cream cupcakes and the egg yolk cupcakes proved to be my favorites.

Oil

The Ultimate Cupcake Guide: Oil Most yellow cupcake recipes use butter as the main fat, however quite a few recipes for chocolate cupcakes or red velvet cupcakes use oil instead. I wanted to see what kind of difference oil makes so I substituted 1/2 cup canola oil for all the butter called for in the control recipe. Instead of beating the oil and sugar together, I simply mixed very well by hand. The resulting cupcakes were unsurprisingly very similar to muffins in their appearance and texture. They were spongier than any of the other cupcakes but also had the worst flavor. These cupcakes almost tasted like they were fried to me, that’s how pronounced the oil taste was. There’s definitely a reason why oil is only reserved for chocolate or red velvet cupcakes, which include flavorful ingredients that mask the oil flavor. I would definitely stick to using butter in yellow cupcakes because it provides that characteristic buttery flavor and light, finer-textured crumb.

325°F Baking Temeprature

The Ultimate Cupcake Guide: 325 degree baking temperatureFor this test I took the exact control recipe but baked it in a 325°F oven for 22 minutes. I peeked through the oven window to watch these cupcakes as they baked and they domed up surprisingly high during baking but proceeded to collapse slightly during the last minutes of baking and during cooling. As expected, they didn’t brown as much as the control cupcakes and were actually extremely difficult to remove as the edges had overflowed and stuck to the tin. Since they were so soft and tender, I ended up damaging a few of the cupcakes while trying to remove them from the tin. This dilemma surprised me and I would certainly avoid baking cupcakes at a lowered temperature again, though the lower temperature would probably work well for producing ultra soft and tender layer cakes.

Final Comparison

The Ultimate Cupcake Guide: what makes cupcakes light, greasy, fluffy, dense, crumbly, or moist!

Be sure to check out these ultimate guide posts:
The Ultimate Guide to Chocolate Chip Cookies
The Ultimate Guide to Chocolate Chip Cookies Part II
The Ultimate Brownie Guide

The article The Ultimate Cupcake Guide was originally posted at Relish.com.

Now time for part two of this post, a round up of my favorite cupcake recipes from over the years! If you can’t tell, I love chocolate so many of these recipes incorporate it in some way. I can’t wait to use what I learned while writing this cupcake guide to make even more scrumptious cupcake recipes to share with you. Have you made any of these recipes? Which were your favorite?

Chocolate Stuffed Red Velvet Cucpakes
Chocolate Stuffed Red Velvet Cupcakes

Snickerdoodle Cupcakes
Snickerdoodle Cupcakes

Peanut Butter Stuffed Devil's Food Cupcakes
Peanut Butter Stuffed Devil’s Food Cupcakes

Mint Chocolate Cupcakes
Mint Chocolate Cupcakes

Pumpkin Spice Latte Cupcakes
Pumpkin Spice Latte Cupcakes

Ultimate Chocolate Cupcakes
Ultimate Chocolate Cupcakes

Chocolate Malt Cupcakes
Chocolate Malt Cupcakes

Nutella Cupcakes
Nutella Cupcakes

Be sure to follow me on Pinterest for more cupcake recipes!

   

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26 Responses to “The Ultimate Cupcake Guide”

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    1
    Diane @ Vintage Zest — October 15, 2013 at 2:01 pm

    Your round-ups are awesome. I headed over right now!

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    Dana — October 15, 2013 at 3:13 pm

    This is SO interesting. I’m on the never-ending quest for the perfect yellow cupcake. I wonder how they would taste with part cake flour, egg yolks and sour cream? I guess the possibilities are nearly endless!

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    Tieghan — October 15, 2013 at 6:56 pm

    Girl, you amaze me!! Headed to check out the post now!

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    4
    Dina — October 19, 2013 at 6:01 pm

    great guide!

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    Shawn @ IWYD — October 21, 2013 at 7:07 am

    So awesome! Thanks for such brilliant work! :)

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    Hibz — November 3, 2013 at 2:55 pm

    I actually did my own tests with this recipe. Since it was so basic, you could really go anywhere with it. I didn’t have enough sour cream to substitute the milk completely, so I added in half of each. I also added in one extra egg yolk. The cupcakes definitely yielded more than a dozen for me, and the results (looks-wise) matched the cake flour one. However, the texture was heavy , yet spongy and light–something dense that melts in your mouth, but you could have another and another. I wanted to enhance the tang of the sour cream, since the batter did smell a little plain, so I squeezed in some lemon juice and added in more vanilla as well. With some frosting, it was a great confection that everybody couldn’t wait to get their hands on. Thank you.

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    Ellouse — November 14, 2013 at 1:46 am

    Hello I’m from France we don’t have sour cream here what could be a good substitute ??? Thank you :)

    • Tessa replied: — November 14th, 2013 @ 8:47 am

      Hi! Fromage blanc is a good substitute, and creme fraiche should work too!

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    Denise — November 19, 2013 at 11:47 am

    Another alternative to sour cream is (always) yoghurt!

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    Janice — December 9, 2013 at 4:33 am

    What would you recommend I use for a frosting on the chocolate stuffed red velvet cupcakes?

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    Beth — May 14, 2014 at 4:35 pm

    Great comparison! I found it really useful to learn how different ingredients affect cupcake texture and taste.

    My challenge is that I can’t have any cow dairy (I can’t tolerate a protein found in dairy milk). I’m wondering if anyone has tried making cupcake with goat milk or goat butter instead?

    I use rice milk in muffins and they taste good, but the domes fall.

    • Tessa replied: — May 17th, 2014 @ 5:10 pm

      Hi Beth, unfortunately I haven’t tried using any goat milk products. I have had good luck with almond milk and Earth balance butter in baking, but haven’t tried them with cupcakes. Mel below commented saying that macadamia oil is a good butter substitute, that might be worth trying!

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    Linda @ A La Place Clichy — May 15, 2014 at 10:14 pm

    This was so useful! I’ve always wanted to do this test myself or try to find a simpler explanation as to why some recipes call for this and that. Thanks for teaching me a little something and making me a better baker!

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    12
    paz — May 16, 2014 at 1:07 pm

    Hola!!!Lamento no escribir inglés!!!Pero no puedo dejar de felicitarte por tus incursiones y pruebas, que tanto nos ayudan en la cocina!!Cariños y quedo esperando mas buenas notas !!!

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    Mel — May 17, 2014 at 4:42 am

    Instead of canola oil, I use macadamia oil to substitute butter, it has quite a buttery flavour and tastes great! Good for a dairy free alternative :)

    • Tessa replied: — May 17th, 2014 @ 5:00 pm

      That’s great to know! Thanks for the tip :)

  14. #
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    naya — June 4, 2014 at 7:11 pm

    hello. im from indonesia, im realy realy love your blog. my inspirations. i wish and i hope i like you soon..

  15. #
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    Penha — June 12, 2014 at 5:24 pm

    você é realmente incrível, obrigada por nos ajudar sob o resultado de um produto melhor1

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    Jennifer — July 10, 2014 at 2:33 pm

    Hi,

    I was wondering how you exactly did your test? Did you bake the cupcakes all the same day or on different days? Were all liquid ingredients (and I would consider the sour cream and eggs liquid with this question) at room temperature or were they used straight out of the refrigerator? If they were at room temp, was it consistent across recipes or did some use room temp ingredients and some not? This can affect the degree to which a cake domes, which is why I would like to know.

    • Tessa replied: — July 10th, 2014 @ 2:39 pm

      Hi Jennifer,

      As I mentioned in the post, I did my best to keep the results as consistent as possible. Everything was baked on the same day so they could be photographed together the day of baking. Ingredients were at room temperature, each batch was baked separately in the same (but completely cool) baking tin, in a carefully monitored 350°F. oven.

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    S — July 21, 2014 at 4:39 am

    Nice to see that side by side comparison!
    Just a side note, If you use sour cream or other soured milk product in the batter, there is no need for baking powder. Baking powder has the acidity already built in to the right ratio to produce the rise. Baking soda has no acidity, so it is better to use when you have a strong acid for the liquid. When you add a soured milk product, you are adding more acid, which throws off the acid/alkaline ratio… So you need more alkaline to restore balance. I have found that usually 1/2 tsp baking soda and 1/2 tsp salt to a cup of soured milk produces a pretty good rise for me.. but you can experiment.

    • Tessa replied: — July 21st, 2014 @ 12:19 pm

      Thanks for your feedback! I tried to only change 1 element in each batch, so I refrained from altering the leaveners in the recipe. Sounds like you have a good understanding of baking science!

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    Royce Napier — August 26, 2014 at 3:55 pm

    What if you wanted a cupcake that had a moist, shiny domed top wit a soft and granular inside?

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    Miss Kim @ behgopa — September 30, 2014 at 3:32 pm

    Loved this guide. It’s so much more fun and personal than the boring text books I had at culinary school. My personal fav is to use the sour cream. Love it!

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    Tsholo — October 9, 2014 at 5:38 am

    I have to make 3 dozens of red velvet cupcakes tomorrow, and I can’t find all-purpose flour anywhere. All I have is cake-flour and I’ve seen from a bunch of people that cake flour just produces dry cupcakes, and I have no idea what to do. I have no all purpose flour at all, so I can’t mix half and half, what to do?

    Any suggestions would be highly appreciated.

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    Angelina — November 17, 2014 at 1:33 pm

    Thanks for posting these experiments, haha! This is something I was so interested in learning about, especially since trying a “Pumpkin Beer Cupcake” recipe via Pinterest and realizing I must’ve added too much of a certain that prevented the cupcakes from baking like usual. This is a really helpful guide and will be referring to it as I continue to explore this baking hobby I’ve started. You’ve got a new fan! :)

    xx

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