The Perfect Vanilla Cupcake

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I am always looking for a better cupcake recipe. I would say that I've tried a thousand recipes but that's me being hyperbolic.  Dozens, though - I have tried dozens.  The test kitchen sits at 5000 feet and baking can be a real challenge. I'd never researched high-altitude baking before and chalked sunken cupcakes up to my lack of technique or a crappy recipe. Besides, I always had my good friend, the cake doctor, standing by. When I moved to a new town and added 600 feet in altitude, baking failures became more noticeable. As did my need to crank out a good cupcake from scratch. 

I researched  the dickens out of high-altitude baking. I read "Pie in the Sky," which is recognized by most as the bible of high-altitude baking. I followed that up with another book on high altitude baking. I think it was called "High Altitude Baking." I got cookbooks written by executive chefs at ski lodge restaurants - if you can bake at 10,000 feet then 5000 should be, well, a piece of cake right? I surfed the internet and sorted through countless YouTube tutorials. In the end, I found that some recipes worked - but most did not. I still didn't understand why. I mean, yes the air is thinner and water boils at a lower temperature and yeast-dough rises faster and chemical leavening reacts before the batter is ready - all of that stuff. Yet...why this recipe and not that one? There are lists of "standard" high-altitude baking adjustments. Add more flour, decrease the amount of sugar, reduce the quantity of baking powder/soda, use more liquid, add an egg, increase the oven temperature... Did I leave anything out? I'm sure I did. And in the end, I couldn't consistently produce a perfect cupcake.

By perfect, I don't mean just flavor and texture. Not when I'm cranking out over 100 of those fully-decorated suckers on Halloween night. No, perfect means it can't be too damn hard. So, without further adieu, I bring you my perfect vanilla cupcake. Adapted ever so slightly from Sally's recipe which is included the link below. All ingredients are room temperature. I weigh my ingredients and highly recommend you spring for the $10 on Amazon for a kitchen scale and do the same. Baking failures are way more expensive. Per unit measures are also tricky. Size does matter when it comes to eggs. Also, did you know that in Japan a stick of butter is half the size as it is in the United States? I found that out the hard way when sharing recipes across the Pacific.

Vanilla Cupcakes

  • 1 stick (8 tbs) butter
  • 200 grams granulated sugar (1 cup)
  • 200 grams cake flour (1-3/4 cup)
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 3 large egg whites
  • 1 Tbs pure vanilla extract
  • 120 grams full-fat sour cream (1/2 cup)
  • 1/2 cup full-fat milk
  • Optional vanilla bean ** 
  • Frosting of your choice (try the fluffy brown sugar recipe below)
  1. Beat the butter on high speed until smooth; add sugar and beat until well combined. Meanwhile, combine dry ingredients and set aside.
  2. Add egg whites and vanilla, beating at medium speed until combined.  
  3. Add sour cream, beat at medium speed until combined.
  4. With mixer on low, slowly add the dry ingredients until just incorporated. Then add the milk, mixing slowly just until all ingredients are combined. 
  5. Fill prepared cupcake liners 1/2 to 2/3 full. 

Now for the hard stuff: the baking temperature. Sally calls for 350°F for 19-22 minutes. I use 350°F convection.  Of all of the adjustments I have made to cure altitude sickness in my kitchen, I believe the convection oven has been the most important. With my oven, that means I set the temperature at 375°F because the convection feature automatically adjusts the setpoint down to 350°F. I set the timer for 15 minutes and increase in 2 minutes if necessary. These came in at 17 minutes and my yield was 18 cupcakes.

This is a standard mixing procedure for cake batters, I left out all of the extracurricular instructions. You know to scrape down the bowl and not to overmix. I've always wondered what that meant - don't overmix. I never overdo anything. I will say that I evolved from dumping everything into the mixer and beating the tar out of the batter at high speed to gently combining the ingredients in stages. Too much or too vigorous mixing can introduce air into the batter and make the cake tough, a less-forgiving property at altitude. I often do the final mix by hand. This batter was beautiful - silky and smooth, I knew I was on to something. 

I know what you're thinking - what about the vanilla bean? Well, there is a reason that wars have been fought over spices. Vanilla beans are both exquisite and expensive. Keep in mind that here in the test kitchen, we look for recipes that are delicious, easy, somewhat economical, and versatile. I plan to use this recipe as a base for other cupcakes like orange and cinnamon and I'll be sending them out the door by the gross. This recipe produced a simply delicious vanilla cupcake without the vanilla bean. But if you make a single batch for your family and friends, scrape the seeds of a whole bean into the batter when you add the egg whites. That's what I do when I make these for just us. Those little brown flecks are like candy hearts on Valentine's Day screaming, "I love you."

For more about Sally, check out the links to my favorite cooking places. Enjoy.


Fluffy Brown Sugar Icing

  • 1 cup brown sugar (packed)
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/2 cup light corn syrup
  • 4 egg whites
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  1. Mix brown sugar, water and corn syrup in a medium pan. Bring to a full rolling boil. Boil at medium heat for approximately 10 minutes until syrup drops like a hair from a spoon. Remove from burner and set aside.
  2. Meanwhile, beat egg whites until stiff.
  3. Slowly pour the hot syrup in a thin stream into egg whites, beating constantly.
  4. Beat until icing holds peaks; beat in vanilla.
  5. Let cool to room temperature. Store covered in the refrigerator until ready to use.

A link to the recipe source is included below with photos and a video. I followed the recipe exactly. I recommend refrigerating the icing for a bit before piping it onto your cupcakes. At my room temperature it was just a little bit soft, but as you can see it still held the swirl just fine. The recipe makes a lot of icing. I refrigerated the leftovers and noticed that it started to separate after a few days. I didn't try to re-whip it into shape just because my kitchen is in a state of remodel so I'm off cupcakes for a couple of weeks. 

I got as many compliments on the icing as I did the cupcake. It is a delicious alternative to buttercream when you want something that is a little less sweet. Enjoy.