This simple carrot cake recipe yields an incredibly moist cake with warm spices and a to die for luscious, tangy, nutty browned butter cream cheese frosting. Put simply, it’s seriously THE BEST!
I’m an equal opportunist when it comes to savoring a decadent slice of cake. My forever favorite is German Chocolate Cake, but this carrot cake just might take over that top spot. And I’m not alone because whenever I make this cream cheese frosted carrot cake, my house becomes the favorite place to be for all of my daughter’s friends.
I mean, the cake is absolutely divine but the big thing that puts this carrot cake above and beyond the others is its creamy browned butter and maple cream cheese frosting. The browned butter adds earthy notes to the tangy cream cheese and when combined with the maple syrup, they add toasty, caramelly flavors you’re going to crave over and over again and literally lick from the bowl. Together, these flavors give an amazing twist to your classic carrot cake frosting. This is one cake you really, really, really have to try.
What’s in The BEST Carrot Cake
This cake contains the usual suspects you’ll find in most cakes — sugar, eggs, flour, leaveners. It uses oil instead of butter (for optimal moisture) and of course carrots.
Here’s what you’ll need:
- brown sugar — for flavor and for extra moisture (either light or dark is fine)
- granulated sugar
- eggs — at room temperature
- vegetable or canola oil — this will keep the cake nice and moist
- buttermilk — at room temperature (this will make the cake tender and moist — full fat is best)
- vanilla extract
- carrots — shredded in a food processor, or coarsely grated with a box grater
- all-purpose flour
- baking powder
- baking soda
- kosher salt
- unsalted butter — for the icing (you’ll brown half for delicious warm, caramelly, nutty notes)
- cream cheese — full fat is best and it’s super important this is at room temperature or you’ll have a lumpy icing
- maple syrup (the darker the better or try a bourbon-barrel aged maple syrup) — the toffee notes complement the browned butter beautifully
- powdered sugar
First, Prep the Frosting
Brown your butter then let it cool. Before starting the cake, brown half of the butter for the frosting so it will have time to cool before blending with the other stick of butter and cream cheese. Browned butter adds a lovely, fragrantly nutty flavor that adds caramel notes to the tanginess of the cream cheese. It’s all about balance, baby. Next, move on to baking that cake…
How to Make The BEST Carrot Cake
Shred the carrots. I find the quickest and easiest way to shred carrots is in the food processor with the grater attachment. Don’t have one? Don’t stress. You can use a good old-fashioned box grater instead, just watch those knuckles!
Whisk the sugars and eggs together until the mixture is thick and light in color. Creaming butter and sugar for 5-6 minutes adds air and lightness to the cake. I do this in my stand mixer but if using a hand mixer, be sure to use a large bowl because it will eventually hold all of your cake batter. Next, slowly add the oil (adding it gradually will help emulsify the mixture), followed by the buttermilk and vanilla.
Mix your dry ingredients. Whisk up those spices, leaveners, and your flour. Adding nuts to your cake? Now’s the time. Toss them in your dry ingredient mix so they’ll distribute well instead of sinking to the bottom of your cake.
Fold the dry ingredients into your wet ingredients. I like to do this in 3 stages so everything gets evenly incorporated. You don’t want to see any pockets of dry ingredients. Gently folding versus whisking or stirring is important so that you don’t over-mix the batter and end up with a tough cake. Once your dry ingredients are fully incorporated, fold in the carrots just until combined.
Divide and Bake
Divide the batter between two prepared cake pans and bake at 350°F. If using 8-inch round cake pans, they should take about 35-40 minutes to bake where 9-inch round cake pans will take 30-35 minutes to bake. If using a 9 X 13-inch baking pan, plan on 30-35 minutes baking time.
How to tell when cakes are done. When finished baking, you’ll notice the sides of the cake will have pulled apart from the sides of the pan and a cake tester or long toothpick will come out clean from the cake. Allow the cakes to cool completely on a cooling rack.
Make the Browned Butter Maple Cream Cheese Icing
Whip your butter and cream cheese. As the cakes cool, beat the browned butter and softened butter in the bowl of a stand mixer until smooth. Add the cream cheese and salt and continue beating until there are no lumps. Add the maple syrup (I used a bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup), vanilla extract, and powdered sugar (1 cup at a time), beating until the frosting is smooth, whipped, and fluffy. Set aside until ready to use or refrigerate if making it in advance.
Make sure cakes are completely cool before frosting. If the cakes are even slightly warm, the frosting may melt, becoming a sweet slick of liquid instead of frothy frosting.
Note: You can make the icing up to a week ahead of time, and store in the fridge. When ready to ice your cake, bring it to room temperature and fluff with a spatula or re-whip in a mixer if needed.
Is Carrot Cake Healthier Than Regular Cake
While carrot cake may be slightly healthier than your average cake due to its hearty dose of beta carotene-rich carrots, it’s not exactly a health food. There’s still a fair amount of sugar and oil (it is cake after all). That said, life is short, eat carrot cake.
Why Did Carrot Cake Turn Green
Your carrot cake should not ever turn green, but if the tips of any of your carrots do, that is a sign you’ve either used too much baking soda or the baking soda wasn’t distributed well. This is because carrots have pigments that are sensitive to changes in pH balance. Just be sure your dry ingredients are well incorporated and all of your carrots should stay perfectly orange.
Mix-ins for Carrot Cake
There are so many different versions of carrot cake out there. Ones made with walnuts or pecans, coconut, pineapple, and/or raisins. I love making it with toasted walnuts and sometimes golden raisins as well, but you could use pecans instead, add shredded coconut, do any combo of these, or skip it altogether. I don’t recommend adding pineapple to this carrot cake as it will throw off the dry/wet ingredient ratio.
If using nuts in your carrot cake, walnuts or pecans work best and I suggest roasting them beforehand to bring out more flavor. Roast the nuts at 350°F for about 10 minutes, then coarsely chop. 1 cup of nuts are be plenty. If adding nuts, raisins and/or coconut to your carrot cake, 1/2 cup is a good amount.
Tips for Making the Best Carrot Cake
Use room temperature ingredients so the ingredients blend more easily when baking. To speed up getting room temperature eggs, place them in a bowl of warm water for a few minutes. Cream cheese takes at least an hour, but longer is better or your icing will be lumpy.
Shred your own carrots. Skip the grocery store pre-grated carrots as they tend to be too thick and dry and won’t add enough moisture to your cake. I use the grater attachment of a food processor to grate my own, but if you don’t have a food processor, you can totally use a box grater.
Go nutty if you want. If adding nuts, I highly recommend toasting them first, then chopping them coarsely and tossing them with your dry ingredients first to ensure they won’t sink to the bottom of your cake. Or, top the frosting with nuts, maybe half and half for nut lovers and those who are not.
Mix it right. It’s important not to over-mix the cake or else it could be tough, but you want to make sure all of your dry ingredients are entirely incorporated and that there aren’t any pockets of flour.
How to Store Carrot Cake
Since carrot cake has a cream cheese frosting, it’s best not to leave it out at room temperature beyond a day. To keep it fresher longer, store in the fridge. Take it out 30 minutes before you want to serve to take the chill off.
Can I Freeze Carrot Cake
You can freeze the layers (unfrosted) for up to two months. Wrap them tightly in plastic wrap and then foil. Placing the wrapped layers in a freezer bag will add another layer of protection against freezer burn. To defrost, place them in the fridge overnight or for at least 8 hours.
More Cake Recipe Ideas
- Confetti Cake With Buttercream Frosting
- Devil’s Food Bundt Cake with Chocolate Espresso Ganache
- German Chocolate Cake
- Vanilla and Chocolate Marbled Bundt Cake
- Lemon and Cherry Mini Bundt Cakes
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