Dairy-free and egg-free cakes can be feather-light, moist and flavourful when you know how. So forget animal products and learn how to bake the best vegan cakes with these tips and tricks.
When comparing vegan and non-vegan cakes, there are both similarities and some important differences. My cake recipes contain lots of additional guidance on how to bake vegan cakes, but this post is a deeper dive in to the how and why of plant based cake baking.
First things first though, what makes a cake vegan?
A vegan cake contains no ingredients from animals. So there’s no eggs, and no dairy. A vegan cake is either designed to not need these ingredients, or it will contain comparable plant based ingredients, like soy yogurt instead of dairy yoghurt, or a margarine made from vegetables oils instead of butter.
Start with a vegan cake recipe
The most robust and effective vegan cake recipes I’ve created and used were not converted recipes, they were designed as vegan recipes from the start. They have different ingredient ratios, formulations and methods to their non-vegan alternatives.
One of the most important things I’ve learnt about vegan cooking is that it’s OK to take a different route to the same result – in fact it can be essential sometimes.
Take for example a classic Victoria sponge cake. Normally these are made by creaming equal amounts of a solid fat – traditionally butter, with sugar, then adding eggs and flour. My vegan Victoria sponge cake has entirely different ingredient ratios, there’s no creaming step, and everything is just briefly mixed together before pouring in the cake tins. Despite these differences, the result from both recipes is a classic Victoria sponge cake.
Use room temperature ingredients
It takes a while for the heat to reach the centre of the cake, and having cold ingredients slows this down dramatically. The result can be a cake that’s overbaked on the outside and undercooked in the middle, so start with room temperature or lukewarm ingredients.
Microwave plant milk in 10-20 second bursts and test until warm if it’s coming out the fridge, and allow any ingredients like fruit to warm up to room temperature if they’ve been chilled.
My vegan apple sharlotka is a good example of this, since it has 500g of sliced apples in the bottom of the tin. As the recipes says, if your apples are cold the cake will sink in the middle.
Don’t skip the salt!
Many people add a pinch of salt to their cake batter. However, non-vegan cakes also contain salt from the eggs. The butter or margarine might be salted too. The result is most cakes contain a fair bit of salt. More than you might expect for a sweet recipe.
A completely salt-free cake is not something many people have tasted – at least not until they try vegan baking. Your vegan cake recipe won’t be using any eggs, and if it uses a fat with no salt (eg. liquid oil rather than margarine), the only salt – if any – will be the salt you add. Well, I’ve tried not adding any and it wasn’t good.
Salt free cakes are surprisingly bad. There’s a strong flour taste, and in some cases other ingredients taste flat and dull too.
Chocolate cake is surprisingly bland when there’s no salt. Even good cocoa powder did nothing to help!
Since we’re compensating for having no eggs, vegan cakes taste best with a little bit more salt than you might be used to adding to cakes.
Use soy milk (if you can)
I’ve tried many non-dairy milks in cakes and found no apparent difference in rise, browning or taste. However, soy milk did stand out in one area – the cakes were the least crumbly.
Soy milk is high in protein – the ingredient that bonds together during baking and sets your cake. While the majority of a typical cake’s protein comes from wheat flour, the additional soy milk protein appears to help.
However, if you can’t use soy milk, that’s fine too. Just keep in mind your cake will be a bit more fragile, so cut and handle with a little more care.
The protein in soy milk does have another interesting property that some cakes use – it thickens when mixed with an acid (eg. vinegar or lemon juice). Thickening the milk makes a thicker batter that retains bubbles better and rises better – a trick I used for my vegan Victorian sponge cake recipe. Be aware that recipes using soured soy milk may be relying on this property to work.
Once the liquids are in, mix little, and lightly
The wheat flour used in cake making contains a long chain protein called gluten. If we could see it up close it would look like lots of strings. Gluten – and how we handle it – plays a major role in how light our cakes are.
The chemistry is straightforward enough – once flour is wet, the more you mix the more the gluten strings get tangled up. Mix too much and you’ll have a batter full of tangled gluten that struggles to pull apart and foam up during baking. The results is a dense cake.
I’ve found vegan cakes are more susceptible to becoming tougher when over mixed. But it’s not inevitable. With the proper method vegan cakes are often the lightest and softest cakes.
Fortunately, gluten only tangles when the flour is wet, so thoroughly mix the dry ingredients in a bowl before adding any liquids. The goal is to do the minimum mixing needed while wet, so it helps to have your dry ingredients pre-mixed. It should only take a few seconds of stirring to form a smooth batter this way.
Tips on making richer, more ‘buttery’ vegan cakes
If it’s the richness of butter you’re missing, you might like cakes that contain ground almonds. It’s not the same flavour as butter, but it’s rich and creates that extra-moist texture.
Using a recipe that contains block margarine also tends to enhance the ‘buttery’ quality of it. Block margarine contains more saturated fat and is closer in composition to butter than liquid oils and soft margarines are. I find block margarine develops ‘buttery’ flavours most effectively in cakes that turn golden during baking.
Build plant-based flavours
There’s a wide range of plant-based ingredients that can enhance vegan cakes. One I use a lot in my recipes is maple syrup. Just a few spoonfuls add valuable base flavours that create a higher quality cake. It’s also a humectant that attracts water and helps cakes stay moist.
The addition of fruits and citrus zest is another way to elevate your vegan baking. It doesn’t have to be a major flavour, it can be a subtle enhancement. A small pinch of lemon zest is commonly added to Victoria sponge cakes to give them greater depth of flavour.
Or you can go all out and make orange and blueberry cakes!
How to tell if a cake is done?
A properly baked cake is light and soft, an almost melt-in-your-mouth experience. Overbake though and it will be hard and dry. Or worse, underbake and you risk having a soggy, possibly sunken cake. Getting this step right is a key part of making the best vegan cake possible.
We could just test lots, but opening the door and poking at the cake too much is going to cause the cake to fail for other reasons. Cakes go through two stages while baking. First, the batter foams up, then it sets as a sponge. In between foaming and setting is the risky part, because until it’s set, that foamed batter is delicate. A sudden temperature change from opening the oven door or a bump from moving the cake will easily cause those bubbles to escape and your cake to collapse in the middle.
So, testing your cake means finding a balance between not doing it too early and not doing it too late.
Recipes and ovens vary. But as a general rule, I test at around 80% of the suggested cooking time. If a recipe says 30 minutes, I’ll usually test around 25 minutes. If it says 60 minutes then I test at around 50.
Conditions vary though and sometimes your first attempt at a recipe can be way off the suggested time. If the cake even slightly jiggles in the middle when you touch the tin, stop! It’s definitely not set. Carefully and immediately close the door and cook longer.
Aside from not jiggling in the middle, a properly cooked cake will have slightly shrunk away from the sides of the tin, creating a small gap just about thick enough to insert a knife. Its surface will also be matte, not shiny. If you have a glass door oven you can actually see the progression of the cake baking. At first it’s all shiny, wet batter, but as time passes the edges turn matte and the shiny area in the centre shrinks until it vanishes.
It’s always the centre of the cake that cooks last, since it’s the last place for the heat to reach.
So if there’s any doubt, directly test the centre of the cake by inserting a insert a wooden cocktail stick and pulling it out. If it’s clean and has no wet batter stuck to it – the cake is cooked.
I like to note down the time a cake takes to cook, and after eating it if I’d adjust up or down. This means I have better information to follow next time I make the recipe.
Vegan cakes aren’t hard to make, and the best ones can rival non-vegan cakes. Now that I’ve developed a number of vegan cake recipes, I actually wouldn’t go back to making cakes with eggs and animal ingredients. I prefer the lighter, softer crumb I get with egg-free cakes. They are different though, and it helps to know why.
I hope this deeper look at how to bake vegan cakes helped you. If you have any questions or suggestions, join in the conversation in the comments below!