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Layers of light and moist cake made with shredded carrots and the perfect balance of warm spices are topped with a tangy homemade cream cheese frosting. This really is the Best Carrot Cake Recipe ever!
Best Carrot Cake Recipe
I didn't always love carrot cake. In fact, growing up I hated it. Carrots have been and still are my least favorite vegetable and I swore that I could taste the carrots in carrot cake, despite always being told otherwise.
And then there is the matter of the wide variety in carrot cake recipes where some call for pineapple or raisins or pecans or coconut to be mixed into the batter.
It was just too risky to try a slice, no matter how much cream cheese frosting it was topped with.
However, as I was researching carrot cake and it's many forms to find the perfect recipe for this site, I came to the realization that I actually quite like carrot cake if it's done a certain way. And that means no raisins. Or pineapple or coconut or pecans or any of the other mix-ins that people sometimes add to carrot cake. Even though I like all of those ingredients, I personally don't believe they belong in carrot cake.
If you like carrot cake that way, then definitely go for it and add them to the cake batter! But for me, I like a classic carrot-only carrot cake. One that is soft and light and fluffy cake with nary a bite of stray fruit or nut to interfere. My one and only exception is a sprinkle of chopped pecans on the outside of the carrot cake for decoration and a little crunch.
How to grate carrots for carrot cake
As I was recipe testing for this post, I discovered that there is a big difference in the finished cake based on whether you grate the carrots in the larger holes of a box grater or the small ones.
The smaller holes resulted in much thinner carrot shreds that baked into the cake much better than the bigger ones and weren't nearly as noticeable after the cake was baked.
There is no need to peel the carrots first either. Just be sure to wash the outside of the carrots well before shredding them.
Turns out, people weren't lying to me about this all along and I really couldn't taste the carrot flavor when they were finely shredded like this. Instead they just imparted moisture to the cake and a wonderful non-carroty flavor that balances out perfectly with a blend of warming spices like cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves.
Even though you can by grated carrots in bags at the grocery store, I highly recommend using freshly grated carrots. Not only are the ones at the store too thick, but they also just don't have enough moisture left in them for carrot cake and won't work nearly as well as fresh shredded carrots.
How to make carrot cake
- Mix the wet ingredients. In a large bowl, beat the granulated sugar, brown sugar, oil, eggs, and vanilla on medium-high speed until combined.
- Stir in the shredded carrots. You can even do this by hand but a mixer makes it easier.
- Add dry ingredients. Add the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves. You can always whisk these together in a separate bowl first, which is what a lot of bakers do, but I feel like if you sprinkle the spices over the flower instead of dumping them, you can save yourself a bowl and a step and they will mix in just fine without any clumps of cinnamon or cloves.
- Divide between three 8-inch cake pans. Be sure to line your cake pans with parchment paper circles or grease and flour the bottoms and sides well.
- Bake for 20-25 minutes at 350 degrees F until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean. Let the cakes cool in the pan for a few minutes before turning them out onto a wire cooling rack and cooling completely.
- Make the frosting. Beat the butter and cream cheese in a bowl until smooth and creamy. This is way easier if both are softened almost to room temperature. Then add the powdered sugar and vanilla and beat until smooth.
- Assemble the cake. Once the cake layers are completely cooled, layer them with a generous amount of frosting between the layers, then use the rest of the frosting around the edges. Because cream cheese frosting is much softer than buttercream, I make sure not to lay it on too thick around the sides as it has a tendency to want to slump off the cake otherwise.
- Decorate with chopped pecans and leftover frosting. This step is completely optional, but I love a sprinkle of chopped pecans around the top of the cake. If you really love lots of pecans, you could even cover the sides of the cake with them. I piped a few frosting "carrots" on the top of the cake for decoration.
Cream cheese frosting for carrot cake
Although you could use an American buttercream or a Swiss meringue buttercream frosting, the classic choice for carrot cake is cream cheese frosting.
It's sweet and tangy and much softer than a regular buttercream frosting so cream cheese frosting doesn't work very well for piping fancy designs. But if you reserve just a little of the frosting you can add orange and green food coloring to different parts and use a medium round piping tip to pipe carrots laying on top of the cake and a small round piping tip to pipe carrot leaves.
This is the same cream cheese frosting recipe that I use on my popular red velvet cake and it's made by beating softened butter and cream cheese until light and smooth, which takes about 2-3 minutes in a stand mixer or using an electric mixer. Then add the powdered sugar and vanilla and mix just until smooth.
Unlike buttercream frosting where I recommend beating it for a few minutes after adding the powdered sugar, that doesn't seem to help with cream cheese frosting. In fact, I feel like it makes the frosting it even more difficult to work with. So just beat until everything is combined, then use it to frost the cake.
You should have just enough cream cheese frosting as written in the recipe below to frost three layers and the outside of an 8-inch carrot cake.
Can I use butter instead of oil in carrot cake?
Yes, you can replace the oil with butter in this recipe, if you prefer. However, the main reason for doing this would probably be flavor, and in carrot cake with the amount of spices and quantity of shredded carrots, you can't actually tell a difference flavor-wise between butter and oil.
And oil actually helps the cake stay moist and tender better than butter does, which is why I recommend it for this cake recipe.
Why does my carrot cake stick to the pan?
If you are having problems with your cake layers sticking, I have a few suggestions. First, trace the bottom of your pans onto parchment paper and cut out circles to line the bottom inside of your pans.
Second, spray the parchment paper circle and sides of the pan with baking spray, not cooking spray. Baking spray has flour in it that will help the cake layers release more easily from the sides of the pan.
Finally, wait a couple of minutes before turning your cake layers out onto a wire rack to cool. Run a sharp, thin knife around the inside edges of the pan to separate the cake from it. Using these steps should help your cake layers fall right out without pieces of it getting stuck to the pans.
Make-ahead and storing instructions
You can make both the cake and the cream cheese frosting in advance and freeze them separately for up to 3 months. Just thaw completely before assembling the cake.
If you have leftover carrot cake, you can leave it out at room temperature for 1-2 days, even with the cream cheese frosting as long as the cake is covered and it isn't too hot in your house. The sugar in the frosting actually helps preserve the cream cheese. But if it is going to take longer than a day or two to finish off leftover pieces of cake, I recommend refrigerating it for 5-7 days.
More cake recipes you'll love!
- Cherry Chip Layer Cake
- Yellow Cake with Chocolate Frosting
- Burnt Almond Cake
- Cranberry Coconut Cake
- Devil's Food Chocolate Cake
- Homemade Funfetti Cake
- One-Bowl Chocolate Cake
- Spice Cake
- 1 ¼ cups oil
- ¼ cup applesauce
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 4 large eggs room temperature
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 3 cups finely shredded carrots about 6-7 medium carrots
- 2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- ½ teaspoon ground ginger
- ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
- 16 ounces cream cheese at room temperature
- 1 cup salted butter at room temperature
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- ½ teaspoon coconut extract
- 4-6 cups powdered sugar
- 1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts for garnish
Make the cake
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line three 8-inch pans with parchment paper circles.
- In a large bowl, beat the granulated sugar, brown sugar, oil, eggs, and vanilla on medium-high speed until combined. Stir in the shredded carrots.
- Add the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves. You can always whisk these together in a separate bowl first, which is what a lot of bakers do, but I feel like if you sprinkle the spices over the flower instead of dumping them, you can save yourself a bowl and a step and they will mix in just fine without any clumps of cinnamon or cloves.
- Divide the batter evenly between the prepared cake pans.
- Bake for 20-25 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean with just a few crumbs on it. Cool for a few minutes in the pans before turning them out onto a wire cooling rack to cool completely.
Make the frosting
- Beat the butter and cream cheese in a bowl until smooth and creamy.
- Add the powdered sugar and vanilla. Beat until smooth.
- Set one layer on a cake stand or serving plate. Frost with about ¾ cup of the frosting. Repeat with the second layer, then top with the final cake layer. Spread the remaining frosting on the top and around the sides of the cake, reserving ½-3/4 cup for decorating with piped carrots.
- Sprinkle chopped pecans in a ring around the top.
- In a small bowl, mix ⅔ of the reserved frosting with orange food coloring. Transfer to a piping bag fitted with a medium round tip. Pipe from the outside edge of the cake in toward the center, stopping and starting a couple of times to create ridges in the "carrots" and easing up pressure toward the middle so the frosting comes to a point.
- In another small bowl, mix the remaining frosting with green food coloring. Transfer to a piping bag fitted with a small round tip. Pipe a few lines from the edge of each carrot to create the carrot greens.
- OPTIONAL: 1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans can be added to the cake batter. Personally, I don't love nuts in my carrot cake, just on the outside of it.
- OPTIONAL: 1 cup shredded coconut can be added to the batter as well.
- Sheet Cake Version: You can bake this as a sheet cake in a 9x13-inch rectangular baking dish for 40-50 minutes.
- Storing Instructions: This cake will keep at room temperature for 1-2 days. Or you can store leftover slices in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. I do not recommend freezing the cake once it has been assembled, but unfrosted layers can be wrapped in plastic wrap and stored for up to 3 months.