Lemon Cupcakes They'll Never Know Are Vegan

March 24, 2016

We worked with Gena Hamshaw, Food52 contributor and author of the cookbook Vegan, to develop a vegan recipe with Earth Balance in celebration of springtime desserts.

A couple of years before I went vegan, I was in a coffee shop with a friend, and I spotted a countertop offering of vegan oatmeal raisin cookies. “Huh,” I said. “Those look good.”

“Really?” she countered. “I just sort of assume that ‘vegan’ or ‘gluten-free’ or whatever is just code for ‘less delicious.’”

I chuckled, but the cookie looked every bit as delicious as any oatmeal raisin cookie I’d seen, and I ordered it. It was perfect: just the right combination of tender and crispy, buttery, and sweet. I remember wondering how the flavor of butter had been evoked without butter, and feeling curious about what had been used in place of eggs. But I decided not to ask too many questions.

Shop the Story

That cookie was my first introduction to vegan baking, and it was an experience I would remember years later, when I actually made the transition to a vegan diet. I was able to counter my friends’ incredulity about how I’d live without muffins, cookies, or desserts with rock hard certainty that yes, vegan baking was possible, and no, it didn’t have to taste “healthy.”

Of course, perfecting my own vegan baked creations took time, patience, and a lot of baking disasters. There were quick breads that collapsed inward on themselves, cookies that emerged from the oven hard as hockey pucks, cupcakes that never seemed to set, not even as the edges turned black. Over time, though, I came to realize that vegan baking can be really easy, and in fact, the more you tinker and fuss, the more it can suffer. Contrary to what you might think, it’s not always necessary to use an egg replacement (these cupcakes are proof). And it’s pretty easy to swap vegetable oil or shortening for butter much of the time.

Frost, frost baby. Photo by Bobbi Lin

Vegan lemon vanilla cupcakes with lemon buttercream frosting are a perfect example of how painless vegan baking can be. Don’t worry about using a flax or chia egg; they’ll rise and bind just right without it. And don’t worry about creating perfectly authentic buttercream without a smidge of dairy, because vegan margarine or shortening does the heavy lifting. No one—seriously, no one—will know that these are vegan unless you decide to tell them. You can choose to let the skeptics remain skeptical, or you can blow their minds when you announce that the cupcakes are entirely dairy- and egg-free.

The lemon flavor in the cupcakes and frosting is light and subtle, which makes the recipe perfect for spring. Bring a batch to your Easter celebration or serve them as dessert at a Mother’s Day brunch. You can also omit the lemon juice and zest from the cupcakes and incorporate cocoa powder, chai spice, pumpkin pie spice, or other favorite flavors as the seasons (and your mood) change. I love how the shredded coconut picks up the buttery flavor of the muffins and balances the slight tartness of lemon in the frosting, but if coconut’s not your thing, leave it out. The icing is plenty flavorful on its own, and if you’re eager for some color, you’ll be happy to know that most organic sprinkles are vegan.

Earth Balance is one of Gena Hamshaw's go-tos for vegan baking. She developed these lemon vegan cupcakes for their springtime contest—submit your recipe, or vote for a favorite, here.

Order now

The Food52 Vegan Cookbook is here! With this book from Gena Hamshaw, anyone can learn how to eat more plants (and along the way, how to cook with and love cashew cheese, tofu, and nutritional yeast).

Order now

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Shannon Roberts
    Shannon Roberts
  • anne
  • susan
  • Dawn
  • Sherri
Gena is a registered dietitian, recipe developer, and food blogger. She's the author of three cookbooks, including Power Plates (2017) and Food52 Vegan (2015). She enjoys cooking vegetables, making bread, and challenging herself with vegan baking projects.


Shannon R. November 10, 2018
I made these this summer and they were a hit- any idea how far ahead they could be prepared? I'd love to have them for the vegans at Thanksgiving but can't make them last minute. Thx!
anne August 19, 2016
I agree the vegetarian margarine is a huge problem. Stay with organic grass fed butter or coconut oil. But, these cupcakes work nicely for gluten-free. Also, go with palm sugar or substitute part with stevia. This is also a no-brainer. White sugar is not good.
susan August 19, 2016
please don't ever eat margarine or shortening. These are artificially saturated (hydrogenated) fats that are terrible for you. Sugar is not great either as Down stated, but the fat is terrible. Try using silken tofu, which is vegan and whole grain flour.
anne March 30, 2016
Excellent, couldn't be better. Thanks
Dawn March 29, 2016
Vegan is good, yes. But there are two problems with this recipe that are major problems. WHITE flour and SUGAR. If you must sweeten, use raw organic honey. Almond, coconut and chickpea flours are alternatives to white. It's a whole "other way" of cooking. But please, folks, don't feed sugar to your children. It's very bad for their immune system. They'll get used to it. It will take time, but they WILL get used to it.
Sherri March 29, 2016
We love lemon and coconut! My son is allergic to treenuts and soy. Will rice milk work well as a substitute for the almond/soy milk?
meg March 29, 2016
Sorry, I overreacted before I read the recipe.
but seriously, it's in everything, particularly the coconut oil.
I understand that it's supposed to be nutricious but...
kpeck March 29, 2016
I asked about using coconut oil because my children cannot have butter, or soy, and coconut oil is the one thing i use to substitute for butter/vegan butter in recipes. No one was trying to rile you up with their coconut oilquestions....puhleeze...if you are allergic, then certainly, make it with something else.
meg March 29, 2016
OMG, enough with the coconut already!
I am allergic to coconut, but not a vegan. How does this taste with no coconut? puhleeze.
Androo March 28, 2016
can you substitute flaxseed milk for the almond/soy milk?
Author Comment
Gena H. March 28, 2016
Androo, I haven't baked with flax milk, but I assume it should be fine. I hope it works out well!
Miriam March 28, 2016
Does anyone have a favorite vegan margarine/shortening other than Earth Balance? There's something about the buttery flavor they use that I really don't like... I can taste it even in strongly flavored baked goods, so I'm loathe to use it in frosting!
Author Comment
Gena H. March 28, 2016
Miriam, you may want to try a regular shortening in place of butter -- it'll have a neutral flavor. You could also shift this recipe to call for melted oil and whisk all wet ingredients, then beat them with the dry using a hand mixer (rather than a stand mixer). Canola, melted coconut, and safflower would work well!
HDeffenbaugh March 28, 2016
Just the springtime dessert I was seeking. I am excited to give these a test drive before making them for an upcoming gathering with extended family.
Fork O. March 28, 2016
I love lemon, buttercream, and a simple cupcake batter. What's not to love with these?

Nice photo too. The scattering of zest is a nice touch.
Thanks for sharing.
kayrie95 March 27, 2016
You know, folks, "everything in moderation" is a popular saying for a reason. The occasional cupcake won't hurt you. Besides that, no matter how healthy you eat or how careful you are, nobody is going to make it out of this experience alive, so we may as well enjoy the ride a bit. Gena, healthy or not and vegan or not, those cupcakes look delicious. Thank you for sharing with us! I intend to give these a try after my next shopping trip!
Author Comment
Gena H. March 28, 2016
I hope you enjoy it, Kayrie!
Elizabeth L. August 20, 2016
Well said Kayrie95.
MarZig March 9, 2018
I am not a vegan, but I am vegan friendly and I think you are right... these look delish and I am gonna try them! If it tastes good I eat it!
pmporter March 27, 2016
For the food police: Earth Balance, and most shortenings especially from the natural food sector, are not hydrogenated. And not all palm oil is responsible for rain forest deforestation. Nutiva for example uses Red Palm Oil -- from sustainable family farms. Most vegans I know are ultra-conscious about these matters. As for sugar, well, I would not say it is responsible for starting ALL illnesses. Moderation is important, sometimes even vegans like dessert and sometimes it is preferred to use restraint when commenting on a food site, i.e., by not attacking people personally.
Author Comment
Gena H. March 28, 2016
That Red Palm Oil is really good, pmporter -- I've used it in baking before.
myelysian March 27, 2016
Not an attempt to create an argument here, but feel the need to say the first 3 comments remind me of people who quit smoking preaching to people who still do. The sudden holier than thou is deafening. If one does not care for the ingredients, don't make the recipe and move on. No need to take a moment and attempt to bash the author. Most of all, please stop giving Vegans a bad name, it's hard enough without internal fighting. Those who place themselves on pedestals are the first to be knocked off and the simple solution to that is balance in all things. I made the recipe this morning and it is wonderful.
Author Comment
Gena H. March 28, 2016
I'm delighted that you had such nice results, Myelysian :)
hayman13 March 27, 2016
None of my vegan friends eat regular flour or sugar. And sugar is the #1 ingredient that starts all illnesses. And I agree with Susan, this recipe is OK for people who don't are about wrecking their digestive system or getting fat, but it's not from a real nutritionist who should know better than to present a recipe with all that bad stuff in it.
Susan March 27, 2016
Sad display of ignorance: a nutritionist should also know better than to use hydrogenated fat, and to use a product with palm oil which is responsible for rain forest deforestation & habitat loss.
hayman13 March 27, 2016
How can she be a nutritionist and advocate regular flour and ALL THAT SUGAR? This recipe will cause so much inflammation in your digestive system. Forget that's it's's NOT HEALTHY!!!!!
Trish March 27, 2016
Oh for heaven's sake. The *occasional* cupcake will do no harm! And the ingredients for the majority of people on the planet are just fine.
Elizabeth L. August 20, 2016
Good comment Trish. The over the top reactions here have become boring! An occasional sin will not harm anyone. The happiest, healthiest people i know simply eat what they like, and are not neurotically miserable about food fetishes.
Sharon March 27, 2016
Yes, I would like to know that also, re: coconut oil. Also, what kind of flour can I use that is not traditional "white, processed" flour. Would whole wheat ruin the texture or flavor of these muffins? Thanks,
Author Comment
Gena H. March 28, 2016
Hi Sharon,

See comments on the oil below! I think melting actually might work better than using solid, but I can imagine both techniques working. And whole wheat pastry flour will work perfectly (regular whole wheat might be a little too grainy). Hope you enjoy!

kpeck March 24, 2016
hello! what about using coconut oil in place of the shortening? not melted, of course. thanks! :)
Author Comment
Gena H. March 28, 2016
Hi Kpeck!

Solid coconut oil might work well, though I'm not 100% sure how well it'll blend up in the stand mixer. You could also try melting it and whisking with the wet ingredients, then folding those into the dry ingredients and using a handheld mixer to beat (rather than a stand mixer). I hope it turns out well! The coconut flavor will definitely compliment the recipe.