The Best Yellow Cake Recipe Borrows a Trick From the Box

Just right for fudgy frosting swirls.

September  8, 2020
Photo by Rocky Luten

We weren’t a cake family. We were a cookie family, a brownie family, an ice cream family, an ice cream cake family. But not a cake cake family. So it goes without saying that, as a child, cake fascinated me.

Sort of like how we weren’t a PB&J family, and so, one day, I insisted that that is what I wanted for lunch. Or how we weren’t a meatloaf family, and so, one day, I insisted that that is what I wanted for dinner.

Decades later, I could say that this was childish, but I think it’s just humanish. We always want what’s at our fingertips instead of what’s in our hands.

But cake. Every Sunday, my mom and I went to the supermarket, and I flocked to the boxed cake mixes and canned frostings. From where I stood—if I’m short now, I was very short then—they towered up, up, up, like skyscrapers: White cakes and chocolate cakes and red velvet cakes and yellow cakes. Fluffy, double-layered, and, according to Duncan Hines, “deliciously moist.”

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Top Comment:
“Somewhere 30 years ago I stumbled on a Triple Chocolate Cake recipe with a Duncan Hines base. I am not a hard core fan of chocolate, but this cake was amazing! I am almost apologetic when someone asks for the recipe always prefacing it with "It's a doctored cake mix." But the cake is tender, rich and moist; it fulfills every chocolate lovers dream. I have many recipes but this one is my chocolate standby!”
— Donna M.

A lot of premade food products struggle to live up to their homemade counterparts, but cake mixes stand out because they usually are deliciously moist. You bring the eggs, oil, and water. They bring everything else. With Duncan’s classic yellow cake, for example, this means:

Sugar, Enriched Bleached Wheat Flour (Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Emulsified Palm Shortening (Palm Oil, Propylene Glycol Mono- and Diesters of Fats and Fatty Acids, Mono- and Diglycerides, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate), Wheat Starch, Leavening (Baking Soda, Dicalcium Phosphate, Monocalcium Phosphate Monohydrate). Contains 2% or Less of: Sodium Aluminum Phosphate, Salt, Cellulose Gum, Xanthan Gum, Dextrose, Artificial Flavors, Yellow 5 Lake, Red 40 Lake.

Some big takeaways: sugar, then flour. Which is to say, more sugar than flour. Next up: emulsified palm shortening. Which is to say, a shelf-stable fat. Which is to say, another fat—in addition to the BYO oil—already incorporated into the dry ingredients.

In BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts, Stella Parks unpacks the history of this approach: "In 1944, Betty Crocker’s popular radio show Cooking School of the Air introduced listeners to layer cakes and muffins made with the 'Double-Quick' method."

Basically, instead of creaming the butter with the sugar—you know, until it’s fluffy, then you add the eggs, then you add the dry ingredients and milk—you mix the butter and dry ingredients together at the start. Sort of like cutting butter into biscuit dough, but instead of leaving it in chunks, you keep going (and going and going) until the mixture becomes powdery.

“In retrospect, the Double-Quick method was a savvy precursor to boxed cake and muffin mixes,” Parks writes. “By downplaying the benefits of traditional creaming, General Mills acclimatized folks to a style of baking that made mixes feel intuitive.”

Photo by Rocky Luten

The Cake Batter

I recognized this method from somewhere else: my last job. Scratch, a bakery in Durham, N.C., was known for its flaky-as-heck pies. But the staff was just as obsessed with the yellow cake recipe.

The recipe calls for butter and oil—and you add these at two separate times. Start with the dry ingredients, blend in the butter, and then add the wet ingredients, like buttermilk, eggs, egg yolks, and oil. This goes against almost every other cake recipe in Scratch’s repertoire. But it works!

When I set out to re-create the yellow cake that got away, I knew this approach would be key.

The only catch was, I couldn’t stop thinking about this other yellow cake—with a totally different approach—Jessie Sheehan’s Caramelized Banana Upside-Down Cake, a recent recipe contest winner.

So I combined the two. I took Jessie’s recipe as a foundation and adjusted it with a boxed-style layer cake in mind. I doubled the quantities to fit into two pans. I dropped some of the oil and replaced it with butter and blended that butter into the flour. I added a pinch of turmeric for color (don’t worry, you can’t taste it), just enough to give “Yellow 5 Lake” a run for its money. And I increased the vanilla.

Many, many cakes later, all of this added up to a yellow-as-ever cake that is buttery-rich and vanilla-forward and, above all, “deliciously moist.” Just like Duncan.

The Frosting

We just needed frosting—but this turned out to be a piece of cake. (Hehe.) Our Genius Creative Director Kristen Miglore recently introduced us to her family-famous Fudgy Cream Cheese Chocolate Cake. Her mom always used canned frosting on top, so Kristen set out to find a from-scratch doppelgänger:

This one, adapted from Hershey’s Perfect Chocolate Cake, is excellent and the closest facsimile to canned frosting,” she discovered. (Thanks, Kristen!)

Because I can’t help it, I made a few little adjustments: I increased the quantities originally recommended for a double-layer cake because there’s nothing more stressful than worrying about running out of frosting. I swapped out the milk and called in coffee, which intensifies the chocolate flavor and balances all the sweetness. And, for the same reason, I added a little salt.

I can’t promise that it’s just like boxed cake, but I can promise that it’s just like I always thought boxed cake would be. And isn’t that better, anyway?

The Best Yellow Cake Recipe

More Cake, Right This Way

Groovy Chocolate Sheet Cake

This ultra-moist, super-chocolatey Texas sheet cake, which was inspired by one from a 1970s cookbook called Chocolate Kicks, doesn't get its groove from the swirly frosting alone. The magic of this cake lies in its simplicity—with an ingredients list that isn't fussy in the slightest—and, of course, in the story behind it.

Carrot Cake

This recipe is as good as carrot cake gets: tender, gently spiced, only slightly carrot-y, and layered with a fluffy cream cheese frosting you could happily eat all on its own.

Ultimate Coconut Cake

They didn't put "ultimate" in the title for no reason—this one's a total showstopper. With lofty layers and tons of coconut flavor (in the cake, custardy filling, frosting, and toppings), this is a cake that deserves to be front and center on the dessert table.

Esteban Castillo's Dulce de Leche Chocoflan Cake

"Often referred to as el pastel imposible, or the impossible cake," says cookbook author and food writer Esteban Castillo, "chocoflan is made of a creamy flan layer and a fudgy chocolate cake bottom layer." Luckily, it's totally possible thanks to this much-loved recipe.

Ice Cream Cake

Why have some ice cream with your cake, or some cake with your ice cream, when you could have both in one perfect slice? Enter: a highly customizable ice cream cake that couldn't be easier to make.

One-Bowl Chocolate & Orange Sponge Cake

Chocolate and orange work together like a dream in this simple yet stunning cake from cookbook author and pro baker Chetna Makan.

What are your boxed cake memories? Share them in the comments below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • marylou
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    Karina Rosales
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    Regina Barnhart
Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


marylou October 6, 2020
does this recipe make good cupcakes?
dls1149 September 9, 2020
I totally understand what’s going on here. But I did have to laugh a little at working so hard to duplicate boxed cake mix and canned frosting!
Ref75 May 19, 2020
I can’t wait to try this recipe; but before I do, I have a couple of technical questions: 1. How long should one beat the butter and dry-ingredient mixture? 2. Upon incorporation of the wet ingredients, how long should one mix the batter? Thanks for your help.
Emma L. May 19, 2020
Yay! The full recipe is at this link: You mix the butter with the dry ingredients until it's completely incorporated. And after you adding the wet ingredients, you mix until the batter is totally smooth.
Ref75 May 20, 2020
Thanks for getting back to me. I just was hoping for actual time intervals like one would find in box cake directions. All good! I’ll use my best judgement.
Karina R. November 2, 2019
I made the cake and it was awesome love the texture very soft moist i guess is because the oil never dry , i wonder if i can make other flavors with the same technique?
Regina B. September 22, 2019
Instead of butter or oil and flour.... would it be ok to use what I call "schmutz" (equal parts oil, shortening, and AP flour)?
Susan L. August 3, 2018
My mom was not comfortable in the kitchen, so box cakes were haute cuisine. I loved a strawberry cake and strawberry frosting boxed se
Donna C. August 3, 2018
I learned to bake when I was 12, and I am now 65 (how did that happen!!!) and I have been making my family only from scratch recipes since then. A few years ago I found a recipe for Tiramisu Cake that used a box cake mix. I added 6 Tbsp. of flour and subbed out the oil for melted butter. and added 2 tsp of vanilla. This is the most requested birthday cake in our family. We never buy cakes from a bakery, Costco or any other store offering birthday cakes, we are always disappointed in the taste and texture. I will always bake from scratch but a box of white cake mix will always be in my pantry!!
Libby P. October 21, 2018
Would love your tiramisu recipe. Sounds yummy!
Donna C. September 13, 2020
There are a few Tiramisu Cake recipes on the internet, so just as easy to google rather than me posting the recipe. Keep in mind that this is not a traditional tiramisu, but a lovely cake that is delicious and has been a favourite in our home for years!
Donna M. August 3, 2018
Well I certainly will be giving this a try. It Sounds very intriguing. Somewhere 30 years ago I stumbled on a Triple Chocolate Cake recipe with a Duncan Hines base. I am not a hard core fan of chocolate, but this cake was amazing! I am almost apologetic when someone asks for the recipe always prefacing it with "It's a doctored cake mix." But the cake is tender, rich and moist; it fulfills every chocolate lovers dream.
I have many recipes but this one is my chocolate standby!
Brenda S. August 5, 2018
I would LOVE that recipe - please share.....
Donna M. August 5, 2018
With pleasure!
1 pkg (2 layer) dark chocolate cake mix (Duncan Hines)
1 pkg (small) instant chocolate pudding
4 eggs
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup oil
1/2 cup warm water
6 oz. semi sweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a bundt pan. In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients except chocolate chips. Beat 3 min. at medium speed. Add chips and beat one more min. Pour into pan and bake for 55-60 min. Remove from oven when done and cool in pan for 15 min. Turn out onto a rack and continue cooling.

Serve with chocolate glaze or thickened raspberries and whipped cream. Ice cream or just whipped cream is nice too. Enjoy!
Brenda S. August 5, 2018
Oh my - yummmm. And I have everything in my pantry but....the box mix. Thanks!
illberich October 28, 2019
The best chocolate cake ever, and I've
been tried many, just like this, but from scratch, is Hershey's classic recipe Black Magic Cake and the afore mentioned,
Perfectly Chocolate Frosting. Made it hundreds of times, but do sub half the oil for butter
Karolyn S. August 3, 2018
The first 'fancy' cake I ever made was the caramel cake from my mother's copy of the Betty Crocker Picture cookbook, (something she would never have attempted - she struggled with cake mix) I was 9. It turned out great and since then the only time I use cake mix is when I'm on vacation in a rental cottage. Cake is easy and life is too short to eat anything less than the best.
Rebecca S. August 3, 2018
Whether it tastes like box cake or not - this is a terrific recipe. I made it last night and it is the best yellow cake I have ever tasted. I have baked for over 30 years and have looked for a recipe like this. I actually made this one into cupcakes (it made 24, baked at 350' for 20 minutes) and they turned out great. The frosting is also amazing. I used freshly squeezed orange juice to replace the coffee. Thank you!
Janet K. August 3, 2018
I never did like boxed cakes, though I made a few including those improved upon a la the Cake Doctor. Recently, living in South Africa, I was the guinea pig for someone learning to bake 'sponge' as they call it here. It was a revelation as it was so moist. A real homebaked cake is great! A friend and I kept sneaking slices. I always thought of myself as a pie or cookie person but this changed my mind. Anyway, why eat all those weird ingredients? I still leave the baking to others when it comes to cake.
Michael P. August 3, 2018
I don't understand. Why not just use a box of mix then?
Emma L. August 3, 2018
Hi Michael! A big part of my job as a recipe developer is being curious about the food we eat. I saw developing a homemade take on boxed cake mix—a product that many people can relate to—as a fun challenge and one that would hopefully resonate with people.
Ashley M. November 16, 2018
Oh thank you for this. I’m trying to develop a recipe based on my grandma’s famous madera wine cake which used boxed cake and boxed pudding as wine that I don’t use. You’ve given me so much inspiration.
Krista H. March 11, 2020
I’m a few years late, but I came across this searching for how to make home made cake taste like boxed cake mix cake, lol. Whenever I make cake mix cake or cupcakes, they are gone in a day(or less)! Home made, usually end up throwing it out. Possibly I just am an outstandingly horrible baker, but, I don’t think so at all. To me, it just tastes better. I’m sure it’s the sugar as first ingredient thing, lol:):)
Anne B. August 3, 2018
Terrific story! After I wrote the Cake Mix Doctor, I received emails from pastry chefs from pretty high-end places asking me how to make a scratch cake taste like a box mix. My response was, “why do you want to do that?” And their reply was that their owner/executive chef had memories of box cake from childhood or they did and they wanted to duplicate that. Interesting!
Emma L. August 3, 2018
Thank you, Anne! And thank you for sharing your story—that's so interesting!
Samina August 3, 2018
Anne, I've had all of your Cake Mix Doctor books for years & still use them regularly! They're fantastic, thank you!
Barb August 3, 2018
I suppose it's much like people who search out products that make their popcorn taste like the crude oil theatres pour on theirs instead of just using butter. It's "what they remember".
Anne B. August 10, 2018
Absolutely! Happy to share. As the Cake Doctor I accumulated a lot of stories!
Antonietta N. August 3, 2018
Yellow cake is my fave and I can never get it to taste like Duncan's!! I found a recipe that called for artificial vanilla extract and that literally blew my cake making mind. I'm still searching for that one recipe to put all other recipes to sleep...hopefully this one will be. Great article!
Eric K. July 21, 2018
I love this story, Emma—and that cake is one of the fudgiest, most delicious I've tasted. (I grew up with Duncan Hines so I would know.) So interesting about the order of the butter and flour.
Colleen S. July 20, 2018
Artificial Vanilla extract. Taste just like a boxed cake. People love it.