When it's made right, Carrot Cake is one of the best desserts in the world. This easy, two-bowl recipe relies on toasted pecans and the perfect amount of spice in an amazingly moist cake that's even more magnificent the next day. And for a festive finishing touch, the whole thing is topped with bouncy candied carrot curls.
Birthdays, graduations, and other celebrations call for cake, right? Right. You can't go wrong with Southern Hummingbird Cake, made with crushed pineapple and coconut oil, or an outstanding Black Forest Cake, where every slice gets a cherry. If you're in a hurry, fruity, fluffy Hawaiian Wedding Cake uses mostly store-bought ingredients to speed things along. (Plus, it's so good, there are never any leftovers.)
Let's face it. A layer cake--or any homemade cake, for that matter--is an act of love. You pour your heart and soul into every step of the process, so you want it to not just be good, but exceptional.
Speaking of exceptional, let me introduce you to my favorite carrot cake recipe, a gloriously rich, nut-and-raisin-studded slice with lots and lots of freshly grated carrots and vanilla cream cheese frosting. In my opinion, it's got just the right amount of everything. But if you have your heart set on a carrot cake without nuts, or a carrot cake with applesauce, you're in luck. This recipe is extremely forgiving. Add or subtract what ingredients you want, and you'll still have a supremely luscious cake you can be proud of.
This recipe makes one gorgeous, tall layer cake, but if you need a bundt cake, carrot cupcakes, or a carrot sheet cake, I'll walk you through how to do it.
Need a different size of this carrot cake for a wedding or cupcakes? Click and slide the number next to ‘servings’ on the recipe card below to match how many you’re feeding—the recipe does the math for you and adjusts the ingredients automatically— it’s as easy as cake.
How to make carrot cake:
No mixer required--just two big bowls: one for the dry ingredients and another for the wet ingredients.
- To start, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and prepare the 9-inch round cake pans using the "spray-paper-spray method," which keeps the cake from sticking to the pan. First, spray the insides of the pans, then line the bottom of each pan with a circle of parchment paper, and spray the paper one more time.
- Then sift the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt together into one bowl.
- Next, beat together the oil, granulated sugar, brown sugar, and vanilla. Add the eggs, one at a time, and scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl if you need to. You can mix the wet ingredients together using an electric mixer and the paddle attachment, or by hand.
- After the dry ingredients are mixed together, and the wet ingredients are blended, mix the two together. Add the flour mixture in batches--about one cup at a time--and stir well each time. Then you can add the grated carrots, raisins, and toasted pecans and gently fold them into the batter with a spatula.
- Pour the carrot cake batter into the prepared cake pans and bake at 350 degrees for 35 to 45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of one of the cakes comes out clean.
- Remove the cakes from the oven and let cool in the pan for about 15 minutes. Turn them upside down onto wire racks, remove the pans, and peel off the paper. Let cool completely before assembling the cake and frosting.
My favorite cream cheese frosting:
- For the frosting, a mixer helps get things super smooth and fluffy. Use the paddle attachment.
- To begin, beat the butter and cream cheese on high speed for one minute, until creamy. Then add the vanilla.
- Next, add the powdered sugar in 1-cup batches and beat until fluffy. You can refrigerate the frosting until you need it.
Assembling the layer cake:
- If the cake layers have a slight dome in the center, that's okay. Just slice the dome off using a serrated knife to even out the layers.
- Place the first (completely cooled) layer on a cake stand or platter, then cover it with a thick layer (1 1/2 cups) of frosting. Place the second layer over that, and repeat, using another 1 1/2 cups of frosting.
- Then cover the entire cake with the remaining frosting. Stand back and take in all that beauty!
Tips for making the loveliest carrot cake ever:
- Prepare the pans! No one wants their hard work sticking to the cake pan. Definitely use the spray-paper-spray method, which will prevent this.
- Grate the carrots by hand. This may seem like a lot of work, but trust me. You want the carrot gratings to be juicy and as fresh as possible. The pre-packaged bags of carrots are too dry and just won't taste as good.
- Cream cheese blocks are always better than the cream cheese in the tub. Makes a better frosting!
- Choose a good oil. You can use canola oil, vegetable oil, grapeseed oil, or even a very light-flavored olive oil for this recipe. You can also use melted butter in place of oil, in the same proportions.
- Brown sugar keeps it moist. To make brown sugar at home, you need one cup of white sugar and one tablespoon of molasses. Mix the two together — this goes faster if you use an electric mixer — until completely blended. Use what you need and store the rest.
- Make it ahead. This cake only gets better with a little time. By better, I mean moister, richer, and more flavorful. Bake it the day before you need it and it will be phenomenal. Wrap the unfrosted cake layers in plastic wrap and let them sit out at room temperature overnight.
- Decorating carrot cake. Try the candied carrots, but if that's too much, reserve a few perfect pecan halves to toast and arrange on the top. I also like those cute little candied sunflower seeds to add a pop of color.
- Storing carrot cake. Technically, you should refrigerate any cake with cream cheese frosting. Take it out of the refrigerator an hour or two before serving so the frosting has time to warm to room temperature and the cake loses its chill.
- Freezing carrot cake. I like to freeze unfrosted carrot cake for last minute birthday cakes--all I have to do is whip up the cream cheese frosting. Wrap the cake layers tightly in plastic wrap and freezer bags and freeze fro 2 to 3 months. Thaw completely overnight in the refrigerator before assembling and frosting.
Fun additions and variations for Carrot Cake:
- Gluten free carrot cake. You absolutely switch out the flour for your favorite plain gluten free flour blend.
- Healthy carrot cake. Lighten things up! Some bakers like to substitute smooth unsweetened applesauce or some other fruit purée (like pear or pineapple) for the oil in this recipe, which works but may affect the texture of the finished product.
Whole wheat flour may also be used in place of all-purpose white. And some cooks like to decrease the amount of sugar, too, and add a few more grated carrots for natural sweetness.
- No nuts. Don't like, or can't eat nuts? Just leave them out.
- Spices. This recipe uses cinnamon, but feel free to use any warming, pumpkin-pie spices: ginger, nutmeg, or a twist of black pepper.
- Other add-ins. Golden raisins, zante currants, extra carrots, orange zest, dried cranberries, shredded coconut, walnuts, or toasted cashews are all pretty great additions. Try to stick to around 1 to 1 1/2 cups total extra ingredients.
- You can even add drained, chopped pineapple to the cake-- but in that case-- have you tried Hummingbird Cake, yet? Oh, you should!
- Carrot bundt cake. Try baking in a 10-12 cup generously greased bundt pan. Bake for 55-75 minutes, depending on the shape and size of your pan, and watch it carefully for doneness.
- Carrot sheet cake. Just pour the batter into a greased and lightly floured 9×13 inch pan and bake for 40-45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.
- Carrot cake cupcakes. Fill the cupcake liners about 2/3 full with batter. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-22 minutes. This should make about 3 dozen cupcakes.
Making the Candied Carrot Curls:
I go in-depth on making candied carrot strips in a separate post, but the basics are pretty straightforward. The end result is a crispy, sweet carrot garnish that looks great on top of the frosting. Make these a day ahead and store them in an airtight container at room temperature to keep them crunchy.
- First, using a vegetable peeler, make as many strips as you need (and maybe some extra in case of breakage) from the carrot.
- Next, in a saucepan, make a simple syrup using equal parts sugar and water. Once the syrup boils, add the carrot ribbons and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove the ribbons and arrange them on a parchment-lined baking sheet that has been treated with non-stick spray.
- Bake the carrot strips at 225 degrees for 30 minutes, then remove the tray from the oven and allow them to cool a few minutes--just until they're cool enough to handle comfortably. You want them warm and still soft.
- One at a time, curl the carrot ribbon around the handle of a wooden spoon. Then carefully slide the curl off and back onto the parchment paper. Sprinkle the curl with sugar, and let sit out at room temperature to completely dry and set up.
Carrot Cake Recipe
For the candied carrot curls:
- 2 large carrots peeled
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup sugar plus more for sprinkling the curls
For the carrot cake:
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon Salt
- 1 1/4 cups vegetable oil or canola oil
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup lightly packed brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 4 eggs
- 3 cups carrots peeled and grated (about 5 to 6)
- 1 cup raisins
- 1/2 cup toasted pecans coarsely chopped
To make the candied carrot curls:
- Preheat oven to 225 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper and coat with nonstick spray.
- Using a vegetable peeler, shave off 15 to 20 long strips of carrot (strips get wider as you peel in to the middle of the carrot).
- In a medium saucepan, add 1 cup water and 1 cup sugar and bring to boil. Add carrot strips, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer 15 minutes. Drain well and cool 5 minutes.
- Arrange carrot strips in a single layer on prepared baking sheet (no touching). Bake until the carrot strips begin to look translucent and have dried out, about 30 minutes.
- As soon as the carrot curls are cool enough to handle but still warm, and working quickly, wrap each carrot strip around the handle of a wooden spoon to form a curl. Gently slide off handle and sprinkle with sugar. Let sit at room temperature until completely dry, about 30 minutes.
To make the Carrot Cake:
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat two 9-inch round cake pans with nonstick spray, line the bottom with parchment paper, then coat the top of the paper with nonstick spray (we call this "spray-paper-spray").
- In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt. Set aside.
- In a standing mixer fit with the paddle attachment, or in a medium bowl by hand, beat together oil, granulated sugar, brown sugar, and vanilla. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.
- Add the flour mixture in batches, about 1 cup at a time, stirring well after each addition. Stir in carrots, raisins, and pecans. By hand, scrape the bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula to ensure all ingredients are incorporated.
- Divide the batter between the prepared cake pans. Bake until the tops of the cake layers are springy when touched and when a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 35 to 45 minutes.
- Cool cakes in pans for 15 minutes then turn out onto cooling racks, peel off parchment paper and cool completely.
To make the cream cheese frosting:
- In a standing mixer with the paddle attachment, or using an electric mixer, beat cream cheese and butter until creamy, about 1 minute. Beat in vanilla.
- Reduce speed to low and beat in the powdered sugar, a 1 cup at a time, until fluffy. Chill covered until ready to frost cake.
- OPTIONAL: When the cake layers are completely cool, use a serrated knife to slice the dome off the top of each cake to make the layer completely flat.
- To a serving platter, add one cake layer. Cover completely with a thick layer (about 1 1/2 cups) frosting. Add second layer and frost the top (another 1 1/2 cups) and outside of cake (about 2 cups).
- Decorate with toasted pecans and candied carrot curls, if desired.