Filed under: Brown butter / Cakes / Layer cakes
November 17, 2020

Vanilla Brown Butter Cake with Whipped Salted Caramel Ganache

Yellow cake elevated with fall flavors for a festive holiday feel: fluffy and moist, made with vanilla bean infused brown butter this cake is wrapped with a salted caramel chocolate whipped to produce the smoothest, most decadent ganache.

5 from 14 votes
Yield: 12
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Classic birthday cake just got a major, major upgrade: brown butter cake instead of a plain yellow, and instead of just a chocolate frosting… a ganache with salted caramel that’s whipped until it’s super silky. This cake is the definition of DIVINE.

Traditionally, yellow cake is made with granulated sugar, eggs & yolks and vanilla extract. There are some really wonderful classic American birthday cakes out there, this one by KAF is one of my favorites. But even at its best, traditional yellow cake is just that, a sugar/butter cake with a hint of vanilla. 

I wanted to take this basic flavor up a notch by browning the butter. I saw an IG demo for this recipe and knew I had to put one of these lovely beans into the butter. Buttermilk comes in to produce a tender texture, brown sugar adds a gentle note of caramel. The result? The very best yellow cake I have ever made, or tasted. 


Recipe Ingredients 

Brown Butter Vanilla Cake

Vanilla bean: If you don’t have or want to use a fresh bean in the browned butter, you can use some vanilla bean paste instead. Alternatively, add 1 teaspoon more pure vanilla extract. It won’t have the full effect of the bean but it will do. 

Butter: Unsalted or salted. If using salted, halve the amount of salt added to the recipe. 

Eggs: Whole large eggs. Extra large will be too big! 

Sugar: Light or dark brown. 

Buttermilk: Or kefir, full fat. I avoid milk/vinegar substitutes as they tend to be too acidic and lack the proper amount of fat to add creaminess to the recipe. 

Sea Salt: fine sea salt. If using table salt, halve the amount. 

Canola Oil: Or any oil that is flavorless would work, grapeseseed or vegetable. 

Flour: I used a low protein all-purpose flour which is similar to cake flour. If you don’t have cake flour or a low protein flour, you can use regular AP. The cake may be slightly less tender but it will still be lovely. 

Whipped Caramel Ganache

Chocolate: Dark chocolate, at least 55% cocoa solids. I used 70%. Chop it up so that it will melt nice and quick into the ganache (it doesn’t have to be finely chopped, just roughly). I’d avoid chocolate chips as they have added ingredients to stop them from melting. 

Sugar: Fine granulated. Organic granulated takes a bit longer to melt as the granules are bigger. 

Heavy Cream:  Or heavy whipping cream. This cannot be substituted with half and half or light cream as neither has enough fat in them to thicken and whip the ganache. 


How to make Vanilla Bean Brown Butter 

We’ll begin by slicing open a vanilla bean pod, scraping the seeds and adding both to the butter. As you cook it, first the butter will melt, then begin to sputter and spit. It will then go quiet and you’ll smell nuttiness. 

Careful not to burn the brown butter: as soon as the butter is browned, pour it into a heatproof bowl. If you leave it in the pan it is likely to burn from the residual heat. 

Using browned butter isn’t just about browning: When the butter browns, it loses some of its water content, and many of us brown butter to different stages (so we end up with different quantities). From experience, I know that sometimes I brown it more than others and I can tell by the color how far it has been browned. This is why measuring it after you’ve browned it is important. You need to know exactly how much butter you have left. 

Once the butter has set in the fridge, but can still be stirred, it is useable. Measure what you need and set that aside for the cake, and measure two tablespoons and set that aside for the caramel. Most likely you won’t have any left after this. If you have less than you need, use softened butter for the caramel and all of the browned butter for the cake. 

How do I know when the butter is done browning? 

By the way it looks, sounds and smells. When it’s done browning, the butter stops sputtering and goes quiet. The smell will be nutty and you’ll see brown bits at the bottom of the pan. 

What can I do with an empty vanilla bean pod ? 

Vanilla beans are pricey, and you’ll scrape your pod very well. We’re also using it in the butter but if you are like me, you won’t bear to throw it out just yet. Once you rinse it off, let it dry at room temperature. In pastry school, we took our scraped pod and added it with sugar to a food processor. Pulsed a few times and let it ‘infuse’ the sugar. When you want to use that sugar, sift it to remove any large chunks of the bean. It’s now vanilla sugar =) 


How to make the Brown Butter Cake

Once the butter has gotten to a solid but soft state we are able to cream it with the brown sugar. After about an hour in the fridge (quicker if you’re using the freezer) check it by stirring to see if it resembles ‘softened butter’. 

Once it has, add it to the stand mixer (weigh it in!) then add the brown sugar and use the paddle attachment to beat it. The goal here is to “cream”: whip air into the mixture while dissolving some of the sugar. 

It’ll start out pretty rough but gradually lighten in color and seem more fluffy as more and more air is whipped in. 

With the mixer on you’ll add the eggs one by one, slowly. Allowing each to incorporate before adding another. Then let the mixer beat it on medium until it’s very light and airy (I didn’t get a pic of this but it’s in the video below). 

Add the flour all at once then, with the mixer on, slowly pour in the buttermilk (or kefir). 

Stop to scrape down the bowl to ensure that all the flour and butter bits are well mixed in. 

Once you’re confident you have a nicely mixed batter, divide it between two 8 or 9″ cake pans (or three 6″ pans).

Bake until the top springs back when gently pressed.

Make sure the cake layers are totally cool before you frost the cake. 

How to make Caramel Ganache 

A typical ganache is made with just chocolate and heavy cream. The ganache we’re making here is much, much more interesting. Instead of using heavy cream, we’ll make our own salted caramel sauce. The sauce gets a little bit of the vanilla bean browned butter, and while the flavor isn’t pronounced, it definitely deepens the flavor. 

To make the ganache, we’ll chop up some dark chocolate and set it in a heatproof bowl. Then, make caramel sauce with sugar, water, heavy cream and butter. The caramel is poured over the chocolate and the heat causes it to melt. You’ll have a very thin mix at first, and as it cools it will set into a thick ganache. 


Let’s start with the caramel: pour the sugar into a heavy bottomed pot and even it out so it’s in one layer. 

Pour the water around it to push those sugar granules into the pot. Give the mix a couple of drops of lemon juice (this helps prevent crystalization). 

Cover with a lid and cook on medium. 

The sugar will start to dissolve into the water (melt) and then gradually begin to change color. 

At first you’ll see it light amber and then it will gradually turn darker. 

How do I know when the caramel is ready for the heavy cream? 

The sugar/water mixture will first look like a light amber color in texture (this is when it has just begun to caramelize) and it will continue to darken. You want a medium amber. If it turns very dark then it may have burned (you’ll know by the smell), in this case you’ll have to start over. 

Add the heavy cream very slowly, it will bubble up quite a bit. Once it ‘s all in you can add the butter and salt. 

Then pour it over the chopped chocolate and stir until smooth. 

Then set it in the fridge to chill.

How do I know when the ganache is ready for whipping? 

We’ll keep it in the fridge as it sets and check it every 30 minutes by stirring it with a rubber spatula. When it first goes in it’s liquid and as time passes slowly stiffens. You want to be able to stir it but for it to not run off the spatula. It shouldn’t take longer than 2 hours to set. 

Once it’s thick enough to stay on a spoon when held above the bowl, it’s ready to be whipped. Whipping makes it soft and spreadable. Perfect for a cake. Use it to frost the cake immediately

Can I make any part of this recipe ahead of time? 

The cake can be made a day or two ahead of time. Store it in an airtight container. To maintain its freshness, wrap each of the cake layers with plastic wrap and place them in an airtight container in the freezer. The caramel sauce can also be made ahead of time, but not the ganache. If you need to make the sauce early, store it in the fridge and rewarm it so that it’s hot enough to melt the chocolate. The ganache, once whipped, needs to be used immediately. 

Vanilla Brown Butter Cake with Salted Caramel Ganache

The classic American birthday cake gets a major upgrade with vanilla bean and brown butter yellow cake, and a salted caramel ganache whipped into the smoothest frosting.
Prep Time: 45 minutes
Cook Time: 40 minutes
Yields: 12
5 from 14 votes


Vanilla Bean Browned Butter

  • 226g or 1 cup butter 226g
  • 1 large vanilla bean

Vanilla Brown Butter Yellow Cake

  • 150g or ⅔ cups vanilla bean browned butter* from above
  • 4 large eggs
  • 290g or 1 ⅓ cups brown sugar
  • 1 ½ tablespoons baking powder
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • 320g or 1 ⅓ cups buttermilk or plain kefir
  • 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 ½ teaspoons salt
  • 100g or ½ cup canola oil
  • 335g or 2 ⅔ cups all purpose flour

Whipped Salted Caramel Ganache

  • 200 g dark chocolate chopped
  • 60g or ¼ cup water
  • 220g or 1 cups sugar
  • 240g or 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 tsp flaked sea salt
  • 2 tablespoons vanilla bean browned butter* from above


To make the vanilla bean brown butter:

  • Add the butter to a skillet. Using a paring knife, slice open the the vanilla bean lengthwise without cutting through the other side. Using the tip of a spoon scrape out the ‘seeds’. Add the seeds to the butter and place the bean open-face down into the butter as well. Cook on medium high until the butter first melts, sputters and spits, then gets foamy and quiet and you can spot dark brown bits at the bottom.
  • Pour into a heatproof bowl. Once the bowl is cool enough to handle, transfer it to the fridge for 30 minutes, until the butter is slightly solid, but still soft enough to stir. Measure out ⅔ cup of the browned butter and set aside for the cake. You should have about 2 tablespoons left, we’ll use this for the caramel.

To make the Vanilla Bean Brown Butter Cake

  • Preheat the oven to 325. Butter and flour two 8” cake pans (preferably 3” high).
  • Add the browned butter, canola oil and brown sugar to a stand mixer bowl fitted with a spatula attachment. Beat on medium until the mixture is light and well-combined, about 3-4 minutes. With the mixer on, add the eggs, one at a time, giving time for each to be beaten in before you add another. Add the vanilla extract and salt and beat.
  • Into the bowl sift the flour, baking soda and baking powder. Use a hand-held rubber spatula to gently stir the flour so it’s partially combined (if we do this with the mixer on the flour will ‘fly’ out of the bowl). Turn the mixer on and slowly pour in the buttermilk. Scrape the bowl a few times to ensure there’s no clumping at the bottom. Stop mixing as soon as the batter is smooth.
  • Divide the batter between the two cake pans and bake for 35 minutes.

To make the Salted Caramel Ganache:

  • Set the chopped chocolate in a heatproof bowl. Have the heavy cream, salt and butter measured and set next to your stove.
  • Pour the ¼ cup water into a pot. Pour the sugar in the center of the water (this helps avoid getting sugar on the side of the pot) and gently stir it just in the center so that all the sugar is covered with water. Turn the heat on medium high and cook for about 10 minutes, until you see the sugar turn amber. Keep a watchful eye on it now, let the sugar go a bit deeper in color but don’t let it cook more than a minute or two after the amber stage so that it doesn’t burn.
  • Turn the heat down to very low and slowly pour in the heavy cream while whisking. The mixture will boil up so be careful, keep pouring and stirring. Once it calms down, add the butter and salt and turn the heat back up. Whisk until the salt is melted and the mixture is smooth.
  • Pour the hot caramel over the chocolate and stir until you have a smooth ganache. Let the bowl sit on the counter until it’s cool enough to handle, then transfer it to the fridge. Let set for 1-3 hours, checking it by stirring it with a spatula to see if it has thickened. Once thick, use a hand mixer to beat the ganache for 2-5 minutes, until it’s lighter in color and smooth enough to spread.


This recipe makes two 8" cakes, you can also use it to make three 6" cakes to make a taller cake. 

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Recipe Reviews

  1. Can this be made into cupcakes? If so, how many do you think the batter will make and how should I adjust the baking temp and time?

  2. The cakes smell SO good! but I can’t seem to make the caramel? Every time I try to carameliza the sugar, it crystallizes and seizes up in my pan. What am I doing wrong?

    • It could be that you have the heat too hot, have it at medium low to start. And try adding a squeeze of lemon next time, the acid can help stop crystallization (you won’t taste it).

  3. 5 stars
    This cake is AMAZING!! I love the flavors, and it’s so moist and perfect. The frosting is a caramel lover’s dream come true ? never got so many texts about how good something i baked was!!

  4. OK so this is the second time I’m making the cake. The first try was amizing and I loved it. This time I really don’t what’s happening because the batter ends up being really liquidy. I’m not using buttermilk, I’m making the trick of milk + vinegar but the first time I did it it had nothing wrong!! The other thing I’m doing is I tried doing homemade cake flour so ap flour + cornstarch.
    The flour thing is the different thing I did from the first try but I don’t know if this is the problem. Heelpppp

    • Hi Lucia, sorry you’re having trouble! I personally NEVER substitute milk and vinegar for buttermilk; it is much thinner (buttermilk is creamy and thick!) and you’re likely to change the acidity of the cake levels by using vinegar. I don’t think the ap/cornstarch was the problem (assuming you swapped it for a standard amount, so per 1 cup flour 2 tablespoons cornstarch) so it was either the vinegar milk or an error in measuring.

  5. 5 stars
    I made this for my mom’s April birthday for a covid-friendly outdoor birthday dinner for a tough-ish crowd. It was amazing! The detailed step-by-step instructions and photos with each step (looking at you, caramel) were super helpful. My mom is the kind of person who makes birthday cakes for EVERYONE else, so I think expectations were high for this cake, a take on the classic yellow birthday cake. About a month after making this, I made just the frosting to go on King Arthur’s sourdough chocolate cake for my chocolate-loving girlfriend’s birthday. That was also amazing! Thank you, Sam!

  6. 5 stars
    THE BEST! Just awesome, the cake was very moist and tender, very interesting flavor. And the FROSTING. I almost chickened out and just made a basic buttercream but I forged ahead and braved making the caramel for the ganache and it was DIVINE. Best frosting I’ve ever tasted and certainly made.

  7. 5 stars
    Loved this cake. The vanilla bean brown butter was amazing. My caramel did split when i mixed it with the chocolate though. It tasted great anyway

  8. 5 stars
    This is the best cake ever. Periodddd. Not too sweet and from the sponge to the gabache is really delicious.
    I had the problem that one of the sponges turned out super crumbly. I used all purpose flower, can that influence the texture? It wasn’t at all dry so I don’t think I over bake it either. Just trying to figure it out but IS THE BEST CAKE EVEEER

    • Hi Lucia! Curious why only one of them would have been crumbly – was it baked at different temperature/in a different pan or did the batter sit? All purpose flour is exactly what I use, it’s possible that there was a difference in protein content but I feel like it shouldn’t have made that much of a difference. It is a bit of a crumbly cake but not overly so, without being dry as you said.

  9. 5 stars
    Hi! This cake was really delicious. I’ll reduce the amount of baking powder next time.. I could feel its slight tang. But the taste and smell of this frosting.. i love it! I was just wondering something… My ganache was really thick. Smooth but hard to spread. Does the point of caramelization has something to do with it? Would increase slightly the amount of cream help? Have you tried it?


    • Hi Joana, glad you loved it! Instead of reducing the powder you might want to use an aluminum-free powder. Reducing it might affect the leavening process. As for the ganache, it’s possible that it cooled too long. Ganache is a quick one to turn, you have to catch it at the right moment to beat it and once you do, it needs to be used immediately while it’s spreadable because it toughens as it sets.

  10. 5 stars
    Made this for a (socially distanced, safe) Thanksgiving to rave reviews – great fluffy texture, and not overwhelmingly sweet the way some frosted yellowcakes can be.