Vanilla Cupcakes – Oil v/s Butter War #Basics

dsc_1201-1This post is part of my ‘Science Behind’ series where I experiment and understand what works and why. For my “Perfect Vanilla Cupcakes” recipe, please jump here. For finding out how I arrive on that recipe, keep reading 🙂

In my quest for the perfect vanilla cupcakes, I must have seen gazillion recipes. I’ve used my marble cake recipe to make cupcakes before, and they taste amazing, but I wanted to arrive at that one basic recipe for vanilla cupcakes that can be easily replicated and becomes the base for a multitude of fancy cupcakes.

At the end of my research, the nagging question left behind was – oil or butter? The science geek in me digs deeper!

Before I could start, I tried to understand what role the fat plays in getting the perfect cupcake. The fat coats the protein molecules of the flour and hence prevents the gluten formation. Gluten makes a baked item tough (which is a good thing when baking loaves of bread though). Oil is 100% lipid and hence coats the protein better than butter, which has about 20% water content along with the milk fats.

In creaming method where butter is creamed with sugar, they bond together to hold air and when baked, the steam from the water content of butter helps those air pockets expand. In reverse creaming method, adding fats into dry ingredients ensures that flour particles are well coated with fat to minimise gluten formation. Whichever method you follow, cakes with butter have a much finer close-together crumb, as well as that all-important butter flavour. However, a butter based cake that has been refrigerated will seem stale and dry if you serve it cold since butter gets solid when cold.

Where oil outperforms butter is its ability to coat flour proteins (as there’s no water content), which reduces gluten formation and keeps the crumb extra tender. The greased proteins can’t grab water to make gluten, and this means more unbound water is left in the cake, making it quite moist. However, it will leave a slight oily residue on your palette (which you might mistake for more moistness ironically).  I also noted that most oil-based recipes used cake flour, which I am guessing is because it’s lower in protein and hence results in a more tender, delicate crumb.

Any science class is incomplete without the experiment at the end of it 🙂 So I’ve decided to make 3 batches of cupcakes – one with only oil (inspired from Cake Boss), one with only butter (inspired from Carinastewart), and one with a mix of both (inspired from thescranline). All the recipes yield 6 cupcakes (some of the recipes gave me 9, so I’ve adjusted the ratios in the recipe). I am hoping that by end of the experiment, I finally arrive at my perfect vanilla cupcake that is moist and full of flavours.

I’ve posted the recipes I used at the end of the post for reference, let’s jump to the results!

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The three contenders. Left to right: Oil, Butter, Half and Half

Cupcake # 1 (with oil) – It has a shiny and slightly sticky finish on top. The texture was great! It was moist and full of flavour, you can make out the distinct vanilla taste. Nice crumbs too. I think the use of cake flour also made a difference.

Cupcake # 2 (with butter) – the butter cupcake had a more delicate crumb. They tasted a lot like the cakes we usually eat, the butter taste was prominent. I feel the texture wasn’t as good as the oil cupcakes even though little yoghurt was added to this recipe.

Cupcake # 3 (with oil & butter) – This was the best looking of all easily. It had a nice dome, slightly shiny. It had the right butter flavour but the texture was closer to the oil cupcakes – moist but still airy and light. The added yoghurt also helps get a nice texture.

Verdict The half butter, half oil recipe was the clear winner! It gave us best of both the worlds – butter flavour but oil texture. Light, airy & moist.

If I had to rank, the oil cupcakes would be my second favourite. Frankly, I didn’t miss the butter taste at all, I can have a butter cake for that! It has a softer crumb thanks to cake flour. Also, the butter cupcakes taste best the day they are made, they tend to dry out by next day.

I loved this experience of backing baking with science! It has helped me arrive at my go-to recipe for perfect vanilla cupcakes (click here for recipe) 🙂

Here are the recipes that I used in my experiments – 

 Vanilla Cupcake # 1 – with oil


  • 45 grams cake flour (make your own, replace 1/2 tbsp of flour with cornflour & sift 3 times)
  • 75 grams sugar
  • 30 ml vegetable oil (2 tbsp)
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 large egg, at room temperature
  • 40 ml milk (2 tbsp + 2 tsp)

Preheat oven to 180 deg C.  In a bowl, mix the flour, sugar, oil, baking powder, vanilla and salt together until smooth. Add egg and mix until fully incorporated. Scrape the sides then mix for an additional minute. Add half of the milk on slow, wait until fully blended and then add the rest of the milk. Mix for an additional minute until smooth. Put into a cupcake tin and bake for 15-18 minutes (skewer inserted should come out clean).

Vanilla Cupcake # 2 – with butter

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  • 63 grams flour
  • 57 grams sugar
  • 42 grams unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 large egg, at room temperature
  • 40 ml milk (2 tbsp + 2 tsp), room temperature
  • 1 tsp yoghurt, room temperature

Preheat oven to 160 deg C.  Sift the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl. In another large bowl, beat the butter and sugar until light and pale. Add vanilla and egg and mix until fully incorporated. Add half the sifted flour and mix until combined. Add the milk and yoghurt and mix well. Add the final half of sifted flour and mix everything for about a minute until smooth. Put into a cupcake tin with liners and bake for 15-18 minutes.

Vanilla Cupcake # 3 – with mix of oil and butter

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  • 70 grams flour
  • 44 grams sugar
  • 22 ml vegetable oil (1 1/2 tbsp)
  • 20 grams butter
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 large egg, at room temperature
  • 60 ml milk ( 1/4 cup)
  • 1 tsp yoghurt

Preheat oven to 180 deg C.  In a bowl, mix the flour, sugar, baking powder & salt. Add the butter and mix till you get a crumbly texture. In a separate bowl, add the milk, yoghurt,  oil, vanilla & egg and mix slightly. Add the liquid mixture to the dry slowly and mix until well combined. Scrape the bowl once and mix again for about 30 seconds. Put into a cupcake tin with liners and bake for 15-18 minutes.


    • Hi! I am not sure if adding BS will substitute egg here. I haven’t tried so can’t comment. You can try looking for eggless recipes which have oil and butter both. Sorry!

  1. Hi. Loved the info u have provided, it’s a great read. I too try n do a mix of oil n butter as only butter makes the cakes harder when refrigerated.
    Thanks for sharing the info n the wonderful recipe.

  2. Hi. In your oil butter mix cupcakes recipe can you tell me what flour you used. A purpose / plain? Or cake flour etc thanks

  3. I tried the oil and butter vanilla cupcakes but mine were raw inside
    The quantity of all purpose flour you mentioned in the recipe is way too much as compared to sugar and butter … plus one egg is not enough for this much flour 😑

    • I am sorry it didn’t work out for you! I have made these a few times and they turn out okay. The yoghurt also helps add moisture and binding to the recipe apart from egg. I will try once more to see if the proportions need any tweaking.

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