What does a dairy-free cake mean?

A dairy-free cake is a cake that does not contain any dairy ingredients such as milk, butter, cheese, cream, yogurt, etc. Dairy-free cakes are made for people who cannot or choose not to consume dairy products.

Why make dairy-free cakes?

There are several reasons why someone may want or need to make dairy-free cakes:

  • Dairy allergy or intolerance – Some people are allergic to dairy or intolerant to lactose, the sugar found in dairy products. Consuming dairy can cause reactions like stomach pain, bloating, diarrhea, vomiting, skin rashes, etc. Making dairy-free cakes allows those with dairy issues to still enjoy cake.
  • Vegan diet – Vegans do not eat any animal products, including dairy. Making vegan cakes with non-dairy ingredients allows vegans to take part in birthday parties, celebrations, and other events with cake.
  • Preference – Some people simply prefer the taste of dairy-free cakes or want to reduce their dairy intake for health reasons. Providing dairy-free options caters to their preferences.
  • Nutrition – Dairy-free cakes allow people with nutritional needs or goals to moderate their fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, etc. by avoiding dairy ingredients.
  • Religious reasons – Some faiths prohibit consumption of dairy, so dairy-free cakes enable those people to enjoy cake for religious celebrations and events.

Challenges of dairy-free baking

Creating delicious dairy-free cakes comes with some unique challenges since dairy products like milk, butter, and eggs are usually central ingredients in cake recipes. Some things to keep in mind when adapting cakes to be dairy-free include:

  • Moistness – Dairy ingredients like milk and butter help cakes stay moist. Dairy-free cakes can dry out faster.
  • Structure – Butter, eggs, and milk help cakes achieve a light and fluffy texture. Removing them can make cakes dense or heavy.
  • Flavor – Butter and milk have a creamy, rich taste. Dairy-free cakes can lack depth of flavor.
  • Browning – Butter and milk proteins undergo browning reactions. Dairy-free cakes brown differently.
  • Rising – Some leavening reactions rely on milk proteins. Dairy-free batters rise differently.

Therefore, some modifications and strategic ingredient swaps are needed when converting traditional cake recipes to dairy-free versions.

Tips for making dairy-free cakes

Here are some tips to help successfully adapt traditional cake recipes to be dairy-free:

  • Use dairy-free milk – Replace cow’s milk with non-dairy milks like almond, soy, oat, coconut, rice milk, etc. Reduce slightly as dairy-free milks are thinner.
  • Use oil or dairy-free butter – Instead of regular butter, use vegetable oil, coconut oil, dairy-free margarine or vegan butter.
  • Replace eggs – Swap eggs with banana, applesauce, flax eggs (flaxseed + water), commercial egg replacer powder.
  • Enhance flavor – Add almond extract, vanilla, cinnamon to provide flavor lacking from removing dairy.
  • Adjust leavening – Use extra leavener to get lift without eggs/dairy. Add a bit more baking soda/powder.
  • Prevent dryness – Up the liquid slightly. Use applesauce or pumpkin puree for moisture. Glass pan prevents drying out.
  • Compensate texture – Add a bit more starch via tapioca/cornstarch to mimic fat. Consider whipped coconut cream frosting.
  • Watch baking time/temp – Since batter differs, adjust time/temp as needed based on appearance.

Dairy-free butter substitutes

Here are some common options for replacing regular butter in cakes:

Butter Substitute Taste Notes
Coconut oil Imparts light coconut flavor Solid at cool temps. Use melted.
Vegetable oil Neutral flavor Not solid like butter. Doesn’t creame well.
Vegan butter sticks Mimics dairy butter flavor Contains oils for creaminess. Check ingredients.
Dairy-free margarine Similar to butter taste Made from vegetable oils. Handles like butter.

Oils like coconut and vegetable oil provide the fat needed for texture, but they lack dairy butter’s creaminess. Vegan butter sticks and margarines mimic both the flavor and texture of regular butter quite well. However, they are more processed foods.

Non-dairy milk options

Dairy milk can be replaced in cakes by any of the following non-dairy milks:

  • Soy milk – Creamy, neutral flavor. Protein mimics cow’s milk.
  • Almond milk – Low flavor profile. Watery, so reduces slightly.
  • Oat milk – Slight oat flavor. Use thick oat cream for richer cakes.
  • Coconut milk – Imparts coconut flavor. Use light coconut milk.
  • Rice milk – Very mild tasting, watery texture. Not ideal for cakes.

Soy and almond milk are the most popular options as they are readily available and mimic cow’s milk well in terms of texture and neutral taste. However, any non-dairy milk can be used successfully by making adjustments to other ingredients.

Egg substitute options

Eggs serve several purposes in cakes. Replacing them can be tricky but there are several effective options:

Egg Substitute Amount Benefits Drawbacks
Applesauce 1/4 cup per egg Moist texture, binds Alters flavor slightly
Banana 1/4 cup mashed per egg Binds, adds moisture Imparts banana flavor
Flax eggs 1 tbsp flax + 3 tbsp water per egg Mimics texture well Can be slimy, thick

Commercial egg replacer powders are also available. Combining a couple different egg replacements helps minimize the downsides of any single one.

Adjusting for leavening differences

Since dairy ingredients affect the leavening process, you may need to tweak the raising agents when converting to dairy-free. Some tips:

  • Use an extra 1/4 tsp baking powder/soda per egg replaced
  • Add a pinch more salt which enhances leavening action
  • Let batter rest before baking to allow leavening to work
  • Use lemon juice or vinegar to react with baking soda
  • Whip egg substitutes into soft peaks for air incorporation

Monitor batter consistency and the baking process itself. Adjust oven temp or time as needed to achieve proper rise and doneness.

Preventing dry, dense texture

Since dairy ingredients naturally add moisture and lightness, dairy-free cakes can easily become dry and dense. Here are some tips to maintain a moist, fluffy crumb:

  • Use oil instead of dairy-free butter to retain moisture
  • Replace heavy coconut cream with lighter coconut milk
  • Add a couple extra tablespoons of non-dairy milk
  • Stir a couple spoonfuls of applesauce or pumpkin puree into batter
  • Replace some flour with almond flour to reduce gluten for tenderness
  • Avoid over-mixing batter to limit gluten formation
  • Bake in a glass pan instead of metal to prevent drying out
  • Brush top periodically with more non-dairy milk while baking

Enhancing flavor

Since dairy ingredients provide a creamy, rich flavor, dairy-free cakes can taste flat by comparison. Boost flavor with these easy tips:

  • Increase vanilla extract slightly for more flavor
  • Add a couple teaspoons of almond extract for a lovely undertone
  • Stir in cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, etc. for a spice flavor
  • Top with fruit preserves, nuts, coconut for extra interest
  • Go with a strongly flavored cake like chocolate or pumpkin
  • Use coconut cream whipped with confectioners’ sugar for topping
  • Dust with cocoa powder or cinnamon sugar before serving

Recipe for Simple Dairy-Free Vanilla Cake

This basic vanilla cake recipe excludes all dairy ingredients. It uses common substitutions to still achieve a moist, tender crumb and vanilla cake flavor.


  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/3 cup coconut oil, melted OR vegan butter, softened
  • 1 cup unsweetened almond milk
  • 2 tbsp applesauce
  • 1 tsp apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tbsp vanilla extract


  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a round cake pan.
  2. In a bowl, mix flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.
  3. In another bowl, whisk together coconut oil, almond milk, applesauce, vinegar and vanilla.
  4. Pour wet ingredients into dry and mix just until combined. Don’t overmix.
  5. Pour batter into greased pan and bake for 30-35 minutes until toothpick comes out clean.
  6. Let cake cool completely before frosting.

For a flavor boost, add 1/2 tsp almond extract or a pinch of cinnamon. Top with your favorite dairy-free frosting and enjoy!


With some simple ingredient substitutions and baking adjustments, you can create moist, flavorful dairy-free cake. Non-dairy milks, oils, egg replacements, and extracts mimic the moisture, texture, binding, and taste that dairy products provide in traditional cakes. Getting the right ratios down while enhancing rise and maintaining tenderness are the keys to success. The end result is a celebratory dairy-free cake everyone can savor together!

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