Whether or not you’re new to baking, we bet it’s pretty safe to say you’re familiar with cupcakes. Cupcakes have become the go-to treat for celebrating just about any occasion, whether it’s a birthday, graduation, or even a wedding.
There are many reasons that cupcakes have become so popular over the years. For starters, they usually look and taste amazing. Also, they’re simple to make.
Or are they…?
In this post, we’re going to do our best to answer the question that all new bakers ponder at some point in their lives: What ingredients do you need to make cupcakes?
Now, not all cupcakes are created equal. In this beginner’s guide, we are going to look at store-bought cupcakes and homemade cupcakes.
Do you know what role each ingredient plays in baking?
Ingredients needed to make store-bought cupcakes
When we say “store-bought cupcakes,” we’re referring to the boxed cake mixes you’ll find in the baking aisle of your local grocery store. These boxed mixes make life much easier for those of us that are newer to baking by adding in some of the ingredients that we’ll need for our cupcakes into the mix itself.
There’s nothing wrong with using these boxed cake mixes when baking cupcakes (and you can easily spice them up yourself). While many people probably think that cake mixes are a convenience that came about recently, they’ve actually been around since the late 1940s.
Your grandma might have made her cupcakes from scratch, like everyone tends to think, but then again, maybe she didn’t!
What ingredients are in a boxed cake mix?
So, what’s actually in the box, you ask? If you look at the ingredient list on a boxed cake mix, you’ll typically find enriched bleached flour (which is wheat flour enriched with vitamins and minerals), sugar and/or corn syrup, leavening, and a small amount of various other ingredients, such as vegetable oil, salt, starch, and flavorings.
Every manufacturer has their own proprietary blend of these ingredients (and more), and the various flavors offered typically have additional ingredients as well (such as cocoa for chocolate cake). While these are the usual ingredients that you’ll find in boxed cake mixes, there are also additional options for those with special dietary restrictions.
For those of you with either Celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, there are quite a few options out there now for gluten-free cake mixes. Gluten free cake mixes are typically made with rice flour instead of wheat flour, although you will find some mixes with tapioca or sorghum flour as well, such as Bob’s Red Mill Vanilla Yellow Cake Mix.
In addition to mixes made especially for certain dietary restrictions, many cake mixes are vegetarian, or even vegan.
What ingredients do you mix with a boxed cake mix to make cupcakes?
Now that we know what ingredients make up a typical cake mix, let’s talk about what else is needed to make cupcakes.
Not all cupcakes mixes require the same additional ingredients, but the common ones that you’ll see are butter, oil, water, milk, and eggs. As an example, let’s take a look at what’s needed to make cupcakes using Pillsbury’s Traditional Vanilla Cake Mix.
Pillsbury’s Traditional Vanilla Cake Mix calls for three additional ingredients: 1 and 1/4 cups of water, 1/2 a cup of oil, and 4 egg whites.
To make cake or cupcakes with this mix, you simply blend all the ingredients together using either a hand mixer or stand mixer (see our Hand Mixer vs. Stand Mixer post for recommendations), pour the mixture into your pan, then throw the pan in the oven.
Baking time will vary, depending on the whether you are making a cake or cupcakes and the type of pan being used.
QUICK TIP: When mixing your cupcake batter, mix it on a low setting. Doing so will keep air bubbles intact, which produce fluffier cupcakes when baked.
Once the cupcakes have cooled for about 10-15 minutes, simply add frosting to the tops of them, and you’re done! That’s really all there is to making basic, store-bought cupcakes.
People have become very accustomed to the taste of these, so don’t feel like a boxed cake mix is inadequate in any way.
What ingredients are are in store-bought frosting?
Until you add frosting to your cupcakes, they’re not quite ready to serve. With that being said, let’s take a quick look at the ingredients that you’ll most often find in pre-made frosting.
The majority of store-bought frosting is offered in one of two types: creamy and whipped. Creamy frosting is somewhat dense and heavy, whereas whipped frosting contains more air and is lighter and fluffier.
Both types of frosting contain the same basic set of ingredients, which are listed below, but whipped frosting generally has cellulose gel and cellulose gum added to it.
The first ingredient you’ll typically find in store-bought frosting is sugar. After sugar, you’ll usually see a blend of corn syrup, water, corn starch, and vegetable oil.
Some lesser ingredients that you might see are salt, mono and diglycerides, polysorbate 60, coloring (such as yellow 5 and 6, red 40, etc.), natural and artificial flavors, potassium sorbate (a preservative), as well as a few other ingredients.
Most flavors of frosting contain essentially the same set of ingredients, with certain ingredients being more prominent in mix to create a specific flavor. Some flavors also have added ingredients, like chocolate frosting, which typically contains cocoa.
Now that we’ve spent some time discussing store-bought cupcakes, let’s look at what ingredients are needed to make cupcakes from scratch.
Ingredients needed to make homemade cupcakes (from scratch!)
While store-bought cupcakes are relatively quick and easy, you’re limited by the ingredients and flavors offered by the various cupcake mix manufacturers.
If you’ve become comfortable with making cupcakes from a box, or if you just want to have a little more flexibility with your cupcakes, it’s time to move on to homemade cupcakes.
With homemade cupcakes, the end result can be drastically different from one baker to the next. Because you’re only limited by your imagination, your creativity, or lack of creativity, will take center stage.
We recommend starting with the basics, which we’ll cover below, then expanding to include more non-traditional ingredients.
Start with the basics
As we mentioned, people like to put their own spin on cupcakes when they’re making them from scratch. While that’s great, and we definitely recommend doing so once you’ve gained some experience, let’s first take a look at the basics.
So, what ingredients do you need to make homemade cupcakes from scratch? Unsurprisingly, you need many of these same ingredients that you’ll find in most boxed cake mixes.
The bulk of the mixture will typically be made up of all-purpose flour (try rice flour for gluten free cupcakes). Aside from flour, your next largest amounts of ingredients will be sugar and either butter or oil.
After that, you’ll have some lesser ingredients, such as milk, eggs, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
Various recipes call for different amounts of the ingredients mentioned above. For example, if you want your cupcakes to be sweeter, add a little more sugar. If you want cupcakes that retain their level of moisture longer, use butter instead of oil.
This is part of the magic with homemade cupcakes. Although you’re using the same basic ingredients as you get with store-bought cupcakes, you’re able to easily adjust the amounts of each ingredient.
With boxed cake mixes, each manufacturer has a blend that is typically consistent throughout all of their product lines.
Add your special touch
Another thing that makes homemade cupcakes special are the added ingredients. Keep in mind that you can add these ingredients to store-bought cupcakes as well, but without adjusting the main ingredients, sometimes it just doesn’t work as well.
So, what can you add to your homemade cupcakes to make them really stand out? For your traditional vanilla and chocolate cupcakes, people typically add vanilla extract and cocoa powder, respectively. You don’t have to settle for what most people do though.
You can add all sorts of crazy ingredients to your cupcakes to give them a unique flavor. Some ingredients to consider are mashed bananas, chocolate chips, slivered almonds, food coloring (to enhance the appearance), coffee, cream cheese, crushed cookies, various spices, diced fruits, and sliced vegetables.
As you can see, just about anything has a potential home in your cupcake batter. Many of these ingredients are used in frosting as well.
How do you make frosting from scratch?
Now that you know what ingredients you need to make cupcakes from scratch, let’s top those cupcakes with some delicious, homemade frosting.
What ingredients are in homemade frosting? Just like with cupcake batter, homemade frosting is generally made up of the same ingredients as store-bought frosting. Again, one of the main benefits of making frosting from scratch is that you are in control of the levels of each ingredient in the mixture.
When making frosting from scratch, it’s really up to you to decide what ingredients to use and how much of each ingredient to include. Sometimes, it makes sense to keep it simple. You can make a tasty vanilla frosting with four simple ingredients: sugar, butter, milk, and vanilla extract.
This is actually one of the major benefits of making your own frosting. You don’t have to worry about putting all of those ingredients that you’ve never heard of in your body.
Just like with your cupcake mixture, you can add just about anything you want to your frosting, and this goes for store-bought frosting as well. Use your imagination, and get creative!
Looking for something with a peppermint flavor? Add crushed peppermint candies. Want a nice and fluffy frosting? Add marshmallows. You can find all sorts of great recipes to try online, but don’t be afraid to experiment on your own as well.
Here’s a great example of a recipe for homemade, strawberry lemon cupcakes:
Are store-bought cupcakes or homemade cupcakes better?
Neither store-bought cupcakes or homemade cupcakes are necessarily better than the other. Instead, each one has benefits and drawbacks that should be taken into consideration based on your needs and situation.
Store-bought cupcakes provide a quick and easy way to produce cupcakes and are a perfect place to start for beginners. If you want to take some of the guesswork out of baking cupcakes, this is the best solution for you.
As we said earlier, there’s nothing wrong with hitting the easy button, especially when it results in tasty cupcakes! Most people use boxed cake mixes and store-bought frosting when making cupcakes, so you can rest assured that your guests will be happy with them.
While store-bought cupcakes are ideal for those of you that prefer to keep things simple, homemade cupcakes offer their own set of benefits. The main benefit that homemade cupcakes provide is flexibility.
While you’ll likely use the same core ingredients when making your batter, unlike store-bought cupcakes, you’re able to change the ratios of each ingredient relative to the others, creating a more defined taste and texture.
Making cupcakes from scratch does take longer than using a boxed cake mix, and it’s easier to make mistakes that can potentially ruin your cupcakes. As such, homemade cupcakes are best suited for more advanced bakers or bakers looking to expand their skills.
It might take you a few tries to dial in a good mixture, but once you do, you’ll have something that others can’t easily replicate.
To most people, cupcakes are simple. They think they only come in a few standard flavors, like vanilla, chocolate, and red velvet, with vanilla or chocolate frosting. Little do they know, cupcakes can come in a seemingly endless combination of mouth-watering flavors.
Now that you know what ingredients make up a basic cupcake, take your baking to the next level by experimenting with some other ingredients. Even though you can’t alter the core ingredients in boxed mixes and canned frosting, you can at least try adding ingredients to the mixtures to create your own unique flavors.
If you’ve only ever made the standard flavors that you find in most stores, we recommend trying a little experiment. Once you have your basic mixture ready, pour it into the cups of your cupcake tray. Then, add a different ingredient into each cup, and mix them in slowly.
This method will allow you to experiment with different flavors, without using a whole batch of batter. If you find some flavors that work, you can also use this method to create an assortment of cupcakes for your guests to enjoy. Don’t forget to try this with your frosting as well!
This guide was geared toward beginners, but whatever your level of experience, we hope you were able to gain some insight into the basic makeup of a cupcake and maybe even gain a little motivation to branch out with different ingredients.
If you do end up experimenting with some unique ingredients, let us know how your cupcakes turned out, and send us some pictures!
Are you interested in learning more about the ingredients in cake and cupcakes? Check out our post about the purpose of the various ingredients in cake.
Sarah is the founder of Baking Kneads, LLC, a blog sharing guides, tips, and recipes for those learning how to bake. Growing up as the daughter of a baker, she spent much of her childhood learning the basics in a local bakery.