Burnt Sugar Caramel Cake

This unique and absolutely divine burnt sugar caramel cake gets its flavor from burnt sugar syrup. Cook sugar until caramelized, then add boiling water. We’ll use the syrup in both the cake and frosting. Add salted caramel for extra flavor and toasted pecans for a lovely garnish. It’s soft, buttery, and totally worth every minute of prep time.

burnt sugar caramel cake

It’s been a year in the making. I’m proud to finally share my version of caramel cake, a new cake recipe inspired by a favorite that my mother-in-law enjoyed when she was younger.

What is Burnt Sugar Caramel Cake?

This burnt sugar caramel cake is a wonderfully sweet and buttery cake flavored with homemade burnt sugar syrup. The syrup combines caramelized sugar and water, a mixture you cook on the stove until it’s dark amber in color. The cake does not taste burnt, bitter, or charred. Rather, it tastes like caramel and caramelized sugar, the same topping used for creme brûlée! We’ll flavor the frosting with burnt sugar syrup as well. Inside the cake and frosting, the syrup tastes like caramel. In my experience, this is the only from-scratch caramel flavored addition that (1) provides flavor and (2) doesn’t ruin the cake’s texture.

burnt sugar caramel cake


Behind the Recipe

This is not the exact recipe that my mother-in-law used to enjoy. Sadly, she was unable to find her original. She tried a few online recipes for burnt sugar cake, but none of them lived up to her memories. I researched a few recipes and after testing them myself, I was pretty disappointed at the dense texture and lack of flavor. I tried adding brown sugar and more vanilla for extra flavor, but nothing proved successful. So I turned to my white cake recipe, a cake that’s consistently soft and flavorful. My white cake is the starting point for strawberry cake, pistachio cake, and coconut cake because it’s ALWAYS a winner.

My MIL said it’s the only burnt sugar cake most resembling what she enjoyed growing up!


How to Make Burnt Sugar Caramel Cake

  1. Make Burnt Sugar Syrup: After cooking it, cool the syrup before using in the recipe. Use half in the cake batter and half in the burnt sugar frosting.
  2. Prepare Cake Batter: Since we’re adding a liquid (the sugar syrup), reduce the sugar and milk in my white cake recipe. We’ll also leave out 1 egg white to really ensure that this cake isn’t too wet. Cake flour promises a soft crumb, egg whites (no yolks) promise a fluffy crumb, and sour cream promises a moist crumb. For best results, do not make any ingredient substitutions.
  3. Bake the Cakes: As a result of the burnt sugar syrup cooking, the cakes develop a golden crust around the edges. For a 3 layer or 9×13 inch cake, see recipe notes.
  4. Prepare Salted Caramel: To boost the caramel flavor in this cake, I highly recommend filling and garnishing the cake with my 4 ingredient salted caramel. You can even prepare the salted caramel a few days ahead of time.
  5. Make the Frosting: The burnt sugar frosting is just like my vanilla buttercream, but we’ll add burnt sugar syrup for flavor. To complement the flavor, use extra salt. If you love salty sweet, this is the frosting for you!
  6. Assemble & Frost the Cake: 2 layer cakes are pretty easy to decorate. For a little garnish, I love topping the cake with toasted pecans. See recipe note for instruction.

burnt sugar cake

Video Tutorial: Burnt Sugar Caramel Cake


Prepare the Burnt Sugar Syrup First

The most important step in this cake recipe is preparing the burnt sugar syrup. You need a sturdy 3 quart pan to ensure the cooking sugar doesn’t crystalize. (This pan is great quality for its price.) Cook 1 cup granulated sugar over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Wooden spoons do not conduct heat and are ideal for candy-making. After chipping a few of my old wooden spoons, I just bought this set and LOVE them!

After about 5 minutes, the sugar begins to melt. If you notice any clumps, try to break them up with your spoon. So far in the process, this is the same exact way we start salted caramel. Once there are no lumps and the sugar is golden brown, about 8-10 minutes total, very slowly drizzle in 3/4 cup of boiling water. Have boiling water at the ready for this step because in the world of candy-making, timing and temperature are key. Wear an oven mitt because the water will rapidly sizzle and steam.

You don’t need a candy thermometer for this, but you can use it if you have one.

After you add all of the water, cook the syrup for an extra 3 minutes over low heat then cool the syrup completely. It will thicken as it cools. Once cool, you can use it in the cake batter and frosting. The cake batter is light beige and smells incredible. Steal a taste!

burnt sugar syrup cake batter

Buttercream

Same goes for the burnt sugar frosting– make sure you steal a few tastes! You need:

  1. Unsalted Butter: Make sure you’re using room temperature butter.
  2. Confectioners’ Sugar
  3. Burnt Sugar Syrup
  4. Milk
  5. Vanilla Extract
  6. Salt

I love this salty sweet frosting. It’s similar to my salted caramel frosting, but has a much creamier consistency. The burnt sugar cake and burnt sugar frosting are definitely worthwhile on their own, but this entire cake is greater than the sum of its parts. Together, they’re the perfect match.

burnt sugar frosting pictures

burnt sugar frosting

Don’t Forget the Salted Caramel!

This burnt sugar caramel cake wouldn’t be as impressive without salted caramel. Drizzle salted caramel in between the cakes and on top. If the salted caramel is too warm, however, it will melt the frosting. See my recipe instructions below.

Toasted nuts add a flavorful and textural flair!

caramel cake

3 Success Tips

Leaving you with 3 success tips so you can enjoy this old-fashioned favorite:

  1. Watch the video tutorial and read the recipe in full before beginning. Follow the recipe closely and make no ingredient substitutions. I tested several different options and nothing lived up to the careful recipe below.
  2. Since it must be cool, I recommend preparing the burnt sugar syrup 1 day ahead of time.
  3. Don’t leave out the salted caramel.

burnt sugar caramel cake

More Tips!

  1. How to Prevent a Dry or Dense Cake
  2. Top 10 Cake Baking Tips
  3. How to Freeze Cake
  4. Homemade Cake Flour
  5. Here’s What Room Temperature Butter Means
Print
burnt sugar caramel cake

Burnt Sugar Cake

  • Author: Sally
  • Prep Time: 1 hour
  • Cook Time: 24 minutes
  • Total Time: 4 hours, 30 minutes
  • Yield: serves 10-12
  • Category: Dessert
  • Method: Baking
  • Cuisine: American

Description

The trick to burnt sugar cake is to use burnt sugar syrup as its main flavor. Make sure you prepare the burnt sugar syrup ahead of time so that it can properly cool and thicken. While you’re at it, prepare the salted caramel ahead of time too.


Ingredients

Burnt Sugar Syrup

  • 1 cup (200g) granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup (180ml) boiling water

Cake

  • 2 and 1/2 cups (250g) sifted cake flour* (spoon & leveled)
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup (1.5 sticks; 170g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
  • 1 cup (200g) granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup (120ml) cooled burnt sugar syrup
  • 4 egg whites, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup (120g) sour cream, at room temperature
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup (120ml) whole milk, at room temperature

Burnt Sugar Frosting

  • 1 cup (2 sticks; 230g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
  • 4 cups (480g) confectioners’ sugar
  • 1/2 cup (120ml) cooled burnt sugar syrup
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2 Tablespoons (30ml) whole milk or heavy cream
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

For Assembly


Instructions

  1. For best success, read the recipe in full and watch the video tutorial in the post above before starting.
  2. Prepare the burnt sugar syrup first so it has time to cool. Make sure you have boiling water at the ready. For the burnt sugar syrup, place sugar in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Best to use a 3 quart heavy-bottomed quality saucepan. Stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, cook until the sugar has completely melted and is amber brown, about 8-10 minutes. If the sugar is clumpy, break up the lumps with your wooden spoon. A candy thermometer is not necessary, but if you’re using one, the sugar temperature should reach about 300°F (149°C) when it’s ready. Turn the heat to low and very carefully and slowly drizzle in the boiling water, a little at a time. Stir after each addition and stand back, as the mixture will rapidly sizzle and bubble. After all of the boiling water is stirred in, stir and cook the sugar syrup for 3 more minutes on low. Turn off the heat and let it cool completely, overnight preferred. It’s imperative that the sugar syrup is completely cool. You will have about 1 cup of syrup.
  3. Preheat oven to 350°F (177°C). Grease two 9-inch cake pans, line with parchment paper, then grease the parchment paper. Parchment paper helps the cakes seamlessly release from the pans.
  4. Whisk the cake flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together. Set aside.
  5. Using a handheld or stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, beat the butter and sugar together on high speed until creamed, about 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides and up the bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. With the mixer running on medium speed, pour in 1/2 cup of the cooled burnt sugar syrup. Beat until combined. Scrape down the sides and up the bottom of the bowl as needed. Beat in the egg whites, sour cream, and vanilla extract. With the mixer on low speed, add the dry ingredients just until combined. With the mixer still running on low, slowly pour in the milk until combined. Do not over-mix. The batter will be slightly thick.
  6. Pour batter evenly into prepared cake pans. Bake for 23-25 minutes or until the cakes are baked through. As a result of the burnt sugar syrup cooking inside the cake batter, the cakes brown nicely on top and on the sides. To test for doneness, insert a toothpick into the center of the cake. If it comes out clean, it is done. Allow cakes to cool completely in the pans set on a wire rack.
  7. As the cakes cool, I suggest making the salted caramel. The salted caramel adds necessary flavor. We’ll use it as a filling and garnish. When ready to use in step 9, make sure the salted caramel isn’t too hot anymore. If it’s too hot, it will melt the frosting. If it’s too cool, it won’t drizzle. Let it cool for at least 30 minutes before using. If you prepared the salted caramel ahead of time and it became too cool or too thick, microwave it for 5-10 seconds or JUST until it’s drizzle-able again. (It won’t be too hot at this point.) You can also toast the pecans during this time, too. See recipe note.
  8. Make the frosting: In a large bowl using a hand-held mixer or stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium speed until creamy, about 1-2 minutes. Add confectioners’ sugar, remaining 1/2 cup of cooled burnt sugar syrup, vanilla extract, milk/cream, and salt. Beat on low speed for 30 seconds, then increase to high speed and beat until completely combined, about 2 minutes. Add more confectioners’ sugar if frosting is too thin or more milk/cream if frosting is too thick. Taste. Add more salt if desired. (I usually use 1/2 teaspoon of salt total. I like this frosting salty/sweet.)
  9. Assemble and frost: First, using a large serrated knife or cake leveler, slice a thin layer off the tops of the cakes to create a flat surface. Discard (or crumble over ice cream!). If you have any leftover burnt sugar syrup, drizzle over leveled cakes. I usually don’t have any leftover, but this is a great place to use any last drops if you have some. Place 1 cake layer on your cake stand or serving plate. Using a large icing spatula, evenly cover the top with frosting. Drizzle 1/4 cup of salted caramel on top of the frosting. Top with 2nd cake layer. Refrigerate the cake for at least 30-45 minutes before finishing the frosting and garnish. The caramel inside the cake must “set.” After chilling in the refrigerator, spread the remaining frosting all over the top and sides. Run a bench scraper around the cake to smooth out the sides, if desired. Garnish with toasted pecans and more salted caramel. Slice and serve.
  10. Cover leftover cake tightly and store in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.

Notes

  1. Make Ahead & Freezing Instructions: Prepare burnt sugar syrup up to 3 days ahead of time. Cover and store at room temperature until ready to use. Prepare the salted caramel up to 1 week ahead of time. Cover and store in the refrigerator until ready to use. You can prepare the cake layers ahead of time too. Wrap the individual baked and cooled cake layers tightly and refrigerate for up to 2 days or freeze up to 3 months. (See How to Freeze Cake for instructions.) Bring cake layers to room temperature, then continue with step 7. Frosted cake freezes well, up to 3 months. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator, then bring to room temperature before garnishing with caramel and pecans and serving.
  2. Special Tools: KitchenAid Stand Mixer, Wooden Spoons, Stainless Steel Saucepan, 9-inch Cake Pans, Straight Frosting Spatula, Bench Scraper, and Wood & Marble Cake Stand
  3. 3 Layer Cake or 9×13 Inch Cake: You can also prepare this cake as a 3 layer cake or 9×13 inch sheet cake, but the texture tastes best at the thickness of a 2 layer cake. I highly recommend sticking to a 2 layer cake. For a 3 layer cake, though, divide batter between three 8-inch or 9-inch cake pans and bake for 20-22 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. For a 9×13 inch cake, pour the batter into a greased and lightly floured 9×13 inch pan and bake for 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Top with a thick layer of frosting and drizzle salted caramel all over the top.
  4. Cupcakes: Recipe yields 30-36 cupcakes. Fill cupcake liners 2/3 full with batter. Bake for 20-22 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
  5. Cake Flour: If you can’t get your hands on cake flour, use this cake flour substitute. I suggest doing this 3x, then remove 1/2 cup since you need 2 and 1/2 cups in this recipe.
  6. Egg Whites: Egg whites (no yolks) are KEY to the cake’s fluffy texture. Here are recipes using leftover egg yolks.
  7. Why Room Temperature? All refrigerated items should be at room temperature so the batter mixes together easily and evenly. Read here for more information. Instead of sour cream, you can use plain yogurt. The cake won’t taste as rich, but it’s a fine substitute.
  8. Salted Caramel: No matter which size cake you make, or if you make cupcakes, you’ll have salted caramel leftover. Here are 50 ways to use salted caramel if you need inspiration for the leftovers. I don’t recommend halving the salted caramel recipe– make the whole recipe (1 cup).
  9. Toasted Pecans: Toasting the pecans is optional, but adds incredible flavor to the garnish. To toast, preheat the oven to 300°F (149°C). Spread chopped pecans onto a parchment paper or silicone baking mat lined baking sheet. Toast until slightly darkened, about 5-7 minutes. Cool before using as garnish.

Keywords: caramel, burnt sugar, fall dessert

100 Comments

  1. Hi Sally! I see your note about using this recipe for cupcakes but wanted to see if you had any recommendations for making a smaller batch than 36. Would you recommend cutting the recipe in half?

  2. Made this tonight and it turned out wonderfully. Everybody really enjoyed it. Now my husband wants me to make a cheesecake with the same flavor profile. I think he’d probably be satisfied with just a salted caramel cheesecake but do you have any other thoughts on how to incorporate the burnt sugar flavor?

  3. My burnt sugar syrup cooled a little thicker than yours looked to be. Can it be reheated slightly to get more of a thinner consistency?

    1. The consistency won’t be problem at all– you can still use. If you’re concerned, though, you can stir in 1 Tbsp of hot water to thin it out.

  4. I made this cake today and it came out wonderful! I was surprised at how well it came out seeing I completely omitted the milk! I measured out the milk to bring out to room temperature and completely forgot to add it to the recipe. Oops!

  5. Thanks for sharing this! I’m thinking of making it this weekend, but I’m worried about transporting it once assembled. I’m considering making all of the pieces in advance and assembling on site. You mention that the syrup and caramel can be made in advance – can the frosting be made advance, too?

    1. Yes, you can make the frosting ahead of time also! Just bring it with you in a tightly covered container and you should be good to assemble when you arrive. Enjoy!

  6. I’d like to try this in a 5 cup bundt, just drizzling lots of caramel sauce on top and not frosting; then use the remainder for an 8 x 8 and/or cupcakes. Do you think it would work in a small bundt pan and how long would it bake?

  7. Hi Sally,
    I need to make a 10″ 3 layer cake and I would really like to try this one! I have made several of your recipes and they are always fabulous!!
    I’m wondering if you think doubling this recipe would be ok for that size?
    Also, the birthday girl wants cream cheese frosting, do you think adding a little of the syrup to cream cheese frosting would work?
    Thank you so much for all the wonderful recipes you share with us! You are a huge inspiration!!

    1. Hi Michelle, I haven’t tested this cake out in a larger pan size but many readers find this chart helpful when testing different size pans: https://www.joyofbaking.com/PanSizes.html
      I also don’t recommend doubling a cake recipe, but instead make it twice. When you work with too much batter at once it’s very easy to under to over mix which leads to a dense cake.
      And yes, you can try this syrup out in a cream cheese frosting. Enjoy!

      1. I just made the burnt sugar caramel but noticed I let it bubble up a bit before adding the water. It also burnt the wooden spoon I used. It has a very burnt taste to it. Is this normal? I know it says burnt caramel but this sugar tastes horribly burnt. I’m wondering if I added the water a few moments too late. Is this possible? Thanks in advance. I’m hoping to make a second batch if need be to try again.

      2. Hi Melissa! It should not taste bitter. It should taste like deep caramelized sugar (caramel-like). I recommend trying a new batch of the burnt sugar syrup because it sounds like yours was simply over-cooked and too hot.

  8. I made this cake with my sister and it tasted amazing!! It was definite hit for her work colleagues. The only thing that i’d note is that the buttercream was extremely sweet so for a future reference, i’d reduce the amount of sugar (480g is a lot!). But thanks again for the recipe!!

  9. I made this cake and it turned out perfectly and quite a pretty cake. The only comment is that the buttercream was EXTREMELY sweet. I would use regular buttercream next time…the cake and the caramel offer enough flavor!

  10. Hey Sally!
    Made this two days ago and it was a hit, thank you so much for this recipie!

    Got a quick question for my second attempt tomorrow: do you think, the unfrosted cake could stay at room temperature for around 24hrs?

  11. Hi Sally!
    I have a question concerning the caramel sauce for this Burnt Sugar Caramel Cake.
    If it becomes grainy or doesnt have that silky and smooth texture, is there a certain something that we are doing wrong in the process of making it?
    I have made it three times now and i cant seem to get the right texture or taste.
    And i would love to add it into this cake today, when assembling, for a family event.
    Every recipe i have tried from Sally’sBakingAddiction has been successful and i hope i can get the hang of making homemade caramel sauce too.
    Love your recipes!

    1. The sugar can crystalize if you aren’t using the proper pan. It should be a very sturdy 3 quart pan – I use this one: https://amzn.to/2NLWOIW

      1. Thank you!
        I will be starting with that ahead of time as well as the burnt sugar.
        I had sent a very long comment a few days ago but i see it hadn’t gone through– my family loves your recipes and they have such a high successful rate. And oh my… the chocolate chip cookies are delish! Though a question about that as well. Whenever i make these past few times, they become really oily and hard when baked.
        I measure the ingredients every time.

        Thank you again for the help!!

  12. Help, PLEASE!!
    I am currently making the cake right now…and just realised the milk in the fridge has expired!!
    All the ingredients are already mixed and i have fresh cream, sour cream and buttermilk leftover in the fridge. Can i sub milk for any of them??
    Thank you!!

  13. My first batch of batter was horribly curdled – I used a beater attachment instead of a whisk. I popped that batter in the fridge, and started over. The (second) cake turned out beautifully.
    Today I pulled the first batter out, let it warm a bit, and used a hand mixer to fluff it for few seconds. Eureka! So smooth! Adding the flour mixture and milk made a gorgeous, smooth and yummy batter. I baked it only 30 min in a 9×13. It’s cooling now, but I’m wondering, what did I do wrong or maybe right? Should I refrigerate cake batter like cookie batter?
    I’m planning a half recipe of frosting, using salted caramel sauce instead of burnt sugar syrup, for the 9×13 pan.
    Thank you in advance!

    1. Hi Betsy, if it contains baking powder, cake batter shouldn’t be refrigerated for an extended period of time like cookie dough because baking powder is initially activated once wet. The batter may look curdled prior to adding the dry ingredients because of the varying textures. That’s completely normal!

  14. Thanks for your response. I ended up making a new batch and it turned out perfect! What a delicious cake! I added a bit less icing sugar to the frosting once I found a good sweetness! I gave my Mom a few pieces for her birthday today and made her a batch of your harvest spice bread in muffins and she loved them!

  15. Hey Sally! I made this cake last weekend, and OMG! it tastes sooo wonderful! The burnt sugar in my opinion is so level up! The only thing i noticed is that since there’s liquid in the frosting, i tend to add more confectioner’s sugar to make it spreadable so it ended up being too sweet. Any suggestion next time i do this again since i will be making this again i swear!
    Thank you sooo much!

  16. Hi Sally,
    This recipe looks amazing! I’m interested in making this for my husband’s birthday and would ideally like to make it in advance and freeze it. Do you think it will freeze well? Do you think the salted caramel layer between the cake layers will freeze and defrost ok? Any other concerns you have for freezing it? Thanks!

    1. Hi Karen, You can freeze the entire cake or make each component and store separately. See the first recipe note for detailed instructions.

  17. I made this cake for the first time today and I have lots of holes in the cake. Some of them are very large and go all the way through the cake. Why would this happen? I have never had this happen in a cake recipe before.

    1. Hi Jenny! Though the air bubbles won’t change how the cake tastes, a couple things can help if you decide to try this recipe (or any cake recipe) again. Try to avoid over-mixing the batter, which will force more air into the batter (and air bubbles/holes). After pouring the batter into the cake pans, spread it to the edges and you can even lightly bang the pan on the counter to help any air bubbles rise/pop. Hope this helps!

  18. I made this cake and it was fabulous. I did notice it was sweeter right out of the fridge. My husband warms any fridge stored sweets in the microwave so I did try that. OMG, 8 secs in microwave for a slice and it seemed to bring out the warmth and yummy ness of the burnt sugar and caramel. I could not get enough. Thank you Sally

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