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

134 Comments

  1. Hi Sally, is there any way of using the burnt sugar syrup in a brownie? If so which of your recipes would you suggest? Love this cake! Think it would taste fab in a brownie!

    1. Hi Alex, I’m so glad you love this cake. Adding the syrup to a brownie would take additional recipe testing so I’m not confident giving you an exact answer. Let me know if you decide to experiment with it!

  2. I made this recipe exactly as written. It is seriously the best cake I’ve ever had in my life. There are so many wonderful flavors and textures blended together – the deliciously rich cake, smooth frosting, salty sweet caramel and the crunchy toasted pecans. It is heaven. The cake does not taste burnt! It tastes like caramel. It adds an extra dimension to the sponge and the frosting so it doesn’t taste like plain vanilla. It tastes somewhere between vanilla and caramel. I highly recommend.

  3. Hi Sally,

    I’ve made several of your cakes, impressing everyone. They are incredible. I’m making the Burnt Sugar Carmel Cake today. Your video shows you using the paddle attachment but the instructions says to use the whisk attachment for the cake batter. I’m hoping the video is correct and will use the paddle attachment.

    Just have to say, everything I’ve made so far has been incredible. I’m working from home so I thought I would start baking, following your recipes and instructions, everyone thinks I’m a professional. I send them to your website, so you get all the credit! Thanks, Mark

    1. Thanks so much, Mark! What a kind comment to ready today. You can use either the paddle or whisk attachment for the cake batter. I swap between the two and there’s never a difference.

  4. Hi Sally! I’m actually a newcomer here and this will be the first recipe i want to try out, and I was wondering if this recipe can be for a one layer cake? Do you have any income? Thank you!

    1. Hilari @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Hi Valerie, see recipe note about making this as a single layer cake in a 9×13 pan!

  5. Lindsey McNab says:

    Hi, Used half of the quantities and made cupcakes last week – the mixture curdled and was still lumpy during and after cooking. However, they tasted good. Just after making the full amount, it curdled again but this time as the burnt sugar was added, by the time I added all the dry ingredients it was a smooth batter. However, I and baked them in two 6 inch tins, for about 35 mins and both have sunk? All of the ingredients were room temp. Wondering if I beat it too long to try to get rid of curdling (pre dry ingredients) but it did result in a smooth batter.x

    1. Hi Lindsey! Do you mean that the cake batter was curdled? This can happen if some ingredients are varying temperatures, so make sure everything is room temperature when preparing the batter. If there are large lumps, you can use a whisk to smooth out the batter before pouring into cake pans and baking. You mentioned the baked cake was lumpy and curdled as well. Was it not completely baked through?

      1. Hi Sally,
        yes the batter curdled as I added the egg whites (which were room temp) Even once the dry ingredients were added it was still lumpy. Didn’t want to continue mixing once the flour was incorporated – but it at least tasted good. However, I have since tried yesterday’s cake (the sunken one) which is really wet. Suppose I’m asking two questions – why it curdled and why my second one didn’t rise? x

  6. This cake is absolutely delicious! I am a caramel lover and this was AMAZING. I’ve never made salted caramel before and couldn’t believe I was able to do it! Thank you for all your recipes. They are incredible!

  7. If I make and assemble this the night before a birthday, should I leave it out or store in the fridge? Can’t wait to try it!

    1. Stephanie @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Hi Elle, We recommend storing this cake in the refrigerator.

  8. Just finished with the Carmel and the sugar syrup. I’ve never done either and found your directions to be easy and had no trouble with either. Cooking the sugar is weird! Neither my Carmel or my burnt sugar syrup is as dark as yours so next time I think I will up my burner just a tad past medium to get more color from the sugar. Do you think that may be the trick?

    1. Hi Dene Kelly, I’m glad you found these instructions easy! Instead of increasing the temperature on the stove, I recommend cooking the sugar syrup for a bit longer until you achieve that darker color. Higher temperature could caramelize the sugar unevenly.

1 2 3

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

With kitchen-tested quality recipes and step-by-step tutorials, my goal is to give you the confidence to bake and cook from scratch.

Sally's signature

Recipes You’ll Love

Archives

Categories

Join the community on the 1st of every month as we tackle a new challenge recipe. Review Sally's Baking Challenge FAQ page if you have any questions.

View More

A tradition since 2013, every December we countdown to Christmas with 10 new cookie recipes in a row!

View More

The first week of every November is all about Thanksgiving Pies.

View More

My Cookbooks

Sally's Cookbooks

About Sally

Welcome to my Kitchen!

I’m Sally, a cookbook author, photographer, and blogger. My goal is to give you the confidence and knowledge to cook and bake from scratch while providing quality recipes and plenty of pictures. Grab a cookie, take a seat, and have fun exploring! more about Sally

×