Zebra Cake

How to make chocolate and vanilla zebra cake! Topped with creamy chocolate cream cheese frosting, this easy, moist, and delicious cake is a showstopper! Recipe on sallysbakingaddiction.com

There’s a zebra loose in our kitchens!!

You’re looking at chocolate and vanilla cakes baked together in a striking striped pattern. Pretty, right? Much easier than you think to pull off, too. Like marble cake but a little more flashy. Zebra cake is often baked as a single layer cake or a bundt cake, but I needed a fun and towering cake for our friend’s birthday. And an excuse to make chocolate cream cheese frosting.

And if you came here looking for a Little Debbie zebra cake, so sorry! Man those little things are good.

How to make chocolate and vanilla zebra cake! Topped with creamy chocolate cream cheese frosting, this easy, moist, and delicious cake is a showstopper! Recipe on sallysbakingaddiction.com

Let me walk you through my mindset as I was preparing and testing this zebra layer cake. Beware: my mind is a very jumbled space.

Recipe Testing

I started by looking at my marble cake recipe. It’s a wonderful base recipe for yellow layer cake, but out of pure convenience, I didn’t want a cake that called for extra egg yolks. And I just ran out of cake flour from testing out strawberry cake. I also envisioned a 3 or 4 layer cake for my zebra-ing. So let’s start somewhere else.

Moving on to another and more recent cake recipe: checkerboard cake. I ADORE this cake. Somewhere between a mega buttery yellow cake and light vanilla cake, I’m really proud to have a base cake recipe that’s as moist as box mix cakes. And you can make it 3 layer or 4 layer, just adjust the baking time slightly. But if I’m not careful, I can overcream the butter + sugar or over-mix the batter (since there’s so much of it). This can leave me with a denser tasting cake. I wanted to avoid all that, so I slightly reduced the flour and added a little more baking powder for lift + airiness. Does this make sense? To see if I could get away with it, I added some sour cream too. Just for a little extra moisture. Totally worked. This cake is so moist!

Vanilla cake batter for zebra cake on sallysbakingaddiction.com

Made From 1 Batter

So now I have a solid starting point for my zebra cake, let’s figure out how to make the chocolate portion.

The chocolate cake is made from the vanilla batter, so you don’t have to prepare two completely separate batters. YAY! I wanted a suuuuuper dark chocolate stripe for contrast. I was going to use chopped chocolate, like in my marble cake, but that never gives me a very dark chocolate batter. And if I added *more* chocolate to darken the shade, the texture of the chocolate batter would be compromised. So let’s use cocoa powder. How about a dark cocoa powder like Hershey’s special dark? Gorgeous! But since we’re adding a dry and bitter ingredient to the chocolate batter, it will dry out the cake. A little sugar and milk solved that problem. Both the vanilla cake and chocolate cake are so moist. We did it!

Oh and one more thing! I added a little espresso powder to the chocolate batter. Just to help bring out the chocolate flavor. This is an optional ingredient.

You’ll end up with about 8 cups of vanilla batter. Pour 4 cups of it into a separate bowl for the chocolate batter. Add the cocoa, sugar, milk, and espresso powder. You’ll have some little lumps– that’s ok.

Chocolate cake batter for zebra cake on sallysbakingaddiction.com

Now here’s where the zebra shows up! We create a zebra stripe pattern by layering the batters on top of each other. Start with a spoonful of 1 batter in the center, place a spoonful of the other batter on top, then alternate until you’ve filled the pans. I did a horrible job explaining this, so here’s a fancy iPhone video to show you.

Give the pans a shake every now and then to level the batter off. And, after the cakes are baked, level them off with a knife to create flatter tops. Why? So your layer cake isn’t all topsy turvy! You want nice flat-topped surfaces.

Zebra cake batter on sallysbakingaddiction.com

Creamy chocolate cream cheese frosting on sallysbakingaddiction.com

Moving onto the frosting. Let me show off my latest obsession: chocolate cream cheese frosting. Regular cream cheese frosting is one of my favorites because it’s not as cloyingly sweet as buttercream. It’s the creamiest of frostings with a silky smooth and velvet-y mouthfeel. With carrot cake, red velvet cake, hummingbird, banana, spice cake, and pumpkin cake… it’s just the best!!!

But if we think regular cream cheese frosting is the best, we’re definitely backwards. Because this chocolate cream cheese frosting is, in fact, the best in the biz.

Creamy chocolate cream cheese frosting on sallysbakingaddiction.com

Creamy chocolate cream cheese frosting on sallysbakingaddiction.com

Now the moment of truth. Let’s cut into the cake to see how our zebra stripes look!!

How to make chocolate and vanilla zebra cake! Topped with creamy chocolate cream cheese frosting, this easy, moist, and delicious cake is a showstopper! Recipe on sallysbakingaddiction.com

How to make chocolate and vanilla zebra cake! Topped with creamy chocolate cream cheese frosting, this easy, moist, and delicious cake is a showstopper! Recipe on sallysbakingaddiction.com


How to make chocolate and vanilla zebra cake! Topped with creamy chocolate cream cheese frosting, this easy, moist, and delicious cake is a showstopper! Recipe on sallysbakingaddiction.com

Noelle’s nursery is all jungle animals, so I can see myself making zebra cake for her 1st birthday this Fall. Maybe a whole zoo animal theme. Getting ahead of myself. She’s only 3 and 1/2 months! 🙂

Update: I did! See her 1st birthday cake. 🙂


Zebra Cake

  • Author: Sally
  • Prep Time: 30 minutes
  • Cook Time: 27 minutes
  • Total Time: 4 hours, 30 minutes
  • Yield: 10-12 servings
  • Category: Cake
  • Method: Baking
  • Cuisine: American


This easy, moist, and delicious swirled chocolate and vanilla zebra cake is topped with creamy chocolate cream cheese frosting.


  • 3 and 1/2 cups (400g) sifted all-purpose flour*
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 and 1/2 cups (3 sticks; 345g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
  • 2 cups (400g) granulated sugar
  • 5 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1/3 cup (75g) sour cream, at room temperature
  • 1 Tablespoon pure vanilla extract (yes, Tbsp!)
  • 1 and 3/4 cups (420ml) buttermilk, at room temperature

Chocolate Batter

  • 1/3 cup (26g) unsweetened natural cocoa powder
  • 2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 2 Tablespoons milk or buttermilk, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon espresso powder (optional)

Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting

  • 12 ounces (335g) full fat cream cheese, softened to room temperature*
  • 3/4 cup (175g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
  • 3 and 1/2 cups (420g) confectioners’ sugar
  • 2/3 cup (52g) unsweetened natural or dutch-process cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 12 Tablespoons milk or heavy cream
  • pinch salt
  • sprinkles for decorating, if desired


  1. Preheat oven to 350°F (177°C). Grease and lightly flour three 9-inch cake pans.
  2. Make the vanilla batter: Whisk the flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda together in a large bowl. Set aside. Using a handheld or stand mixer fitted with a paddle or whisk attachment, beat the butter and sugar together on high speed until smooth and creamy, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides and up the bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. On medium-high speed, add 1 egg at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the sour cream and vanilla extract. Scrape down the sides and up the bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed.
  3. With the mixer on low speed, add the dry ingredients in three additions alternating with the buttermilk, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients, and mixing each addition just until incorporated. Do not overmix this batter. The batter will be smooth, velvety, and slightly thick.
  4. Make the chocolate batter: There will be around 8 cups of batter total. Transfer half of it to another bowl. Whisk in the 4 chocolate batter ingredients until combined. A few small lumps are ok.
  5. First, watch the video above to see exactly how to layer the batters into the cake pans. Drop a large spoonful of 1 batter in the center of the pan. Top with a spoonful of the other batter. Alternate spoonfuls on top of each other. Give the pan a shake to level it all out. Repeat with each cake pan until all the batter is used. There’s about 8 cups of batter total, so each cake pan will have a little less than 3 cups of batter in it.
  6. Bake for around 25-27 minutes or until the cakes are baked through. 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. The cakes must be completely cool before frosting and assembling.
  7. Make the frosting: In a large bowl using a hand-held or stand mixer fitted with a paddle or whisk attachment, beat the cream cheese for 1 minute on high speed until completely smooth and creamy. Beat in the butter until combined. Add the confectioners’ sugar, cocoa powder, vanilla extract, 1 Tablespoon milk, and salt and beat on medium-high speed until combined and creamy. Add 1 more Tablespoon of milk to slightly thin out, if desired. Taste, then add another pinch of salt if desired.
  8. Assemble and frost: First, using a large serrated knife, slice a thin layer off the tops of the cakes to create a flat surface. Discard (or crumble over ice cream!). Place 1 cake layer on your cake stand or serving plate. Evenly cover the top with frosting. Top with 2nd layer and evenly cover the top with more frosting. Top with the third cake layer. Spread the frosting into a thick layer all over the top and sides. Garnish with sprinkles, if desired. Refrigerate for at least 45 minutes before slicing. This helps the cake keep its shape when cutting– it could slightly fall apart without time in the fridge.
  9. Cover leftover cake tightly and store in the refrigerator for 5 days.


  1. Make Ahead Instructions: The cake layers can be baked, cooled, and covered tightly at room temperature overnight. Likewise, the frosting can be prepared then covered and refrigerated overnight. Let it sit at room temperature to slightly soften for 10 minutes before assembling and frosting. Frosted cake can be frozen up to 2-3 months. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator and bring to room temperature before serving.
  2. Special Tools: KitchenAid Stand Mixer | KitchenAid Hand Mixer | Glass Mixing Bowls | 9-inch Round Cake Pan | Icing Spatula
  3. Flour: Sift flour before measuring.
  4. Milk: If needed, you can use whole milk mixed with 1 and 1/4 teaspoons of white vinegar or fresh lemon juice instead of buttermilk.
  5. Cream Cheese: Make sure you’re using the blocks of cream cheese, not cream cheese spread. They’re typically sold in 8 ounce blocks, so you’ll need 1 and 1/2 blocks.
  6. Room Temperature Ingredients: All refrigerated items should be at room temperature so the batter mixes together easily and evenly. Read here for more information.
How to make chocolate and vanilla zebra cake! Topped with creamy chocolate cream cheese frosting, this easy, moist, and delicious cake is a showstopper! Recipe on sallysbakingaddiction.com
Creamy chocolate cream cheese frosting on sallysbakingaddiction.com


    1. Hi Fiona! This is too much batter for a 20cm single layer cake. You can divide the batter up to make a few 20cm single layer cakes though. The bake time will be a minute or 2 longer in the smaller pan.

    1. Hi Lorrie! There is too much batter for only 2 layers, so I recommend sticking to the recipe. If you only have 2 cake pans, keep the remaining batter at room temperature, covered lightly, until a cake pan is ready to use again.

  1. Hi sally, I am making this cake for my son’s 1st birthday but need the recipe to fill 2 – 12” pans that are 2” deep. Would I have to double the recipe?

  2. Hi Sally,
    Thank you for all your delicious, varied, and beautiful recipes, and the very clear insructions. My kids say that I have an addiction to Sallys baking addiction! What would you think about making the zebra cake into a Bundt pan, as I am not planning to make the frosting, just a simple glaze ( no dairy in our baking)?
    Also, how much melted coconut oil would you recommend instead of the butter in this recipe?

    1. Hi Brindy! Happy to help. This cake recipe will fit nicely into a bundt pan. I’m unsure of the exact bake time for the bundt, but it should be close to (or over!) 1 hour at 350F. For the coconut oil, I don’t recommend melting it first. Cream it with the sugar.

  3. I’ve had a complete nightmare with your recipe…never before has this happened to me but its all curdled – I’m on my second batch and it’s happened again after adding the eggs – it’s too late now for my son’s 1st birthday cake but any thoughts on why it will have curdled?!!

    1. Hi E! It’s totally normal, even if all the ingredients are room temperature. (Make sure they are!) It’s just the varying textures of ingredients. Everything comes together when you add the flour.

      1. Hi Sally, I’ll be making this cake for my husband’s birthday in a couple weeks. There will be about 20 people and I will be using 2 – 12” pans that are 2” deep. Do I have to double the cake recipe and the frosting recipe?
        FYI, I made your Strawberry Cake for a friend’s birthday last night and it was a hit!!! Everyone couldn’t quit complimenting it! Thanks.

      2. Hi Christine! It’s hard for me to say without testing myself. It’s always best to have more batter than less batter, so I recommend making the batter TWICE (doubling could affect its texture) and using as much as you need. If you have any leftover, make a few cupcakes on the side. Hope this helps!

  4. I need to make this cake someday soon 🙂 There’s something about your photography and presentation that just makes me feel like I absolutely must make a recipe, Sally! Your pictures are so beautifully done and enticing that I’ll keep coming back to them day after day, telling myself I need to make it and try and recreate that look at home! Now I’ve got a really long list of must-bakes…better stock up on the butter, sugar, and, of course, sprinkles 😉

  5. Delicious. I made this yesterday, cake and frosting both, and just served it. It’s a wonderfully moist cake, sturdy and tender at the same time, with a softer sort of chocolate milkshake flavor instead of a death by chocolate blast. The frosting is great too – fast, simple, great texture to work with, delicious (I may up the cocoa powder next time but again, delicious as is) – definitely going to be a go-to frosting. And the amount it made was just right for the cake – I appreciate that so much!

    The one issue I ran into was that the batter didn’t seem to be enough for three 9″ pans. I was about halfway through filling the pans when I noticed, and since I had parchment rounds in the bottom I was able to lift those out and transfer them. Three 8″ pans worked perfectly, with each layer coming out about an inch and a quarter tall.

    To anyone considering this cake, make it! Fairly simple, impressive, delicious, perfect. I would recommend three 8″ pans but other than that wouldn’t change a thing.

  6. I made this recipe for my family the other day…..they loved it and were so surprised when I cut it open and they saw the zebra stripes!!! They couldn’t work out how I had managed it…..love a cake that looks incredibly tricky but is deceivingly simple ❤

  7. I’ve made this cake twice now, both times for grandkids birthdays. While the flavor is awesome and kids loved, the texture was very dense, both times. I LOVE your recipes, have made many of them, many times with great success, can’t figure out what I did wrong. Any ideas?

    1. Usually a dense cake is the result of over-mixing the batter. If you notice the cakes rise in the oven and then fall (either in the oven or right after you remove them) this is likely the culprit.

  8. My son loves chocolate vanilla “squirrel” so I would like to make this but I need to make it in a large sheet pan for his first communion. Do you have any recommendations for cook time since I will be doubling this recipe to fit the 12×18 pan. Any advice is greatly appreciated.

    1. Hi Jill! This cake batter, as written, will fit into a 12×18 inch pan. You could 1.5x the recipe for a slightly thicker sheet cake, but doubling the batter would be too much. The bake time varies, but should be between 20 and 30 minutes. Use a toothpick to test for doneness.

  9. hey, if i wanted to make regular chocolate frosting how much butter would i need to make up for the cream cheese?

  10. Hi
    What can I use instead of buttermilk in this recipe ?
    Or do you have some kind of recipe to make buttermilk at home ( like for eg milk + lemon )

    1. Absolutely! I’ve done that before with this particular zebra cake– froze it for 3-4 weeks. Wrap each cooled layer in plastic wrap, then a layer of aluminum foil. Thaw at room temperature or in the refrigerator for a slower thaw.

  11. Hi! Could I skip the chocolate batter part and just have a yellow cake? Or would you recommend a different recipe of yours for a yellow layer cake? Thabk you!

      1. I was using this zebra cake without the chocolate part because in your yellow sheet cake notes you say it you want to make a layer cake you suggest using this zebra minus the chocolate.

        Which would you recommend? I want a yellow birthday cake with chocolate frosting!

        Thank you so much!

      2. Ok maybe I just have too many yellow cakes that I love and I didn’t realize it! 🙂 This zebra cake is one of my favorites. Try this one first. Honestly, they are all pretty similar with similar ingredients and you can’t go wrong.

  12. Hi Sally! I was wondering whether there is any way I could convert this into zebra cupcakes? I thought this effect would look really cool as cupcakes! I think I would half the recipe to yield less, and would I simply layer the batter with alternate chocolate and vanilla layers? Thanks!

  13. sorry to be a bother, i’m trying to print this recipe out so i can make it for my birthday cake for tomorrow. everytime i hit print and ask me to save it, so i save it to my computer, then i go to the folder and open the file, but then everytime i click print from there its still asking me to save it. why can i not just print it out like i have before

  14. Hey Sally let me first say I love your recipes. I tried this zebra cake recipe and I had no good luck with it. The taste was on point but it was dry and hard especially the chocolate areas. I would love to make this cake again. Any suggestions?

    1. Hi Kathyann! Did you change anything about the recipe at all? I’ve made this particular cake a handful of times and have never experienced a dry texture. Sorry it didn’t turn out as expected for you. First thing that comes to mind is to make sure that you are spooning and leveling your flour, not scooping or packing it in the measuring cup.

  15. Sally, help. I just made this cake. And now realizing I put in too much baking soda and no baking powder. I haven’t tried it yet. Wondering if it’s ruined and I should make another one.

  16. Made this birthday cake for my family and it turned out absolutely perfect and delicious! I used three 8” pans and it worked just fine.
    To the folks whose cakes are turning out too dense, I had a tip given to me when I took a baking class last year that has proven to be pretty fail-proof….If making cakes or cupcakes, when you go to mix the flour mixture with the wet mixture, turn off the electric mixers and do it by hand. Anytime you use any kind of electronic mixer for this part of the process, you risk over mixing 90% of the time.
    Thanks so much for another great recipe!

  17. Instead of putting the chocolate cream cheese frosting in between the layers, is there a filling recipe you might recommend that would work instead? Like a whipped cream type filling maybe? I’m thinking of how great your lemon blueberry cake turned out – with the blueberry whipped cream in the layers, then cream cheese frosting on the outside. Great balance! Thanks for the help – as always!

    1. Hi Donna, Anything could work as a filling! You can do whipped cream, a whipped chocolate buttercream, chocolate or white chocolate ganache, strawberry buttercream – really it just depends on the flavor you are going for 🙂

    1. This cake recipe will fit nicely into a bundt pan. I’m unsure of the exact bake time for the bundt, but it should be close to (or over!) 1 hour at 350F. F

  18. This cake is delicious! It’s fun to make, and the final product looks astounding. The cake has a wonderfully soft and fluffy texture. And the frosting!! That chocolate cream cheese frosting has to be the best kind of frosting I have ever had. It’s creamy, smooth, chocolate-y, and downright perfect. Even my dad, who hates frosting, loved it. It’s nice because it’s not as tooth-decayingly sweet as normal buttercream. And the cream cheese adds a fabulous tang! This is definitely my new favourite chocolate frosting recipe 🙂

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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