Zebra Cake

slice of zebra cake on a teal plate

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.

zebra cake on a wood and marble cake stand

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 with a basic vanilla cake/yellow cake hybrid recipe: my 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 over-cream 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 in a glass bowl

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 in a glass bowl

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.

vanilla and chocolate cake batter swirled together in a cake pan before baking

chocolate cream cheese frosting in a glass bowl

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.

chocolate cream cheese frosting in a glass bowl and on a whisk attachment

spreading chocolate cream cheese frosting onto layer of zebra cake

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

overhead image of zebra cake with chocolate cream cheese frosting and sprinkles on a marble cake stand

zebra cake on a wood and marble cake stand

slice of zebra cake on a teal plate

Update: See my daughter’s 1st birthday cake. 🙂

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slice of zebra cake on a teal plate

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 (413g) sifted all-purpose flour* (spoon & leveled)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons 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 (27g) 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 (55g) 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 (affiliate links): KitchenAid Stand Mixer | KitchenAid Hand Mixer | Glass Mixing Bowls | 9-inch Round Cake Pan | Icing Spatula
  3. Flour: Sift flour before measuring.
  4. Buttermilk: If you don’t have buttermilk, you can make a DIY sour milk substitute. Add 1 Tablespoon of white vinegar or lemon juice to a liquid measuring cup. Then add enough whole milk to the same measuring cup until it reaches 1 and 3/4 cups. (In a pinch, lower fat or nondairy milks work for this soured milk, but the cake won’t taste as moist or rich.) Stir it around and let sit for 5 minutes. The homemade “buttermilk” will be somewhat curdled and ready to use in the recipe.
  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.


  1. Hi Sally! I’m wondering if this recipe will fit in a 9 x 13 or is it still too much batter?

    1. Hi Trina! You’re right, it’s too much batter.

  2. Made this cake yesterday for my son’s 34th birthday. Came out perfect right down to the stripes and sprinkles! Everyone was “Oh Wow how did you do that?” It is really a delicious cake and frosting.

  3. Hi Sally, I made the Zebra Cake yesterday and it seems to have turned out a little dense. I was careful not to overmix. Maybe this has something to do with it but after I added the eggs and sour cream to the white batter it seemed curdled. It did smooth out when I added the flour. After it came out of the oven it looked like there were little, tiny hole in the layers. It tasted good but I just knew I wish were I went wrong. I would appreciate any help!  Thank you! 

    1. Hi Kim! Did you sift the flour? And spoon and level it? These two steps make a huge difference in the outcome of the cake. So sorry yours was a little dense.

  4. You mentioned that this type of cake is often made as a bundt cake.  Can your recipe be used to make a bundt instead of a layer cake? Top it is with chocolate glaze or something? Thank you!

    1. Hi Carrie, yes, this batter will fit into a large Bundt pan. Bake at the same oven temperature. I’m unsure of the bake time. A chocolate glaze or ganache on top would be great.

  5. Can the recipe be adjusted for 8-inch pans?

    1. Hi Jillian! You can bake the cakes in 8-inch pans. The bake time will be a little longer. Use a toothpick to test for doneness.

  6. Great recipe, Sally! The chocolate cream cheese frosting is amazing and the cake was moist and tasted even better the next day.

  7. Hi Sally,
    My son had very specific cake requests for his 8th birthday cake, and he pretty much described this cake. I’m not a huge marble fan so I was dreading this one a bit, but it turned out delicious! The whole family raved. My five year old helped bake it, and we substituted plain yogurt for sour cream. We even copied the off-set sprinkles, and threw a few mini chocolate chips on top to fulfill his wish list. Thank you, it was moist, delicious. and such a cool design!

    1. YAY! I’m so glad you tried something new and that it was such a hit with your family! And I hope he had a great 8th birthday 🙂

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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 ❤

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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. Hi Jacenta! I suggest following my yellow sheet cake recipe or my piñata cake recipe (but skip the piñata assembly).

  15. 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!

  16. 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.

  17. 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!

  18. 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 🙂

  19. Can this be made in a bundt pan? Like marbled/zebra stripe?

    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

  20. 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 🙂

  21. The flavor is great and it’s very moist. But, like another reviewer mentioned, there is not enough batter for three 9-inch pans. My layers ended up only an inch high. I will probably use 8-inch pans next time. Otherwise, thanks for a great recipe.

  22. Isadora Shannon says:

    Dear Sally,

    I see it says to put in the refrigerator for 45 minutes before serving, and also store in the refrigerator, instead of at room temperature, but is this because doc the cream cheese frosting?

    If I make the same recipe but use your chocolate fudge frosting, is refrigeration (the 45 minutes as well as storage) still necessary, or should I leave it at room temperature? I’m worried about it drying out as I’ve always left cakes at room temperature. Thanks a lot!!

    1. Hi Isadora, I recommend refrigerating before slicing so the slices are nice and neat. I also recommend refrigerating leftovers because of the cream cheese in the frosting. If using regular chocolate buttercream, you could leave the cake out (covered) for a couple days.

  23. I made this cake for my son’s 2nd birthday. The party was Okapi-themed, so I did this cake filled with the Nutella buttercream recipe from this site and covered in chocolate buttercream. The brown on the outside and zebra striped on the inside was perfect for the theme. It was a huge success! I used this exact recipe to fill 2x 10″ rounds and it worked great. When I was first spooning it in it didn’t seem like the batter would fill the pans, but with some tapping and slight wiggle of the pans, it went to the sides and evened out. When it baked, each round ended up being about 1″ – 1 1/4″ tall which was perfect. Ended up doing 2 batches to make a 4-layer cake. In one of the batches the white cake did curdle slightly and I wonder if I should have mixed it more because the chocolate came out perfect. But the other batch was great.

  24. Hi Sally,

    This is my first time leaving a comment on your site – shameful considering I have been using it regularly. I did the funfetti cake for my daughters first bday last year and it was a dream! Thank you 🙂 Its already time for her 2nd bday and she is currently obsessed with bday videos that show tiered cakes. Would there be a problem translating this recipe to a tiered one, 8 – 6- 4 inches or 10-8-6? Thank you again!

    1. Happy almost second birthday to your daughter! And I love that she’s watching cake videos 🙂 This cake should hold up as long as each tier is properly supported with cake rounds and dowels. To figure out how much batter you will need this is a helpful chart from Wilton: https://www.wilton.com/cake-serving-guide/cms-baking-serving-guide.html
      I hope she loves it!

  25. Thanks for this recipe! I made it in a 9×13 inch pan for my mother- in- laws’ s 70 th this summer and it was delish! I’ve just mad every it again adding orange zest and orange food colouring to the vanilla batter to make a tiger striped cat cake for my daughter’s birthday. Can’t wait to try it!

  26. Shoneth Leadbetter says:

    I wanted this to work out SO bad – I did a trial run and it was INCREDIBLY dense so I followed each and every step to a tee the second time (with my husband double checking all my work haha) but it was also quite dense (although not quite as dense). It came out with almost a pound cake consistency. I’m not sure what I did wrong! That said, the zebra stripes came out perfectly – love the technique! I do want to try your tuxedo cake next but worry that you mention that the sour cream makes it a bit dense; based on my track record here maybe I should go for a lighter texture?

    1. Hi Shoneth, it sounds like something went wrong. This cake shouldn’t taste like pound cake at all. Did you spoon and level the flour or change anything in particular? I know you’ll find my How to Avoid Dry or Dense Cakes post very helpful here. The Tuxedo Cake is lighter than this, you shouldn’t have a problem if you follow the recipe closely.

  27. I was disappointed in this cake because the texture was too moist and buttery – borderline mushy – and there wasn’t much flavor other than butter. I couldn’t add espresso powder due to someone’s food sensitivities, but still I could hardly taste the chocolate. All I could taste was butter, and the dense crumb made this cake resemble pound cake. I was meticulous in measuring the flour and in following all the other steps, and I’m not a novice baker. Also I made ahead of time and froze the cake, but I followed the instructions for freezing and thawing to the T. The stripes looked awesome and I love the zebra idea. I wonder if the recipe would be more to my taste if made with 2 or 2.5 sticks of butter and/or without the sour cream?

  28. Sarah Helmanseder says:

    Dear Sally,

    First of all: I am deeply in love with your recipes. Your blog is my one and only go-to place when looking for inspiration or just wanting to enjoy some beautiful food pics.

    I wanted to bake your zebra cake for my colleagues a few days ago. Although I exactly sticked to your measurements and instructions it turned out totally moist and greasy and with no zebra stripes left at all. And with me left a bit helpless.

    The only thing I can imagine that would have possibly been able to make a difference to your exact ingredients is the buttermilk – IF it is the case that buttermilk is something different in the US than in Austria where I live. Do you know if there are any differences like that between the products that could have caused my cake fail?

    Or maybe you have another idea why it didn’t work out?

    I would be really grateful for some tips because I want to try again. I can never ever accept a cake fail without trying again. 😉 And furthermore I do absolutely want to eat this cake. 😀

    Thank you Sally and best wishes,

    1. Hi Sarah! You are so sweet, thank you so much! Something must be up– the only way this batter would be greasy and not bake up into those beautiful stripes is if the batter was too thin. I wonder if there simply wasn’t enough flour? Did you spoon and level and/or weigh it for measuring? Buttermilk should be the same where you live, so that wouldn’t be the issue. I’m concerned about the flour. You can even try adding another 1/4 cup to help bulk up the batter. Was it a thin batter? Thank you again!

      1. Hi Sally,
        If we can exclude the buttermilk it must have been the flour that caused the problem. I weighed it for measuring and the batter was not enormously thin but still thin. I will definitely try it again with about 1/4 cup additional flour.
        Thank you so much for your advice!

        All the best,

  29. Measured the sifted flour with a food scale and was cautious about trying not to over mix the batter and it still turned out way too dense. This was not light and fluffy like I had hoped.

  30. Sally, thank you for this cool and easy technique! I omitted the cocoa & used pink & green food coloring to make an Easter cake. My 11 year old son helped & said “I like that this is a cool, not boring, way to make a cake.” This same son has also made 2 batches of your soft pretzel recipe during the coronavirus shut down. 🙂 The cake is in the oven right now.

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