Taste Test Tuesday: Classic, Vegan, And Gluten-Free Cupcakes

We thought we’d never meet a cupcake we didn’t unconditionally love. We were wrong. So very wrong.

If you’ve ever thought about going gluten-free or vegan, dessert might have been the reason why you didn’t. Many of the best sweets are made with wheat, and almost all of them are made with at least one animal product (vegans don’t eat eggs, dairy, honey, and so on—even some types of confectioner’s sugar are created with animal bone char).

But despite the difficulties of making gluten-free and vegan cupcakes (can you imagine making a cupcake without flour or frosting without butter?), we decided to put six cupcakes to the test to compare the differences. The taste test included two cupcakes (one chocolate cake, one vanilla cake) of each type (regular, gluten-free, and vegan). Ten editorial staffers participated in the blind test and scored the confections out of five in four categories: visual appeal, cake taste, frosting taste, and overall appeal (meaning the highest possible score was 20).

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Regular: Flour & Sun bakery (Pleasantville) 

Vanilla score: 14

Chocolate score: 11

To no one’s surprise, the regular cupcakes received the best scores from our tasters. The regular vanilla cupcake received the highest score, with the regular chocolate cupcake coming in second.

Tasters liked the look of the vanilla (“looks balanced with intricate icing,” “very pretty”), but chocolate didn’t score as well for visual appeal: “Cake looks dry,” “looks like a brownie”)

When it came to tasting, most of the tasters liked both vanilla and chocolate, with only a few complaints. They thought the vanilla was “moist and perfectly sweet,” with “rich frosting,” and chocolate was “tasty” with one commenter even calling it “the best of all.” One taster thought the chocolate was “a bit on the sweet side,” and another said it “didn’t have enough chocolate flavor.”

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Vegan: Red Barn Bakery (Irvington)

Vanilla score: 10

Chocolate score: 8

These cupcakes did well despite having the disadvantage of not including traditional cupcake ingredients like milk, eggs, and butter. The chocolate and vanilla vegan cupcakes scored highest after the regular cupcakes. Once again, vanilla edged out chocolate within the category.

The vegan cupcakes were number one in the visual appeal category, garnering praise like “looks moist,” “beautiful,” and “love the look of the frosting.”

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During the tasting portion, most tasters liked the cake for both chocolate and vanilla (“cake was great,” “nice and moist”), but also commented that the taste was unusual. Vanilla: “tastes like banana bread,” “tastes not like a cupcake.” Chocolate: “had an odd flavor. Is this vegan?” Yes, yes it was.

While the vegan cake received high scores, the tasters were far less favorable toward the frosting: “frosting is gritty,” “a little too sweet,” and “frosting is strange, like it’s missing an ingredient.”

Gluten-Free: Sammi’s Stuff (Mrs. Green’s Natural Market)

Vanilla score: 5

Chocolate score: 3

Oh, boy.

Our tasters were not huge fans of the gluten-free cupcakes, to put it nicely. Once again, vanilla did score slightly higher than chocolate within the category, but with a score like five out of 20, it’s not much of a consolation prize. It should be noted that these cupcakes were from Mrs. Green’s Natural Market and seemed like they were not at peak freshness (we suspect they had been sitting in the bakery department for a while).

For visual appeal, tasters said both chocolate and vanilla looked “dry,” with “hard frosting,” but chocolate edged out vanilla in this category.

In terms of taste, frosting did slightly better than cake (always a warning sign with cupcakes), but our tasters did not give much love to either. For the vanilla cupcake: “tastes like bread,” “dry cake,” “frosting too sweet”; one taster did say this one had their “favorite frosting,” though (who are you?). For the chocolate cupcake: “dry-as-bone cake, but frosting is average,” “frosting rock hard and cake bland.” One taster thought the gluten-free chocolate cupcake was “better than the vanilla,” but chocolate still received the lowest overall score.

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