Vanilla Muffin Cupcakes with Salted Caramel Frosting

The story of these vanilla muffin cupcakes with salted caramel frosting is bittersweet – a perfect example of what you shouldn’t do, and I don’t just mean with recipes. But the results are delicious.

Vertical image of a cupcake with swirled frosting drizzled with a sauce on a cooling rack, with text on the top and bottom of the image.

And like every good fable, though there are no talking animals here, this one has a moral attached. It’s the same thing I’d tell my teenage self, that arrogant girl who felt she had the future in her control.

Looking her square in the eye, with my hands tight on her shoulders as I shake them slightly, I’d tell her, no matter what, to just remember this one thing:

Don’t set unfair expectations.

Vertical image of two rows of cupcakes with swirled buttercream drizzled with a brown sauce on a cooling rack next to scattered salt.

On my way out, I might also add that a little styling product could do wonders for her wavy hair, but that has nothing to do with these cupcakes.

The moment you demand how things must be, you set yourself up to be devastated when things don’t work out as anticipated.

With some things, it’s fair to be demanding. With others, like a recipe that you expected to turn out a totally different way, it’s not.

I always thought cupcakes needed to be light, fluffy, and pristine. As it turns out, that is not true for all cupcake recipes.

Vertical image of a spoon drizzling a thick brown sauce over a decorated mini dessert on a brown plate.

And let me tell you… it tastes so good to be different!

My recipe for vanilla muffin cupcakes came as a bit of a surprise, and it’s not quite what I expected. These are not as melt-in-your-mouth airy as other types of cake.

They have a dense vanilla-flavored base that resembles a muffin or cornbread in texture. It’s a much heartier mouthful than your typical cloud-like dessert.

Vertical top-down image of mini desserts decorated with buttercream and drizzled with a brown sauce with salt flecks.

I top them with a buttery frosting that has a hint of caramel and a touch of saltiness – far more nuanced and sophisticated than plain vanilla buttercream!

With the first bite, you might think of popcorn, but as you continue eating, the taste becomes more complex, turning into something supremely rich that’s both salty and sweet, caramelized and silky.

Vertical image of a thick brown sauce trailing down the side of a frosting cupcake on a cooling rack.

With all the willingness of an adult woman trying to be more open-minded, I hope this recipe will help other strict bakers to abandon harsh preconceived notions.

Or at least it can serve as the very first step on the journey toward releasing these, slowly, bite by bite.

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Horizontal image of rows of cupcakes with swirled buttercream and a drizzled brown sauce on a cooling rack next to a brown towel.

Vanilla Muffin Cupcakes with Salted Caramel Frosting


  • Author: Shanna Mallon
  • Prep Time: 30 minutes
  • Cook Time: 25 minutes
  • Total Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
  • Yield: 12 cupcakes 1x

Description

With a dense vanilla-flavored base that resembles a muffin or cornbread, these unique cupcakes are finished with homemade salted caramel frosting.


Ingredients

Scale

For the Cupcakes:

  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup whole milk, room temperature
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

For the Frosting:

  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 sticks butter, softened
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
  • Flaky sea salt, for garnishing

Instructions

For the Cupcakes:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line one 12-cup muffin pan with paper liners. Set aside.
  2. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.
  3. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium-high speed until very light in color, about 3 minutes. Add the granulated sugar and continue beating until the mixture is airy, about 3 more minutes. Scrape down the paddle and the sides of the bowl. 
  4. Reduce to medium speed and add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.
  5. With the mixer still running on medium speed, add the milk and vanilla to the butter and egg mixture and beat until completely combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
  6. Add the flour mixture, and mix at low speed until just combined, about 15 seconds.
  7. Divide the batter between the prepared muffin cups. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
  8. Set the pans on a cooling rack and let cool for 5 minutes. Remove the cupcakes from the pans and let cool completely on the rack before frosting.

For the Frosting:

  1. Briefly stir together the granulated sugar and water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
  2. Reduce the heat to low and continue cooking, without stirring, until the mixture turns dark amber in color, about 8 to 10 minutes.
  3. While the caramel is cooking, bring the heavy cream to a simmer in a separate small saucepan, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the vanilla.
  4. Once the caramel has attained a dark amber color, immediately remove from the heat and slowly add the warm cream and vanilla mixture, stirring with a wooden spoon or metal whisk until completely smooth. Set aside until cool to the touch, about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  5. The caramel will yield about 2/3 cup. Set aside about 1/3 cup for the frosting, reserving the remaining caramel for drizzling on top of the cupcakes.
  6. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and salt together on medium-high speed until fluffy and light in color, about 3 minutes.
  7. Reduce the speed to low, and mix in the powdered sugar until completely incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
  8. Add the cooled 1/3 cup caramel to the butter mixture. Beat on medium-high speed until airy and thoroughly mixed, about 2 minutes.
  9. Decorate the cooled cupcakes, drizzle with the remaining caramel, sprinkle with sea salt, and serve immediately.
  • Category: Cupcakes
  • Method: Baking/Stovetop
  • Cuisine: Dessert

Keywords: cupcake, salted caramel, vanilla, frosting

Cooking by the Numbers…

Step 1 – Prep and Measure Ingredients

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line one 12-cup muffin pan with paper liners. Set aside.

Horizontal image of assorted ingredients in assorted bowls on a wooden surface next to brown towels.

Measure out all of the ingredients for both the batter and the caramel, making sure you allow enough time for the eggs and milk to come to room temperature, and the butter to soften.

Step 2 – Make the Cupcake Batter

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.

Horizontal image of a light white batter in a bowl of a stand mixer.

In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium-high speed until it’s very light in color, for about 3 minutes.

Add the granulated sugar and continue beating until the mixture is light and airy, for about 3 more minutes. Scrape down the paddle and the sides of the bowl with a spatula.

Reduce the mixer speed to medium and add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.

With the mixer still running on medium speed, gradually add the milk and vanilla to the butter and egg mixture until completely combined. Turn off the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl with your spatula.

Add the flour mixture. Mix on low speed until just combined, for about 15 seconds.

Step 3 – Bake and Cool

Divide the batter between the prepared muffin cups. You can use a large spoon for this step, but it’s helpful to use a large cookie scoop to distribute it evenly.

Horizontal image of baked individual mounds in a pan.

Bake the cupcakes until they’re puffy and dry to the touch, for about 15 to 18 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through. A toothpick inserted in the center of one will come out clean when they’re done.

For the most even bake, position your oven rack in the middle of your oven, and place the muffin pan in the center of the rack.

Set the pans on a cooling rack and let them cool for 5 minutes. Remove the cupcakes from the pans and let them cool completely on the rack before frosting.

Step 4 – Make the Caramel

While the cupcakes are cooling, make the caramel for the frosting.

Stir together the granulated sugar and water in a small saucepan. The sugar doesn’t have to be completely dissolved into the liquid. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat without stirring.

Horizontal image of a pot with sugar and water next to tan towels.

Reduce the heat to low and continue cooking, still without stirring, until the mixture turns dark amber in color, about 8 to 10 minutes.

Keep the heat on low as you make the caramel. It can easily burn at higher temperatures, and you’ll have to start the process over again!

While we’re on the topic of burns… also keep in mind that this mixture will be very hot! Be careful when the mixture is cooking, and don’t you dare think of taste-testing the caramel while it cooks!

Horizontal image of a bubbling caramel in a pot next to tan towels.

The sugar crystals are very delicate during this cooking process – stirring may lead the sugar to seize, creating large granules. Be sure to resist the urge to stir while the mixture is caramelizing.

Though it’s not necessary, you can also use a pastry brush to brush extra water along the sides inside the pot in order to dissolve any bits of sugar that are stuck. This also helps to prevent the sugar from seizing.

While the caramel is cooking, heat the heavy cream in a separate small pan until simmering. Remove from the heat.

Heating the cream is a helpful step to lower the risk of the caramel seizing and separating from the cream. Adding cold or room-temperature heavy cream creates too much of a temperature difference with the hot caramel sauce, causing the mixture to seize.

Horizontal image of a pot filled with a thick dark brown liquid next to tan towels.

Once the caramel turned the right color, remove the pan from the heat and slowly add the warm heavy cream and vanilla, stirring with a wooden spoon until the mixture is completely smooth. The mixture may bubble as you add the cream, so make sure you add it slowly, off the heat!

If there is still some caramel that has not fully dissolved into the cream, no worries! Place the pan back on low heat and whisk continually until the caramel melts into the heavy cream and creates a smooth mixture.

Set the pan aside until it’s cool to the touch, stirring occasionally. This will take about 25 minutes.

Horizontal image of a spoon drizzling a thick brown liquid over a glass measuring cup.

This will yield about 2/3 of a cup of caramel sauce. Save about 1/3 of a cup for the frosting, reserving the remaining 1/3 cup for drizzling on top of the finished cupcakes.

Be sure that your caramel is completely cool before heading to the next step. You don’t want to melt the butter in your frosting with warm caramel sauce!

Step 5 – Make the Frosting

Wash your mixer bowl and paddle attachment, if you haven’t already.

Horizontal image of a spatula holding some fluffy buttercream over a metal bowl.

In the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar together on medium-high speed until the mixture is fluffy and light in color, for about 3 minutes.

With the mixer turned off, add the powdered sugar. Turn the speed to low and mix until it’s completely incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a clean spatula.

Add the cooled reserved 1/3 cup of caramel to the butter mixture. Beat on medium-high speed until fluffy, about 2 minutes.

Step 6 – Decorate

Decorate the cupcakes as you wish! You can reference our guide to basic cake decorating tools to make sure you have all the supplies you need.

Horizontal image of two rows of cupcakes on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, with a dark brown sauce on the tops.

It’s best to decorate immediately after making the frosting, when the frosting is at its best consistency for piping or spreading.

Drizzle the remaining caramel sauce over the top of each one, and sprinkle lightly with the flaky sea salt.

For easy cleanup, you can place all the cupcakes on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. It will catch all of your mess!

Horizontal top-down image of rows of cupcakes with swirled buttercream and a drizzled brown sauce on a cooling rack next to a brown towel.

Serve the cupcakes immediately, or store them in the refrigerator. When you’re ready to serve, take out the cupcakes and leave them at room temperature for 10 minutes to slightly soften the frosting and sauce.

First Time Making Caramel? No Problem!

Don’t back out now – the process for making this caramel is much easier than you think. Remember our conversation about being more open-minded!

Horizontal image of rows of cupcakes with swirled buttercream and a drizzled brown sauce on a cooling rack next to a brown towel.

Here’s your opportunity to try a new cooking technique, and make a homemade frosting with extra flair and fun.

Just be sure to carefully follow Step 4 in our Cooking by the Numbers section above to prevent the mixture from burning or seizing, and to prevent any accidents.

You’ll soon have a smooth and silky salted caramel sauce that will enhance the frosting, introducing a completely new level of flavor.

If you need additional advice on making caramel for both sauce and other sweet treats, read our article on homemade caramel candies.

Craving cupcakes? We have so many more recipes for you to bake! Try these the next time your sweet tooth needs some sugary satisfaction:

Photos by Nikki Cervone, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Originally published on February 25, 2009. Last updated on October 6, 2021. With additional writing and editing by Nikki Cervone and Allison Sidhu.

Nutritional information derived from a database of known generic and branded foods and ingredients and was not compiled by a registered dietitian or submitted for lab testing. It should be viewed as an approximation.

About Shanna Mallon

Shanna Mallon is a freelance writer who holds an MA in writing from DePaul University. Her work has been featured in a variety of media outlets, including The Kitchn, Better Homes & Gardens, Taste of Home, Houzz.com, Foodista, Entrepreneur, and Ragan PR. In 2014, she co-authored The Einkorn Cookbook with her husband, Tim. Today, you can find her digging into food topics and celebrating the everyday grace of eating on her blog, Go Eat Your Bread with Joy. Shanna lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with Tim and their two small kids.

11 thoughts on “Vanilla Muffin Cupcakes with Salted Caramel Frosting”

  1. To be honest, we’re not huge fans of muffin style cupcake…just too dry and spongy for us. But the frosting sounds just great. Why not try it on something else!

    Reply
  2. I found the best and I mean BEST cupcake recipe from another blog. It’s under coconut cupcakes. You could leave out the coconut and have yourself the best vanilla cupcake in the world. Now I hate to build it up, but it’s the one recipe (baking) that I’m sure of. The cake is dense and needs to really be whipped up. I think the caramel would be great with it.

    I have made caramel frosting over and over and over to get it right. It is still not posted because I obsess on perfection and have many burnt caramel trails in trash to prove it. Determination or kitchen insanity?

    Reply
  3. Angela – As soon as I read your comment, I ran over to your site to find the cupcakes you’re describing (which look amazing!) and print out the recipe. I cannot wait to try them! THANK YOU!

    Reply

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