15 Ingredients To Elevate Carrot Cake

There aren't many types of cake that can get away with having a vegetable in the name (much less in the cake itself), but carrot cake somehow defies all odds by being one of the tastiest baked goods out there. While carrots don't impact the cake's flavor too much, they do provide a nice earthy undertone, a vibrant orange hue, a subtle crunch, and plenty of moisture. Paired alongside spices like cinnamon, ginger, and perhaps some nutmeg or cloves for an extra-spicy version, carrots do deserve a place in the dessert sphere, and they're one of the very few vegetables that can say so.

The history of carrot cake goes back way longer than you might expect, though the modern-day iteration we all know and love (the kind coated in cream cheese frosting) is one that spans back only a few decades. Nevertheless, the spiced dessert has become a favorite during cooler months and beyond, offering a tasty way to use up carrots and knock out a dessert all in one go.

In case you've become a bit bored with making the same carrot cake over and over again, you'll be thrilled to learn that there are quite a few ways to customize the classic confection. Whether you're a fan of crunchy add-ins or you're looking for ways to up the moisture or spice level of your next cake, these ingredients will take your carrot cake to whole new levels of deliciousness.


For many cake lovers out there, nuts aren't just an option in carrot cake — they're absolutely necessary. Of course, if you've only ever enjoyed nut-free carrot cake, then you may be hesitant to experiment with them. While you certainly don't want to totally overpower fresh carrot cake with too many nuts, a good dose of chopped walnuts, pecans, or even almonds will add a nice crunch and nutty flavor to your cake. 

Carrot cake is unique in that it can house nuts without veering too far from the desired flavor profile. Though you likely wouldn't chop up walnuts and throw them into a vanilla cake batter, carrot cake is spicy and earthy enough to handle such an addition. And who says you have to stop with the cake batter itself? Go ahead and toss some chopped walnuts or pecans atop your frosted cake for a simple decoration that conveniently pairs oh-so-well with cream cheese frosting.


Anyone who enjoys cake somewhat regularly knows that there's nothing worse than a dry cake. There are a few ingredients that help ensure a moist cake every time, and applesauce is one that might seem unexpected at first, but when you think about it, the inclusion makes sense. Though applesauce does have a mild fruity flavor, it mostly just tastes subtly sweet and remarkably refreshing — perfect qualities for a moist cake.

If you're trying to avoid consuming too much oil, then you might be pleased to learn that applesauce works as a replacement for oil in a plethora of baked goods, carrot cake included. Now, keep in mind that you can't replace oil with applesauce in every baking recipe, as it would certainly mess up the texture of a pie crust or sugar cookie. Luckily, carrot cake is a good contender for oil replacement, though you may want to consider going 50/50 on the applesauce/oil ration should you go that route.

Dried fruits

Most of us are familiar with dried fruit solely in the context of raisins and maybe cranberries — and hey, those would both make for great carrot cake additions. Raisins and dried cranberries will add a subtle sweetness to your cake, with the latter option also providing an unexpected tartness that would work well alongside all of the spicy flavors.

However, if you're looking to get truly creative with dried fruits, then you might be inclined to think outside of the box. Dried cherries would provide a sweet-tart flavor profile similar to cranberries, while dried apple or pineapple will add a more subtle (but still delicious) fruity undertone. 

Whichever fruit you go with, you can expect more than just a flavor boost. Dried fruit will also add some textural contrast to your cake — nothing too crazy, and certainly nothing crunchy or hard, but a sort of soft bite that will add some variety and keep every mouthful interesting. 

Brown butter

If you've never experienced the magic that is brown butter, you're missing out on one of the easiest ways to amp up ordinary dishes into something special. When you melt butter on the stovetop to the point that it turns brown — not burnt, and not quite caramelized — a nifty chemical process called the Maillard reaction takes place. This is what gives brown butter its notable hue, and the process of melting down the butter also gives it a notable nutty flavor. 

Though it does take a little more effort to include brown butter in your carrot cake as opposed to using regular melted butter, the results are well worth the extra five minutes of elbow grease. The enhanced flavors of the brown butter add wonderful depth to the spiced cake, and it's also an ideal inclusion for those who want a nutty profile but are working around nut allergies. There are countless uses for brown butter in the kitchen, though we'd argue that carrot cake is one of the best ways to put this special stuff to good use.

Crushed pineapple

Canned pineapple can be somewhat polarizing, especially in the context of pizza, and perhaps in the context of carrot cake as well. Though canned crushed pineapple isn't a classic carrot cake inclusion, it's one that you might want to consider adding for a number of reasons. First, crushed pineapple actually serves as a tenderizer, so if your carrot cake always turns out a little bit dry no matter what you do, crack open a can of the crushed stuff to fix all of your baking woes.

Another perk to crushed pineapple is that it is nice and sweet, which naturally fares well in a dessert. Similarly to applesauce, you could also swap out some of the oil that your recipe calls for in favor of crushed pineapple. You'll still probably want to include at least some oil, but if you're trying to lighten things up and perhaps get some fruit content in while you eat dessert, then crushed pineapple is a useful resource that won't change the texture of your cake very much, if at all.


Some people love mayonnaise, some people hate it — but no matter which side you take when it comes to spreading it on sandwiches, there's no denying that mayo is a useful inclusion in the baking world. That may seem like a shocking statement at first, but when you consider the fact that mayo is primarily an emulsion of oil and egg, the thought of adding it to a carrot cake starts to make a lot more sense.

In case you've never included mayo in a baked good and the thought simply repulses you, it's important to clarify that mayonnaise isn't going to change the taste of your cake whatsoever. Instead, it will add a richness to your cake that butter or vegetable oil just doesn't provide, each and every time. Though mayo may be better known as a chocolate cake inclusion (because if there's one type of cake that should always be rich and luscious, it's chocolate), there are no rules — so go ahead, add some to your carrot cake, and don't be too surprised when you never look back.

Pumpkin pie spice

Carrot cake always includes some type of spice, because without a little bit of cinnamon or a sprinkle of ginger, it's just not carrot cake. Indeed, spices are nearly as crucial to carrot cake as the carrots themselves, but if you're looking to switch up your spice inclusions and perhaps want to add a fall flair, then pumpkin pie spice is the way to go.

Many of us have a pumpkin pie spice blend that collects dust in the spring and summer and then suddenly becomes all the rage in the fall. However, you can use the autumnal spice blend year-round, and there's really no better use for it than in a carrot cake (well, aside from pumpkin pie, of course). Store-bought pumpkin pie spice blends typically consist of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice, so it contains nothing out of the ordinary for carrot cake. If you really want to hone in on the spiciness of your cake (and use up some of that otherwise neglected blend while you're at it), add some pumpkin pie spice to prove that it's not limited solely to pumpkin desserts.

Orange juice

Citrus has a welcome place in plenty of desserts, especially those that highlight lemon, lime, or orange flavors. Carrot cake, on the other hand, isn't typically the type of dessert that one might consider enlivening with citrus, much less orange juice — however, it's one of the best additions you could be making. Orange juice will give you more flavorful cooked carrots, and it has a similar effect on carrot-filled baked goods like carrot cake or carrot cake donuts.

The orange juice doesn't necessarily change the flavor of the carrot cake, nor does it add any overtly sour or acidic flavors. Instead, orange juice will brighten up your carrot cake, enhancing the earthy flavor of the carrots while adding plenty of moisture, too. Orange zest is a common inclusion in baked goods, so why not take it a step further (and make things even easier on yourself) by opting for good old OJ instead?

Shredded coconut

Shredded coconut is one of those ingredients that, unless you're making a coconut-specific dessert like macaroons or coconut cream pie, you might not think to add to most baked goods. If you're overlooking coconut in your carrot cake, however, then you're missing out on a genius inclusion that not only adds sweet flavor to your cake but also helps amp up the texture of your treat.

While looking different, shredded coconut and shredded carrot (aka the kind that goes into carrot cake) have many similarities, especially when it comes to mouthfeel. Neither ingredient is overtly crunchy, though they both add a certain chewiness that is highly desired when it comes to carrot cake. If your carrot cake just doesn't have that slight chewiness that you're looking for, you could simply add more carrots. However, if you're tired of grating and want an ingredient that will add textural contrast and a nice touch of sweetness, then shredded coconut is your secret weapon.

Sour cream

Sour cream is one of those ingredients that, like mayonnaise, doesn't sound like the best inclusion for carrot cake, at least not at first. After all, sour cream is almost exclusively used in savory contexts — as a taco garnish, dip, and so on ... but in a cake? Well, sour cream donuts are a thing, and a good one at that, so once you really think about it, it's pretty easy to come around to the idea of sour cream in baked goods, and perhaps even consider adding it to your next carrot cake.

As you might expect, sour cream adds moisture and richness to cake, and it doesn't influence the flavor beyond adding a mild tang. So you won't have to worry about your carrot cake tasting like a freshly-dressed baked potato — in fact, all you'll be tasting is a delightfully spiced cake that is somehow even more delicious than usual thanks to this nifty, creamy addition.

Candied ginger

Ground ginger is a common (if not must-have) ingredient in carrot cake recipes, so the thought of adding candied ginger is one that makes quite a bit of sense. In fact, if you want to follow the sweet and spicy way Ina Garten elevates carrot cake, then candied ginger is the way to go. Though Garten only tops the frosting of her carrot cake with candied ginger, there's no stopping you from chopping some up and tossing it into the cake batter as well.

On its own, ginger root is a tasty but very piquant ingredient, making it one that isn't super desirable to eat on its own. Candied ginger, on the other hand, transforms the root into a treat that strikes the perfect balance between sweet and spicy. With bright and earthy undertones, candied ginger will liven up even the dullest of carrot cakes, and it will surely complement the ground ginger that is already a staple in your favorite recipe.

Whole wheat pastry flour

Most cake recipes call for all-purpose flour — after all, it is all-purpose for a reason. There certainly isn't anything wrong with all-purpose flour, especially if that's what you have on hand. But if you want to get creative and opt for one simple swap that can take your carrot cake to the next level, then you might consider using whole wheat pastry flour instead of all-purpose (or perhaps a mix of the two).

Whole wheat flour, unlike white flour, is made from the entire wheat kernel, so it features some added bonuses in both nutrition and flavor. It can make for a denser baked good, which is why it's a good idea to combine it will all-purpose to strike a balance. Look for products that are specifically whole wheat pastry flour, and put this swap to good use in your next carrot cake — you'll notice a wonderfully nutty flavor that isn't just an afterthought or weak addition, but one that makes up the foundation of the cake itself.


Alcohol is no stranger to baked goods, with inclusions like rum, brandy, and even Guinness having made their way into cakes, cookies, and brownies. If there's one liquor that is ideally suited to baked goods (especially spiced baked goods), it would have to be bourbon. This oaky tipple tends to feature flavor undertones of vanilla and caramel, a sweetness that lends itself well to desserts — and more specifically, carrot cake.

The good news about adding booze to baked goods is that you don't need to use the expensive stuff, nor do you need to pour in a lot of it. A simple splash of bourbon in your carrot cake batter will add a gently woody flavor that works well with the earthy carrots, and even better with the spices. You might even be so inclined to make a bourbon-infused cream cheese frosting to go on top, and for good measure, you can pair your carrot cake slice with a glass of bourbon.

Pumpkin puree

Cans of pumpkin puree hit grocery store shelves like clockwork once fall rolls around, but seasoned bakers know that you can snag a can of it any time of year (though you might have to do some shelf searching). Better yet, you can always keep your pantry stocked with a can or two. Believe it or not, pumpkin puree is useful for more than just pumpkin pie, and more than pumpkin-centric desserts in general. Take, for example, carrot cake — pumpkin not only brightens up that orange hue, but its subtle flavor pairs well with the carrots, too.

On its own, pumpkin puree doesn't have a whole lot of flavor to offer, though if there is one food that closely matches its flavor profile, that would be carrots. Naturally, pumpkin and carrots belong in a dessert together, and even more so when it's one loaded with spices. By adding pumpkin puree to your next carrot cake, you can give the year-round dessert an effortless fall flair without altering the flavors or recipe too much.

Cocoa powder

Fans of chocolate desserts know that cocoa powder is an absolute staple in the baking world, but as it turns out, you can use it beyond the chocolate realm. There are many types of cocoa powder out there, and for the sake of a carrot cake, it'd be best to go with natural cocoa powder or perhaps even red cocoa powder, which boasts a higher fat content that's ideal for retaining moisture while baking.

Whichever type of cocoa you go with, you can expect it to add a roasted, bittersweet profile to your cake. Luckily, the cake will be sweet enough to offset any unpleasant bitter flavors, so you'll be left with a bite that's rich, spiced, and subtly chocolate-infused — perfect for chocolate lovers who can't bear the thought of making a cake that doesn't include the sweet delicacy. Just be sure not to add too much, as you do want to retain the integrity of the carrot cake and stop short of making it an all-out chocolate confection.