Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Sampling Bay Area's gluten-free cupcakes: a blind taste test

Row 1: Amia, Miglet's, Gluten-free Gourmet
Row 2: Let them Eat Cake, Taste of Happiness, Sprinkles
Row 3: Crave Bakery, Cups and Cakes, Grandma B's 

When the cupcake shops that are so ubiquitous now started popping up in the Bay Area, I would gaze in envy. I loved the idea of being able to taste a small portion of creative cake flavors. It had been long enough since I had had a lot of cake, that I didn't know for sure that this fad would be the holy grail of dessert. But cupcakes were so adorable it was enough to make me gawk longingly at the shops and even attempt to shove some cakes down my very cupcake neutral husband for tasting.

Now some intrepid gluten-free and conventional bakeries have taken on the gluten-free cupcake, and with so many offerings in the Bay Area we no longer have to miss out. The field is numerous enough it was ripe for a blind tasting, so eleven brave tasters donned their pens and tasted their way through 27, yes 27, different gluten-free cupcakes.

Twelve bakeries participated in the tasting, ranging from conventional bakeries that offer gluten-free cupcakes, to dedicated gluten-free bakeries to bakers providing custom order gluten free cakes. We tasted chocolate and vanilla cupcakes, followed by other flavors bakeries wished to share. Most cakes were contained dairy but a few were dairy free and even egg free.

Our eleven tasters included six kids, ranging from six years to teenagers, and five adults. Half were Celiac, half were not but were frequently exposed to gluten-free foods since they had a Celiac sibling or child.

Tasters were given a small sample of each cupcake, and asked to taste all the vanilla together and all the chocolate together (some started with vanilla and some with chocolate). They rated the frosting, the cake and the overall cupcake and provided comments. After the tasting was completed, they viewed a full cupcake to rate the appearance. Cupcake samples were only labeled with a number and tasters were not allowed to view the full cupcakes until after tasting to suppress the identities.

Kara's Cupcakes ultra light and moist chocolate velvet cupcake

Now for the results. Overall chocolate cupcakes fared much better than vanilla cupcakes. The most common offense was dry cake, grainy texture and frostings that were too sweet for our tasters. However, we found that there are many cupcake options to suit any tastes. All bakeries were provided with detailed feedback for their cupcakes, and so many I bet will work to improve. It will be worth retrying the bakeries that revamp their approach.
Icing on the Cake's decadent cupcakes with deeply chocolaty frosting

Coming out on top were two conventional bakeries offering limited but awfully tasty gluten-free options: Kara's Cupcakes (multiple Bay Area locations) and Icing on the Cake (Los Gatos). The two dedicated gluten-free bakeries rising to the top were Miglets Cupcake Shop (Danville and retail locations throughout the Bay Area) and Aunti Gluten's for their specialty flavors (Pleasanton). Taste of Happiness (San Francisco) and Kara's Cupcakes received top honors for appearance.

Miglet's Cupcake Bakery's deep dark chocolate cupcake

Now that there are eleven folks out there that never want to see another gluten-free cupcake again, here we summarize comments so you can get your gluten-free gluttony on. Enjoy!

Aunti Gluten's nutmeg spiced chai cupcake with cream cheese frosting

East Bay

Amia: This conventional bakery in Fremont has started offering gluten-free cakes and cupcakes made to order. The frosting we tasted on both the chocolate and vanilla cupcakes strongly appealed to many tasters, with a very light texture and slight cream cheese taste. However, the cakes were less successful with a course grainy texture and too subtle vanilla and chocolate flavor.

Aunti Gluten: East Bay Celiacs are in luck with this new gluten-free cupcake bakery. This bakery shined in its specialty flavors, the chai with a healthy dose of nutmeg and the lemon coconut with perfect lemon scenting. Their cream cheese frosting variants beat out the buttercreams, having a middle of the road sweetness and texture. Their cakes held up well without strong off flavors, but were generally rated as somewhat dry.

Miglets: Danville's gluten-free bakery specializes in cupcakes with creative flavors. We tasted the chocolate with dark chocolate frosting, the vanilla confetti with light chocolate frosting and the red velvet. The tasters very much enjoyed the American buttercream style vanilla frosting, but found the vanilla cake a bit dry. They loved having the confetti in there for looks. The chocolate cake was deep and moist, and overall tasters rated it well. The red velvet also fared well, although the frosting was too sweet for some.

San Francisco

Crave: These widely available cupcakes are also available by special order and offers a nice dairy free option. They are frosted with a very light buttercream, which appealed to many, but not all tasters. Despite being dairy free this buttercream did not scream "shortening." The cake, reminiscent of a buttermilk pound cake, was more divisive with some rating it very highly overall and others finding it grainy.
Cups and Cakes: This SF based conventional cupcake bakery is now producing custom order gluten-free cupcakes. If you are a sugar lover, this super sweet frosting is for you, but most of our tasters preferred much less sweetness. The cakes had a biscuity and gluten-free flour taste, likely from the Bob's Red Mill blend they use, which was disliked by tasters. 

Kara's: This conventional cupcake bakery has multiple locations in the Bay Area, and offers three gluten-free cupcakes: Chocolate Velvet, Sweet Vanilla and Coconut. The cupcakes were a hit with tasters, particularly the lighter than air but packed with chocolate frosting on the Chocolate Velvet cake. The cream cheese frosting stood out as one of the best, not too sweet, but many raters felt the vanilla frosting was too sweet. A few tasters noted the gluten-free flour flavors in the cupcakes, particularly the vanilla, but praised their moisture. The tasters enjoyed the look of these cupcakes. 

Taste of Happiness: This San Francisco based bakery sells out of Philz coffee shop and a few other locations. They produce a large variety of gluten-free cupcakes, most studded with candies and won top honors in appearance. The cake is has a very tight crumb and our tasters praised the moistness almost gooiness of the cake. They felt the light flavors worked better when studded with candy, or with chocolate chips as the chocolate cake we tasted was. The very light slightly sweet buttercream was too light for some and again was best rated when accompanied by candy.

South Bay

Let Them Eat Cake: This South Bay bakery specializes in special order cakes for folks with allergies and was the only bakery that offered nut free baking environment. We tasted dairy free, gluten free, nut free chocolate and vanilla cupcakes, and a vegan gluten free lemon raspberry. Most tasters really enjoyed and rated highly the American buttercream dairy free vanilla frosting (much to the suprise of this butter lover!). The biscuit flavor of the vanilla cake turned off some tasters, as did the course dry crumb.

Gluten-free Gourmet: This small bakery specializes in carrot cake, brownies and zucchini cakes, but submitted a batch of vanilla cupcakes with vanilla buttercream. The large cupcakes were unfortunately overbaked and possibly stored incorrectly, so it is difficult to give a fair assessment of the cake. The sweet relatively thick American buttercream frosting was liked mostly by kids.

Grandma B's: This home based baker creates custom order gluten-free baked goods. The chocolate cake was one of the favorites among tasters, with good moisture, moderate chocolate flavor and light texture. The simple whipped cream frosting did not fare as well, and tasters felt the vanilla cupcake was dry and had off flavors.

Icing on the Cake: In Los Gatos, this conventional bakery did not dissappoint with its rich ganache frosting and flavorful cakes and was an overall favorite. Both cakes are a denser style and won praises for having good flavor balance - just enough sweetness, vanilla/chocolate flavor and a touch of salt. The vanilla buttercream was less successful among tasters, but still enjoyed.

Kara's Cupcakes: See review under San Francisco bakeries

Sprinkles: A widely popular chain, Sprinkles offers only one gluten free cupcake, red velvet. Tasters found the cake moist, enjoying the texture very much, but it was very delicate and difficult to eat. There was a slight gluten-free flour taste. The cream cheese frosting fell in the middle of the pack in terms of sweetness and overall taste ratings.

 Taste of Happiness' gorgeous light buttercream decorations

A big thank you to Amia, Aunti Gluten's, Crave Bakery, Cups and Cakes, Gluten-free Gourmet, Icing on the Cake, Grandma B's, Let Them Eat Cake Allergy Friendly Patisserie, Kara's Cupcakes, Miglets, and Taste of Happiness for donating their cupcakes for our tasting. Tasters were not aware of the donation status of the cupcakes.


  1. Thank you for taking the time to run this test, and post the results. I didn't realize how many venues had gluten free options---what fun!

  2. How do the conventional bakeries manage the cross-contamination issue? It is interesting to hear that they make a good cupcake, but for those with Celiac, it would be important to know this...

    Very cool review!

  3. By the way, Kara's Cupcakes will prepare any cupcake gluten-free if you order in advance -- the only ones they can't do are the other cake flavors (banana or carrot, right now) or the cupcakes that use graham crackers (S'mores and Key Lime).

  4. Really helpful. Do you often do restaurant/bakery reviews? You should put them on Fiddme--it's a great resource for foodies recommendations.