This homemade lemon layer cake is light, moist, and packed with bright citrus flavor. Sweet-and-tangy lemon buttercream is the perfect finishing touch!
When it comes to desserts, chocolate gets a lot of attention, but there’s something to be said for the sweet-tart taste of lemon. If sunshine had a flavor, I’m pretty sure it would be lemon. It’s vibrant, bright… and yes, it also helps that lemons are the color of the midday sun on a warm summer day!
It pairs a light, moist lemon cake (three layers of it!) with the loveliest, lemoniest buttercream. It’s also one of those magical cakes that looks like it came from a professional bakery—but this lemon layer cake actually much easier to make than you’d expect.
What You’ll Need
Note that you’ll also need three 8-inch round cake pans or springform pans for this recipe. Be sure to scroll down to the recipe card for specific amounts.
For the lemon cake layers:
- All-purpose flour
- Finely grated lemon zest
- Baking powder
- Unsalted butter – Let this come to room temperature before starting the recipe.
- Granulated sugar
- Eggs – Let the eggs come to room temperature, too. Room temperature eggs hold more air when beaten, which means a lighter, fluffier cake.
- Vanilla extract
- Milk – Use either 2% (reduced-fat) or whole milk.
For the lemon buttercream:
- Unsalted butter – This should also be room temperature so it’s easy to whip into a creamy, dreamy frosting.
- Lemon juice
- Powdered sugar – Also known as confectioners’ sugar.
The Best Way to Juice a Lemon
Here’s a little secret for getting the most juice out of your lemons. Microwave the lemons for 30 seconds, then roll them on the counter under the palm of your hand. Cut the lemon lengthwise, then use your lemon reamer or juicer to break up the membranes while holding the lemon firmly, squeezing out the juice as you ream.
How to Make Lemon Cake
I won’t lie—there’s a lot involved in making a three-layer cake! But that doesn’t mean it’s hard, it just takes some time. If you don’t have a big block of time to make it all in one go, plan on making the cakes one day and assembling everything another day.
Make the layers:
Prepare. Preheat your oven to 350ºF and grease the bottoms and sides of three 8-inch round cake pans or springform pans, then line the bottoms with round pieces of parchment paper.
Mix the dry ingredients. In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, lemon zest, baking powder and salt.
Mix the wet ingredients. In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter and sugar with an electric mixer on medium-high speed until they’re fluffy. Then, beat in the eggs one at a time, followed by the vanilla extract.
Combine the wet and dry ingredients. Reduce the mixer speed to low. Add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients in 3 additions and the milk in 2 additions, beginning and ending with the flour.
Bake. Divide the batter into the prepared cake pans (about 1 3/4 cup per pan), spreading it evenly with a spatula. Bake the cake layers for 23 to 27 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the centers comes out clean.
Cool. Let the cakes cool in the pans on cooling racks for 10 to 20 minutes, then carefully remove the cakes from the pans and let them finish cooling directly on the racks. Once cool, remove the parchment paper from the bottom of the cakes.
Prep for assembly. If you need to level the tops of your cakes, do so now using a cake lever or serrated knife. Wrap the cakes in plastic wrap and refrigerate them for up to a week.
Make the buttercream:
Beat the butter. In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter with an electric mixer on medium-low speed until it’s light and fluffy.
Add the remaining ingredients. Beat in the fresh lemon juice and salt, then begin to add the powdered sugar, starting with 2 cups. Continue adding the powdered sugar until the frosting reaches your desired thickness and sweetness, beating on low until fluffy and smooth. (If you end up adding too much sugar, beat in a splash of lemon juice.)
Put the lemon layer cake together:
Stack the cake layers. Spread a small amount of buttercream on an 8-inch round cardboard circle set on a turntable or cake plate. Place the first cake layer on top of the cardboard. Spread about 3/4 cup of buttercream on top of this layer, then place the next layer over the buttercream. Repeat for each layer.
Do a crumb coat. Once all of the layers are stacked, use an offset spatula to spread a thin layer of buttercream around the sides of the cake. Refrigerate for 20 minutes.
Finish frosting. Use an offset spatula to spread the rest of the frosting onto the cake once the crumb coat is chilled.
Expert Baking Tips
These hints and tips will help make sure your cake turns out perfect!
- Use a bake-even strip. This will ensure even baking; make your own homemade bake-even strip using a towel or old t-shirt cut to fit the size of your pan. Soak the fabric in water, then squeeze out the excess. Secure the fabric strip around the pan with a safety pin.
- Don’t let the cakes cool too long in the pan. Although you might think a longer cooling time will make the cakes easier to remove, the opposite is true! 10 to 20 minutes is the perfect amount of time.
- Making smooth sides. If you’d like super-smooth, bakery-style sides on your cake, simply run a bench-scraper along the frosting on the sides.
- Adding the perfect finishing touch. I used fresh lemon slices and baby’s breath to decorate this cake, but other edible flowers (pansies would be lovely!), fresh berries, candied lemons, or piped frosting would work, too.
Here are some ideas for switching things up with your lemon layer cake!
- Make a blueberry-lemon cake. Toss blueberries with a small amount of flour and fold them into the batter. (The flour keeps the blueberries from sinking!) You’ll love this variation if you’re a fan of my Lemon Blueberry Scones or Lemon Blueberry Dump Cake!
- Add a filling. Instead of frosting between the layers, you can use lemon curd, custard, or a berry filling.
- Swap out the frosting. Cream cheese frosting or a classic vanilla buttercream would both be perfect with this lemon cake!
This lemon layer cake can be left at room temperature for up to 3 days. Loosely cover it with plastic wrap or store leftovers in an airtight container.
Can I Freeze This?
Yes, you can freeze this cake. If you’re freezing a whole cake, set it on a sheet pan and place it in the freezer uncovered. Once the buttercream has frozen completely, tightly wrap the cake in a few layers of plastic wrap and return it to the freezer.
To freeze leftover cake slices, place them in an airtight container or freezer bag with parchment paper between pieces if you have to stack them.
Thaw the cake in the refrigerator before serving; if you’re thawing a whole lemon layer cake, be sure to loosen the plastic wrap so it doesn’t stick to the frosting as it thaws.
- 3 cups all purpose flour
- 2 tbsp finely grated lemon zest
- 3 tsp baking powder
- ½ tsp salt
- 2 sticks unsalted butter, (1 cup), room temperature
- 1 ½ cups granulated sugar
- 3 large eggs
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 cup milk, 2% or whole
Lemon Buttercream Frosting
- 4 sticks unsalted butter, (2 cups), room temperature
- 3 tbsp fresh lemon juice
- ½ tsp salt
- 4-6 cups powdered sugar
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease the bottom and sides of three 8 inch round cake pans or springform pans with butter and line the bottom of each pan with a round piece of parchment paper. To ensure even baking, place a bake even strip around the pan. Set aside.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the all purpose flour, lemon zest, baking powder, and salt, set aside.
- Using an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar on medium-high until fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Beat in the eggs and vanilla extract, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.
- Reduce mixer speed to low and add the flour mixture in 3 additions and the milk in 2 additions, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Mix on low just until combined.
- Divide the batter evenly among the pans, with about 1 & 3/4 cups batter in each pan. Place the pans in the oven. If they don’t all fit on one rack, place 2 on the upper rack and 1 on the bottom rack. Be sure to check the bottom one as it will bake faster or rotate the pans halfway through. Bake for 23-27 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
- Once the cakes are done, allow them to cool in the pan on a cooling rack for 10-20 minutes. After cooling, carefully remove the cake from the pan. If using a springform pan, remove the sides and bottom. Allow the cake to cool completely on a cooling rack. Once cool, remove the parchment paper round from the bottom of the cake. If you need to level the top of your cakes, do so now using either a cake lever or knife. If you’re assembling the cake later, wrap each cake layer really well in plastic wrap and place them in the refrigerator, for up to 3 days.
Lemon Buttercream Frosting
- Place room temperature unsalted butter in a mixing bowl. Use an electric mixer on medium-low and beat the butter for 1-2 minutes, until whipped and fluffy.
- Add in the fresh lemon juice, salt, and gradually add in the powdered sugar (start with 2 cups), beat on low for 60 seconds. Add more powdered sugar to taste (up to 4 additional cups) and continue to mix on low until fluffy and smooth.
- If the frosting is too thick, add a splash more lemon juice, beat until creamy.
Assemble the cake
- I like to assemble my cakes on a turntable. Spread a small amount of buttercream on a 8 inch round cardboard circle or cake plate if skipping the cardboard circle. Place the first layer on top of the cardboard, lightly push down to adhere the cake to the frosting.
- Evenly spread 3/4 cup frosting on top of the first layer.
- Add the second layer of cake, lightly pushing down. Evenly spread 3/4 cup frosting on top of the second layer.
- Add the third layer of cake, lightly pushing down. Once all of the layers are stacked, it’s time to do a crumb coat. The crumb coat will help seal the crumbs in. Using your offset spatula, spread a thin layer of buttercream around the sides and top of the cake.
- Place the entire cake in the fridge for 20 minutes.
- Spread the remaining frosting on the sides and top of the cake. Slice and serve. Cover leftover cake tightly with plastic wrap and store on the counter for up to 3 days.
- Fluff the flour with a fork or whisk
- Use a spoon to scoop the flour into your measuring cup
- Use a butter knife to level off the flour in the measuring cup