Lemon sheet cake is a bright and fresh citrusy cake that is perfect for spring and summer celebrations. Tender lemon cake is made with fresh lemon zest and juice, topped with a silky cream cheese frosting.
This cake can be made in three different pan sizes - 13x18, 9x13, and as a 9-inch two layer cake!
Bright and citrusy with a tender crumb, this moist lemon cake is a crowd-pleasing favorite! It's made with fresh lemon zest and juice for the freshest lemon flavor, and topped with a silky cream cheese frosting.
This cake can be made, as written, in three pan sizes. Make this cake in a 9x13 sheet pan, 13x18 sheet pan, or as a 9-inch two layer cake! Instructions for each are included in the recipe card.
This cake is perfect for Easter, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, or any summer celebration.
What size pan to use
This recipe works as written in three different sizes:
- 13x18 half sheet pan (with 1 inch sides)
- 9x13 baking pan (with 2 inch sides)
- Two 9-inch round cake pans
So, what size do you choose? This is totally up to personal preference. I have tested this recipe in all three sizes (as shown above) and they all turn out tender, moist, and delicious.
Both the 9x13 and 13x18 sheet cakes can remain in the pan after baking. Simply frost, slice, and serve! Round cakes need to be removed from their pans, trimmed, assembled, and frosted. This will take extra skill, patience, and frosting (which I'll go over later).
Suggested baking pans:
- Nordic Ware Classic Metal 9x13 Covered Cake Pan
- Natural Aluminum Nordic Ware Commercial Baker's Half Sheet (2 Pack)
- Nordic Ware 9" Round Natural Aluminum Cake Pans (2 Pack)
Ingredients and substitutions
Since baking is an exact science, I do not recommend substituting any ingredients in this recipe. If you do not have the listed ingredients on hand, I recommend searching for a recipe that does include those ingredients.
Unsalted butter and salt can be substituted with salted butter if needed.
You'll need two medium lemons for this recipe. Zest both lemons and then juice them into a small bowl. You'll need all of the zest and a portion of the juice.
I do not suggest substituting cake flour with all purpose flour. Cake flour gives your cake a tighter crumb and tender texture. When substituting with all purpose flour in my lemon cupcake recipe, readers often complained of a 'cornbread' type texture - this is why.
Baking powder is needed for this recipe, not baking soda. These two are not interchangeable.
Butter, eggs, milk, and granulated sugar add moisture to your cake, and should not be substituted. This can change the texture and make your cake dry.
If you're making a layer cake, I recommend using lemon curd as the filling. Or, make an additional half batch of frosting to use as a filling.
Cake batter tips and tricks
- Make sure your butter, eggs, and milk are all room temperature before beginning (not melted, not cold). Room temperature ingredients emulsify when mixed and create a creamy, even batter that bakes up fluffy in the oven.
- Sift or whisk your dry ingredients together. This removes clumps and helps make a smooth, even batter.
- Mix your dry ingredients just enough to incorporate them into the batter. Overmixing can overwork the gluten, causing your cake to turn out tough.
- I recommend using a hand mixer on medium speed to cream together your butter, sugar, and eggs. Then, switch to low speed to add the dry ingredients and milk.
Frosting your cake
I've included my recipe below for cream cheese frosting, which is tangy, rich, and slightly less sweet than traditional buttercream frosting. My recipe for whipped buttercream frosting is another great option (and a reader favorite!).
As written, this frosting recipe will frost a 9x13 cake, 13x18 cake, or the middle and sides of a 9-inch two layer cake. I suggest using lemon curd as a layer cake filling. Or, make an additional half batch of frosting to use as a filling.
Do not frost a warm cake! Buttercream frosting melts around 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius). Adding frosting to a hot cake will cause it to melt. Wait until your cake is completely cooled before frosting.
Homemade cakes are best served the same day they are baked. However, there are solutions if you need to make your cake a few days (or weeks) ahead of time.
Room temperature - Cake frosted with cream cheese frosting can be stored in a tightly sealed container at room temperature for up to two hours. After that, it will need to be refrigerated. Traditional buttercream frosted cake can be stored in a sealed container at room temperature for up to two days.
Refrigerated - Unfrosted or frosted cake can be refrigerated for 2 to 3 days. Wrap unfrosted cake in plastic and store in a sealed container. Optionally, brush your cake with simple syrup to help keep it moist for longer (see my section below on how to prevent dry cake). Bring to room temperature for an hour before serving.
Frozen - Unfrosted or frosted cake can be frozen for up to two months. For a frosted cake, first freeze for an hour, unwrapped, until firm. Gently wrap in plastic and store in a tightly sealed container for up to 2 months. Thaw your cake in the refrigerator overnight, then bring it to room temperature for an hour before serving.
Cream cheese frosting can be frozen in a tightly sealed container for 2 to 3 months. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator, then bring to room temperature and rewhip as needed to make it light and fluffy.
How to prevent a dry cake
No one wants to go through the steps of baking a cake only for it to turn out dry! These are my favorite tips for ensuring your cake bakes up moist and tender.
- Do not substitute any ingredients. The fats and sugar (butter, whole milk, granulated sugar, and eggs) in this recipe help keep your cake moist. Substituting those ingredients will change the texture and moisture in your cake.
- Properly measure your flour. Too much flour can cause your cake to turn out dry. Either use a kitchen scale to weigh your flour (this is what I do and recommend), or spoon the flour into your measuring cup and level off with a knife. Scooping with the measuring cup directly from a bin of flour compacts it into the cup, adding up to 25% extra flour to the recipe.
- Do not overbake your cake. If you haven't substituted ingredients, the only other reason your cake will turn out dry is from overbaking.
- Watch your cake, not the time. Ovens are inconsistent and can run hotter or colder than the next oven. The time that worked for me may not work for you. Start checking your cake 5 minutes early for doneness.
- If your oven bakes unevenly, rotate your cake pan(s) halfway through baking.
- Three easy ways to check for doneness: 1. Does your cake jiggle a lot when you move the pan? It's not done yet. 2. Gently press on the top of the cake with your finger. If the cake pops back up immediately, it's done. If an indentation is left, your cake needs more time. 3. Poke a toothpick into the center of your cake - if it comes out clean or with dry crumbs, your cake is done.
- Use an aluminum pan instead of glass. Glass is an insulator, which means it takes longer to heat up in the oven, taking longer to bake your cake. This can cause the edges to dry out while waiting for the center to finish baking. While this is not always the case, I suggest using metal for the most consistent results (especially for beginner bakers).
- This is a baker's secret (optional, but effective!) - brush simple syrup over your cake before frosting. A layer of simple syrup helps keep the cake moist for longer. Simple syrup is a 1:1 ratio of water and granulated sugar, brought to a boil on the stove top until dissolved, then cooled to room temperature. I'd suggest about ¼ cup or more for this size cake.
Lemon Sheet Cake
- 1 cup unsalted butter room temperature
- 1 ¾ cups granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 2 tablespoons lemon zest
- 4 large eggs room temperature
- 3 cups cake flour
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- ¾ teaspoon salt
- 1 cup whole milk room temperature
- ¼ cup lemon juice
Cream cheese frosting
- 8 ounces block-style cream cheese room temperature
- ½ cup unsalted butter room temperature
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 3 ½ cups confectioner's sugar
Layer cake filling (optional)
- 1 cup lemon curd
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Generously grease a 9x13 or 13x18 inch baking pan and set aside. Or, grease and flour two 9-inch round cake pans and set aside.
- In a large bowl, add room temperature butter and granulated sugar. Beat until creamed and fluffy. Add vanilla extract, lemon zest, and eggs, one at a time, mixing until incorporated and smooth.
- In a separate bowl, sift together dry ingredients: cake flour, baking powder, and salt. In a liquid measuring cup, add lemon juice to milk.
- Add half of the dry ingredients to your butter mixture. Mix until just combined. Add half of the milk mixture, again mixing until just combined. Repeat once more to add remaining dry ingredients and milk until just combined.
- Pour batter into prepared baking sheet (or evenly between two round cake pans) and spread into an even layer.
- 9x13 baking pan: 30-34 minutes13x18 half sheet pan: 17-19 minutesTwo 9 inch round cake pans: 24-27 minutesTwo 8 inch round cake pans: 26-30 minutesBake your cake for the time listed above, or until cake is baked through in the center and a toothpick comes out clean. Ovens can run hot, so I suggest checking your cake for doneness 5 minutes early.
- Remove cake from oven and allow to cool completely in the pan(s) on a wire cooling rack.
Cream cheese frosting
- *As written, frosting will cover a 9x13 cake, 13x18 cake, or the top and sides of a 2-layer cake. To use frosting as a filling, make an additional half batch of frosting.
- In a large bowl, add room temperature cream cheese and butter and beat with a hand mixer (or stand mixer) until creamy, about 1 minute.
- Add vanilla extract and salt and mix until incorporated.
- Add confectioner's sugar, half at a time, and mix on low speed until sugar is incorporated. Switch to high speed and beat until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.
- For a sheet cake: Spread frosting in an even layer onto cooled cake. Optionally, add sprinkles or lemon zest as a garnish before frosting crusts.
Layer cake assembly (optional)
- Gently flip and remove cakes from their pans. Trim the rounded tops with a serrated knife to make flat layers. Place one layer, cut side down, onto a cake stand or plate.
- Using a pastry bag or a plastic bag with the corner snipped, pipe a small amount of frosting around the top perimeter of the cake. This will prevent the lemon curd from seeping out of the edges. Fill the center with lemon curd and spread into an even layer. Place other cake layer, cut side down, on top.
- Frost the top and sides of your layer cake with prepared frosting. Slice and serve!
- Sheet cake can be sliced to serve up to 24 guests.
- Baking is an exact science. I do not recommend substituting any ingredients. The butter, milk, eggs, and sugar keep your cake moist - substituting any of these ingredients with a lower fat alternative can change the texture and make your cake dry.
- Frosted cake will keep in a sealed container at room temperature for 2 hours, in the refrigerator for 2-3 days, or frozen for up to 2 months. If refrigerating or freezing unfrosted cake layers, wrap tightly in plastic and place in a tightly sealed container. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator, then bring to room temperature for an hour before serving.
- Cream cheese frosting needs to be refrigerated if it sits out for longer than 2 hours. Store frosted baked goods in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed container. Remove and bring to room temperature 1 hour before serving.