Chocolate. Cake. What a universal crowd-pleaser. You’d think this would be the easiest of all recipes to get right because who could hate a chocolate cake? But I’ve had a lot of issues with so-called “best chocolate cakes”—from cakes with a tough, dry crumb to moist cakes that crumble apart when assembled in layers. With this bake off, my mission was to find my dream chocolate cake: a close crumb that’s simultaneously airy yet moist, velvety and just a tiny bit dense with an intense chocolate flavor.
Baking and Recipe Methodology
All 12 recipes were made the day of, except for the Food & Wine recipe, which expressly stated it was best made the day before. We had 31 tasters, who ranked each cake on a scale from 1-10 for flavor, and 1-10 for texture. All cakes were baked in 8″ Fat Daddio anodized aluminum cake pans. Each cake was tasted plain, with optional frosting on the side. I used Sally’s chocolate buttercream (using natural cocoa powder), and everyone loved this frosting–highly recommend.
Chocolate ingredients: Valrhona Dutch-process cocoa powder, Ghiradelli natural cocoa powder, 70% Valrhona baking bars, 66% Valrhona feves, and Baker’s unsweetened chocolate. (Thank you to Valrhona for sending me samples to play with!!)
Results: Top Chocolate Cake Rankings
Tasting cake plain is of course very different than eating a frosted cake. There was a lot of feedback (my own opinion included) that most of the cakes were a little drier and less chocolatey than expected, but I think this is due to the fact that these cakes are designed to be paired with a frosting that will add moisture and additional chocolate flavor. As always, I think pretty much all of these cakes would be excellent as standalone cakes, and when frosted I doubt anyone will complain.
If you’d like to check out all the recipes I scraped off the interwebs, check out the “Recipes” tab of this spreadsheet. You might find that your favorite recipe is pretty similar to one that was tested!
Here are the results!
Ina was the most popular recipe nominee going into this tasting, so it’s exciting to see she held her own. At first, I was disappointed that Hershey’s took second place, but as my data viz consultant Skyler pointed out, Hershey’s has a commercial army of recipe developers, so why SHOULDN’T they develop an excellent cake recipe to beat the rest? It’s also nearly identical to Ina’s, so it was gratifying to see tasters give a consistent rating (and recognize the superiority of Ina’s).
Liquid: Looking at the (identical) recipe composition for Ina and Hershey’s, it’s interesting to note that these recipes had by far the highest percentage of liquid. Intuitively, the moister cakes (Ina, Hershey’s, Food52 and Tasty) tended to have higher liquid percentages while some of the drier cakes (Rose and Cook’s Illustrated) had a smaller proportion of liquid.
Chocolate: Chocolate percentages were all over the map–chocolate composition didn’t correspond to how well a cake performed, but interestingly, the recipes using natural cocoa powder generally did better than the recipes using Dutch process (four out of the top five cakes used natural cocoa powder), lending some weight to the argument that while Dutch process cocoa gives an appealingly dark and rich color, natural cocoa powder has more flavor.
Fat: Although the proportion of fat wasn’t as telling, the type of fat used followed a clear trend: oil-based cakes did far better than the butter-based cakes. Bravetart was the only recipe in the top seven that used all butter (Bon Appetit used a butter/oil combo). Hardly earth-shattering, but a notable trend. Overall, cakes that were enriched with sour cream/mayo did relatively well (all in the top seven except for Tasty, which I think would have done better had it not been for the highly divisive stout flavor)–more details on oil vs. butter in the conclusion.
Chocolate Cake Comparison and Analysis
Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Perfect All-American Chocolate Butter Cake (Average Flavor and Texture: 4.82)
To be fair, butter cake is a fairly different style from most of the other devil’s food style cakes tested in this experiment. Rose lists several tips on her recipe development process in her book—for one, she uses cocoa as it gives a fuller chocolate flavor than chocolate, increases the butter to compensate for the stronger/drier structure lent by chocolate and purposefully uses water instead of milk as she says that milk can highlight the bitterness in chocolate. (Note: her butter cake calls for Dutch process cocoa, but she also has a devil’s food cake recipe that she says is slightly less moist—but more chocolatey—since she uses non-alkalized cocoa, which results in slightly less cocoa butter). Rose also uses the reverse creaming (a method where you coat flour with fat before adding liquid, which is intended to give a more tender and velvety texture and also aids in baking a more even, flat cake).
The resulting cake certainly had a smooth, flat top and a very tight, even crumb. However, the crumb felt overly dense to many tasters, and it was dry to the point where it crumbled when sliced in certain places (I will fully admit there could be an element of baker’s error here). I agree that this cake is on the drier side, but I could see it working well layered with frosting to add some moisture–the mouthfeel was among the most unique, slightly velvety and almost powdery. Interestingly, the dominating flavor for me was butter rather than chocolate. On the plus side, it’s not too sweet–it somehow strikes a balance between being generously buttery but not intensely rich.
Make this if: you want a buttery, tight-crumbed, slightly denser cake that’s not too sweet or intensely chocolatey with a velvety mouthfeel.
In typical superlative form, Buzzfeed calls this the “Ultimate Chocolate Cake,” using mayo as one of the special ingredients. On top of several sticks of butter. Plus espresso and stout. I was both excited and scared for this cake, which seemed to promise huge potential for both flavor and moisture. In the end, this cake placed towards the bottom of the rankings primarily because the flavor of the stout came through VERY strongly and was very divisive among tasters–I picked up an Imperial stout to use in this cake, but it turns out dry stouts (like Guinness) are best for baking. Many detected a “sour” or “bitter” flavor and did not enjoy the alcoholic notes (though those who like beer loved this cake!).
Stout aside, this cake has an insanely dark and temptingly rich crumb and actually comes close to my ideal texture with a close, tight crumb that is also very moist (some commented that it was too moist and almost mushy, but I disagree). While some people were just confused by this cake (“I don’t know how to process all of my emotions re: this cake. I feel like it’s residue is going to live in my mouth forever.”), others agreed that they loved the rich, “real chocolate” flavor. This is definitely a cake for dark chocolate lovers and warning: it only gets denser and heavier as it sits. I’m very curious to retry this cake using coffee instead of stout.
Make this if: You want a rich, dark chocolate cake that is very moist and relatively dense and you love stout cakes (or try subbing coffee/water for the stout).
Hundreds of thousands of viewers follow the frosting-laden adventures of Chelsey’s seriously impressive cakes on Instagram and YouTube, and I had high expectations for her go-to chocolate cake recipe. She’s tweaked it over the years so that it’s not only delicious but also sturdy for building elaborate layer cakes. This cake—adapted from Yolanda Gampp’s recipe—was designed to be a “soft, tender cake that doesn’t need simple syrup and holds its shape well while being frosted and stacked.” This cake does call for black cocoa, which many of you informed me is unfortunately hard to find. Chelsey notes that you can use “regular baking cocoa” in this recipe in place of black cocoa—we interpreted that to mean natural cocoa powder, which is what we used to test this cake.
The result? A very fluffy cake with a fairly open crumb that is very lightly chocolatey. I imagine using black cocoa would yield far better results–many tasters critiqued this cake for having “weak chocolate flavor,” not being “rich enough” and slightly bland (though on the plus side, “you can eat a lot of it because it’s a more subtle chocolate flavor”). Although fluffy, this cake also had a relatively heavy texture compared to others and just felt muddy and almost gummy in the mouth in terms of both texture and flavor–though I can see why it would be good for cake stacking/sculpting. Honestly, I don’t think this was fair to compare using natural cocoa powder–if you try making it, I would recommend seeking out black cocoa or at least subbing Dutch process cocoa.
Make this if: You have black cocoa and need a sturdy cake.
Described as a “real old-fashioned American chocolate layer cake” and a “snap to make,” this cake certainly was relatively easy to make, though it does require a few extra steps like boiling a sugar syrup and whipping the eggs. This was the only cake tested that used only baking chocolate (with no cocoa) as the chocolate source. Multiple tasters commented that this cake had more of a “dark chocolatey” and even “smoky” flavor with coffee undertones (though this cake actually did not use any espresso or coffee).
I enjoyed the slightly fudgier and close-crumbed but still light and fluffy texture with a soft crumb (several tasters thought this cake had “perfect texture and moisture”), but the chocolate flavor tasted a bit off to me, almost like root beer. Several agreed, commenting that “it tastes hot chocolate in water instead of hot chocolate in milk—lacks depth” and I wonder if this was due to the brand of chocolate we used (Baker’s). Although some tasters thought this cake was too dense to the point of being dry, I thought this actually one of the best fudgy-textured cakes.
Make this if: You like a slightly denser, fudgier texture and you want a dark chocolate flavor to your cake. Try using a high quality unsweetened chocolate if you can find one.
The CI team cites the ribboning technique (rather than creaming or reverse creaming) as one of their keys to success: this creates egg foam that helps uniquely structure yet tenderize the cake. They also aim to maximize chocolate flavor by combining unsweetened chocolate, cocoa powder and sugar with hot water. Based on our tasting, this cake nailed at least one out of the two—most praised this cake for its great texture, a mix of fudgy yet ethereally fluffy with a nice tight crumb.
However, nearly all tasters agreed that the chocolate flavor was too muted and overall a little bland (a small minority agreed there was a perfect amount of chocolate) which didn’t surprise me as it uses a fairly small percentage of cocoa. One taster noted that the combo of a lighter chocolate flavor and fluffy, almost chiffon-like texture reminded her of “Asian cake vibes” while another called it “one of my favorite lighter cakes.” As one taster pondered: “this cake is a supporting actress and not the star. Needs a good frosting. Maybe ice cream? And fudge?” All in all, this cake is a good candidate for those looking for a lighter-textured cake with a lighter chocolate touch—a great starting place whether you want a light cake topped with whipped cream, or a heavier cake with a more decadent frosting. Although the instructions look kind of convoluted, this was actually one of the easier CI recipes I’ve tried to date.
Make this if: You’re looking for a light chocolate cake in every sense of the word–not too chocolatey and very airy.
After comparing this cake (a slight adaptation from Hellman’s) to Buzzfeed Tasty’s recipe (which includes butter in addition to mayo), I figured this cake might actually come across rather dry and low fat-esque in comparison to the other cakes. After all, mayo is a combo of eggs, oil and vinegar, so the fat content is not quite as high as pure oil. To my surprise, this cake was actually perfectly fluffy with a pleasantly spongy texture (but not in a low fat way). It domed up out of the oven, but ended up deflating into a flat layer that would be excellent for layering (results may differ depending on your pan).
Tasters overwhelmingly thought this cake was “nice and neutral.” It’s a cake that will please most people—lightly sweet and a little airy, not too rich or bitter. It’s also not too moist, described as the “perfect vessel for frosting, “fluffy af” and easy to eat a lot of. On the downside, some critiqued it for being “safe,” i.e. it’s slightly bland/could use more chocolate–“good, but nothing special.” Guys, as a nearly lifelong mayo hater, let me just say that I WOULD MAKE THIS CAKE AGAIN. It’s not life-changing to the point where I would go out of my way to buy mayo, but if I had it on hand, it’s so easy to throw together and the texture is just so good that it is a pretty appealing option. It may err a little dry, but I doubt you would notice with frosting.
Make this if: Similar to Cook’s Illustrated’s cake, but even easier to make and a little spongier–super fluffy, not too chocolatey, simple and uncomplicated.
Yet another oil-based recipe (Tessa notes oil gives an ultra-moist texture and “open slightly spongy crumb”), this cake also calls for brown sugar and egg yolks to create a fudgy texture, plus sour cream for richness and espresso to heighten the combo of Dutch-process cocoa and bittersweet chocolate. This deep, dark chocolate cake lived up to its drool-inducing photos on Tessa’s site–with a rich, pronounced, bittersweet chocolate flavor, this cake had noticeably more chocolate flavor compared to others.
However, the deepness of the chocolate flavor actually turned some people off. The primary critique was that this cake was “kind of dry,” but again I think frosting would remedy this issue. Between the spongy, tender crumb (not sure I would describe it as fudgy in comparison to several others) and a very good chocolate flavor, this was one of the most technically well-rounded cakes. The only downside is that the ingredient list is a little finicky (requires an egg yolk, sour cream isn’t something I keep on hand normally, etc.), but if this is the price of perfection, it’s not a bad trade.
Make this if: You love a deep, dark chocolate flavor and a spongy-soft texture.
Sally’s Baking Addiction (7.03)
This cake is a slight adaptation of Sally’s triple chocolate cake, but I chose this recipe as it subs in sour cream for some of the liquid to create a “slightly denser cake and an even moister crumb.” This recipe is similar-ish to Tessa’s sour cream recipe above (oil based, similar ratios of sugar, cocoa and sour cream) except that it omits the semisweet chocolate (using cocoa only) and uses whole eggs only. This cake’s crumb stood out to me as slightly more open and coarse compared to others (which could be the result of using natural cocoa instead of Dutch process), and again several tasters commented that it erred on the slightly drier side.
Still, most enjoyed the light, fluffy texture, excellent salt balance and bittersweet taste. I think this ranked slightly higher than Handle the Heat due to a slightly moister texture, though Handle the Heat scored better flavor-wise–while this had a gorgeously dark color, many wished for more chocolate flavor. However, balanced with frosting, I think this cake would do very well–plus, it’s relatively easy to make.
Make this if: You want a plush, solid chocolate cake that is medium chocolatey (not too light, not super rich).
BA touts reverse creaming as the genius part of this recipe, but I actually was more intrigued by the use of both oil and butter (plus cocoa powder and bittersweet chocolate). When looking at recipes, this fat combo was relatively uncommon (other top contenders included Milk Bar’s chocolate cake base, this King Arthur Flour recipe and Magnolia Kitchen’s highly recommended recipe). This cake didn’t stand out to me on day one, but upon retasting it the next day, it was one of my favorites.
It’s very fluffy with a very fine, tight crumb while still remaining light and airy with an appealing reddish tint. Tasters loved the earthy, deep dark chocolate undertones of this cake—”Chocolate is screaming and I’m tempted to quit and just eat this one,” said one taster. However, some tasters were put off by the dryness (which was exacerbated by a crusty exterior that caused drier edges). I feel like a broken record, but I think this would be well-balanced with frosting. The ingredient list is rather long, but the technique is fairly easy. This will probably be one of my top go-to cakes as long as I have all the ingredients on hand.
Make this if: You love a deep, dark chocolate flavor and a super light, super tight crumb texture–think boxed cake but better.
Like Handle the Heat, this cake uses egg yolks and brown sugar (in this case, to add butterscotch notes) in addition to coffee, chocolate and cocoa. Stella notes that the acidity of all these ingredients helps create a strong reaction with the baking soda, eliminating the need to cream the batter and making this one of the easiest recipes of hers I’ve made to date (it’s a potentially one-bowl recipe!). However, Stella’s recipe is butter-based whereas Tessa’s is oil-based.
Similar to Stella’s results in some other bake offs, this cake received a lot of praise for embodying a “traditional” version, but elevated for some with a rich dark chocolate flavor. “I was surprised at how much I liked the flavor of this cake, just the right amount of sweet,” said one taster. Some even called it too dark and rich, but I thought this had one of the best overall deep chocolate flavors. Of course, there were a few who commented that this erred slightly dry, but most found it perfectly moist!! Balancing a rich, classic chocolate flavor with a fluffy, close crumbed texture that reminded me of Food & Wine’s cake but lighter, this is a dream of a chocolate cake.
Make this if: You’re looking for a rich, decadent, deeply flavored chocolate cake that is crazy easy to make!
I know I said the Bravetart cake is easy to make, but it really doesn’t get any easier than this classic Hershey’s recipe. The ingredient list is simple (most people probably have everything on hand) and even though the batter is alarmingly runny, it bakes up into a perfectly plush cake that many praised for having “perfect texture and moisture” that almost melts in the mouth.
Flavor-wise, several liked the balanced flavor that wasn’t overly sweet or strong–perfect for a traditional cake. Critics called for more chocolate flavor, calling it “forgettable” and “not enough chocolate. But overall, people thought it had a “good chocolate cake flavor, what you’d expect,”–which, honestly is probably the taste of nostalgia for many of us. While it didn’t wow me in the flavor department, the texture really is outstanding and this is definitely a crowd-pleaser.
Make this if: You don’t need over-the-top, you just want a reliably delicious, standard chocolate cake.
Ina Garten’s Chocolate Cake (7.73)
You may or may not know that Ina’s recipe is actually identical to Hershey’s Black Magic Cake. Taste of Home notes that Ina shared on her show that the recipe came from her florist friend Michael’s grandmother—”so the question is really who developed the recipe first”?!?! This cake is also almost identical to the above Hershey’s recipe we tested, except that it uses buttermilk/coffee whereas Hershey’s uses milk/water. Ina’s cake seemed to strike the perfect balance for most tasters in terms of having a rich but classic chocolate flavor AND a moist, pillowy, melt-in-your-mouth texture.
This cake definitely crumbled in a squishy fashion when cutting, but if the layers were chilled and handled delicately, I can see it making for great layers. “I thought it was too sweet but the texture was so perfect it made up for it,” said one taster. If anything, critiques were directed towards structural integrity (cut slices basically looked like crumbs) and a few even commented that it was too moist. Interestingly, no one else commented on the coffee flavor in this cake, but I picked up on some undertones. The rankings say it all: this is Hershey’s, but better (and others agree).
Make this if: You don’t know where else to start. This cake is rife with classic chocolate flavor and extremely moist, a true crowd-pleaser.
Erika’s picks: Bon Appetit, Ina (and Magnolia Kitchen from part 2!)
Least work, highest payoff: Hershey’s, Ina, Bravetart, Food52
Just a good simple chocolate cake: Hershey’s, Food52, Cook’s Illustrated
For a lighter, fluffy cake: Bon Appetit, Food52
For a dense, rich cake: Tasty, Bravetart
For the die-hard chocolate lover: Bravetart, Handle the Heat, Food & Wine, Tasty
For a super moist cake: Ina Garten, Tasty, Sally’s Baking Addiction, Hershey’s
Conclusion and Tips for Making the “Best” Chocolate Cake:
As usual, I have several favorites for different reasons. Bon Appetit for its perfect texture and slightly lighter flavor, Bravetart if I’m looking for a super dark and rich chocolate cake that’s a little more structurally sound than Ina, and of course Ina for that sweet, classic chocolate cake that basically melts in your mouth.
If you’ve already tried Ina/Hershey’s and aren’t completely sold or are looking to experiment beyond the basics, I’d highly recommend trying a cake that uses both butter and oil. This combination of flavor and texture works especially well in cake, and I want to work my way through all of the other oil/butter contenders I listed in Bon Appetit’s cake description (in fact, it might be worth a follow up bake off).
And now, for a few questions I had prior to the bake off which I have now answered:
What’s the difference between using oil vs. butter?
Here is an excellent explanation of why you’d want to use oil over butter to achieve a moist yet light and tender cake. Long story short, oil helps prevent gluten development (which leads to a more tender rather than chewy cake) and less gluten development leads to a more moist cake. Plus, the neutral flavor of oil can be a plus—for example, with the Rose Levy Beranbaum cake, the butter actually obscured the chocolate flavor for me. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it just depends on your goals! As I just mentioned above, I am a fan of using both oil for texture and butter for flavor.
When do I use Dutch-process vs. regular “natural” cocoa??!?!?!
Obviously, you should follow whatever the recipe calls for if it specifies Dutch process vs. natural cocoa. The main difference: Dutch process cocoa results in darker-colored baked goods and is higher in fat, which can give you a richer and more flavorful cake compared to natural cocoa. However, if the recipe does not specify which cocoa to use, you can get a hint from the leaveners used. Natural cocoa (like Hershey’s regular cocoa or Ghiradelli) is acidic, so it’s usually used with baking soda. Dutch process cocoa has had its acidity tempered, so it’s typically used with baking powder. If both leaveners are used, you could theoretically use either kind of cocoa powder. David Lebovitz, Serious Eats and Tessa can explain this to you far better than I can, though a lazy hack is that if you’re using an American recipe that doesn’t specify the cocoa type, they’re most likely using natural cocoa.
Will coffee or espresso powder make my cake taste like coffee?
The grand consensus on the internet is NO, using coffee in the batter will not make the cake taste like coffee–it simply heightens the chocolate flavor. However, I did pick up on coffee undertones on Ina’s cake (the only one out of all the cakes using coffee/espresso), so if you are a very sensitive taster and HATE coffee, I might omit. For the average eater, using coffee or espresso powder should only enhance your cake to new heights (though one of my expert baker friends who sells cakes uses water instead of coffee because she can’t taste the difference).
Do I have to use boiling water?
Adding boiling water is a pretty common technique for chocolate cake, and there are a wide variety of explanations out there for why it matters, including the theory that it helps improve the cocoa flavor. Chef Steps tested “blooming” cocoa with both cold and boiling water and found that boiling water did a better job of emulsifying the batter, which helps create a “smoother, more velvety cake.” So while my personal jury is still out on whether this enhances the cocoa flavor, at least boiling water helps with texture!
If you get inspired to make any of these cakes, I’d love it if you’d tag me on Instagram and hashtag #pancakeprincessbakeoff! Happy baking!