We Tested 4 Famous Chocolate Cake Recipes and Found a Clear Winner

published Jul 11, 2023
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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk; Design: The Kitchn

Sure, a classic vanilla birthday cake, a funfetti cake, or chocolate cupcakes are all great for birthdays. But chocolate cake, with its fudgy-yet-fluffy layers and swirls of creamy frosting, is synonymous with the leg-twisting delight you felt as a kid, tackling a slice the size of your head and getting it all over your face in the process. It is a first date, butterflies in your stomach shared dessert — two forks. And it is a big birthday celebration, with too many candles to count. It is all of these things; it is the ultimate celebration food. Chocolate cake is always a good idea.

But not all chocolate cake recipes are created equal.

Most of us only make a real, from-scratch chocolate cake once or twice a year — if that. So when we do, we need a recipe we can rely on. To find the absolute best chocolate cake recipe out there, I pitted four of the most popular recipes against one another in a side-by side-taste test.

Some called for actual chocolate in the batter, while others relied solely on cocoa powder for flavor. Some cakes used vegetable oil to keep them moist, while others called for butter to add a pleasant dairy flavor. At the end of it all, I learned a lot about what makes for the best cake, and one recipe stood out as the clear winner.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

How I Chose My Four Chocolate Cake Contenders

Because there are so many kinds of chocolate cake (layer cakes, sheet cakes, chocolate cakes with flavored frostings), I decided to stick to classic two-layer cakes coated in just chocolate frosting. I avoided recipes with additional flavors like fruits or spices.

From there, I took a look at the most searched-for recipes. Ina Garten’s topped the list, followed by Hershey’s, and Martha Stewart’s. Though Pioneer Woman’s recipe also proved extremely popular, I skipped it because it’s a sheet cake, not a layer cake. Smitten Kitchen’s cake, which is baked in a single layer in a square pan, met a similar fate. I then did a quick Google search for “chocolate cake,” which revealed that Add a Pinch’s recipe might be the most beloved of them all. Here’s a bit more about each.

Martha Stewart‘s recipe is made entirely by hand and doesn’t require a mixer. It was the only recipe I found that used butter — not vegetable oil — so I was curious to see how that would impact the texture and flavor. (The photo of the frosting also looked really beautiful!)

I figured the classic Hershey’s back-of-the-box chocolate cake was many people’s go-to cake recipe. It’s a classic that’s been a staple for many years.

The recipe from Add a Pinch had over 2,000 reviews and an average 4.97/5 star rating, so I figured it had to be worth trying. All of the comments online raved about how delicious the cake was, so I was curious to see what all the fuss was about.

Ina Garten‘s cake is a recipe that my coworker Grace has raved about in the past. It uses instant coffee to bring out the chocolate flavor in the frosting (a hack Ina swears by) and actual brewed coffee in the cake itself. I was eager to give it a try.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

How I Tested the Cakes

Every cake was made on the same day and exactly as written. I didn’t take any creative liberties and tried to replicate the steps as faithfully as I could. If a recipe specifically called for a certain brand of ingredient to be used, I used it. I wanted it to be a fair competition and I was diligent about keeping things consistent.

I also grabbed some of my friends to taste the cakes to see what they thought. Surprisingly there was a lot of agreement in our opinions, and we all came away with a lot of tricks for better cake-baking.

Meet Our 4 Chocolate Cake Contenders

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

1. The Way-Too-Dry Recipe: Martha Stewart’s Ultimate Chocolate Cake

This cake was, unfortunately, disappointing. The flavor was fine, but the texture was dry, crumbly, and dense. It lacked the fudgy richness you expect from chocolate cake and tasted like a poorly-made sponge cake. The frosting was tasty and had a beautifully fluffy texture, but it wasn’t enough to make up for the disappointing cake.

The process of making the cake was strange — it required mixing butter until “light and fluffy”using nothing but a rubber spatula (which turned out to be practically impossible), which I think contributed to the undesirable texture. Sadly, I will not be making this cake again. Sorry, Martha!

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

2. The Underwhelming Classic: Hershey’s “Perfectly Chocolate” Chocolate Cake

This standard, run-of-the-mill chocolate cake was pleasant, but not great. It was a tad too sweet and rather flat-tasting. Sure, the flavor was enjoyable (this is chocolate cake, after all), but it was nothing to rave about.

The texture of the cake is where Hershey’s really loses points. It’s extremely moist — to the point of being overwhelming. After a few bites, I desperately needed a glass of milk to wash it down. The frosting also needed salt to balance the sweetness. If you’re looking to make something that tastes like it came out of a box, this is for you. It’s safe and reliable, but if you prefer a more “elevated” chocolate cake, this is not the one.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

3. The Crowdpleaser: Add a Pinch’s “The Best Chocolate Cake Recipe”

This is a solid cake recipe. It’s moist, rich, and has a light texture that isn’t overwhelming or too wet. It’s a great go-to cake recipe, but it’s nothing groundbreaking. It’s fairly easy to make, comes together quickly, and does the job. The addition of espresso powder in both the frosting and cake gave it a nice rich flavor that brought out the bitterness of the chocolate (in a good way) and made the flavor shine.

This cake was almost the winner (so close!), and I thoroughly enjoyed eating it. It was a close call and a great, quicker alternative to the winner, if you’re in a rush.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

4. The Clear Winner: Ina Garten’s “Beatty’s Chocolate Cake”

This is officially my new favorite chocolate cake. It’s simple and unfussy, yet feels special and elevated. It’s super-rich and has an intense chocolate flavor thanks to a generous amount of salt and the addition of coffee. You wouldn’t necessarily know the coffee was there, but the bitterness helps bring out the chocolate flavor.

The frosting was also the best out of all the ones I tested. It was smooth, glossy, light, and easy to work with. It’s made with an uncooked egg yolk, which seriously improved the texture. It was also the only frosting that uses real melted chocolate. The delicious cake paired with the beautiful frosting made this recipe the clear winner.

This article originally published on The Kitchn. Read it there: We Tested 4 Famous Chocolate Cake Recipes and Found a Clear Winner