I Tried Four Popular Chocolate Cupcake Recipes and Found the Absolute Best One

published May 10, 2023
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Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

From my elementary school days of classroom parties to the cupcake frenzy of the 2000s (hello, Sprinkles!), I’ve had my fair share of chocolate cupcakes. But when I really think about it, none of them have been all that good. There are a lot of mediocre chocolate cupcakes out there: dry, flavorless, or just plain forgettable.

In an effort to remedy that, I went on a quest for the very best recipe. In my opinion, like vanilla cupcakes, the ultimate chocolate cupcake should strike the perfect balance between moist and fluffy. The frosting should complement the cake without overwhelming it, and both should have intense chocolate flavor. It should be decadent but not toothachingly sweet, and easy enough for even beginner bakers to make.

The four contenders I landed on varied greatly in their approaches. Some called for melted chocolate in the batter, others relied solely on cocoa powder, and one even used chocolate syrup! Some cakes were made with vegetable oil to keep them moist, while others went with butter to add richness and flavor. The wet ingredients ranged too, from warm water to buttermilk to whole milk. At the end of it all, I learned a lot about what makes the best chocolate cupcake, and one recipe stood out as the clear winner.

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Meet Our 4 Contenders

I began my search by looking for the most highly rated and well-reviewed recipes on the internet, and also polled the Kitchn staff. Because frosting is such a crucial component of any good cupcake (and people have lots of feelings about frosting), I decided to pick two recipes with chocolate ganache, and two with chocolate buttercream.

Famed cookbook author Maida Heatters recipe is one of the most popular chocolate cupcake recipes online. Thanks to a topping of shiny chocolate ganache, they’re referred as a “grown-up” cupcake by the The New York Times. I was curious whether I would prefer the semi-sweet ganache to the standard buttercream.

Kitchn’s food editor Meghan Splawn suggested The Stay at Home Chefs recipe, claiming they were a huge hit with her young daughter. I love any cake recipe that calls for buttermilk and vegetable oil, so I was eager to try them.

It’s pretty obvious that we are mega fans of Ina Garten here at Kitchn. Out of all the showdown contenders, I was most intrigued by her recipe because it calls for chocolate syrup in place of cocoa powder, and it has a simple, pantry-friendly ingredient list. Similar to Maida’s, her cupcakes are also topped with a chocolate ganache.

Including the Cupcake Project’s recipe was a no-brainer. Blogger, recipe developer, and cupcake guru Stef Pollack spent an entire year perfecting her chocolate cupcake recipe. Her ingredient list was the most complex, but the triple threat of sour cream, butter, and oil intrigued me.

How I Tested the Recipes

I cooked all four cupcake recipes on the same afternoon and used the same brands of cocoa powder, flour, butter, and eggs. I tasted each cupcake frosted and unfrosted, so I could evaluate the cake solo. Since I had plenty of cupcakes to spare, I decided to drop some off for friends and hear what they thought as well. As it turns out, my taste testers and I all had the same winner, which didn’t surprise me a bit.

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

1. Ina Garten’s Chocolate Ganache Cupcakes

I was pretty disappointed by these cupcakes — especially since I was rooting for Ina. The recipe doesn’t call for any leaveners (such as baking powder or soda), so the cake was incredibly dense. And then there’s the chocolate syrup. I was intrigued by that addition because it seemed like a potentially ingenious way to add moisture and flavor, but it didn’t work. The cakes tasted strongly of the syrup and coffee (there’s instant coffee in both the cake and the ganache), which wasn’t a great combination. The next time we want to make a cupcake recipe from Ina, we’ll be skipping this one and adapting her chocolate cake recipe instead.

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

2. Maida Heatter’s Chocolate Cupcakes

This New York Times commenter sums up my thoughts well: “These cupcakes were good, but not spectacular.” They look like winners, with their fluffy texture and smooth ganache topping, but unfortunately the cake itself is far too dry. The real star here is the chocolate ganache, which will be my go-to ganache recipe from here on out. It’s perfectly silky and has a beautiful shine to it. I recommend skipping Maida’s cupcakes, but bookmarking the ganache.

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

3. The Stay at Home Chef’s Most Amazing Chocolate Cupcakes

The Stay at Home Chef’s chocolate cupcakes taste great and have a wonderful texture. The buttermilk and vegetable oil team up to create soft, moist cupcakes that stay fresh for days. Plus, this recipe is so easy to make — you only dirty one bowl in the process. What kept these from taking first place was the frosting: As written, it’s far too dry. Next time, I’ll scale back on the powdered sugar.

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

4. Cupcake Project’s Best Chocolate Cupcakes

These are, hands-down, the best chocolate cupcakes I’ve ever made. Biting into one of them was a dream: They’re airy, moist, and have more chocolate flavor than any of the other contenders.

Cupcake Project’s detailed, multi-layered, scientific approach really paid off. Every decision feels purposeful: sifting the dry ingredients to remove any clumps, using butter for flavor and oil for tenderness, adding sour cream and egg yolks for moisture and fat, calling for melted chocolate and cocoa powder to help boost the chocolate flavor. Plus, her buttercream frosting recipe is creamy and smooth, and the perfect complement to the cupcakes. This is the recipe I’ll use from now on.

This post was originally published on Kitchn. Read it there: We Tested 4 Famous Chocolate Cupcake Recipes and Found a Clear Winner