How to Make Chocolate Cake
What makes a great chocolate cake recipe? Start with good ingredients (yes, that means a lot of chocolate), add the right equipment, and understand core techniques.
We’ll show you how to check the doneness of chocolate cake, how to avoid common mistakes when baking a chocolate cake, plus tips on how to make and frost the perfect layer cake.
Twelve Steps to Perfect Chocolate Layer Cake
Most chocolate cake recipes follow this basic sequence of steps.
1. ADJUST OVEN RACK
Place the oven rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 350 degrees.
WHY? If baked on a rack that's too high, the cake will overbrown. Too low? No browning at all.
2. CUT PARCHMENT
Trace the outline of the cake pan on parchment paper. Then cut out parchment circles to line the pans.
WHY? To ensure the baked cakes release easily from the pans.
3. GREASE AND FLOUR
Grease the pans. Line with parchment circles. Grease the parchment and flour the pans, shaking out extra flour.
WHY? To doubly ensure that the cakes will not stick.
4. COMBINE LIQUIDS
Combine the eggs, milk, and vanilla in a measuring cup.
WHY? Combined, the wet ingredients are easier to incorporate. Plus, it's easy to see how much liquid you’ve added in step 7.
5. WHISK DRY INGREDIENTS
Whisk the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt together.
WHY? For layer cakes, whisking aerates as effectively as sifting.
6. BEAT IN BUTTER
With the mixer on low speed, add the softened butter, one piece at a time, until only pea-size pieces remain.
WHY? This "reverse creaming" ensures a cake with a tender but tight crumb.
7. ADD LIQUID IN 2 PARTS
Pour in half of the milk-egg mixture and beat until fluffy. Then add the remaining milk mixture.
WHY? The liquid will be absorbed more efficiently, for a lighter cake with no streaks of flour.
8. SCRAPE INTO PANS
Divide the batter evenly between the greased, lined, and floured pans.
WHY? The layers will bake evenly and be of equal height.
9. TAP ON COUNTER
Gently tap the pans on the counter to settle the batter.
WHY? Tapping releases air bubbles that may have formed during mixing; they could cause tunnels in the cake.
10. BAKE AND ROTATE
Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes. Rotate the pans halfway through baking.
WHY? Switching the pans ensures that the layers bake evenly despite any hot spots in the oven.
11. COOL IN PANS
Leave the hot cakes in the pans for 10 minutes.
WHY? The cakes need a few minutes to cool and firm slightly, sot they won't break apart when you remove them from the pans.
12. TURN CAKE OUT
Flip the cakes out of their pans onto a wire rack. Flip onto a second wire rack so that the cake layers are right side up.
WHY? The rack lets air circulate underneath, so the cakes won't steam and get soggy as they cool.
Here's an easy way to determine if your chocolate cake has reached the desired doneness.
It's an old kitchen maxim: Don't remove a cake from the oven until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with no crumbs attached. Many of us in the test kitchen have followed this directive for years, but recently we've discovered that finding a few crumbs sticking to the toothpick (not raw batter, mind you) isn't such a bad thing. In fact, a few crumbs can be the sign of a moist and tender cake. That's because residual heat continues to bake the cake once it is removed from the oven. If you wait until a toothpick comes out perfectly clean, the cake may be dry and crumbly by the time it cools.
Our "few crumbs attached" maxim is especially apt when baking low-fat cakes such as our Reduced-Fat Chocolate Sheet Cake. Without a healthy dose of fat to keep it moist, this cake will become chokingly dry if overbaked. In general, we think it's best to check all cakes a few minutes before the earliest baking time recommended in the recipe. You can always test the cake again if it's not done, but once a cake is overbaked there's no going back.
To determine whether a cake is done, insert a toothpick into the center and look for just a few moist crumbs to adhere. Raw batter means the cake needs more time. If the toothpick is completely clean, the cake may have overbaked.
To determine whether a cake is done, insert a toothpick into the center and look for just a few moist crumbs to adhere.
Raw batter means the cake needs more time.
Here are four ways that a good cake can turn bad—and how to prevent them.
It might be tempting to start frosting soon after the cake has come out of the oven. But even a slightly warm cake can cause the frosting to melt and slide off. It pays to wait until the cake is completely cooled.
Most frostings can be made ahead and refrigerated until they are ready to use. But if they're not left to soften at room temperature, the frosting will be stiff and difficult to spread, and their application may gouge a chunk out of a tender cake.
Cake layers can dome in the oven, making them hard to stack. If you don't trim the dome, you'll need extra frosting to fill the space between the layers- meaning you won't have enough for the top and sides. Even if you make extra frosting, the finished cake will be overly rich.
Even a beautifully frosted cake can turn ugly after the first slice. That's because the slicing knife drags frosting and crumbs as it cuts. For a prettier presentation, clean the knife after each cut by dipping it into hot water, then drying it off between slices.
How to Frost a Layer Cake on a Serving Platter
Follow these guidelines for a perfectly frosted cake, everytime.
1. REMOVE THE DOME
Cake layers with a domed top are difficult to stack and frost. If your cake layers crack and dome, you can simply slice the domed section off using a serrated knife. Gently slice back and forth using a sawing motion.
2. LINE THE PLATTER
Frosting the cake right on the serving platter can be a messy enterprise. To keep the platter tidy, use strips of parchment paper to cover its edges; remove the parchment before serving the cake.
3. HOLD IT DOWN
No one wants to frost a moving target. To keep the cake from sliding around, spoon a dollop of frosting in the center of the platter as “glue” and place one cake layer on top.
4. FROST THE BOTTOM
Spoon some of the frosting onto the center of the first layer and, using an icing spatula, push the frosting up to, but not over, the edge of the cake. Then stack the top layer carefully to make sure that the sides are aligned.
5. TOP, THEN SIDES
Spread more frosting over the surface of the top layer, up to the sides of the cake. Then, using a small amount of frosting on the tip of an icing spatula, gently smear and press the frosting onto the sides of the cake.
6. MAKE IT SMOOTH
Holding the icing spatula at a slight angle, run the spatula around the cake to smooth the frosting. Where the sides and top of the frosting meet, pull the excess frosting toward the center of the cake.
The Right Tools for Chocolate Cake Recipes
Stand mixers can make easy work of mixing batter for chocolate cake. They come with either one beater arm or two. We prefer mixers with “planetary action,” which is effective at reaching the sides and center of the workbowl, , and ensures that all of the chocolate cake batter gets incorporated. All three of our winning inexpensive stand mixers feature this kind of movement.
The wide blade and crook shape of an offset spatula allows for excellent control to make slicing chocolate cake easier. We also use offset spatulas to spread chocolate cake batter into large pans evenly.
When making cake batter, we’ve found that a hand-held mixer can yield the same results as a standing mixer, just a little more slowly. Look for a hand-held mixer that offers excellent control with gentle low speeds and powerful high speeds. In short: buy either of our top finishers, which offered all of these things—and cost a fraction of the price of a stand mixer.
Frosting a chocolate cake is no easy task. Aside from a deft hand, the pros use a turntable-style cake stand. These stands elevate the cake, giving the baker a better view and making it possible to hold the spatula steady while rotating the stand—improving the likelihood of a seamlessly frosted chocolate cake.
If you take your chocolate cake on the road, a frosting-smeared trunk (or lap) is almost guaranteed. Safe, secure transport is what cake carriers are all about, but what kind is best? We baked and frosted chocolate cakes and drove down pothole-riddled roads, evaluating the condition of each cake afterward. Design determined our winner, which featured comfortable handles and a sturdy locking system that kept the integrity of the enclosed cakes (or cupcakes) pristine.
When making chocolate cakes, we use cake pans that are sturdy enough to withstand denting. A dark coating promotes better browning than a shiny, light-colored coating. Tall, straight sides to accommodate high-rising chocolate cakes.
Key Ingredients for any Chocolate Cake
While many chocolate cake recipes rely on regular cocoa powder to produce big chocolate flavor, we found most cocoa powders too astringent and often bitter. We prefer to use less-acidic Dutch-processed cocoa in our chocolate cake recipes instead.
There are many types of flour, and two of them—all-purpose and cake flour—are fundamental building blocks in our chocolate cake recipes. All-purpose flour is a blend of high- and low-protein wheat flour and, as is the name implies, is our go-to in most of our chocolate cake recipes. Cake flour, on the other hand, is made from soft wheat and has a very low protein level, which makes for delicate, fine-crumbed chocolate cakes.
“Dark chocolate” is a pretty loose term. It applies to pure chocolates to which sugar, vanilla, and emulsifiers have been added, and includes bittersweet and semisweet chocolates. But the terms themselves are not surefire indicators of how sweet they’ll make your chocolate cake. To find that out, we had to conduct our own tests.
In the test kitchen, we rely on unsweetened chocolate for many of our chocolate cake recipes. But with no added sugar or dairy, 100 percent pure chocolate can be a clear route to rich chocolate flavor—or bitter proof that not all bars are created equal. We tasted eight products to make sure we used the best-tasting brand in our chocolate cake recipes.
Our Favorite Chocolate Cake Recipes
It’s been more than three decades since Ebinger’s Baking Company in Brooklyn closed its doors, but for those old enough to remember the once-renowned bakery, their fondest memories are usually reserved for its famous chocolate cake. We set out to re-create this well-loved chocolate cake in our test kitchen.
Born out of wartime rationing, Wacky cake is a moist chocolate cake prepared, miraculously enough, without eggs or butter. Despite the omissions, we found that this simple chocolate cake—which is mixed in the baking pan—tastes great.
This huge, pecan-topped chocolate cake with three distinct layers of chocolaty goodness is made when sweet chocolate icing is poured over a cake hot out of the oven. When the cake cools, you’re left with an icing layer, a fudgy layer where the icing and hot cake have mixed together, and a bottom layer of moist chocolate cake.
There’s a reason why so many recipes attempt to recreate the Hostess Chocolate Cream Cupcake: The combination of moist chocolate cake, fudgy glaze, and buttery filling is unbeatable.
The original recipe for this chocolate cake relied on a now-defunct packaged ingredient. It took us a few tries to re-create this moist chocolate cake with its characteristic creamy, frosting-like filling.
A chewy, brownie-like chocolate cake saturated with pudding-style chocolate sauce sounded good to us. But it took a couple of test kitchen tricks to give this chocolate cake the texture and flavor of a brownie, with plenty of spoon-clinging pudding sauce dotted throughout.
This cake’s characteristic thick, fudgy frosting required an extra-sturdy chocolate cake to support it. All-purpose flour in place of the usual cake flour gave this chocolate cake the stability it needed.
Whoopie pies are a classic confection consisting of rounds of moist chocolate cake sandwiching a thick layer of creamy frosting. Lots of cocoa powder and vanilla gave the chocolate cake the fullest flavor, while Marshmallow Fluff was the key ingredient in the white fluffy filling.
The ultimate chocolate cake isn’t complete without the ultimate frosting. Our foolproof recipe is the creamy, satiny icing on the (chocolate) cake.
Thanks to a mix of unsweetened chocolate and Dutch-processed cocoa powder, this Devil’s Food-style chocolate cake is packed with rich chocolate flavor. We use it as a base for some of our fancy, special-occasion chocolate cake recipes.