Kitchn Love Letters

I Tried 6 Famous Homemade Chocolate Cakes and the Winner Will Be the Birthday Cake Recipe I Use Forever

published Feb 8, 2024
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Credit: Photos: Alex Lepe; Design: The Kitchn

“It’s not dessert unless it’s brown.” That’s the way a former colleague of mine defended her love of chocolate treats — and her disdain for any other type of dessert. If you’re firmly in that camp, chocolate cake has to rank high on your ideal-dessert scale. Specifically, I’m talking about chocolate layer cake: tender and moist (sorry, there’s no other word!) cake sandwiched between swoops of creamy chocolate frosting. It’s impressive on a cake stand, supremely rich and indulgent, and imbued through and through with the essence of its namesake ingredient.

But what makes for the best chocolate cake? Should it include actual melted chocolate, or is cocoa powder enough to carry the flavor? Does it need to use flavor-boosting ingredients like buttermilk or coffee? Should the frosting be a straightforward butter-cocoa-powdered sugar combo or incorporate ingredients like cream cheese or egg yolks? 

To find out, I cooked my way through six of the most popular chocolate cake recipes on the internet. Read on to see which ones rose to the top and which ones fell flat.

Quick Overview

So, What’s the Best Chocolate Cake Recipe?

The chocolate cake recipe on the blog Add a Pinch is a 10/10. The recipe is straightforward and the results are chocolatey and moist without being overpowering.

Meet Our 6 Chocolate Cake Contenders

I searched online for some of the most popular and well-reviewed chocolate cake recipes and ended up with six great options to test. All of them share certain similarities: They incorporate unsweetened cocoa powder, they use oil in the batter for moisture (not butter), and they use a combination of baking powder and baking soda for lift. 

Most of the recipes include some form of coffee (instant coffee, instant espresso, or brewed coffee) to enhance the chocolate flavor, but one forgoes this. Most use all-purpose flour, but one goes with cake flour. Half of the recipes make 8-inch layers, while the others make 9-inch. Read on to learn the specifics of each recipe.

  • Broma Bakery: The version from this popular baking blog is one of only two recipes to call specifically for buttermilk in the cake batter. The batter and the frosting also incorporate some strongly brewed coffee. The frosting includes a little cream cheese — the only chocolate frosting in the bunch to do so. 
  • Hershey’s: The straightforward recipe from the famous chocolate company is the only one that does not include any coffee notes — either in the cake batter or the frosting. The ingredient list is super straightforward.
  • Claire Saffitz: This recipe has several unique elements. It is the only one to make a 3-tier cake, use cake flour, and call for crème fraiche. The frosting begins with a thick stovetop pudding base (made with lots of melted chocolate), into which softened butter gets incorporated; the frosting does not include any powdered sugar.
  • Ina Garten: This is the other recipe that requires buttermilk for the cake batter, along with a generous amount of hot brewed coffee. The frosting uses only a small amount of powdered sugar and uniquely incorporates a raw egg yolk.
  • Add a Pinch: The cake part is fairly straightforward; the only slightly unique touch is a cup of boiling water (which the Hershey’s recipe also uses). The frosting is also straightforward, with a little espresso powder added.
  • Jessica in the Kitchen: What distinguishes this recipe the most is that it’s vegan, using nondairy milk, cocoa powder, oil, and no eggs. The frosting requires vegan butter and uses otherwise classic ingredients, including powdered sugar, cocoa powder, and vanilla. 
Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Stylist: Brett Regot

How I Tested the Chocolate Cake Recipes

  • I made them on back-to-back days. I couldn’t handle baking and assembling all six recipes on the same day, so I made three on one day and three the next. 
  • I used the same brand of common ingredients. Those included King Arthur unbleached all-purpose flour, Ghirardelli cocoa powder, and Mazola vegetable oil.
  • I tasted each cake at least three times. My first taste of each cake came right after assembling and frosting it. I also tasted each cake the day after it was baked, and again the next day. I had some additional tasters who offered their thoughts — my husband, our two teenage sons, and my husband’s brother (who happened to be in town).

Why You Should Trust Me as a Tester

In my 25 years in food media (20 as a magazine editor, 5 as a freelance recipe developer and food writer), I have written, tested, and developed literally thousands of recipes. I know how to evaluate a recipe for flavor, texture, and clarity and success (or failure) of the process.

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Stylist: Brett Regot

1. The Most Basic: Hershey’s “Perfectly Chocolate” Chocolate Cake

Overall rating: 6/10
Get the recipe: Hershey’s “Perfectly Chocolate” Chocolate Cake

Here’s the thing: This recipe is very close to Ina Garten’s and Add a Pinch’s, both in terms of the ingredients it uses and the amounts it calls for. But the few differences in those recipes add up to a lot more flavor. 

The Hershey’s recipe calls for milk (which tends to be bland), while Garten’s specifies tangy buttermilk and Add a Pinch’s lists buttermilk as an option. The Hershey’s recipe does not incorporate any form of coffee, and that’s a difference maker; without that bit of instant or brewed coffee, the cake simply lacks the kind of chocolaty depth that the other recipes gain

And the frosting (a linked subrecipe) suffers from the same uncaffeinated flaw, leaving the flavor flat and one-note. Finally, the frosting amount is rather sparse — just enough for a rather thin layer over the cake. I simply found this cake to be lackluster. (But I would be remiss if I didn’t say that it was the favorite of one of my sons, who strongly preferred it to any of the others.)

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Stylist: Brett Regot

2. The Most Labor-Intensive: Claire Saffitz’s Chocolate Layer Cake

Overall rating: 7/10
Get the recipe: Claire Saffitz’s Chocolate Layer Cake

This recipe is a bit of a project, involving many steps and lots of dishes. You’ll make three cake layers in 8-inch pans. To make the batter, first mix the dry ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer; next, combine cocoa powder and hot cocoa in a bowl, then whisk in crème fraiche and vanilla; in a separate bowl, you’ll then whisk whole eggs and egg yolks; finally, you’ll incorporate oil and half of the crème fraiche mixture into the dry ingredients, and then blend in the eggs and remaining crème fraiche mixture. 

You’ll bake the cake layers and then embark on the frosting, which involves heating milk and sugar in a saucepan, whisking an egg-sugar-cocoa mixture in a bowl, tempering the eggy mixture with the warm milk, heating the custard till thick, and pouring it over chocolate to melt it. 

Then you’ll beat the pudding, adding a boatload of butter a little at a time to finish the frosting. The cake layers domed a bit, so you have to level them by slicing some away with a long serrated knife before assembling the cake. 

The finished dessert is tall, tasty, and very moist. The flavor is super intense and bittersweet — especially in the frosting (which doesn’t use any powdered sugar), but for me the cake was too rich to enjoy more than a few bites at one time (let alone an entire 3-tiered slice). And compared to the other recipes in this showdown, the extra bit of labor involved just didn’t feel worth it. 

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Stylist: Brett Regot

3. The Frosting-Lover’s Cake: Broma Bakery’s the Best Chocolate Cake

Overall rating: 7.5/10
Get the recipe: Broma Bakery’s The Best Chocolate Cake

The batter for this cake was an easy whisk-together affair that’s touted as a one-bowl method but actually requires two. You whisk dry ingredients together in one bowl, then whisk wet ingredients in another bowl before stirring into the dry ingredients. Nevertheless, it’s simple enough and doesn’t require a mixer. 

The 8-inch cake layers rose tall in the oven but sunk a bit once cooled. The cake was wonderfully moist, with a deep, rich chocolate flavor. The frosting is fluffy and soft, with some welcome tang from a bit of cream cheese. But wow was there a ton of it. I used only about two-thirds of the frosting to heavily frost the cake and tossed the rest out. It was simply too much. The coffee flavor was pronounced — almost to the point of overpowering the chocolate.

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Stylist: Brett Regot

4. More Like a Mocha Cake: Ina Garten’s Beatty’s Chocolate Cake

Overall rating: 8/10
Get the recipe: Ina Garten’s Beatty’s Chocolate Cake

Ina Garten’s recipes generally seem foolproof and delicious, and this cake is no exception. As noted above, the cake batter is very similar to the Hershey’s recipe, but with buttermilk and hot brewed coffee in the mix for richer flavor. The cake is super moist, and the 8-inch layers are tall and fluffy. The frosting starts with softened butter that you beat until fluffy, then beat in a raw egg yolk and vanilla extract before adding a modest amount of powdered sugar. Finally, you beat in a good bit of melted semisweet chocolate and a whole tablespoon of instant coffee that you’ve dissolved in a little hot water. 

The frosting has a luscious, absolutely dreamy texture — supremely creamy while also being light and fluffy — no doubt due to the egg yolk and melted chocolate. But the amount of instant coffee in the frosting goes further than just enhancing the chocolate notes; it overpowers the flavor and makes the cake more of a mocha cake than a chocolate cake. It’s delicious, no doubt, but it’s simply not the ideal chocolate cake. 

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Stylist: Brett Regot

5. The Surprising Standout: Jessica in the Kitchen’s Vegan Chocolate Cake

Overall rating: 9/10
Get the recipe: Jessica in the Kitchen’s Vegan Chocolate Cake

This recipe starts with a faux buttermilk made by mixing together some apple cider vinegar and nondairy milk (I used soy) until the milk curdles and thickens. From there, it’s a simple batter made by blending, with an electric mixer, the dry ingredients with the wet ingredients (which include a tablespoon of instant coffee mixed with a cup of boiling water). The cake layers are baked in 9-inch pans and come out a little thin, but they are incredibly moist and rich. 

The frosting uses vegan butter, cocoa powder, vanilla, salt, powdered sugar, and a little nondairy milk. A couple of my tasters (including me) tasted the faintest waxy aftertaste, likely from the vegan butter, but none of the other tasters detected it. This cake was intensely chocolaty, thanks to the coffee in the batter, and so wonderfully rich, but the moisture level almost verged on being wet and dense (it didn’t quite get to that point but got close). It was my husband’s overwhelming favorite and a second-favorite for everyone else.

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Stylist: Brett Regot

6. The Most Popular for a Reason: Add a Pinch’s the Best Chocolate Cake Recipe {Ever}

Overall rating: 10/10
Get the recipe: Add a Pinch’s The Best Chocolate Cake Recipe {Ever}

This recipe boasts the most 5-star reviews (more than 4,500 of them!) than any of the other recipes, and after making it I can see why. The cake comes together easily in a stand mixer, with standard dry ingredients being combined and then the wet ingredients (including a cup of boiling water) going in. A modest amount of espresso powder graces the cake (1 teaspoon) and the frosting (1/2 teaspoon), which results in enhanced chocolate richness that isn’t overshadowed by mocha-coffee notes. 

The 9-inch cake layers are tall, wonderfully soft, and fabulously moist, and there’s plenty of just-sweet-enough frosting to generously coat them. While the cake tastes rich and indulgent, it’s not so decadently chocolate-dense that you can’t thoroughly enjoy a decent-sized slice in one sitting. And then perhaps another one a little later on.