This $4 Ingredient Is the Secret to the Very Best Chocolate Desserts

updated Feb 11, 2020
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

It’s February, which means Valentine’s Day and all things chocolate. I crave chocolatey things all year long, but for some reason this month I tend to want the deepest, darkest treats.

At first I thought the best way to get really decadent brownies or cakes was to simply reach for chocolate bars with a higher percentage of cacao — 65%, 70%, 85%! — but then I was tipped off to a better way. Interestingly enough, getting richer, darker chocolate desserts isn’t about adding chocolate — it’s about adding espresso powder.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

What Exactly Is Espresso Powder?

Espresso powder, also known as instant espresso, isn’t just espresso coffee beans that are very finely ground. Instead, it’s an intensely-flavored, concentrated instant coffee. To be clear, this is not regular instant coffee: It’s darker and much stronger, with a deeper, rounder flavor. Technically, the tiny crystals can be dissolved in hot water to instantly make espresso.

Espresso Powder Makes Chocolate Desserts More Chocolatey

What bakers love espresso powder for, though, is the rich flavor it imparts baked goods, especially chocolate ones. Stir a teaspoon into your brownie batter and it enhances the chocolate. The dark, rich notes from the espresso powder trick you into tasting darker, richer chocolate flavor in your brownies or your cake — but you won’t actually taste the coffee. It’s an ingenious way to bolster the flavor of run-of-the-mill cocoa powder or baking chocolate without having to dig deep into your wallets for the fancy, extra high-quality stuff.

A small amount of espresso powder doesn’t add coffee flavor to chocolate desserts. If you do, however, want your baked good to lean more in the mocha direction, you can easily add another teaspoon or two to bring out the coffee flavor.

Buy it: Espresso Powder from Amazon, $4 for 2 ounces

5 Ways to Use Espresso Powder

  • Add it to all your chocolatey baked goods. Stir a teaspoon into your favorite brownie, chocolate cake, chocolate cookie, or even chocolate soufflé batter and expect everyone to ask for your secret.
  • Amp up chocolate sauces and frostings. The same thing goes with hot fudge, chocolate ganache, and chocolate frosting. Add a little bit to boost the chocolate flavor or a little bit more to make it mocha-flavored.
  • Sprinkle it on ice cream. Jazz up a standard pint of chocolate or vanilla ice cream by sprinkling some espresso powder over a couple scoops.
  • Stir it into chili. Stirring a tablespoon or two into a simmering pot of chili gives it incredible depth and richness. This is especially the case for vegetarian chilis, which often lack this complexity.
  • Make a rub for meat. Combine it with savory spices like chili powder, cayenne, chipotle powder, or smoked paprika, along with some garlic powder, salt, and pepper to make an awesome dry rub for steak and ribs.

There are countless ingredients clamoring for space in your kitchen. Taste Makers are the ones that actually make a dish amazing. Each month, we’re exploring one ingredient that has earned its place in our small kitchens and will make even simple food taste spectacular.

Your turn: What’s your favorite underrated ingredient in your pantry? What do you reach for when you want to elevate your cooking quickly and easily? Tell us in the comments below! We may give it the star treatment in an upcoming edition of Taste Makers.