Kitchn Love Letters

This Rich, Creamy Chocolate Frosting Is the Grown-Up Version of the Stuff in the Tub (And Yes, That Is a Compliment)

published Mar 31, 2021
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close up of ridges in chocolate frosting with sprinkles
Credit: Nina Elder

When I was a kid, my mom shopped the perimeter of the grocery store — and I cruised the baking aisle.

The small grocery store in my tiny Midwestern hometown was the last stop for the produce truck, so while my mom pawed through piles of aging green onions, I took stock of the array of ready-to-make treats. There were boxes that promised perfect layer cakes and indulgently fudgy brownies, multiple varieties of no-bake cheesecakes, and that eternally fascinating Jell-O 1, 2, 3 dessert, its triple-striped box making an almost unfathomable promise: “One mix separates into three layers.” God bless the ’80s.

And then there were the tubs. I’ve always been more of a cake person than a frosting person, but the photos on the tubs of frosting were so enticing. Who could resist those perfect swoops and swirls? I remember trying the vanilla frosting for the first time. It spread like a dream and tasted like a cheap scented candle. But the chocolate was another story. On the rare occasion that we had some in the house, I would eat it with a spoon, much to my mom’s horror. The only thing better than eating it straight from the tub was using it to frost a freshly baked boxed cake.

At a certain point, my palate changed and the tub frosting lost its appeal. I tried several times to go back to my old standby. It was the same, but I wasn’t. I wanted something that really tasted like chocolate.

Enter: the geniuses at Cook’s Illustrated. The first time I made their Foolproof Chocolate Frosting, I knew it was a winner. First of all, the recipe calls for two-and-a-half sticks of butter, which is a strong start. You mix the butter in the food processor with powdered sugar, cocoa powder, and some salt (I always add a little extra). Next is the key ingredient: corn syrup, which gives the frosting that tub-like sheen and prevents it from getting crusty like buttercream can. And then there’s more chocolate, this time in the form of cooled melted milk, semisweet, or bittersweet chocolate. I usually go for something in the 60% range, but that’s a personal preference.

As you make the frosting, you’ll hear the texture change. It starts with the thump thump thump of the butter and cocoa powder, then the corn syrup smoothes things out. The melted chocolate thickens the frosting a bit and I swear you can hear the food processor purr when the chocolate goes in. Or maybe that’s me. Who’s to know?

Credit: Nina Elder
Gus bday

I’ve made this frosting more times than I can count, but it brings me joy every single time. It’s easy to make, it comes together quickly, and is a real pleasure to use. That may sound kind of silly, but anyone who’s had to struggle with frosting that’s too sticky or too clumpy or too runny can appreciate one that goes on without a struggle. This is the frosting that’s been on five out of six of my son’s birthday cakes, and I’ve even used it to pipe “fur” on a bear-shaped cake for his 4th birthday (as evidenced above). This stuff can do it all!

Oh, and I can confirm that it’s also quite delicious eaten with a spoon (sorry, Mom).

If You Make Cook’s Illustrated’s Foolproof Chocolate Frosting, a Few Tips:

  • The recipe calls for softened butter (60°F to 65°F). You don’t need to stick a thermometer in your butter, but know that the butter should be soft but not too soft. When you poke it with your finger, it should leave an indent but not squish deep into the butter. If the butter’s too soft, the frosting will be a little runny. How do I know this? Let’s just say: baking in July with no air conditioning.
  • You’ll also notice that the chocolate should be cooled to between 85°F and 100°F. Again, no need to get out the thermometer, but you want the chocolate to be lukewarm, not hot, to give you the best texture.
  • Any leftover frosting holds well in the fridge for several days. It will firm up, but will loosen up again once it comes back to room temperature.

At Kitchn, our editors develop and debut brand-new recipes on the site every single week. But at home, we also have our own tried-and-true dishes that we make over and over again — because quite simply? We love them. Kitchn Love Letters is a series that shares our favorite, over-and-over recipes.