The Surprising Ingredient That You Should Not Use in Your Chocolate Cake — And Other Tips From Jerrelle Guy

My mom loves chocolate cake, so it was the first (and perhaps the most delicious) cake I learned to bake as a child. Mama is right. Nothing can beat a simple slice of chocolate cake with thick, chocolaty frosting. After years of baking, simple single-layer cakes became triple-layer cakes. The recipes and designs got more creative. I have now perfected my chocolate cake recipe. These are my top tips to make a moist, tender and flavorful chocolate cake that Mom will love.

How to make the best chocolate cake

Use high-quality chocolate and cocoa powder.

It’s all about chocolate cake. Make sure to use a chocolate brand you like. I love Ghirardelli dark chocolate bars and their unsweetened or Dutch-processed cocoa powders. They are affordable and delicious. However, I have had success with many generic store brands.

Do not skip the sifting of dry ingredients.

It is important to combine all dry ingredients for a chocolate cake. Mix all the dry ingredients in a bowl. Then, dust them with a sieve. This distributes the leavening agents evenly and breaks down any large clumps. The batter will be lighter and fluffier because the acids and bases and the wet ingredients are mixed. (Read more about acids and bases.)

In your batter, use oil instead of butter.

Oils like vegetable oil and canola oil are generally better for chocolate cakes than butter which is around 80 per cent fat and 20% water. Butter-based cakes often turn out slightly dry because the butter’s water evaporates during baking. The cake will be moister if you add oil. The cake will stay moist after it has cooled completely because oil and other unsaturated fats remain liquid at room temperature.

Get your bases and acids sorted.

A delicate balance between acids and bases is necessary to make chocolate cakes with the right texture. When they react, the batter will produce tiny pockets of air, which will cause the cake to rise higher in the oven and give it a fluffy, light crumb. Baking soda (a base) is needed to neutralize natural cocoa. The inability to achieve the right balance could result in a bitter, soapy taste or even collapse your cake. If I’m trying to make things easier, I use Dutch-process cocoa. This is an acid that has been neutralized so that it won’t react. Learn more about the difference between Dutch-process cocoa powder and natural cocoa powder.

Side note: Make sure you check the expiration dates on baking soda and baking powder. This is especially important if they have been sitting in the cupboard for a while. There’s nothing worse than having to throw away a lot of good ingredients on a failed cake. You can quickly test them by adding a little vinegar or lemon juice to a small bowl. If it bubbles, it is still active.

Mix in some of your favourite coffee.

Many chocolate cake recipes call to adding boiling water to the batter before entering the oven. This helps thin the batter, makes the cake less dense and activates the chemical leaveners. It also helps bloom the cocoa powder, allowing all the delicious flavours to be released. Water is bland, so I prefer something with more flavour, like dark-roast espresso. It’s important to choose a coffee that is robust and well-rounded. Don’t use instant coffee. Also, make sure the water is boiling. Bonus: Coffee can enhance the taste of chocolate but not make it taste like coffee. Try this Southern-style chocolate recipe with ganache frosting or this Ina Garden’s chocolate cake for two great examples of why coffee should be added to chocolate cakes.

You can add a lot of icing.

Bad icing can ruin your chocolate cake battle. Make sure you choose an icing recipe that you can eat independently. Also, make sure the cake is completely cooled — or even chilled in the refrigerator — before you ice it. This is especially important if you are using buttercream frosting. You can also add malted milk powder or buttermilk powder to your frosting for more flavour. A silky chocolate Ganache is my favourite way to end a chocolate cake. It’s one part melted chocolate, one part heavy cream. This is because it’s what Mom loved. You know what? She’s right.

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