The ingredient list holds the clues.

By Kimberly Holland
May 28, 2019

Chocolate cakes come in all forms—bundt, layers, cupcakes; frosted, unfrosted, glazed. But beyond its shape and its frosting, is there any real distinction between one chocolate cake and another?

Technically, yes. However, where German chocolate and Black Forest cakes have distinct ingredients—a coconut-pecan frosting or layers of cherries and whipped cream—Devil’s food and classic chocolate cake aren’t so visibly different. Indeed, if you were eating a Devil’s food cake and just called it chocolate cake, or vice versa, you might not know you were wrong. Home cooks, recipe developers, and restaurants don’t always know that a Devil’s food cake is different from other types of decadent chocolate cakes either, so your error is forgiven.

Devil’s food cake is richer, darker, and fluffier thanks to the use of cocoa powder and a bit extra baking soda. The extra baking soda in a Devil’s food cake increases the baked good’s pH level, which adds more bubbles during the baking process. That makes the cake fluffier and airy, which lends itself to the use of a light glaze, ganache, or even just a sprinkle of powdered sugar. Oil may be used over butter because the neutral flavor of the oil lets the deeply rich cocoa be more pronounced.

Basic chocolate cakes usually call for melted milk or bittersweet chocolate. Butter or cream can be used in classic chocolate cake because the richer flavors of those dairy fats won’t compete with the milder melted chocolate. A true chocolate cake might be more dense, so a heftier frosting, like a buttercream can be used, but lighter whipped frostings are frequently paired with it, too.

This Devil’s Food Cake uses lots of rich cocoa powder with butter, with even more of those rich ingredients in the silky frosting. Deep Dark Chocolate Layer Cake fits all the requirements for Devil’s food. And this Perfect Chocolate Bundt Cake could technically be called a Devil’s food cake because it uses cocoa instead of melted chocolate.

This Fudge Cake fits all the requirements for the classic chocolate cake—melted semisweet chocolate and butter, as does this Dark Chocolate Bundt Cake, though it has chocolate syrup, too, which is just an added layer of chocolate flavor.

Of course, the occasional cake throws all the rules to the wind. This Chocolate-Coconut Layer Cake uses cocoa powder, melted chocolate, and even coffee, which is frequently used in Devil’s food cake to heighten richness.

All of these recipes and definitions point to one rule of the chocolate cake world: As long as it’s delicious, perhaps the name doesn’t matter all that much. 

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