Yellow vs. Chocolate Cake Formulas

Why is it so much more complicated to do a chocolate version of a standard yellow layer cake? That’s what readers Cynthia, Bertie, Doug and Seth all want to know. Why, if you’re converting a yellow cake to a chocolate cake, can’t you just swap out some cocoa powder for some of the flour and be done with it?

A chocolate cake layer certainly starts that way, Cynthia, Bertie, Doug and Seth, but cocoa powder turns out to be rather tricky stuff, chemically speaking. First, because it’s a fermented product, it’s acidic. So one must correct for that by adding an alkaline, otherwise the acidity would undermine the structure of the cake and make it softer (we especially don’t want that with the high ratio cake we have going here, because one of the virtues of high ratio cake is it’s firmness).

For this recipe I’ve added baking soda, which serves a dual purpose. Yes it counteracts the acidity, but it also gives me more leavening which is important since the cocoa weighs the cake down a bit and, not having any gluten in it or gelating starch, undermines the structure some as well. So we need the extra push to give the cake the right amount of volume. Cocoa powder is also extremely absorbent, so we have to boost the liquid content of the cake to account for that.

Lastly as I mentioned, the full flavor of cocoa powder isn’t released unless it’s combined with hot water or milk. So that adds a process step or two to the recipe, what with all the heating, whisking and cooling.

So there you pretty much have it. The chocolate high ratio cake recipe is basically the same thing as the yellow high ratio cake, save for all the balancing that needs to be done. It looks a lot different to be sure, but getting from one to the other really isn’t all that hard. Thanks for the question, guys!

11 thoughts on “Yellow vs. Chocolate Cake Formulas”

    1. You can, though it’s actually quite hard to find Dutch process cocoa around these days. Some consumers’ suspicion of “processing” combined with the trend toward darker, more bitter chocolate has led most cocoa makers to simply skip it. Suits them fine, one less step saves them money! But at as result we home bakers are balancing our own pH.

      – Joe

      1. I was wondering why I haven’t seen it in any supermarkets lately. Although it could be combined with the fact that I moved to El Paso a couple years ago. (However, I now have access to unreasonable amounts of chiles.)

  1. I got a friend who was visiting the US to buy me some unprocessed cocoa powder, because in New Zealand we only have Dutch process. Some is more “Dutched” than others, but they are all alkaline. Took me ages to find it out too, ended up emailing the Cadbury people to ask if theirs was, as it is the palest, and then asked them if they knew where I could get natural. They told me that all cocoa that comes into the country is actually processed elsewhere first, and is all alkalised.
    I then did some experiments with the various cocoa powders I had bought – natural, and lightly and heavily Dutched. Made batches of cupcakes with everything but the cocoa weighed together, mixed together, then split into equal weights before the various cocoas were added. I took samples to work for blind tastings. There really is not a lot of difference. No one could just immediately tell which were which, and most people couldn’t tell any difference at all, except in colour.

    1. Oh Hi Bronwyn – nice to see another Kiwi on Joe’s blog (I’m assuming you’re a Kiwi) – isn’t it a great blog – thanks for the info re cocoa in NZ – I always thought the cheaper stuff wasn’t processed and purchase the expensive dutch processed cocoa to have on hand for “important” cakes – the family get the ordinary stuff !!
      Cheers from Auckland

      1. Hi, yes, I’m in Dunedin.
        Cadbury cocoa is lightly alkalised (Dutched) and has other secret flavouring added. They won’t say what, but I’m pretty sure vanilla is part of it. The other pale ones are about the same but without the flavouring. The Equagold stuff is heavily alkalised.
        I also bought “cacao powder” from the health food shop; it is unroasted, but as far as I can figure out still alkalised. If you want natural acidic cocoa you need to get it from America. My friends had no problems getting it through customs though.

      2. Another interesting thing is the effect of colour on taste perception. So many people say that the dark cocoa is “stronger” tasting. Theoretically it shouldn’t be, and I really can’t tell. Our Physiology Dept regularly has a stand at the Science Fair with flavoured drinks that are the “wrong” colour, like red coloured orange drink. It’s quite astonishing how many people think they taste like the colour rather than the flavour! I.e., will say the red orange drink is raspberry and the orange lime drink is orange. I’m good at it but not so good that I can trust myself not to let shades of colour affect what I’m tasting.

  2. Clearly this post was of high interest to Kiwis – I’m in Auckland. 🙂 My children attend clubdays with the ‘Auckland Explorers’ which is a local branch of the NZ Assoc for Gifted Children. I’ve been asked to run a clubday on ‘the science of baking’. My husband was a commercial baker for ten years, but I’m doing some research. Joe, your blog is FANTASTIC! I’ll definitely be checking in often. I have learned a lot about cocoa from this post and the comments. Would you happen to know which cocoa would create the reddest colour for a red velvet cake (assuming no added food colouring) and why it turns red?

    1. Glad to be of help. Elle! I can’t speak for particular brands in New Zealand. Bronwyn might be able to help. She’s a frequent commenter. Can you see here email address?

      – Joe

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