Oh was this a frustrating recipe to perfect.
If you follow me at all, then you know I love to utilize the science of baking to tweak and test recipes until I think they’re the ULTIMATE version of that recipe. I’ve done it with my Ultimate Brownies and Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookies, so it was about time I embarked on another recipe. What better to perfect than Chocolate Cupcakes?! It took about 5 straight batches over a couple days, after previous casual tests over the months, to finally nail the recipe.
I hope you love it as much as I do! It’s perfectly moist and tender. Not so moist that is collapses and not so tender that it crumbles. Plus tooooons of chocolate flavor. Like three kinds overall!
Tips for Making the BEST Chocolate Cupcakes
This recipe underwent extensive testing to perfect. Below is a complete explanation of every major element in case you wanted to learn more about the science and process behind all of it. I’ve tried to answer any questions you might have below, but feel free to leave a comment with any other questions. ALSO, I ended up writing an entire post about How to Make Perfect Cupcakes HERE you might enjoy. Otherwise, keep scrolling for the full printable recipe.
We can’t make stellar chocolate cupcakes without first considering the chocolate! The cupcakes themselves use a whole 4 ounces of bittersweet chocolate AND Dutch-process cocoa powder for as much chocolate flavor as possible. I do recommend you stick with the Dutch-process cocoa as it actually works differently on a chemical level compared to regular natural cocoa. You can learn more about the differences between cocoa powders here.
You can find it at many gourmet food stores, like Whole Foods, Sur la Table, and Williams-Sonoma. I actually order a big container on Amazon because it’s such a great value!
The frosting uses melted chocolate for the most intense and pure chocolate flavor possible. I like to use semisweet, but feel free to use milk or dark chocolate. It’s totally up to you!
This recipe calls for vegetable oil instead of melted butter. I went back and forth on this for a bit and wound up choosing the oil because it creates an ultra moist texture and open, slightly spongy crumb which is perfect for chocolate cupcakes. Feel free to use melted coconut oil instead of vegetable oil!
Hot Water and Espresso Powder
If you bake chocolate cake or cupcakes a lot, you’ve probably seen quite a few recipes that utilize hot water or even hot coffee. It helps to dissolve and ‘bloom’ the cocoa powder to bring out as much flavor with as few cocoa lumps as possible. In my Best Chocolate Cupcake recipe, I use a combination of hot water and instant espresso powder. The espresso simply enhances the chocolate flavor without actually being perceptible. Alternatively, you could use hot coffee for the same effect. I never have coffee on hand so for me, espresso powder + hot water is easier and cleaner.
Most of my initial recipe tests used only granulated sugar for the cupcakes. Then, I thought I’d try to add in a bit of brown sugar. The resulting cupcakes were flavorful, moist, and slightly chewy. Perfect!
The more whole eggs a cake recipe has, the richer it’ll be. I repeated one of my favorite baking tricks and added in an egg yolk. It works beautifully for brownies and cookies, so why not chocolate cupcakes? It adds more richness, chewiness, and structure so the cupcake can stand up to a generous or heavy frosting.
Oh man, this is where I encountered the most frustration. I went back and forth on this. When I used both baking soda and baking powder, the cupcakes rose to a beautiful height while baking but then fell and collapsed slightly as they cooled. Bummer. That was too much leavener.
I went back to only baking soda, which is more effective per teaspoon than baking powder, but had to add vinegar to the recipe. Why? Well because there wasn’t much acid for the baking soda to react with originally. Dutch-process cocoa powder has been neutralized of its acid, so it was only the sour cream and small amount of brown sugar. For tall and light cupcakes, we need enough leavening so baking soda + vinegar did the trick.
I tried testing with bread flour after seeing a few ‘ultimate’ recipes that used it but found that all-purpose worked just as well. Since AP flour is more readily available, I stuck with that to make things easiest for you.
I find that sour cream adds such a lovely richness and balance of flavor to cupcakes, so I just had to include it here.
This recipe actually creates a chocolate Swiss Buttercream, which involves cooking egg whites and sugar over a double boiler. Don’t let that intimidate you, I have a full step-by-step video showing you how to make Swiss Buttercream here. Yes, it is extra work. Yes, it is absolutely positively worth it!! Swiss buttercream is sooo much lighter, creamier, and smoother than American buttercream. Plus, it’s not quite so sweet and sugary. However, if you still want to use American buttercream instead here’s a helpful buttercream post.
I used the Ateco #828 piping tip.
Taste: Chocolate overload in the best possible way!
Texture: The cupcakes are incredibly moist and tender without being too delicate or crumbly. And the frosting is just oh so light and creamy.
Ease: The cupcakes themselves are super simple and easy, but the frosting is more involved. It balances out in the end!
Pros: The BEST, duh!!
I make this again? Yessss, but maybe not for a while since my kitchen has experienced a cupcake explosion since trying to perfect this recipe, ha!
How to make The Best Chocolate Cupcakes
Yield: 12 cupcakes
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook: 25 minutes
For the cupcakes:
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/3 cup (1 ounce) Dutch-process cocoa
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
1/2 cup boiling water
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (4 ounces) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup sour cream, at room temperature
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs plus one egg yolk, at room temperature
2 teaspoons white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the frosting:
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 large egg whites
12 tablespoons (6 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into 12 pieces and at room temperature
6 ounces semisweet chocolate, melted and cooled slightly
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Make the cupcakes:
In a medium heatproof bowl add the chocolate, cocoa powder, and espresso powder. Pour hot water over mixture. Cover and let stand for 5 minutes. Whisk mixture gently until smooth then set aside to cool.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a standard 12-cup muffin tin with foil or paper liners.
In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, salt, and baking soda.
Whisk sour cream, oil, eggs, egg yolk, vinegar, and vanilla into the cooled chocolate mixture until smooth. Stir in the flour mixture until smooth, being careful not to overmix.
Using a spring-loaded scoop, divide the batter evenly among prepared muffin cups. Bake until cupcakes are set and firm to the touch, about 20 minutes. Let cupcakes cool in pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes before removing from pan to cool completely, about 1 hour. Cupcakes can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 day.
Make the frosting:
Combine the sugar, egg whites, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer. Set bowl over a saucepan filled with 1-inch of gently simmering water. Whisking gently and constantly, heat mixture until sugar is dissolved and mixture is slightly thickened and foamy and registers 150°F on a candy thermometer or a digital thermometer, about 3 minutes.
Fit stand mixer with whisk attachment and beat the egg white mixture on medium speed until slightly cooled and thickened, about 2 minutes. Add the butter, 1 piece at a time, until smooth and creamy. If the mixture looks curdled, that’s okay. Just keep beating until it becomes smooth.
Add chocolate and vanilla and mix until combined. Increase speed to medium-high and beat until light, fluffy, and well combined, about 30 seconds, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary.
Frosting can be made 1 day ahead of time and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Warm frosting in the microwave for 5 to 10 seconds and stir until creamy again before frosting cupcakes.
Frosting can also be transferred to a ziptop bag and frozen for up to 1 month. Defrost in the fridge overnight then rewhip in the stand mixer until light and smooth.
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