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. I think it definitely works best, but full fat plain Greek yogurt also makes a fine substitute.
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.