Rich, dark, and dare I say, moist, nothing beats a no-frills classic chocolate cake. It’s what I turn to when I want dessert to really hit the spot. But if you, like me, have been on a mission to make your chocolate cakes better—i.e. more deep and more, uh, chocolatey— then you’ve likely followed a glut of internet tips. You bought the Dutch process cocoa powder. You used a combination of cocoa and chopped chocolate in the batter. You swapped the granulated white sugar for dark brown. You added soy sauce. You even went the extra mile and layered it with creamy chocolate ganache. I, too, have tried a few things to take the flavor of my cakes up a notch, but there’s one tip I slept on for too long: adding espresso powder.
As a person who doesn’t care for coffee-flavored desserts, this not-so-secret ingredient never spoke to me. But recently, a couple of pro bakers informed me it would not make my cakes taste like a cafe mocha and inspired me to purchase my first jar. According to Joanne Lee Molinaro, author of The Korean Vegan, if your goal is to take a bite and say, “Wow, that’s the chocolatiest cake I’ve ever had!” you simply can’t skip the espresso. And keeping a stash of it in powdered form is the quickest, easiest, and cheapest way to get it.
What exactly is espresso powder?
Contrary to popular belief, espresso powder, a.k.a. instant espresso, isn’t just ground coffee beans. It’s actually made from darkly roasted coffee beans that are ground, brewed into espresso, dried, and then ground even further to make a very fine dissolvable powder. Unlike instant coffee, which is made from dehydrated coffee, espresso powder is much more concentrated and lends a more complex, deep flavor. To understand the difference, just think of the taste of a cup of espresso versus a cup of regular coffee. And while espresso powder doesn’t make a very good drink, it does amplify the flavor of chocolate treats like cakes (and also cookies, brownies, and frostings).
How does it make chocolate cakes taste more chocolatey?
“Espresso and chocolate have a lot of crossover in terms of flavor profiles, so they complement each other really well,” says Benjamina Ebuehi, author of A Good Day to Bake. Good dark chocolate usually has notes of fruitiness, bitterness, and a little acidity, and adding a bit of espresso—whether in liquid or powder form—both highlights and balances those properties.
Molinaro explains that using good espresso also brings a creamy factor to chocolate cakes: “That creaminess lends an unctuous, fattiness to the cocoa. That’s also why a cup of espresso and a piece of chocolate go hand and hand.” While cocoa alone can taste flat and one-dimensional, cocoa with espresso tastes complex and intense. “It’s the difference between a cake that’s just dark brown and sweet and one that’s super chocolatey,” says Molinaro.
How can I add espresso powder to any chocolate cake recipe?
Espresso powder can be added to just about any chocolate cake recipe for an intensified chocolate flavor. Just know that since it’s super concentrated, a little goes a long way. Your cake will only need about a ½–1 ½ teaspoons, depending on your preferences. Anything beyond that will lead to a more notable coffee or mocha flavor—if that’s what you’re going for, feel free to use another teaspoon or two.
You could add the espresso powder directly to the cake’s dry ingredients, but Ebuehi’s favorite method is to dissolve a ½ teaspoon of espresso powder into hot water before adding it to the batter. “Adding hot water extracts all those wonderful flavor particles. It also ensures the coffee is properly dissolved and evenly dispersed in the batter.” If you go this route, make sure to account for the extra liquid you’ll be adding.
Alternatively, you could use an actual shot of espresso, which is a wonderful option for those who have an espresso machine at home (FYI, here are our favorite ones). For the vegan chocolate cake in her cookbook, Molinaro extracts the most flavor possible from the chocolate and the coffee by heating cocoa powder, a shot of espresso, water, and vegetable oil over low heat until she has a thick, chocolatey syrup. It’s this syrup that she adds to the cake batter for moisture, richness, and deep flavor. Note: One espresso shot is the equivalent of one teaspoon of espresso powder.
If you don’t have a shot of espresso or espresso powder on hand, you could also use a regular cup of coffee in place of the liquid—milk, water, etc.—in the recipe. Just know that the chocolatey flavor will be slightly less pronounced. But any form of coffee is better than no coffee at all—and for the best results, do use that Dutch process cocoa the internet convinced you to buy.