As a former professional baker, I’ve made many elaborate cakes. And after baking so many cakes from scratch, I find the process relaxing. However, I also understand the appeal of cake mixes. They’re reliable and convenient, and they often take only a few moments to mix together.
I set out to find a great option for people who want a boxed cake mix but don’t want to sacrifice the flavor and texture of homemade cake. The cake mix market has been dominated for years by three brands: Betty Crocker, Duncan Hines, and Pillsbury. I included mixes from these companies as well as options from five other nationally available brands. I focused on one of our favorite flavors: chocolate. If a brand offered more than one chocolate cake mix, I included the version that a company representative said was the most chocolaty. I baked the cakes according to the directions on the sides of the boxes and then tasted them plain, with the help of a few chocolate-loving friends. As a final test, I baked our two favorite cakes from the first test and prepared chocolate sheet cake, a simple and superchocolaty recipe. We tasted the three cakes plain and then topped with milk chocolate frosting.
Cake mixes are supposed to be fast and convenient, and some of them were. Some of the products we tested, however, didn't speed up or simplify the cake-making process. Four required us to haul out a stand mixer or handheld mixer, while the rest asked us to simply whisk together all the ingredients by hand. All the cake mixes call for eggs, an essential ingredient that binds, thickens, emulsifies, and leavens. Two mixes called for two additional perishable items: milk and butter. The rest required just water and oil. We preferred the latter style, as vegetable oil is a pantry staple we were more likely to have on hand.
We were happy that a few cakes tasted “very chocolaty.” However, several others were lacking in chocolate flavor. We examined each ingredient label and learned that every cake mix included at least one type of cocoa powder. Seven contained cocoa processed with alkali, which is more commonly known as Dutched cocoa. The alkalizing process darkens the color of the cocoa powder and neutralizes its natural acidity, allowing deeper, earthy notes to come forward. The one mix in our lineup that used natural cocoa powder tasted more “mild” than the others and was “not very chocolaty.”
One of the most chocolaty cakes contained both Dutched cocoa powder and black cocoa, an ingredient often used in professional bakeries and commercial baked goods. Black cocoa is heavily Dutched, meaning that it has even less acidity and more complex chocolate flavor than regular Dutched cocoa. Black cocoa’s jet-black color makes for very dark baked goods, which may also have helped tasters perceive this cake as having a deep chocolate flavor.
Two of the cakes contained tiny chocolate chips that were so small we barely noticed them in the dry mixes; when baked, they melted into soft wisps of chocolate scattered throughout the cakes. While these chips didn’t provide chocolate flavor as complex as that of black cocoa, tasters liked the “delicious bites of chocolate chips.”
The textures of the cakes ranged from crumbly and dry to light and tender. Some had the characteristic fluffiness we expect from boxed cakes, but our favorites had slightly more chew and a moist crumb, making their texture closer to that of a homemade cake. With so many ingredients and variables in these cake mixes, it was challenging to pin down exactly why the cakes’ textures differed. However, the type and amount of fat we added to the mixes mattered.
Cake mixes that called for butter yielded cakes that were dense and dry, while cakes made with oil were moist and tender. This tracks with what we've seen in our recipe development, too. Because oil is liquid at room temperature, it can bond with starch and therefore slow down staling, which reads as dryness. And because butter is solid at room temperature, it is less able to bond with starch, so an all-butter cake can seem dry. Perhaps more important, when we calculated the total amount of fat in the finished cakes, we realized that the ones made with butter were lower in fat than those made with oil. The cakes we made with oil contained sufficient fat to bake up moist and tender.
So how did our top cakes compare with homemade? We enjoyed all three cakes plain, though the homemade cake had especially “deep, authentic chocolate flavor.” When we topped the cakes with frosting and sampled them again, it was more challenging to tell them apart. There were no leftovers after this tasting, further confirmation that we would be pleased to eat any of these cakes again.
Two cake mixes surpassed the others. Ghirardelli Chocolate Dark Chocolate Premium Cake Mix, which is widely available in supermarkets, had a moist, tender, and light texture that impressed tasters. Tiny chocolate chips in the mix melted during baking, providing small bursts of chocolate flavor. King Arthur Deliciously Simple Chocolate Cake Mix, a mail-order cake mix, had impressively bold chocolate flavor. It contained two types of cocoa powder, traditional Dutched cocoa and ultradark black cocoa, giving the cake an intense chocolate flavor. Best of all, both cakes were quick and easy to make, requiring only water, oil, eggs, a bowl, and a whisk. For a mix that makes superchocolaty, moist, and tender cake, reach for one of these two options. You and your guests won’t be disappointed.