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Chocolate Cake Mixes

Published May 2021

How we tested

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.

Making the Cake Mixes 

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. 

Chocolate Flavor Should Be Bold

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.”

Finding the Best Cake Texture (Hint: We Like Fat)

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.

Pitting Our Winners Against Homemade Cake

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.

Our Favorite Boxed Chocolate Cake Mixes: Ghirardelli Chocolate Dark Chocolate Premium Cake Mix and King Arthur Deliciously Simple Chocolate Cake Mix

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.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*