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What is the purpose of adding hot water in a cake recipe?

Water is the basis of life, makes up 70% of our globe, and enhances the chocolate flavor of chocolate pastries.

That’s what Senior Recipe Developer Molly Marzalek-Kelly and the rest of our Test Kitchen discovered while on a recent mission to develop our new Chocolate Pound Cake recipe. Molly describes the chocolate taste as “a little bit richer and a little bit stronger” as a result of the water. “And that will win across the board.”

Why water is actually better than milk

As a natural reflex, the crew began creating their new recipe using milk. It’s the liquid asked for in our Original Pound Cake, which was the beginning point for them, as well as most cakes in general. Milk’s fat and protein offer suppleness, structure, and taste to a cake – all desirable qualities in baking!

Yet there was one significant difference between the Original Pound Cake recipe and the one Molly was working on: chocolate. And when it comes to chocolate delicacies, particularly cakes, there’s basically just one goal: enhance the chocolate taste. Milk, it turns out, isn’t very good at it. Its flavoring dilutes the sweet, clean taste of chocolate. As Molly explains, “With milk, there’s a little bit of sweetness, a little bit of sourness, so there are some other contributing flavors present there. In the case of chocolate cake, this works against it.”

Molly turned to water instead, based on a tip that Director of Research and Development Sue Gray shared during recent work on the recipe for Cookies and Cream Cupcakes. “Since water is neutral, there are no other tastes,” Molly explains. As a result, it “really made the chocolate flavor pop” since it wouldn’t compete with the cake’s cocoa powder.

Cookies and Cream Cupcakes

Water is also used in Cookies and Cream Cupcakes for a genuine chocolate taste. Molly compared the water-based cake to one prepared with milk, and the findings were clear: The greatest approach to acquire the most chocolate taste was to drink water rather than milk. “It’s quite evident when you have them side by side,” Molly says. She notes that the differences are subtle enough that if you’re not eating the cakes together, you might not pick up on the improved flavor. “But if you like chocolate, who wouldn’t want a little extra chocolate flavor?” she emphasizes. Nobody.”

There was one more advantage: the water-based cake had a longer shelf life. “It’s not something that would be perceivable unless you had them side-by-side, but on day two, the water-based cake definitely tasted like it did the first day, whereas the milk-based cake was already a bit drier,” Molly recounts.

Finally, this is a little but powerful feature that is discreet yet enhances a dish — demonstrating the attention, care, and precision that our Test Kitchen puts into every area of recipe creation.

What about coffee in chocolate cake?

If you take a look at the final recipe for the Chocolate Pound Cake, you’ll see that it not only asks for water, but also mentions coffee as an alternative.

“Coffee is a natural chocolate enhancer,” Molly adds. “If you’re in the chocolate camp that likes a little bit more of the ‘mocha’ chocolate flavor, then go with the coffee, since that helps deepen the chocolate flavor.” Yet, “both water and coffee will allow the chocolate taste to shine more than milk.”

To choosing, consider the kind of chocolate flavor you want: Do you want a complex, rounded flavor with multiple notes? Choose coffee. Do you like unadulterated chocolate? Water is your best option.

Devil's Food Cake

Our Devil’s Food Cake recipe asks for either water or milk, so you may use either. Can you swap water into any chocolate cake recipe?

This isn’t something Molly has tried, but she advises that as long as the cake is flavored with cocoa powder (as opposed to another form like melted chocolate), then using water in place of the recipe’s milk should work just fine. Her only reservation is if the cake expressly asks for buttermilk, which is likely to contribute to the cake’s leavening and rise.

If you come across a chocolate cake recipe that asks for either milk or water, like our Devil’s Food Cake, you’ll understand the consequences of using either. And what if you want to replicate Molly’s tests and build both versions to compare side by side? It will mean a bit more baking knowledge and a lot more chocolate cake in your life, both of which are fantastic.

Related Questions

  • Should I use cold or warm water for cake?

    The purpose is to keep the fats in the recipe as cold as possible so that when the recipe hits the oven the fat melts, leaving pockets of fluffiness. The same is true for this dessert! The icy cold water creates a wonderfully light crumb in the cake.

  • What happens when you add water to cake batter?

    “Water has an effect on taste since it just adds moisture. Instead of water, use whole milk and melted butter instead of oil. The added fat will keep the cake moist and not crumbly!”

  • What ingredient makes a cake soft and fluffy?

    Most cakes begin by creaming together butter and sugar. Butter is capable of holding air and the creaming process is when butter traps that air. While baking, that trapped air expands and produces a fluffy cake. Without properly creamed butter, there is no air, and hence no fluffiness.

  • Does hot water affect baking powder?

    Describe how, when water is added to baking powder, the powder’s constituents combine and undergo a chemical reaction. As a chemical reaction occurs, something new is created, such as the gas that causes bubbles. When the water is hotter, the materials mix quicker and the reaction occurs faster.