Your New Favorite Chocolate Cake

If the grocery store isn't your favorite place, it should be. We're sleuthing for the best back-of-the-box recipes and each week we'll share our latest find. 

Today: The perfect chocolate cake recipe has been sitting in your pantry all along, patiently waiting for you to discover it.

Shop the Story

Today feels like the right time to confess that I’ve never been able to bake a good chocolate cake.

I’m a pretty persistent person -- some would say bordering on a perfectionist -- and I’m a very confident baker. Despite all that, chocolate cake has stymied me for years. Mine are either too moist, taste only vaguely of cocoa, or fall apart when I try to frost them. 

I want a serious chocolate cake. I want a sturdy crumb, like a 1-2-3-4 cake, but with an intense wallop of chocolate. I want you to be able to close your eyes and think, "Dark and rich." I want it to be tender yet still firm enough to slice and frost. I want it to be just moderately sweet so that it can pair well with Swiss meringue or caramel glaze or coffee buttercream. Oh, and I want to be able to make it in one bowl without needing any fancy, expensive chocolate. 

I had gone on a lot of chocolate cake recipe first dates, so to speak, and had yet to enter a serious, move-in-with-me relationship with one -- until I met the perfect chocolate cake from the back of the Hershey’s cocoa box. I think it’s the one! And it was right in front of me all these years. 

This dead-simple recipe yields a fantastically rich chocolate cake. It highlights the subtle alchemy of baking, taking a handful of very basic ingredients and turning them into something worthy of celebration. You don’t need any chocolate other than cocoa. There’s no buttermilk, no hot coffee, and no sour cream. Can I get a hallelujah? I've dialed down the liquid slightly from the original recipe to make the cake a little more sturdy, which helps when constructing (and eating) the layers.

More: These Genius brownies also rely only on cocoa powder for their chocolate flavor.

You don’t need the frosting -- the cake is very good plain. But when offered frosting, I usually say yes. Just to be polite. If you’re looking to dress it up differently, I’d suggest a topping of crème fraîche, boiled icing with cacao nibs, or dulce de leche frosting.

Perfect Chocolate Cake

Adapted from Hershey's

Makes one 8-inch double layer cake

For the cake:

2 cups sugar
1 3/4 cups flour
3/4 cup cocoa
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1 cup milk
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/4 cup boiling water

For the frosting:

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter 
2/3 cup cocoa
3 cups powdered sugar
1/3 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Do you have a favorite back of the box recipe, or have you heard about a great one? Leave any suggestions in the comments, and I'll try them out and share them here!

Photos by Posie Harwood

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Liz Chesser
    Liz Chesser
  • MelanieCurry
  • Cindi Anthony Lerner
    Cindi Anthony Lerner
  • alyssa
  • HalfPint
I like warm homemade bread slathered with fresh raw milk butter, ice cream in all seasons, the smell of garlic in olive oil, and sugar snap peas fresh off the vine.


Liz C. March 3, 2018
Totally agree. I bake cakes for my synagogue, and for chocolate I use the Hershey's cake and frosting. I always get rave reviews and have been told multiple times it's the best chocolate cake they've had.
MelanieCurry April 1, 2016
Agreed. Moist and makes great cupcakes, pairs well with cream cheese frosting too.
Cindi A. April 1, 2016
That is the ONLY chocolate cake I ever make. By far the best!!!
alyssa April 1, 2016
2 cups of sugar and vegetable oil??? Gah.
HalfPint March 9, 2016
The original Hershey's recipe is my go-to chocolate cake. Has been for the past 10 years. I really have to force myself to make any other chocolate cake recipe. I use 1 cup of hot brewed coffee in lieu of the boiling water for a 'richer' flavor. This version with less water does intrigue me :)
Monica S. March 6, 2016
Hi, there! You have a couple of errors in the recipe! You need one full cup of boiling water, not 1/4 cup. Also, this makes two 8 or 9 inch rounds, not just one (it would spill over).
Posie (. March 6, 2016
Hi Monica! Thanks for checking -- the recipe above actually reads "one 8" double layer cake" for the yield, meaning two rounds as you said, just a different way of wording it. Also, you'll read in the article above that I chose to dial down the amount of liquid in the original recipe (using just 1/4 cup water) because I preferred how it made a slightly sturdier cake. It's up to you to decide which version you prefer!
clayshapes March 6, 2016
I'm sorry, but no chocolate cake is perfect unless it is made with buttermilk. Plain milk does not cut it.
Beth C. March 6, 2016
This cake is the only cake my family will let me bake for birthdays. I been making the original recipe for 20 years! Curious to try it with less water as written here and see if they notice.
Sarah S. March 5, 2016
This is similar to the chocolate cake recipe I use from the Sourhern Living Cookbook. (It's the best classic chocolate cake ever). However they use buttermilk instead of milk. It gives it a lighter texture. I also agree with the person who said to add a little instant coffee to the cake as well. Ina Garten knows her stuff when it comes to chocolate.
Jeanie June 3, 2015
Please help. Is it baking unsweetened cocoa or hot cocoa powder?
Mary S. June 3, 2015
It is Hershey's Cocoa
Mary S. June 3, 2015
Brown plastic semi square container, Ghirardelli is better
Mary S. June 3, 2015
Ande June 3, 2015
It is baking cocoa powder, which is unsweetened. Not drinking cocoa.
Hope you enjoy the recipe!
Jeanie June 4, 2015
Thanks Mary and Ande!
Sharon April 7, 2015
I would have to cut way back on the sugar. Haven't tried it since I just found the recipe, but I will in time. Thank you.
Mary S. April 5, 2015
I have made this cake for years... Ina Garten uses this recipe with a few spins... instead if hot water she uses hot coffee. Everyone loves it.
bunten April 5, 2015
Another excellent chocolate (devil's food) cake recipe resides on the inside of the Ghirardelli unsweetened chocolate bar wrapper.
Christine April 4, 2015
The oatmeal cookies from the Quaker Oats container. Heaven!
Claudia April 1, 2015
I bag all the dry ingredients have my own cake mix on hand. Used water not milk and results were the same. Best cake!
Lucienne B. March 30, 2015
On the bottle of Nellie & Joe's Key lime Juice bottle is the recipe for an incredibly yummy but simple key lime pie recipe.
I second this one. It was the one I was going to add to the list. No fail and so delicious!
Satina W. March 30, 2015
Damn, that looks delicious!
Amy K. March 30, 2015
I'm looking forward to trying this one. Our family favorite recipe is the cake featured on the front of the Pillsbury Softasilk cake flour box. Moist, easy and beautiful!
TSmith March 30, 2015
We've been making this chocolate cake for years. It's the absolute best. Everyone asks, and then is shocked that it's right on the box. It's Martha Stewart's go-to, as well!
aargersi March 30, 2015
The ginger snaps on the back of The Ginger People's Crystallized Ginger are my no-fail go-to:
Posie (. March 30, 2015
I will happily eat anything that involved crystallized ginger. Definitely going to try those next, thank you!