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Help for a dense and rubbery chocolate cake

Dee says: Hi BakingSOS, I desperately need some help.  I have tried to bake the Hershey’s “Perfectly Chocolate” Chocolate Cake for my mom because she loves chocolate.  I have tried this recipe to a T for 3 times, and the cake turns out heavy, wet, rubbery and absolutely disappointing.  On the website, the cakes looks light and fluffy.  I don’t know what I am doing wrong… Really hope to get some help from you.  This recipe calls for both baking powder and baking soda.  But it says to add wet ingredients to dry and mix til smooth.  Lastly to add boiling water.  Will it work if I alternate the flour (dry mixture) with the eggs/vanilla/oil mixture?

Baking S.O.S. says: I know how frustrating it is to bake a recipe many times with disappointing results.  I have done that often myself!  There could be several different reasons why your cake is turning out heavy, wet, and rubbery each time, so I’ll try to address it from each angle.

To start, I looked up the recipe you are using on the Hershey’s website.  I read user reviews of the recipe, and I did not see any comments where people were experiencing the same problems as yours, so I am going to assume that the recipe works OK under the right conditions.  That means something else must be going wrong.

My best guess is that your cake is not rising enough because the baking powder and baking soda are not working effectively.  Baking powder and baking soda can actually get “old” and lose their leavening ability over time as they sit on the shelf.  Before you use them again, performs these tests:

  • For baking powder: place a small amount of baking powder in a bowl and add water.  It should fizz and react right away.  (Baking powder is “double acting”–it reacts when it is moistened with a liquid and then again when it is heated in the oven.)
  • For baking soda: place a small amount in a non-reactive (stainless steel) bowl and add an acidic liquid such as lemon juice or vinegar.  Baking soda is a base, so it needs an acidic liquid to create the chemical reaction.

If y0u do these tests and find that your baking powder and baking soda work just fine, then there must be some other reason why your cake is not rising correctly.

I have always wondered about chocolate cake recipes that call for “boiling” water, such as this recipe that you are using.  I do not understand why the water needs to be boiling when added to the cake batter, and I cannot find any scientific explanation for using boiling water as opposed to cold, tepid, or warm water.  As far as I know, there is no real reason to use boiling water.  I wonder if the excessive heat from the boiling water could be causing the baking powder to react TOO quickly–because the water is both wet AND hot–causing the chemical leavening reaction to occur and dissipate BEFORE the cake even gets into the oven?  If the baking powder reacts too quickly, then the cake would not rise sufficiently once baked.  That could be yet another explanation.

When I make my favorite chocolate cake recipe–which calls for Hershey’s cocoa powder and water, too–I use warm water out of the tap rather than boiling water, and I actually mix the cocoa powder and water together in a separate bowl before adding them to all the other ingredients.  With this method, the warm water and cocoa powder create a smooth, chocolate mixture to add to the cake batter (rather than lumpy chunks of cocoa powder as it sometimes comes out of the box).

Another procedure that helps cakes rise better is mixing the batter according to the “Creaming Method”:

  • beat the fat (usually soft butter) and sugar together on medium speed until light and fluffy, 8-10 min.
  • add the eggs one at a time, scraping down the bowl & beating well after each addition
  • alternately add the dry ingredients with the liquid ingredients in 3 stages

The “Creaming Method” can be used for cakes, cookies, or any baked good that calls for softened butter or fat, and it really helps with the leavening when you incorporate more air by beating the fat and sugar together.

My last question is: How committed are you to making this particular recipe for your mother?  If you are willing to consider making a different chocolate cake recipe for her, I would strongly suggest trying Hershey’s Celebration Chocolate Cake recipe which I also found on their website.  This recipe uses both procedures I suggested: mixing the cocoa powder with water before adding it to the cake batter AND mixing the cake using the “Creaming Method.”  I think those two techniques (and checking the effectiveness of your baking powder and baking soda) ought to produce better results for you.

Good luck!  Let me know how it turns out. 🙂

18 comments to Help for a dense and rubbery chocolate cake

  • Linda Stahl

    Hi ChefRB,

    The Hershey’s “Perfectly Chocolate” Chocolate Cake is a very dark cake and this is where the boiling water plays a roll. The cake has both baking soda and baking powder as leaveners and the last step, before baking, is to stir boiling water into the already mixed cake batter. The hot water immediately reacts with the baking soda to Dutch the cocoa and give you the dark chocolate cake. (Dutch-processed cocoa is cocoa that has been treated with an alkali (such as baking soda) in the presence of heat.) Because the cake batter is immediately going into the oven there is still enough leavening action with the baking powder to give you a cake with good volume.

    An interesting way to demonstrate this is to put about 6 tablespoons of natural cocoa and 1 teaspoon baking soda in each of two bowls. Stir 1/2 cup tap water into one bowl and 1/2 cup boiling water into the second bowl. The boiling water bowl will immediately foam and turn a much darker brown than the cocoa mixture that has the tap water added. You’ll have to try this—-it was so much fun to watch!


  • Thank you so much for you comments, Linda. I certainly hope the additional explanation will help Dee with her dilemma.

    One thing that should be stressed is the importance of placing the cake batter directly into the oven after mixing because–as you pointed out–the chemical leavening reaction begins to occur as soon as the boiling water is added to the batter. If the cake batter is allowed to sit too long before placing it in the hot oven, this could cause the loss of leaving, producing a heavy, dense cake.

    I have a question for you, Linda, since I have never made the Hershey’s “Perfectly Chocolate” Chocolate Cake recipe myself: You mentioned that the hot water reacts with the baking soda to “Dutch” the cocoa. I have not heard the term “Dutch” used as a verb before, but I assume you mean that the hot water creates the chemical reaction between the alkali (the baking soda) and the acid (the cocoa powder)? I want to be certain that the recipe calls for Hershey’s “Natural Unsweetened” cocoa powder, not Hershey’s “Dutch-Processed” cocoa powder, which is cocoa powder that has an alkali added to it to make it milder and less acidic (and is, therefore, NOT interchangeable with “Natural Unsweetened” cocoa powder). Is this correct?

    Thanks again for your comments and input. I always like to defer to the experts! (And in the process, I get to learn something new, too!)

  • Linda Stahl

    As a general rule you are not to substitute a Dutch-processed cocoa for a natural cocoa, but there are always exceptions. There are many degrees of “Dutching” and color is your clue. The darker the cocoa, the more heavily the cocoa has been “Dutched” or processed. Some Dutch cocoas are almost black in color and it is these cocoas that usually will not give satisfactory results when substituted for natural cocoa which has a red cast.

    You have rightly guessed that I work for Hershey so I’ll also answer from that perspective. Hershey has natural, unsweetened cocoa which is listed in recipes as HERSHEY’S Cocoa and a darker cocoa called HERSHEY’S SPECIAL DARK Cocoa which is a blend of natural cocoa and Dutch-processed cocoa. This darker cocoa is usually interchangeable with our regular cocoa, but there are some of our recipes where the results are not as desirable. We always list the product to be used or both if both work.

    Almost everyone “fiddles” with recipes, but especially when making a baked product for the first time you need to use the products listed and follow the directions given. Recipes listing branded ingredients have been developed for those specific brands and will give satisfactory results if the preparation directions are followed correctly. I always tell someone they should make the recipe as written and then start to make changes to suit their personal tastes.

  • Thank you for your professional input, Linda. And I agree with you 100%! I always tell my baking students to follow the recipe as it is written the first time through so that they know how the recipe is supposed to turn out. Then adjustments can be made to personal preferences, as you mentioned.

    And since we are on the subject of Hershey’s cocoa powder, I need to give my professional 2 cents worth: I once tried to use a generic store-branded cocoa powder to make my favorite chocolate cake recipe, and the taste was noticeably “off” and undesirable. Ever since then, I ALWAYS use Hershey’s brand cocoa powder–both the natural unsweetened and Dutch-processed varieties–in all my recipes. The flavor, texture, and overall appearance are always superb!

  • Dee

    Hi there Chef and Ms Linda,

    Thank you so much for having this discussion with regards to my question. I am not a professional baker but I enjoy baking and my cakes almost always turn out lovely. I just have so much hopes for this cake, and I am very certain both my baking powder and baking soda are working perfectly fine. I just don’t know what I am not doing right! Thank you very, very much nonetheless.

  • Dee- I received the following helpful information for you from a reader called Pang:

    Hi Dee
    Maybe I can help you with this.
    I am not sure the science behind making more than a 1x batch of the Hershey’s cake – but anytime you do – it will always turn out rubbery and dense. I went to culinary school and that was one thing my chef instructor told me. She said that the Hershey’s chocolate cake is only good if you make a 1x batch. It does not turn out when you double it (or more). In school, if we wanted to make more than a 1x recipe, our chef would instruct us to do it one batch at a time for the best results. it worked.

  • kathy

    Oh My God. I’ve never read a blog as helpful as this! I love to cook and bake. I never fail in my cooking but when it comes to baking, it’s always 50/50. Last week, I tried baking a cake that uses both baking soda and baking powder. I was so scared because I have a strong feeling that everytime I bake something that calls for baking soda or any recipe that requires beating egg white until stiff or soft peaks form, I always fail. This chocolate cake should be baked for 30-45 minutes in a preheated oven -325F. During the 30 minute in the oven, I already knew that the cake is a failure. It has not risen, the top is kind of smooth and shiny (?). So when I inserted my cake tester, the cake is already cooked. It did not rise, it is dense, rubbery, firm and taste like “raw or uncooked”, definetely “un-eatable”.
    I really don’t like the feeling of unsuccessfull baking anymore so I tried to google “Why my Chocolate Cake does not rise?” and I found this.
    I tested my baking soda and baking powder. The baking powder sizzled/fizzed right away when I poured water on it; while the baking soda in a stainless bowl, just melted (after a few seconds) when I poured lemon juice on it — it should have also fizzed, right? I have changed my baking soda twice already since my cakes always fail when I used baking soda. What brand should I get?
    And also, this chocolate cake recipe calls for Black Cocoa and Dutch Cocoa. I just used all Dutch… I guess that’s not allowed (as per commnets above)? What is Black Cocoa?
    And lastly, the first step of this recipe is creaming butter and sugar. I think I have never understood this correctly. So you just put the soft butter and sugar in a bowl and put in the stand mixer, right? Beat it for about 10 minutes? But what does “light and fluffy” really mean?
    I really hope you guys could help me with these issues. Please, please, please! And THANK YOU so much for taking the time and helping out other people!

  • Hi Kathy- Thank you for your comments! You have asked a number of questions that I think would be best answered in a new and separate blog entry. Let me compose a new blog post, and I will get your questions answered just as quickly as I can!

    – Chef R-B

  • I can almost taste this already, too bad I don’t have the ingredients here time or else I would have prepared one immediately.

  • staci

    Yaaaay! Years ago (1960’s and 70’s) the back of the Hershey’s Baking Cocoa can had a FABULOUS recipe for both cake and frosting that included the use of vinegar. I can’t find that recipe anywhere on the web or on the Hersey’s site.

    Honestly, it was THE best tasting cake/frosting and I consistently got rave reviews. We moved, can’t find the old recipe, argh.

    The vinegar in the cake helps create a tender, moist cake without being rubbery, and the addition of vinegar in the frosting helps not only with taste, but it retards the crystalization of the sugar.

    Does anyone here remember that old, original recipe? When I wrote to Hershey’s I got the party line (lie) of “we haven’t changed the recipe on the can, it’s the same as always.”

  • staci

    oops, sorry I forgot to mention that the original recipe called for butter, not oil.

  • Hi Staci,

    Thanks for your comments!

    I have a cookbook titled “Hershey’s 1934 Cookbook” that was published in 1999, ironically. I think it contains the recipe you are looking for! The recipe is called “Hershey’s Special Cake,” and it calls for butter and white vinegar, as well as bars of unsweetened chocolate (instead of cocoa powder).

    I searched the Hershey’s recipe website, but I couldn’t find the “Special Cake” recipe anywhere on-line.

    I will try to make time to write the recipe up for you (with Hershey’s permission?), or you can look for the cookbook at a library or book retailer, such as Amazon.

    -Chef RB

  • vweonica wade

    I have been using hersheys unsweeten bakers bar along with the baking soda and the result have been fabulous, however, I have not been able to get the baker’s bar, so I used the chocolate chips and my cake came out rubbery and wet just terrible so I think working with the semi sweet is not a good mix

  • Hi there, yes: chocolate chips and unsweetened Bakers bars are very different products, so you will definitely get different (and apparently, undesirable) results when you substitute one for the other.

    Chocolate chips are typically semi-sweet, so they have sugar added to them, as opposed to the unsweetened Bakers bar, which do not. Also, chocolate chips are specifically formulated to retain their shape during baking, whereas Bakers bars melt easily. So the two products are very different from a chemical and ingredient make-up, and this can explain why you get such different results. Whenever possible, try to use the ingredients called for in a recipe to achieve the best results.

  • Hi, I know this is an old post but in case anyone else comes upon it like I did, I just used the same recipe and got the same results as Dee. I have used the recipe off the back of the box several times and my family likes it the best (even better than Martha Stewart’s chocolate cake recipe). But today when I made it I had to use the recipe that is on the Internet because I bought Trader Joe’s cocoa this time. I do not remember putting all the ingredients in the same bowl like the recipe on the website states. But I just threw the whole thing out because it’s an egg-y, super dense mess. I’ve made the recipe before but I’m wondering if it’s the order or directions given.

  • Hi Mrs. K, you mentioned that you had problems using the recipe you found on the Internet. I checked the recipe on the back of the Herhsey’s natural unsweetened cocoa powder, and it is a recipe for Hershey’s “Perfectly Chocolate” Chocolate Cake. Is that the recipe you followed from the Internet? (I included the link with the recipe title. I double-checked, and it is the same as the recipe on the back of the cocoa container.)

    If so, then read through the other comments on this thread. You will find a couple of comments from Linda, who works for Hershey’s. Linda explains that the technique is important: you have to use boiling water (rather than cold or luke-warm water) in order to produce the desired results in the cocoa powder.

    If you used boiling water and still had the same results, then it is possible that the Trader Joe’s cocoa may have had an effect on the overall results. I have found from experience that not all cocoa powders are the same, so they will produce very different results. I have never used Trader Joe’s cocoa powder, so I can’t speak from experience as to how it works in baked goods.

    The other thing that could have happened to cause your cake to be dense and “egg-y” as you said is perhaps the boiling water could have started cooking the eggs as soon as the water came in contact with the eggs. If so, that could explain why the cake was so dense because the eggs cooked too quickly, rather than cooking slowly as the cake slowly bakes, giving the eggs time to set along with all the other ingredients. If the eggs cooked too quickly, it might prevent the rest of the ingredients from working properly to make the cake rise. Just a thought.

  • Diane B

    I have made this cake with good results. I was worried about the mixing order because it is the opposite of most recipes, and the batter was so thin after adding the boiling water. As stated in the above replies check your baking soda and powder first for chemical reaction. If they are okay, the only thing you need to change is the AMOUNT of boiling water to add. If the recipe calls for 1 cup, try 2/3 cup or even along the line of 7/8 cup. This little change will make a huge difference!

  • Thanks for the suggestion! It certainly helps to have input from your tested and tried experience. Good to know that adjusting the amount of boiling water can help make the difference in this recipe.

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