Devil’s food cake is heavenly. And German chocolate cake isn’t German. Naturally, people can get confused about the difference between these two variations plus plain old chocolate cake. For the record, we wouldn’t turn away from any of them.
Changing tastes and ingredient availability over the centuries have made it difficult to give a definitive answer on what distinguishes the three. Anyhow, let’s give it a go.
Devil’s Food Cake
Devil’s food cake is supposed to be darker and less sweet than other kinds of chocolate cake. Some devil’s food cake versions call for cocoa powder only and no melted baking chocolate. Others increase the baking soda for a more tender crumb. Sometimes there’s hot water, brewed coffee, or espresso added.
Cake Bible author and queen-cake-baker-of-all-time Rose Levy Beranbaum has a chocolate devil’s food cake recipe that she says is a shade less moist than her chocolate butter cake. The difference is that the devil’s food version uses non-alkalized cocoa instead of Dutch-processed. The texture is similar to her chocolate cake but delivers a stronger chocolate punch at the cost of less moisture, a result of a slight decrease in cocoa butter in non-alkalized cocoa.
This cake is such a prize that the Barefoot Contessa chose to feature it on the cover of her latest book, Cooking for Jeffrey. “It’s a showstopper!” Ina Garten says in the book. Devil’s food cake can have any type of frosting. It’s the cake part that matters.
Using hot or boiling water as the cake’s main liquid, rather than milk, is also a common difference between devil and non-devil cakes. In Ina’s cake, it’s hot brewed coffee or espresso.
So what’s the deal with the devil? As the story goes, traditional devil’s food cake in the early 20th century called for shredded beets to add moisture and sweetness to the cake. That infusion of beet-red color and the richness led to the devilish name because, you know, the devil is red and wants you to indulge with hedonistic abandon.
Regular chocolate cake usually includes milk, butter, cocoa powder, and melted baking chocolate. Many bakers can’t keep it basic though, so there are always tweaks that distinguish one from another. Usually, it’s the filling between the cake layers or the frosting that people play with, like in this Chocolate Cake with Whipped Fudge Filling and Chocolate Buttercream recipe. It has a decorative chocolate drizzle cage, for pete’s sake.
All of these other cakes fall in line behind the chocolate cake team, so this is more of a catch-all cake. (Insert batter pun here and other cheesy baseball references.)
German Chocolate Cake
Despite the name, this cake doesn’t hail from Germany. It was the name of the sweet chocolate developed by chocolatier Samuel German, who lived in Texas. Although, he might’ve been a German immigrant. By putting melted sweet chocolate instead of semi-sweet, bittersweet, or unsweetened chocolate into this cake, it’s well, sweeter than the others.
For German chocolate cake, some recipes call for buttermilk, others for milk. And some recipes say to separate the eggs and beat the egg whites before adding them. Cake flour instead of all-purpose flour is common.
Yet the defining factor is the filling and/or frosting. It’s not a German chocolate cake unless you’ve got that gooey caramelized filling laced with coconut flakes and pecans. Sometimes it can be too cloying if overdone. So some recipes call for no additional frosting or icing, or just a chocolate drizzle. Our recipe goes all-in and suggests a vanilla buttercream frosting, with a coconut-pecan topping.
So see for yourself which cake suits your taste better. Try some of these heady desserts to satisfy your chocoholism.
Devil’s Food Cake
Ina Garten shares with Chowhound her version of this rich chocolate cake from her new cookbook, Cooking for Jeffrey. Espresso or brewed hot coffee deepens the unsweet cocoa flavor. Get our Devil’s Food Cake recipe.
Mexican Devil’s Food Cake
Then there’s the temptation of the sweet-spicy pairing, found in this three layered sin bomb. Like Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Devil’s Food Cake, this one uses buttermilk, unsweetened cocoa and boiling water, but ways part there. This cake has ancho chile powder and cayenne, plus strawberries and whipped buttercream all over the place. You’ll need to look up one of our frostings. Get our Mexican Devil’s Food Cake recipe.
Chocolate Cake with Chocolate Frosting
Unlike the others, this cake calls for regular milk and cocoa as well as pieces of unsweetened baking chocolate. Then you need some bittersweet chocolate for the frosting. It’s a chocolate lovers’ cake for sure, a recipe from The Fearless Baker cookbook by Emily Luchetti and Lisa Weiss. Get our Chocolate Cake with Chocolate Frosting recipe.
Vegan Chocolate Cake and Frosting
No one will even be able to tell it’s vegan because it doesn’t taste like it lacks a thing. The substitutes for milk, butter, and eggs include soy or rice milk, non-hydrogenated margarine, and cider vinegar. Get our Vegan Chocolate Cake and Frosting recipe.
Chocolate Lava Cake
This was pretty popular at restaurants in the ’90s, and sometimes we still crave that gooey center. You’ll need bittersweet chocolate and Cognac for these cute personal-sized cakes made in ramekins. Get our Chocolate Lava Cake recipe.
German Chocolate Cake
Unlike the others, this cake uses sweet chocolate pieces, or Baker’s German’s Sweet Chocolate to be specific, as well as Dutch-processed cocoa powder. Yet the cake is most known for its crazy-decadent filling with dried coconut flakes and pecans. Get our German Chocolate Cake recipe.
Black Forest Cake
This cake is more German. It’s a hybrid of Devil’s Food Cake too. There’s Dutch-process cocoa and unsweetened chocolate pieces, plus dark sweet cherries, kirsch, semisweet chocolate shavings, and sour cream. This might be the most decadent of all. Get our Black Forest Cake recipe.
— Head Photo Illustration: Chowhound.