Unexpected Ingredients That Will Upgrade Your Chocolate Cake

chocolate cake on a platter
chocolate cake on a platter - Erhan Inga/Shutterstock

Chocolate cake is a popular party staple around the world. From birthdays to anniversaries, most people have good memories associated with this favorite dessert, and it's one of the few things that almost everyone has made at some point in their lives. The danger with any classic, however, is that it can feel boring and repetitive quickly. Tradition is important, but even old classics have opportunities for reinvention.

And there's more opportunity for creativity than you might think!

Because it's such a familiar staple, there are lots of great ways to add unexpected ingredients to your basic chocolate cake recipe and turn it into a unique and standout dessert that will have family and friends raving. We spoke to chefs and bakers about their favorite fun, flavorful, and unusual ingredients that they like to add to chocolate cake. From Thankgiving staples to floral notes, you're sure to find something that appeals to your palate.

Read more: The Best Chocolate Desserts You'll Ever Taste

Dark Beer

glass of dark beer
glass of dark beer - Gmvozd/Getty Images

Wine and chocolate might be a pairing you're more familiar with, but dark beer can be an excellent addition to this cake classic. According to Toni Nikola Galang, owner and head baker at Cake Indulge Manila, "Dark beer can add depth and richness to chocolate cake." The alcohol burns off during baking and imparts distinct flavors into the batter, ranging from coffee and cocoa to caramel and dried fruit. Galang told Mashed that the malt flavors in dark beer complement chocolate well and make the flavor profile of your cake more complex. Moderation is necessary to avoid overtaking the chocolate flavor.

Michelin-star chef Silvio Salmoiraghi and owner of Ambrogio by Acquerello in La Jolla, California said, "the key is to use it sparingly, ensuring that it complements the chocolate's deep flavor without making the batter too runny." Toni Nikola Galang recommended reducing the root beer down to help concentrate the flavor. Once it reaches a syrupy consistency, you can add it in slowly.


Apple cider vinegar bottles with apples.
Apple cider vinegar bottles with apples. - Vadym Sirobaba/Getty Images

Vinegar might seem like a bizarre ingredient to add, but it can positively modify the texture of your cake, and it will make your cake lighter and fluffier as, according to Toni Nikola Galang, it's an acidifier. Chef Nathaniel Lee of Meal Prepify explained that vinegar "enhances chocolate's tanginess and helps with rising. Mix a bit with milk to curdle, then blend [it] into the batter."

This ingredient can also be a great counterpoint to the sweetness of chocolate. Chef and nutritionist Norah Clark of Yummy Taste Food told Mashed that if you're worried about turning your cake sour with this ingredient, "you won't taste the sourness" because it's an ingredient that's best used with restraint.

Toni Nicola Galang suggested using apple cider vinegar if you want a mild flavor. Regardless of the type of vinegar that you use, you need to "pair it with baking soda to create a reaction that helps the cake rise."


Freshly made mayonnaise in bowl
Freshly made mayonnaise in bowl - Floortje/Getty Images

If the thought of putting sour vinegar into your cake makes you want to wretch, then perhaps mayonnaise, an equally unexpected yet palatable alternative, may be more your speed. Known for its light and fluffy texture, mayonnaise can bring a subtle, sumptuous twist to your classic chocolate cake recipe. Chef Nathaniel Lee emphasized that it "adds moisture and richness without altering taste. Blend [this ingredient] gently into the batter for a creamy texture." This ensures that this secret element is well incorporated throughout your batter, enhancing both the flavor and consistency.

Toni Nikola Galang has a golden piece of advice, steering you toward the optimal choices. When it comes to selecting the perfect variant, "it's best to use a neutral-flavored mayonnaise to avoid altering the cake's taste. Use full-fat mayonnaise for the best results." It's a secret to add a velvety texture to your chocolate cake. This clever addition makes the cake feel more decadent without the risk of weighing it down, promising an indulgent experience in every bite.


A bowl of sauerkraut
A bowl of sauerkraut - DUSAN ZIDAR/Shutterstock

Imagine adding a zesty twist to your classic chocolate cake with an ingredient that might already be in your fridge — sauerkraut. This transformative ingredient has a texture somewhat akin to coconut but brings with it an added bonus of acidity. Chef Nathaniel Lee told Mashed that sauerkraut adds "unique texture and subtle sourness. Chop finely, and fold into [your] batter for a surprise element."

Claire Wells, pastry chef at Baked By Claire, broke down the science of this unexpected pairing: "Sauerkraut is loaded with moisture, and its acidity will give you the same lift (when paired with baking soda) as you'd get from adding vinegar." She drew a parallel to another well-loved cake variety, mentioning that "the general moisture in the cabbage acts just like shredded carrots in carrot cake." This not only promises a moist cake but gives it tang that artfully cuts through the rich chocolate canvas, offering a balanced gastronomic experience.

To harness the full potential of sauerkraut without overwhelming the palate, Wells said to "rinse, drain, and finely chop the sauerkraut. This will take away the bulk of the tangy flavor (but not all of it). Add about ¼ cup to the cake batter," a quantity designed to bring an innovative zest without overshadowing the beloved chocolatey base.

Mashed Potatoes

bowl of buttery mashed potatoes
bowl of buttery mashed potatoes - Lauripatterson/Getty Images

Mashed potatoes are a staple in many family meals and they're a must-have Thanksgiving side dish. But they can also serve as a revolutionary ingredient, contributing denseness and moisture to the cake, consequently transforming your chocolate cake into a slightly healthier dessert option. This not only tantalizes the palate but also brings an unexpected but welcome nutritive aspect to the dessert course. Chef Nathaniel Lee's recommendation for incorporating mashed potatoes is to "mix smoothly into the batter [to] keep it balanced."

But not all potatoes are made equal and some can work better than others. Chef Silvio Salmoiraghi told Mashed that sweet potatoes in particular can "create a moist and fluffy base for a chocolate cake, similar to a sponge cake." The natural sweetness of sweet potatoes forms a delightful harmony with the chocolate, evoking a dessert experience that transcends the usual. Salmoiraghi suggested "think[ing] of it like a caramelized apple tatin, but with sweet potato for texture and consistency." So next time you're making homemade sweet potato fries, save a few potatoes to add to your chocolate cake dessert course.


A bowl of sliced beets
A bowl of sliced beets - Stefan Tomic/Getty Images

An earthy side or slaw staple in your main meal, putting beets into chocolate cake might not be your first thought. That's why it's a perfect opportunity to wow. Chef Claire Wells says that beets "bring a wonderfully earthy flavor and vibrant color to chocolate cakes," balancing its sweetness. Chef Silvio Salmoiraghi told Mashed, "The slight sweetness of beets can balance out the chocolate's intensity, especially if you're using Brazilian or African chocolates."

There are many ways to incorporate beets into your cake. For example, Chef Lee said to "purée and fold in [beets] for a lovely hue and flavor," while Chef Clark recommended grating the beets, as the technique not only adds "natural sweetness and a reddish hue" but also sneaks in "nutrients without the veggie taste." It's perfect for kids as a healthy alternative to Funfetti sprinkles. Chef Wells said that it's okay to be generous with how many beets you're adding and advised to "cook and purée the beets, then add about ¼-½ cup to the batter."

Prune Baby Food Jar

A box of dried prunes
A box of dried prunes - Narsil/Shutterstock

If you've got small children at home, pick up an extra jar of prune baby purée to add to your chocolate cake, but make sure that it's a kind with water and fruit only. Chef Claire Wells said, "Prunes are naturally sweet and bring a lot of moisture to baking. In [baby food] form, they're soft and puréed, so you don't have to cook and blend them." They also make an excellent "fat substitute if you need a slightly healthier dessert. Swap 2 tablespoons of butter or oil for puréed prunes."

If you have real prunes, you can add them in as well. They'll add a rich, dark hue to your chocolate cake that makes it look even more decadent. Chef Silvio Salmoiraghi said that "prunes can work wonderfully with chocolate, especially in desserts like those found in French cuisine." So pull out your best French chocolate cake recipe and add prunes to it. Prunes are also a versatile ingredient that "can be incorporated into the batter or used as a delightful contrast."


Cubes of tofu on plate
Cubes of tofu on plate - Nungning20/Shutterstock

Tofu is a vegan staple, but you don't have to eat a plant-based diet to incorporate it into your chocolate cake. According to Chef Norah Clark, "Blended silken tofu [produces a] velvety texture. You won't even notice it's there." So it's a great way to substitute oils and fats into your cake in a way that children and picky eaters won't notice. Remember to be mindful, however, of your guests' potential allergies, as tofu is a soybean product and soy is a common allergen.

According to Chef Silvio Salmoiraghi, this ingredient is an especially great complement to pure chocolate. "When working with 100% pure chocolate, tofu can provide the desired consistency [for your chocolate cake] without the need for cheese or ricotta." That makes it an ideal ingredient "for creating vegan chocolate cheesecakes, offering a creamy texture without dairy." So blend away and wow your guests with the smooth texture of your chocolate cakes.

English Tea Biscuits

English tea biscuit and tea
English tea biscuit and tea - John Keeble/Getty Images

If you want your party to feel like a royal affair, then add English tea biscuits. Queen Elizabeth II loved the extra grittiness in her cakes. Jessica Randhawa, head chef and recipe creator at The Forked Spoon said that these biscuits "can add a crunchy texture and a mild, buttery flavor to a chocolate cake." The texture difference adds a lovely texture, but Chef Randhawa also noted that you may need to "adjust the baking time and temperature as needed, as adding biscuits may affect the cake's cooking time." If you're a novice baker, this is one of the tricker unexpected ingredients to work with as the biscuits can soak up some of the moisture, so you'll need to calculate your baking time accordingly.Biscuits are a versatile ingredient that can be added to your cake in a variety of different ways. For instance, Chef Silvio Salmoriaghi told Mashed they "can be used as a base or folded into a chocolate salami" or into the main batter of a more traditional cake batter.


arabica coffee beans in hand
arabica coffee beans in hand - Bloomberg/Getty Images

According to Chef Randhawa, your favorite morning brew "can add a deep, rich flavor to chocolate cake, enhancing the chocolate flavor and adding a layer of complexity to the taste. It also contributes to the moistness and can add a beautiful dark color." Chef Salmoiraghi echoed the strong affinity between chocolate and coffee. It "imparts depth and bitterness, especially when using unsweetened coffee or coffee powder combined with pure cocoa."

Chef Randhawa says it's important not to overdo it, and to swap some liquid ingredients with the coffee so the cake doesn't become overly moist. You can go half and half with water and brewed coffee if a recipe needs 1 cup of water. She said it's important to cool your coffee before adding it to the batter, going slowly so as to not overpower your cake. A gentle hand is key. You can also use flavored coffee to impart additional notes to your cake.

Root Beer

mug of root beer
mug of root beer - Bhofack2/Getty Images

With its many complex notes, root beer is a great way to add a caramel flavor to chocolate cake, complemented by, as Chef Lee noted, "mild sassafras notes and sweetness. Blend [root beer] into the batter for a subtle kick."

Chef Wells noted another unique aspect of this ingredient — it adds "aeration to a chocolate cake." This is because the carbonated bubbles will add air into the cake batter. "It's got an almost spicy finish, which will play well against the robust cocoa," but be mindful if you're adding other spicy ingredients to avoid making your cake too flavorful. With chocolate cake, ingredients are best added with restraint. Chef Wells recommends substituting some of the liquid in your recipe for root beer. For example, "swap about ¼ cup of liquid in the recipe with ¼ cup of root beer." This will prevent your cake from becoming too runny.


hands cutting pumpkins
hands cutting pumpkins - Erhan Inga/Shutterstock

Pumpkin is a staple fruit in the fall between carving them for Halloween or making pumpkin pie. But sometimes you end up with extra pumpkin, wondering what you can make to get rid of the excess. A creative use for pumpkin is to add it to your chocolate cake. It will add texture to your cake without muddying the flavor.

According to Chef Salmoiraghi, "Pumpkin is a versatile ingredient that complements chocolate beautifully." There are a myriad of ways it can elevate your boring chocolate cake. "It can be used as a garnish, folded into the cake batter, or even as a contrasting element." Chef Salmoiraghi has experimented with "a chocolate cake infused with pure cocoa broth, pumpkin, and truffle, resulting in a unique flavor combination that worked incredibly well." Spices that complement pumpkin, such as cinnamon, can help elevate the pumpkin flavor of the chocolate cake even more.


A chocolate pudding
A chocolate pudding - Halil ibrahim mescioglu/Shutterstock

You probably already have some kind of pudding in your cabinets. Adding it to chocolate cake batter can be a great way of using it up if you don't want to have pudding for dessert. Chef Susan Sarich of the LA-based bakery Susie Cakes recommended butterscotch pudding, which "can be added to ANY single-layer chocolate cake, turning it into a 'poke' cake." It's very simple to make. "After baking a chocolate cake in a square or rectangle pan and allowing it to cool, poke holes in the cake with the end of a wooden spoon and pour the pudding on top. It will seep into the cake, adding flavor and moisture."

Chef Wells said that it's not just mixed and made pudding that's useful to bakers, though. "Dry pudding is a baker's bestie. Add it dry... It might make the bake a little more dense, but the extra tender finish is worth it." If you want the tenderness without altering the flavor too much, you could even add chocolate pudding to the chocolate cake.


Chicory - Nikolay_donetsk/Getty Images

Chicory is an elusive flavor that our expert chefs and bakers described in two ways: Caramel and coffee. According to Chef Salmoiraghi, "Chicory's natural bitterness can be tamed through caramelization. Once caramelized, it can be added as a distinct element to chocolate-based desserts, providing a unique flavor profile that can be quite intriguing." Chicory is therefore a great way of adding a caramel-like flavor to your chocolate cake without making a caramel.

Chef Clark said that adding a pinch of ground chicory to a cake results in a "mystery hint in each bite," but likens it to a "subtle coffee-like taste." Coffee can be bitter, as can an overdone caramel, so it makes sense that the two would be paired. Chef Wells says that chicory is "even more bitter and earthy" than coffee "so it's a nice addition to especially sweet chocolate cakes where you want to bring balance." She recommends that you "add 1-2 teaspoons of ground chicory root to the dry ingredients."


bottle of rosewater
bottle of rosewater - Anna-ok/Getty Images

Rosewater is a popular floral addition to many recipes because of its subtle but still-notable flavor profile. Floral ingredients can be tricky to work with, but if you're willing to take your time and taste as you go, they can add a surprising flavor to your chocolate cake. Natalia Thompson, CEO and recipe creator at Flavorful Home said, "Adding rosewater to the batter of a chocolate cake can result in a unique flavor profile that combines the rich taste of chocolate with the floral notes of rosewater. The delicate floral aroma of rosewater can complement chocolate's deep, intense flavors."

According to Thompson, "a light and subtle frosting, such as whipped cream frosting, can complement the chocolate-rosewater combination." You can also add rosewater into your frosting in moderation for a bit of an extra floral kick. But be careful to avoid overpowering your cake or frosting, as floral ingredients in food can end up tasting more like floral perfume without a careful and expert hand.


hands holding a split avocado
hands holding a split avocado - Jupiterimages/Getty Images

If you're looking to make your decadent chocolate cake a little healthier, swapping out other fat ingredients for avocado might be the way to go. These large-pitted fruits are vegan cooking staples, and they're an ingredient that's relatively easy to work with. So if you're baking a chocolate cake for a vegan, avocado can be a great option without the allergen potential of soy. According to Chef Sarich, "Avocados can be used as a substitute for oil or butter in most cake recipes. They must be overly ripe and well creamed prior to adding the other ingredients." There are lots of "good fat[s] and nutrients (potassium & fiber, just to note a few)."

Chef Wells said that the healthy fats will also help make your chocolate cake very moist. You're sure to impress as "the sponge will be soft, but slightly dense. And you won't taste it over the chocolate." It's a simple, straightforward addition that can have a transformational impact on your chocolate cake's end result.

Hot Sauce

open bottle of hot sauce
open bottle of hot sauce - Dustypixel/Getty Images

Chocolate and spice go well together. Many restaurants pair spicy foods with a chocolate sauce, and you can bring that same combo of sweet and spicy to your chocolate cakes. Chef David "Fig" Figueroa, President and co-founder of Melinda's Foods said that since "Chocolate cake is so savory and rich, it needs something to tingle the palate like a hint of smoky fire." He uses 1 tablespoon of hot sauce in his cakes, but "you can use less or more, it's all a matter of taste and tolerance."

You can also experiment with the kind of hot sauce you use to layer flavors as many have flavor profiles like watermelon, pineapple, or chili-lime that can bump up the unexpectedness in your chocolate cake by a few notches. You can also experiment with a bit of spicy ketchup if you don't have any hot sauce at home, or combine two unexpected ingredients and add some spicy mayonnaise to your chocolate cake.

Read the original article on Mashed.