The Science of 'Hey, That's Not So Bad': Chocolate Cupcakes Edition

So the main question that has been plaguing me since my initial control experiment for the Hummingbird chocolate cupcakes is this: why did the unaltered recipe for chocolate cupcakes fare so much better than the unaltered recipe for Hummingbird vanilla cupcakes?

Recall that when I did my initial control experiment for Hummingbird Bakery vanilla cupcakes, I followed the recipe's exact steps and started out by baking the sea-level recipe exactly as it was written in the cookbook. No changes, no alterations. I ended up with 10 muffin spaces filled with sticky puddles of goop:

(iPhone Camera)

Three things caused these puddles of goop to happen:
  1. The outsides of the batter in each individual muffin space rose far too quickly, spilling over the allocated muffin space and the edge of the pan 5 minutes into bake time.

  2. The middles of the cupcakes stayed liquid throughout the entire baking process.

  3. When the cupcakes cooled (or, more specifically, when the weird goopy product cooled), they collapsed into nothing but a pile of liquid goo.
However, none of these things happened with the chocolate cupcakes. This is what happened instead:

(iPhone Camera)

  1. The chocolate cupcakes, while undercooked at the recipe's minimum recommended bake time of 20 minutes, were perfectly cooked at the maximum bake time of 25 minutes.

  2. Although some cupcakes looked a little bloated and rose a teeny bit over their allocated muffin space, the majority stayed where they were supposed to -- that is, there was none of the liquidy, puddle spread that had happened with the vanilla cupcakes.

  3. The chocolate cupcakes cratered and sank a little as they cooled. The tops of the cupcakes were also a little sticky and did not have the nice domed tops that perfectly cooked cupcakes tend to have.

  4. The cupcakes, despite lacking the signature Hummingbird crumb, were actually edible. Pretty decent tasting too.

I figured I'd start at the same place that I did during my vanilla cupcakes experiment -- that is, take a look at the ingredients list. Here it is for the chocolate cupcakes:
  • 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons of all-purpose flour
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • a "scant" 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • a pinch of salt
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Interestingly enough, the ingredients list for the chocolate cupcakes is remarkably similar to the ingredients list for vanilla cupcakes. With the exception of flour and cocoa powder, both recipes call for the exact same ingredients in identical quantities. The only difference is that while the vanilla cupcakes recipe calls for a full cup of flour, the chocolate cupcakes recipe only calls for a 3/4 cup of flour + 2 tablespoons of flour.

The subtracted flour, I assume, is being buttressed by the 2 1/2 tablespoons of cocoa powder. Remember that 1 cup = 16 tablespoons, so the recipe's 3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons = 14 tablespoons of flour + 2 1/2 tablespoons of cocoa powder = 16 1/2 tablespoons of a flour-y, powdery mixture.


Maybe that's why the chocolate cupcakes didn't turn out as goopy as the vanilla cupcakes -- because they've got a half tablespoon more of flour/cocoa powder mixture. Recall that flour adds more strength to batter in general, and ultimately helps prevent the final product from collapsing. For instance, when I added just one additional tablespoon of flour to the original vanilla cupcakes recipe, it was a near miracle -- the cupcakes actually looked like cupcakes! This extra half tablespoon of flour + cocoa powder in the chocolate cupcakes could be my lifesaver.

I also initially suspected that cocoa powder might be a heavier substance than flour. Indeed, my suspicions were confirmed by the Joy of Baking. In their page dedicated to cocoa powder, they write that, "Often times, you may notice that more butter and leavening agent are used in recipes containing cocoa powder. This is to offset cocoa powder's drying and strengthening affect in cakes."

A-ha! I was right.

I was also able to find a more in-depth explanation from a culinary textbook called How Baking Works (This is a recent purchase -- I've been coveting a copy of this book for a while, especially after reading my old roommate's copy in San Francisco. I highly recommend this book for the amateur/serious baker. It's great. Really.). According to author Paula Figoni, cocoa powder absorbs more liquid than an equal weight of flour would. The proteins and carbohydrates in the cocoa absorb liquids from the batter during the process, making the cocoa powder particles heavier -- these heavier particles are not as easily lifted by the leavening agent. So that's why I didn't see the massive puddles of goop like I did in the vanilla cupcakes recipe! Cocoa powder's heavier weight eliminated the excessive rising (and subsequent falling) that tends to occur at higher altitudes!


Figoni also goes on to explain that cocoa and chocolate products tend to be powerful structure-builders because most products are over 50 percent fat. The high fat, when baked at the right temperature, gelatinize and ultimately help support the batter's final finished product.

Oh boy! It turns out cocoa powder is my friend after all!

My research above indicates that my first step of action when adapting the chocolate cupcake recipe to high-altitude should be a small one -- it seems that cocoa powder, with its crazy-good absorbing and strengthening power, is doing all the heavy-lifting for me already. I'm going to start out by tinkering with the leavening agent, of course. Maybe a little less baking powder is all I really need. Fingers crossed.

Like I said before, I'm feeling pretty optimistic about this one guys.

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