Kitra: What better time to go deep into our lifelong quest for a recipe that mimics canned chocolate frosting than our 4th birthday!
Jordan: Last year we had to make birthday cakes from our separate homes, which was much more of a bummer. But this year, Kitra is fully vaccinated and I’m halfway there, so we swung in the opposite direction and gathered for a frosting-making extravaganza.
Cake birthdays have escalated from “we made a birthday cake for the concept of making cake, what an absurd thing to do” to “let’s make a half dozen frostings and do a semi-scientific taste test to see what we like best.” Just wait for what we’ve got in store for our 5th birthday…
We started this experiment with some criteria. The goal here is not to make the best chocolate frosting, necessarily, but to make one as close to canned frosting as possible. (Some might argue that canned frosting is in fact the best frosting; that’s another conversation entirely.)
As the last few birthday cakes show, I already have a favorite chocolate frosting, but it’s just not the same thing.
Our ideal frosting needed to be dark brown and aesthetically pleasing. It needed to be nicely spreadable and sturdy enough that you would eat a leftover room-temperature cupcake the next day without a second thought.
And the taste, the taste should be just a little alarmingly fake. We’re not looking for a rich dark chocolate or anything. We’re looking for something that tastes a little mass-produced, and is mild enough to satisfy a child but interesting enough for us to eat on a graham cracker over and over again.
Finally, while this is not a dark chocolate frosting—we have ganache for that—it needs to be fudgy and a little dense. That’s why Kitra’s go-to chocolate frosting doesn’t work here; it’s too fluffy and a little more “chocolate-inspired” than fudge-flavored.
We condensed all of these ideas into the following categories, which we rated on a 1-5 scale: Appearance, Spreadability, Stability, Taste, Crackerability, and Similarity to Canned Frosting.
“Crackerability” is how likely we are to just eat this on graham crackers as a snack, which is the primary way both of us interact with canned frosting.
It’s also the name of our jam band.
- A recipe from Maida Heatter’s Cakes. Not her chocolate buttercream, which involves seven egg yolks(??) and a double boiler, but one that still looked promising.
- The fudge frosting from Vintage Cakes, which includes brown sugar in an otherwise ganache-like base.
- A whipped ganache with mixed milk and dark chocolate.
- A recipe our mom sent us, which she claims is the closest she’s found to canned frosting.
- Joy the Baker’s best chocolate buttercream, which includes a substantial amount of chocolate Ovaltine.
- Hummingbird High’s “THE Chocolate Frosting,” which similarly has a bit of malt powder in it.
We also had a can of Duncan Hines chocolate frosting on hand for comparison (#7 above). The plate shown here was one we assembled for Jordan’s partner, so he also had #8, which was a frankenfrosting made of some of our favorites after the initial tests.
We ate each frosting on a piece of graham cracker, using milk as a palate cleanser in between. Each frosting got a score (out of 5) in each of the six criteria, meaning that a perfect score would be 30 points.
Jordan’s partner, Zachary, tried these a couple of hours later than we did and didn’t know anything about them going in. His comments below are ones that Jordan jotted down as he made them.
Finally, we ate some of the top contenders on Smitten Kitchen’s funfetti cake, which we highly recommend as a cake recipe. (We made a batch and a half, which made a dozen domed cupcakes and one leftover ramekin cakelet.)
Control: Canned Frosting
- Kitra’s score: 28
- Jordan: 28
- Zachary: 25.25
Note that this got a 5 on “cannedness” automatically, which gives it a leg up.
Kitra: This doesn’t actually taste like chocolate at all. Spreads perfectly though. Is beautiful.
Jordan: It has a little bit of wrongness to it?
Zachary (who was told that there was no canned frosting on his plate): Alright, that’s canned frosting. It needs a little more sugar, but the texture is perfect.
#1: Maida Heatter’s chocolate frosting
Pictured at the far left in the cupcake photos above/below
- Kitra’s score: 24.75
- Jordan’s score: 25
- Zachary’s score: 16
Kitra: It was very very glossy, a little alarmingly so. Overall, it’s great but just a bit too soft. I also brought cupcakes with this frosting and one other to my friends who live nearby and this was the preferred frosting for one of them, though he thought the other tasted more like canned.
Jordan: This one was tasty but a little on the soft side (though it did firm up some later). Very chocolatey. It stayed almost eerily shiny throughout the afternoon.
Zachary: Looks great, but it’s too… not oily, but too slippery. I wouldn’t eat more of this one.
#2: Vintage Cakes Fudge Frosting
Pictured second from the right in the cupcake photos above/below
- Kitra’s score: 22.5
- Jordan’s score: 25
- Zachary’s score: 20.5
Kitra: This one was a little softer than #1, and I had to lower the score on spread because it dripped onto my scorecard and I had to lick it off. Too chocolatey.
Jordan: More firmly spreadable than frosting #1 (for me, not for Kitra apparently), but a little too chocolatey. I ended up adding whipping cream to the leftovers and making it into a mousse.
Zachary: Almost more like a fudge, though not in a bad way. I’d snack on it though.
#3: Whipped Ganache
- Kitra’s score: 18.5
- Jordan’s score: 19
- Zachary’s score: 21
Kitra: I’d eat the hell out of this one, it was my only 5 on crackerability. It did not spread well though, more like a refried beans vibe? Nope. It’s nothing like canned frosting.
Jordan: This is chocolate whipped cream. It is delicious and it is not frosting. 5 on crackerability—I could and did eat it with a spoon—but a 2 on cannedness.
Zachary: It tastes and looks like a mousse, and I love mousse.
#4: Mom’s frosting
- Kitra’s score: 17.25
- Jordan’s score: 22
- Zachary’s score: 21.25
Kitra: I will note that our mom brought me a container of this and it was a much better texture. But, if the recipe can go this horribly wrong, I cannot trust it. This got a 1 on appearance and a 1.5 on crackerability because it was crumbly and ugly and also way too sweet. I did check to see if it was sturdy enough for me to make little flowers out of, as though it were clay. (It was not.)
Jordan: This is fudge. I literally spread the leftovers in a container and sliced it and ate pieces as fudge. We both cracked up when we tried to rate it on looks (it was really sad) but I do love fudge so I gave it a better rating on taste than Kitra did.
Zachary: This one almost feels crumbly. It’s almost fudgy; it’s better by itself than on a cracker.
#5: Joy the Baker’s chocolate buttercream
Pictured second from the left in the cupcake photos above/below
- Kitra’s score: 25
- Jordan’s score: 22
- Zachary’s score: 19.75
Kitra: This one was even better on the cupcakes. It’s very spreadable, and sticks to everything. It definitely doesn’t taste natural, which is very can-like. I took this one home and it really grew on me. The only downside was that it was a little too fluffy. I also gave this one to two friends to try and both agreed that this one was more like canned frosting than #1.
Jordan: This looked a little off to me—it had a lumpiness to it that I didn’t like, and was a little too soft. I didn’t trust it to hold up well either. (Though I may have been wrong about that initial impression, I think.) It got a 5 on taste, though; I agree with Kitra that the Ovaltine gives it a slightly artificial flavor.
Zachary: That was not what I expected going in, but it’s a good frosting! I like the texture, and it’s not too chocolatey. It’s smoother in taste than a lot of the others.
#6: Hummingbird High chocolate frosting
Pictured at the far right in the cupcake photos above/below
- Kitra’s score: 22.75
- Jordan’s score: 22.5
- Zachary’s score: 20.5
Kitra: The can doesn’t taste like anything and neither does this. Points I guess?
Jordan: This tastes like a chocolate buttercream. I kept the leftovers of this one and I still have no particular opinion on it. It spread nicely though, thanks to a tiny bit of corn syrup.
Zachary: This doesn’t stand out in any particular way, but it’s a solid icing. This would be my default icing.
Jordan: So, did we settle our search for the ideal canned-style chocolate frosting? Not exactly.
Kitra: We definitely got closer, but none of these were quite there. You can get the taste from #5 and the texture—almost—from #1, but it’s just truly a feat of engineering what goes into those cans.
If you want a tried-and-true very good chocolate frosting, Joy the Baker’s frosting is a solid option. If you want to do some experimenting, we’ll share the Maida Heatter recipe below with our notes.
And if you do experiment and come up with something perfect, let us know! We’re always up for more “science.”
Also, if you would like to get texts at work like “heads up that you’ll be doing a blind taste test of frostings when you come home,” Kitra is now accepting girlfriend applications.
I mean, I wasn’t going to say it but I’m glad it’s out there. I come with many baked goods and the little monster seen below.
Maida Heatter’s Chocolate Frosting
Adapted from Maida Heatter’s Cakes
The original recipe—the version we made—uses a full stick of butter, but we’re recommending less below to make it a little less soft. The original recipe also included instructions to beat the cooled frosting with an electric mixer “until the color becomes slightly lighter and the icing is thick enough to hold its shape.” We skipped that step, since we felt like it already held its shape enough for us, but looking back it might have been a good idea.
This is a full batch, which (if you don’t beat it) will make about 4 cups of frosting.
- 1 cup heavy whipping cream
- 1 cup (200g) sugar
- 4½ oz (125g) unsweetened chocolate, roughly chopped
- Pinch of salt
- 2 oz (½ stick, ¼ cup) unsalted butter, sliced
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
In a medium saucepan, combine the cream and sugar. Bring to a simmer over medium-low and let cook for six minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and add the chocolate, stirring until melted. Add the salt, butter, and vanilla and stir until smooth.
Let the frosting cool to room temperature or a little below before using.