Chocolate Cupcakes (aka A Cupcake Recipe That Actually Works in Denver)

I have had a major love-hate relationship with cake since we moved back to the Denver area.  I love it, of course, because I love to eat it.  I hate it because most sea-level cake recipes produce cupcakes that either (a) have sunken-in tops or (b) practically explode all over the muffin tin.  I’ve had some moderate success with the “standard” high-altitude recipe adjustments (oh, if only there truly were standard adjustments), but most of my attempts have resulted in failure.

Recently, I inherited a high-altitude baking cookbook – High Altitude Baking (original title, eh?) by Patricia Kendall – from my friend Hilary.  I knew from my experience with Pie in the Sky by Susan Purdy that recipes don’t necessarily work well at altitude just because they’re published under that claim…  While I had great success with her Independence Pass Brownies, the 1-2-3-4 Cake was dry, dense, and practically inedible.  I wanted to make cupcakes for the Super Bowl, though, so it was time to take a chance on a new recipe.  I chose Chocolate Sour Cream Cupcakes as the first recipe I would attempt from High Altitude Baking, mostly because I had all the ingredients except an easy-to-purchase cup of sour cream. My first rumbling of trouble came when I realized that I had purchased light sour cream (habit!) instead of full-fat for the recipe.  I forged ahead with the recipe anyway and ended up with predictably less-than-fantastic cupcakes: while they did have decent crowns, they were exceptionally airy and almost chewy from the lack of fat.

Dr. O had put in a request for a few more Super Bowl snacks and we needed to head back to the store, so I decided I’d pick up some full-fat sour cream and try the recipe again.  This time, I ended up with delicious but ugly results; the cake was far more moist, but the batter had overflowed (even with the cups only half full!) and the tops of the cupcakes were crusty and misshapen.  (Sigh.)  Even with lots of icing, there was no covering that up.

Thankfully, I had also replenished my supply of baking cocoa while we were at the grocery store, which meant I had everything I needed to try one more recipe from the book: Chocolate Cupcakes.  After my two sour cream cake failures, I had higher hopes for this recipe because it had a traditional ingredient: oil.  (The only fat in the sour cream recipe came from two squares of chocolate and the sour cream itself.)  I followed the hand mixer instructions (see below), baked them for 23 minutes (instead of 25) and guess what?  I had beautiful, moist little cupcakes – with crowns!

Unfrosted Chocolate Cupcakes

I frosted them with my favorite icing (see below), topped them with sprinkles, and added them to the Super Bowl spread.  Mmmmm.

Chocolate Cupcakes

I think I might have preferred chocolate icing with these cupcakes, so I’ll try that next time.  I was just so freakin’ excited about finding a high-altitude cupcake recipe that worked, though, that I would have happily eaten them without icing.  I’m looking forward to making these again and again…  Cupcakes, minus the frustration!

Chocolate Cupcakes
Makes 24

2 cups sifted cake flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
2/3 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 cup milk (I used whole milk)

Preheat oven to 375F.  Grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans, one 9 x 13-inch baking pan or muffin cups.  Mix and sift flour, cocoa, sugar, and baking powder together into a bowl.  Add oil, vanilla, eggs, and milk; beat for 30 seconds with a mixer at low speed, scraping the bowl frequently.  Beat for 7 1/2 minutes more with a stand mixer at medium speed or 6 minutes with a hand mixer at high speed, scraping the bowl 4 – 5 times.  Pour batter into pans.  Bake for time recommended below, or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.* Remove cakes from oven and cool in pans for about 12 minutes.  Remove cakes from pans and finish cooling on a wire rack.

*Two 9-inch cakes: About 28 minutes.
One 9 x 13-inch cake: Lower oven temperature to 350F.  Bake for 30 – 35 minutes.
24 cupcakes (1/2-full): About 25 minutes.
(Update 12/31/10: Based on several visitor comments, I would recommend checking your cupcakes at the 18- or 20-minute mark if you bake them at 375F.  If they need more time, just put ’em back in.)

Altitude adjustments:
6,500 – 8,500 feet: Decrease baking powder to 1 3/4 teaspoons.
8,500+ feet: Decrease baking powder to 1 1/2 teaspoons.  Increase milk by 1 tablespoon.

Source: High Altitude Baking by Patricia Kendall  (Amazingly, this link displays the entire cake section of the cookbook for free!)

Toba Garrett’s Decorator’s Buttercream Icing
Make 2 1/2 quarts (2.37 L) (This is an absolute ton of icing!  Feel free to cut it in half or even quarter it.)

2 cups (1 pound or 454 grams) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup (230 grams) vegetable shortening or hi-ratio shortening
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice or 1 1/2 teaspoons lemon extract, pure vanilla extract, or almond extract
3 pounds (1.36 kilograms) 10X confectioners’ sugar
1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon (4 1/2 fluid ounces or 135 millilitres) water, milk, or clear liqueur
3 tablespoons meringue powder
1 teaspoon salt

Cream shortening and butter with an electric, handheld, or paddle-whip mixer. Add flavoring and salt. Gradually add sugar, one cup at a time. Add meringue powder. (The mixture will appear dry.)

Add liquid of choice and beat until light and fluffy (approximately 5 to 8 minutes). Keep the bowl covered with a damp cloth or plastic wrap.

Store the icing in an airtight container and freeze for up to 3 months.

Source: The Well-Decorated Cake by Toba Garrett

53 Responses to “Chocolate Cupcakes (aka A Cupcake Recipe That Actually Works in Denver)”

  1. 1 nigel February 9, 2010 at 6:46 am

    Sounds great and the pics are fab, just the thing for the kids b/day party

  2. 2 Shannon March 31, 2010 at 7:16 am

    Hi there. Do you happen to have any other tried and true cake/cupcake recipes that work here in Denver? I’m relatively new to the area and have cake baking frustration :o)

    • 3 jfochek March 31, 2010 at 7:42 am

      Hi, Shannon! I only have one other recipe that is specifically for cupcakes: Caramel Cake with Caramelized Butter Frosting. (I have a lot more recipes that I know don’t work, unfortunately.) There’s a link to the recipe in the post, and the post also outlines the modifications I had to make in order to make them work here. If you’re interested in trying that one, let me know; I could type up the original recipe with my modifications instead of having you wade through the post. 🙂

      I’ve had a lot more luck with cakes that are dense (flourless, cheesecake, etc.) or egg white-based: Almond Torte, Chocolate Valentino, and Chocolate-Pistachio Torte (my favorite and it’s so elegant!) are recipes that have worked for me. Whoopie Pies are also cake-like and didn’t give me any trouble. Independence Pass Brownies aren’t cake but they are ridiculously delicious; you should have them in your recipe arsenal if you live here.

      If you look at desserts in the “I want to cook” tab on the right-side bar of my Web site, any recipes made starting in October 2008 were made here in Denver. Since I haven’t been back in town all that long, I’m still trying to adapt my favorites to work at altitude. If there’s a particular recipe you want to try and you’d like a partner to compare results, let me know! I haven’t fired up my “request line” in a while, and I’d love to help.

      Sweet and Saucy

  3. 4 Alexandra May 3, 2010 at 11:01 am

    Success! They domed so nicely. I think I would double the recipe, because these seem a bit puny and I only got 21 out of the batch. delicious though!!

  4. 5 Annie-SLC July 19, 2010 at 11:12 am

    Hello Jenny!

    I am new to your blog! Came across it looking for a redemption of many days baking frustrating flat, sunken chocolate cupcakes! I live in Salt Lake City and we are approximately almost at 5,000 Feet. I am a transplant from the southern east and it has been frustrating seeing my family recipes flop, after flop…especially with cupcakes and chocolate recipes. I had ran across the High Altitute Baking link and not purchased the book being a bit skeptical only because I have almost given up in baking. Like you I have made adjustments here and there with adding liquids, decreasing baking soda and adjusting flours – along with a “Hail Mary” when my batters go in oven. I have a request to make chocolate cupcakes for a girlfriend’s daughter tomorrow and I cringed as I had wished she would have prefered a different flavor! In reading your recipe, and quick view from the link, it does not mention if this recipe calls for the proper adjustment needed based on the altitude you live in? When you made your batch did you bake them as noted in the book? Or did you make the adjustments for your altitude? I want to definitely give it a try but confused if I have to make the adjustments or if it’s set for altitudes less than 6,500 feet? Thanks!!


    • 6 jfochek July 19, 2010 at 12:16 pm

      Hi, Annie! Thanks for your visit. I can COMPLETELY relate to your high-altitude baking frustrations… Every recipe is a new challenge, isn’t it?

      I made the recipe as written in the book without any adjustments except that my “right” baking time was 23 minutes for cupcakes, not 25. (I’m at right around 5700 feet, and the recipe is written for up to 6500 feet without any changes.) Watching those crowns pop up (and STAY up) was such a relief. 🙂

      Hope that helps!


  5. 7 Barbara September 30, 2010 at 3:40 am

    Can you make this recipe into a 9×13 pan size? I’ve now made 3 chocolate cakes in the last 48 hours and ALL have fallen terribly. I’m at 4300′ so I didn’t anticipate such a problem.

    • 8 jfochek September 30, 2010 at 4:37 am

      Hi, Barbara! The recipe says that for a 9 x 13-inch cake, you should lower the oven temperature to 350°F and bake it for 30 – 35 minutes. I haven’t tried it as a 9 x 13-inch cake myself so I can’t guarantee it, but I have a feeling you’ll be fine. If you try it, please let me know how it goes!

  6. 9 Barbara September 30, 2010 at 4:40 am

    Just made your chocolate cake…after reading all the directions I saw that I could use regular cake pans. I used 8″ pans due to the amount of the batter. The cake DID dome up and DID NOT fall, however, I’ve got this terrific dome and very low sides! Next time I’ll use the 9×13 pan size and see what happens. Maybe I should lower the temp?? But hey, at least this one didn’t fall — 1 our of 4 is the record now!

  7. 10 Gabriela November 29, 2010 at 7:01 am

    Tomorrow morning I will try this recipe and I beg for it to work with some adjustments. I’ve been searchin the Internet for high altitude recipes or just regular chocolate cupcake recipes and tips to conver them for the altitude of my city (8000 feet, in Peru!) but nothing’s worked so far. I had trouble with vanilla cupcakes but finally found a great recipe at Joy of Baking but chocolate succes was elusive for me.

    Hope this works! And thanx for sharing

  8. 11 Ann December 16, 2010 at 5:09 am

    I tried this chocolate cupcake recipe today for my Spanish class fiesta tomorrow. I live in the Denver area, which is the mile high city at about 5200 feet.

    I was amazed at how nicely these cupcakes peaked. The chocolate flavor was good. They have a good texture and don’t break apart when you remove the paper wrapper. I was a little disappointed that they were baked too long at 20 minutes. I’m glad I decided to check them at 20 minutes. They would have been burned at 25 minutes. The tops are crisp. Next time I make them I’m going to bake mini cupcakes at 15 mins., regular sized cupcakes at 18 mins. I’m going to keep the temp at 375 as the recipe indicates. Perhaps my oven runs a bit hot, it’s the first time I’ve made cupcakes in this stove.


    • 12 jfochek December 16, 2010 at 5:30 am

      Thanks for your report, Ann! I really appreciate you taking the time to share your experience. The more information we have, the better.

      I’m about 700 feet higher than you in Highlands Ranch, so maybe that accounted for the extra few minutes of baking time. I have an oven thermometer, too, so I know my oven was right at 375F. Hope they turn out perfectly for you next time!


  9. 13 Beth December 18, 2010 at 11:52 am

    Just made these tonight in Boulder for a party tomorrow. Absolute success; they look gorgeous. This after multiple failures, and I had given up almost entirely on baking since moving here from the Midwest a decade ago. Thank you.

    I only baked mine 21 minutes and I dropped my oven temp back to 350F and they were just right at that timing/temp.

    Cheers, Beth J.

  10. 15 Morgan in SLC December 30, 2010 at 7:31 pm

    Wow! Thats all I can say. I have been relentlessly trying to see the ever coveted DOME in Salt Lake City, and alas!–you’ve given the recipe! The domes are BEAUTIFUL! I think I will cook them a little less as they had a burnt flavor after about 22minutes. I was wondering, is there an adaptation to this recipe for vanilla??

    • 16 jfochek January 1, 2011 at 5:11 am

      Hi, Morgan! I haven’t tried adapting them for vanilla, but there are recipes for both white cake and yellow cake in the book where I got this recipe. I hesitate to get too excited about them since the recipe for Chocolate Sour Cream Cupcakes from the same book was a total disaster, but I think I’ll give one or both of them a shot in the next week or so to see if we can add another good recipe to the arsenal. I’ll certainly post the recipes as I test them, but I’d be happy to send them along earlier if you’re up for an experiment. Just let me know! 🙂


  11. 17 Kia April 2, 2011 at 2:44 am

    Yeah, i live in Peru at 12,000 ft. and most baked goods haven’t worked out for me… but maybe this recipe will help 😀

  12. 18 Mary April 4, 2011 at 2:11 am

    Have been looking for a great cupcake recipe that I can make in Colorado Springs… while these aren’t THE BEST tasting cupcakes, they look better than any I have made. THANKS!

  13. 19 Valentine April 7, 2011 at 5:58 am

    I might be coming a bit late to this party but I just wanted to add that at 8500ft. in Vail, I just threw these little gems together in about 10 min. flat and they came out fantastic! I made the adjustment for the highest altitude and filled each cup with 2T of batter. Mary, for a wee bit more flavor substitute brown sugar for white, double the vanilla and either add 1 tsp expresso powder or do as I did and use 1/2 c. brewed coffee and 1/2 c. buttermilk in place of the milk.

    They are beautiful AND delicious and light as air! I’m going to smother them in marshmallow icing and likely eat everyone myself …. and then ski it all off tomorrow;-> Thanks for the great recipe!

  14. 21 Valentine April 7, 2011 at 6:12 am

    Ooops – forgot to mention that I heeded the warning and watched carefully and pulled these babies out after only 16 to 17 minutes. DeLIGHTful!

  15. 22 Debs May 18, 2011 at 3:03 am

    I tried this but I used buttermilk, instead of milk & 3 medium eggs instead of 2 large. They are short and dense. However, I was just informed that Fort Collins is not 6K ft and I used the 6K ft recipe. Sigh. They taste good.

  16. 23 Beth August 26, 2011 at 9:04 am

    Yea! Finally! Cupcakes that rise in Salt Lake City (4400ft)! Thanks so much! I topped them with german chocolate cake frosting and they were great! I agree with the suggestions-350 for 15 min was perfect!. Thanks so much :0)

  17. 24 AJ September 18, 2011 at 10:01 am

    Thanks for sharing, I’m in Denver and am excited to try this recipe!

  18. 25 Lynn December 5, 2011 at 5:10 am

    Thanks. I don’t bake and never know what I need to do here in the Denver area so I was glad to find this. I agree that these cook very well but i am having a hard time getting them to be chocolate-y enough. Any ideas on what I do to get a deeper chocolate flavor?

    • 26 jfochek December 6, 2011 at 5:17 am

      Hi, Lynn! Thanks for stopping by. I agree that these cupcakes aren’t super chocolate-y… I think you could probably increase the cocoa powder by 1 or 2 tablespoons without seriously affecting the workability of the recipe. Alternatively, a change in the *type* of cocoa powder might make a difference; next time I make these, I’ll try substituting 2 tablespoons of the cocoa powder with Savory Spice Shop’s black onyx cocoa powder, which is pretty intense.

      • 27 Lynn December 6, 2011 at 8:45 am

        Thanks. I actually put chocolate chips in them and they came out pretty well…but I am going to try a dark cocoa powder when I make them for the birthday celebration that I need them for! Thanks again.

  19. 28 Valentine December 6, 2011 at 5:23 am

    Also Lynn – it is a wee bit of a gamble but you could try cutting the oil back to about 1/2 c and adding 2 oz melted unsweetened chocolate. I’ve done this before with success in other recipes. The cupcakes will be more chocolatey – but also less sweet. I LOVE to compensate with extra icing in such instances…..but I’m a little wicked when it comes to icing, anyway 🙂

  20. 30 Jennifer December 15, 2011 at 10:16 am

    Did anyone else have a problem with the cupcakes not being very sweet?

  21. 31 cocosoleil December 16, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    Oh my goodness! My cupcakes actually looked like cupcakes, were the right density, and tasted delicious. I have missed baking so much since I moved to Colorado! Thank you for sharing this great recipe!

    • 32 sarah January 17, 2012 at 8:18 am

      I found your recipe about 35 minutes too late. (I currently have a batch of collapsed cupcakes on my stove..)

      Looking forward to trying it. Anybody have any problems (changes?) using GF flour?

  22. 33 Hilary Davies January 24, 2012 at 4:09 am

    oh WOW!!!! thank you so much! these are the BEST cupcakes I have made living here in Colorado (I’m in Broomfield at about 5400ft).
    They are just substantial enough without being too dense, and not so light that they break apart when you frost them (which happens to me with store-bought mixes).
    I frosted with chocolate ganache and they are delicious.
    thank you again. I’ll be making these over and over.

  23. 34 Didi Williams January 25, 2012 at 11:27 am

    These cupcakes peaked beautifully, but next time I make them I would decrease the sugar a little and increase the cocoa powder a little.

  24. 35 Kim February 24, 2012 at 10:27 am

    The cupcakes look great – but they are a bit short on the sweetness though and the chocolate flavor. I cut up some of a chocolate bar to mix in with the batter (2.5 oz) but next time will do more. Also, I want to reduce the peaking a bit – so I am going to drop the temp down to 350 F. As I think slightly, just slightly under baking them might be the way to go, I plan on checking about 14-15 mins next time ~ I am hoping for moist crumbs on the toothpick. Also, these are practically falling out of their liners, so I plan on very lightly spraying the liners with Pam or even try to do without the Pam next time. And there will be a next time. I think this is a nice base recipe – just want to make awesome cupcakes! I live in Mexico City ~ 7,300 ft and all the cupcakes in the stores here are fairly dreadful…

    • 36 kikipushinthirty April 12, 2012 at 9:15 pm

      Kim, I’m gonna make these cupcakes but I also like mine sweet, so thanks for the tip. And by the way… I live in Queretaro, MX. You are right about the cupcakes here…Same goes for cakes, and any other baked goods. 🙂 Let me know if you have any other good recipes to share. Oh, by the way..have you ever found meringue powder where you live? If so, What’s it called in Spanish and what’s the brand name? THANKS! 🙂 –Key

    • 37 kikipushinthirty April 12, 2012 at 9:18 pm

      Kim, thanks for the tip..I also like my cupcakes kinda sweet. You are right about the cupcakes in Mexico..I live in Queretaro so I know the feeling. That’s actually the reason I started baking. Let me know if you have any other good recipes for this area…and PS: have you found meringue powder where you live?

  25. 38 Hannah April 11, 2012 at 5:44 pm

    Thank you so much for posting this recipe! I am 15 years old and have been trying various cupcake recipes but find that everyone of them sinks in the middle. I was so happy when these cupcakes came out the exact opposite of sunken in, puffed out! Thanks!

  26. 39 Lisa May 12, 2012 at 10:44 pm

    Hi. Just made these for Mother’s Day. Topped with cream cheese frosting in pink and purple flower/rose frosting piping. I’m going to put sticks from the craft store into the bottom of 8 of them and put them into a flower pot in lieu of flowers. Thought the cupcake portion was going to be just a touch bland, but with the cream cheese frosting, I think it turned out beautifully. No crumbling, nice outer crust with soft moist inside. Just right.

  27. 40 kaylaco July 15, 2012 at 12:55 am

    Has anyone tried this recipe with all-purpose flour instead of cake flour? I have a BDAY party tomorrow and this is all i have on hand…I will go buy some if needed! HELP! 🙂

  28. 41 Tiffany July 28, 2012 at 1:48 am

    I was wondering how to make them sweeter. They are good cooked perfectly but need a little more sweetness. Thanks.

  29. 42 Heather August 23, 2012 at 9:46 am

    Thank you for this info!!!! Can’t wait! 🙂

  30. 43 JC January 11, 2014 at 2:42 am

    Great recipe! Another great and cheap resource is “The High Plains Sifter: Retro-Modern Baking for Every Altitude. Over 300 recipes with a photo of each one.

  31. 44 Katie Hess October 12, 2014 at 3:03 am

    Baking for 18 min worked perfectly for my cupcakes at 9,200ft. This is my new favorite cake recipe 😀

  32. 45 Allie G November 6, 2015 at 9:31 am

    Our family moved to Bozeman 3 weeks ago at 4800 ft….everything I have baked thus far has been thrown in the trash, and I used to consider myself an avid baker prior to the elevation issue. My daughters birthday is in a couple days and I was desperate to find a muffin recipe that worked. My muffins came out perfect! Thanks so much!

  33. 46 Ecka March 21, 2017 at 9:30 am

    These recipe is only good for looks, definitely NOT for taste! My husband and I were so disappointed on how they taste even with my homemade caramel and my marshmallow icing.

  34. 47 Alexis September 7, 2018 at 12:30 pm

    I used this recipe today because i live in the Springs. However, I used gluten free flour instead for cuppcakes, and they turned out PERFECT. same ratio. Highly recommended

  35. 48 Ashley September 18, 2018 at 3:20 am

    I’ve been trying for years to make a perfect chocolate cupcake from scratch and being at 7000+ feet it’s been impossible! Unfortunately this recipe didn’t work for me either, came out super dense….possibly too much mixing?

  36. 49 Kia November 5, 2018 at 8:57 am

    These came out fragile and dry. There’s not a lot of flavor either.

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