Chocolate Vinegar Cake

You know those recipes we hold near and dear to our hearts because they really are the greatest of all time? Well, our Greatest Recipe of All Time series is where we wax poetic about them. Today, senior designer Alaina Sullivan shares her nana’s recipe for chocolate vinegar cake (trust us—it works).

Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of cake. Not on a birthday, not at a wedding, not frosted, not layered, especially not with sprinkles. I was the kid who would request “double ice cream, no cake” at birthday parties, and you can bet I sat that whole cupcake craze out. But there is one cake that nearly moves me to tears. It’s so good I can’t resist it. My cake kryptonite: my grandma’s chocolate vinegar cake. As a tradition, she makes one every Fourth of July when she visits us at our lake house in Western New York, and it never survives the day. One year my brother and I secretly annihilated the entire tin, sliver by sliver, when we were supposed to be on dish duty before dessert. So now she brings two.

I’ll admit there is something odd-sounding about a dessert with vinegar in its name. Fundamentally, the recipe includes the usual suspects for a classic chocolate cake: butter, sugar, cocoa, flour, salt, baking soda, egg…but then it introduces a curious ingredient—the secret weapon—distilled white vinegar. The exchange between the vinegar and baking soda makes for a cake that is exceptionally airy and moist. (It’s a genius baking technique that was adopted during the Great Depression era when ingredients like milk, butter, and eggs were scarce and expensive). Remember that erupting vinegar volcano you made for your second-grade science fair? It’s the same principle, except with chocolate.

What really seals the deal for me is the frosting, a simple mocha number. Nana uses powdered sugar, cocoa, and brewed instant coffee, though I tend to use regular drip-brewed coffee instead, and also stir in additional fresh grounds for extra oomph. Since I pinched the recipe from her a few years ago, I’ve made this cake for countless friends’ birthdays, and all can attest: it’s enough to sway even the biggest cake-haters among us. Nana’s Chocolate Vinegar Cake


  • ¾ cup unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 2½ cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ cup cocoa powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1½ cups water
  • 2 scant tablespoons distilled white vinegar



  • 1½ cups powdered sugar
  • ¼ cup unsalted butter, room temperature
  • ⅓ cup cocoa powder
  • ¼ cup brewed coffee
  • Ground coffee, to taste

Preheat oven to 350°. In a medium mixing bowl, beat together butter, sugar and egg. In another bowl, combine flour, baking soda, cocoa powder and salt. Stir with a fork to combine. Slowly add dry ingredients to the butter-sugar mixture and then add vanilla, water, and vinegar. Mix until well-combined.

Grease a 9″x13″ baking tin and spread batter into an even layer. Bake for 20-30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted, comes out clean.

Meanwhile, make the frosting. Combine powdered sugar, butter, cocoa, and brewed coffee, plus more fresh grounds if you want to boost the flavor. Adjust to desired taste and consistency.

Allow cake to cool completely before frosting.


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