These dairy-free German chocolate cupcakes were a hit at our Oktoberfest party this year. They’re made with a light, tender, deep, and moist chocolate cake, and topped with the best dairy-free coconut pecan frosting. Yes, I know this type of cake isn’t actually from Germany (it originated in Texas!), but even our German-American friend agreed, it was still a fantastic dessert for the theme.
The Best Dairy-Free German Chocolate Cupcakes
You might want to make a double batch of these dairy-free German chocolate cupcakes because they do go quickly! We had people ask for seconds, but each little cake had already vanished. I have some FAQs and troubleshooting tips below to help ensure your batch is a big hit.
What is Unsweetened Cocoa Powder?
Unsweetened cocoa powder is also known as natural cocoa powder or simply cocoa powder. It’s cocoa powder that hasn’t been Dutch processed. It’s quite bitter, but reacts with the baking soda to add lift and to neutralize the taste. Many everyday brands are natural, including Nestle Tollhouse, Hershey’s (original, not the special dark), and 365 Organic.
Why Can’t I Use Dutch-Processed Cocoa Powder?
Dutch-processed cocoa powder has been processed to neutralize some of the acidity of cocoa powder. It tastes less bitter and is richer and darker in flavor. If you use Dutch processed cocoa powder, there might not be enough acidity to react with the baking soda. This can result in less lift and a bitter or acrid taste from the baking soda. Brands that are Dutch-processed will either say it on the main label or in the ingredients.
Doesn’t German Chocolate Cake Use Melted Chocolate?
The classic recipe uses melted chocolate, buttermilk, and butter! Obviously, I had to make some dairy-free changes anyway. I have made dairy-free German chocolate cake with melted dairy-free chocolate, but prefer this one with cocoa powder, which is adapted from Tastes Better from Scratch. The cocoa powder version seems to have a more seamless and deep chocolate flavor. I also think it’s easier and cheaper, since you don’t have to seek out safe dairy-free chocolate.
What Type of Milk Alternative Should I Use?
I don’t always have non-dairy milk on hand, so I sometimes just thin regular coconut milk. I’ll add a few tablespoons of coconut milk and then enough water to reach the 1/2 cup. But most dairy-free milk alternatives will work just fine. I would use your favorite one for baking, whether it’s almond milk, soy milk, oat milk, or another type. In a pinch, you could use water in place of the milk alternative, but the cupcakes will be a touch less rich.
Do I Need to Let the Non-Dairy Milk and Vinegar Curdle?
The combination of milk alternative and vinegar makes a great dairy-free faux buttermilk. But the idea that they need to sit and “curdle” is just a myth that has perpetuated. You can whisk in the other wet ingredients right away. See my dairy-free buttermilk substitute post for more information and tips.
What Type of Oil Should I Use?
I use extra-light tasting olive oil (not extra-virgin) but your favorite oil for baking should work great. Although the cake is chocolate, it has a more delicate taste. So I would stay away from heavier tasting oils like regular olive oil or avocado oil. You can use coconut oil, but make sure all of our ingredients (including the milk alternative and egg) are at room temperature before you begin. Any cool ingredients can cause the coconut oil to solidify into little beads.
Can I Use Vegan Butter Instead of Oil?
I prefer oil in dairy-free German chocolate cake. But you can substitute dairy-free butter alternative, if preferred. I would personally increase the amount to 1/3 cup if using plant butter instead of oil, and would cream the butter alternative with the sugar. But I haven’t tested it in this specific recipe.
Cupcake Troubleshooting Tips
Cupcakes Didn’t Rise – First, it’s important to assess if your cupcakes didn’t rise or if they sunk. Cupcakes that failed to rise properly will still have a slight dome on top, but will be squat. In this case, your leavener has most likely lost its mojo. To test, put some baking powder (maybe 1/2 teaspoon) in a bowl and pour boiling water on it. The mixture should fizz up vigorously. If it just bubbles a little, but isn’t highly active, then you need new baking powder. The test is similar for baking soda, but instead of boiling water, you add a little vinegar to it.
Cupcakes Sunk – If your cupcakes are sunken at all (concave), then there is too much leavener for your altitude or climate. Make sure you have considered the high altitude option below if you live above 3000 feet. I’m simplifying, but basically the leavener acted very quickly, and the batter “popped” and deflated at some point in baking. If the depression is just slight, then you can reduce the leavener just a little. But if it is grand, you should reduce both the baking powder and baking soda in half.
Cupcakes Have Bitter or Acrid Taste – First, make sure you used natural cocoa powder and not Dutch processed cocoa powder. Check both the label and the ingredients to verify. If you used natural / unsweetened cocoa powder, then there is simply a little too much leavener for your altitude or climate. Reducing the baking soda a little should fix the problem.
Special Diet Notes: Dairy-Free German Chocolate Cupcakes
By ingredients, this recipe is dairy-free / non-dairy, peanut-free, soy-free, and vegetarian. Just be sure to choose the milk alternative and oil that suit your dietary needs.
For egg-free and vegan German chocolate cupcakes, see our Egg Substitute Guide. or omit the egg. This is a very delicate cupcake, so they will be a touch more crumbly without the egg. Omitting the egg makes the batter a little thicker, so it will have slightly more structure. But please note that I have not tested this recipe without egg. Another option is to just use this vegan toasted coconut chocolate cupcakes recipe.
For gluten-free German chocolate cupcakes, you can try substituting your favorite gluten-free baking blend. I good friend swears by King Arthur Measure for Measure. But please note that I have not tested this recipe with gluten-free flours. If you do try it without gluten, I recommend using the egg rather than omitting or substituting it.
- 1 batch Dairy-Free Caramel Coconut Pecan Frosting (cooled)
- 1 cup sugar
- ¾ cup + 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- ¼ cup + 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch processed)
- ¾ teaspoon baking powder
- ¾ teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ tablespoon white vinegar or apple cider vinegar
- Scant ½ cup unsweetened dairy-free milk alternative (see instructions)
- ¼ cup oil
- 1 large egg
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- ½ cup boiling water
- Make the frosting ahead. Ensure it is completely cooled. It can be made ahead and refrigerated. If cold, you might need to set it out to soften while you make the cupcakes. Stir it just before using
- Preheat your oven to 375°F and line 12 muffin cups with cupcake liners.
- In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt until the ingredients are well distributed.
- Add the vinegar to a 2-cup glass measuring cup. Add enough milk alternative to reach ½ cup. Add the oil, egg, and vanilla and whisk to combine.
- Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, and whisk to combine.
- Add the boiling water and stir to combine. The batter will be quite thin.
- Fill the prepared cups about ¾ full.
- Bake the cupcakes for 18 to 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of a cupcake comes out clean.
- Let the cupcakes cool for a few minutes in the pan, then carefully remove them and place on a wire rack, cooling rack, or serving platter to cool completely.
- Once completely cool, frost with the cooled Caramel Coconut Pecan Frosting. Leftover cupcakes can be stored in an airtight container. They will keep for a day or two at room temperature, but I prefer to refrigerate them if made ahead.
High Altitude Note: I haven't tested these dairy-free German chocolate cupcakes at high altitude, but I do have a lot of experience with high altitude baking. If baking the cupcakes over 3000 feet, I would reduce the baking soda and the baking powder to ½ teaspoon each. See the troubleshooting tips above for more assistance.
German Chocolate Cake Option: This recipe will make one cake layer. Double it for a two-layer cake, or triple it for a three layer cake. You can use 8-inch or 9-inch cake pans. You'll need to bake the layers for 25 to 35 minutes. The bigger cake pans take the lesser time since it makes thinner layers. I would also grease the cake pans and line the bottom(s) with parchment paper. you can cut the parchment paper into rounds to fit the bottoms. The coconut pecan frosting / German chocolate frosting will be enough to fully frost a single-layer cake, or to act as the coconut pecan filling and top frosting for a two-layer cake. If you want to frost the sides, either use a dairy-free chocolate buttercream or double the coconut pecan frosting recipe.