Cooking Tips · Ingredients

All cocoa powders are not the same.

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Cocoa powder is a mainstay in our pantries if we do much baking of chocolate-flavored items. If you go to the store to buy some cocoa powder, you will be faced with not only different brands but also different types. Knowing which one(s) to pick and when to use them is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Cocoa powder is made by grinding cocoa solids that have been separated from the cacao beans. This makes it a very concentrated form of chocolate flavor. There are two main types of cocoa powder – natural and Dutched (or Dutch process). Not every container of cocoa powder will tell you which kind it is. One hint is that if it is an American brand, it will most likely be natural whereas most European brands are Dutched.

Natural cocoa powder may also be labeled unsweetened cocoa powder or even pure cocoa powder. Cocoa beans are acidic (pH of 5-6) and because there is no further processing after grinding, cocoa powder is also acidic. It is light brown in color with a reddish tint and tastes sharp, fruity and bitter.

Dutch-process cocoa powder has been alkalized. The cacao beans are soaked in an alkaline solution. This leads to a cocoa powder where the acidity has been neutralized. The color is darker brown and the flavor is mellower and more earthy. Because manufacturers use different alkalinizing agents as well as different ways of processing, one brand can vary greatly from another. There are different subtypes of Dutched cocoa, which I will discuss later in this Tip.

These two types of cocoa powder are not always interchangeable. It depends on what you are making, the other ingredients in your recipe and your desired result. This is due to chemistry, specifically acid-base chemistry. Review this Tip on leaveners for more info.

If you are making a baked recipe that calls for natural cocoa powder, it often also calls for baking soda. The latter is an alkaline leavener that is activated by acids. (E.g., yogurt or buttermilk.) Without the interaction of the acidic ingredient and the alkaline baking soda, the leavening won’t occur. Therefore, if you swap out the natural cocoa for Dutched, this reaction will be muted leading to less rise of your baked goods. Some people like this, though, as the results are very moist and fudgy as compared to lighter and drier baked goods when using natural cocoa.

Recipes that call for Dutched cocoa typically call for baking powder. Baking powder is mixture of baking soda and an acid (often cream of tartar). Therefore, it does not require another acid to activate it and start the rising process. In this instance, the cocoa is not part of the leavening process but it is there mostly for flavor and color.

Many pastry chefs recommend Dutch-processed cocoa for unbaked chocolate items and natural cocoa for recipes that require baking. If, however, the batter needs to remain moist, a Dutch-processed cocoa should be used even if it is a baked item.

King Arthur Baking has a nice guide to how to substitute one type of cocoa for another. It is always best to use whatever type that the recipe specifies. They state that if a recipe doesn’t specify which type of cocoa to use, it should have been developed to work with either type. I must say I do not have the same faith in recipe writers as discussed in this Recipe Caution tip. King Arthur does say that an exception is if you are using older American recipes as Dutch-processed cocoa wasn’t widely available throughout most of the 20th century. In this case, you would be better to choose a natural cocoa.

They recommend Dutch-process if the recipe calls for baking powder and natural cocoa for those recipes that are leavened with baking soda alone or if baking soda is the predominant leavener. On the other hand, if baking powder is the main leavener, the cocoa will often be Dutched. If the recipe does not include acidic ingredients, feel free to use natural cocoa.

If neither baking soda or powder is in the list of ingredients, use either cocoa. Examples would be puddings, sauces, souffles, etc.

Here are some tips from King Arthur’s substitution guide.

If you use natural cocoa in place of Dutched, expect the following.

  • Color – baked goods will be lighter in color.
  • Rise – as a recipe that calls for Dutched cocoa will probably call for baking powder, you shouldn’t notice a difference in rise.
  • Flavor – the flavor may be a bit tangy and slightly bitter.
  • Recommendations
    • If the recipe calls for 3 tablespoons or less of cocoa powder, use the same amount.
    • If it specifies more than 3 tablespoons, replace the baking powder with half the amount of baking soda.
    • If the recipe calls for not only baking powder but also baking soda, no changes are needed.

If you use Dutched cocoa in place of natural, expect the following.

  • Color – baked goods will be darker in color.
  • Rise – baked items will not rise as much.
  • Flavor – you may taste a soapy element as the baking soda hasn’t been totally neutralized.
  • Recommendations
    • Replace the baking soda with twice the amount of baking powder unless the recipe calls for both ingredients and, in that case, no change is needed.
    • Same if the recipe calls for an acidic element such as vinegar or yogurt.

As I noted above, there are actually some subtypes of Dutch-process cocoa.

  • Black Cocoa – Thisis considered ultra-Dutch processed. It is very dark in color and is said to be how Oreo cookies get their dark color. It will give your cakes, cookies or chocolate sauce a rich dark brown, almost black, color. It will also have a smoother, less bitter taste than either natural or regular Dutched cocoa. On the down side, many feel it has less of a chocolate flavor.
  • Rouge Cocoa – This is also known as red cocoa powder. In terms of alkalinity, it is between regular Dutch cocoa and black cocoa. It has a burgundy color. According to Guittard, one of the makers of this type of cocoa, it has a “fudgy, bittersweet flavor right at home in pastries and baked goods”.
  • Double Dutch – This is a blend of regular Dutch cocoa powder and black cocoa powder. This allows the dark color to shine while still having a great chocolate flavor.

Another interesting product offered by King Arthur is what is known as a Triple Cocoa Blend. According to the company, triple cocoa powder is made by mixing Dutch cocoa powder, natural cocoa powder, and black cocoa powder. They market it as an all-purpose cocoa powder that can be used in any recipe. Its color is darker than natural or regular Dutched cocoa but not as dark as black cocoa. The flavor is characterized as having “earthier, mellower notes of a Dutched cocoa powder with some of the acidity and more rounded fruity chocolate notes of natural cocoa powder.”

Everyone will have their favorite cocoa even among these different types. Cooks Illustrated did a testing of 8 different cocoa powders, 4 Dutched and 4 natural. They used them in two different sheet cake recipes. One called for natural cocoa powder and the one specified Dutched. They also made a cookie recipe that didn’t specify the type of cocoa.

Their results were as follows.

  • The natural cocoas produced cakes and cookies that were taller, more airy but more crumbly.
  • The Dutched powders led to less rise and a fudgier texture.

They also found that not all brands reacted the same and they attributed this to fat content. When analyzed, three of their cocoas had a 10-12% fat content while the others had a 20-22% fat content. The latter cocoas are what ended scoring the highest in taste tests. Those items made with a higher fat cocoa tended to be more chewy and fudgy than those made with the lower fat ones. The lower fat products gave a drier and crumblier baked item.

A final factor they mentioned was starch content. The lower the fat content of the cocoa was, the higher the starch content. As starch is very good at absorbing liquid, the cakes and cookies made with these cocoas were drier.

Their recommendation was that to obtain moist and tender baked goods, choose a Dutch-process cocoa that is high in fat and therefore, lower in starch. They suggested choosing a product with at least 1 gram of fat per 5-gram serving. Their favorites were all higher fat Dutched products.

  • Droste
  • Guittard
  • Valrhona

Bon Appetit’s recommended products are:

  • Guittard Cocoa Rouge (a Dutch processed cocoa)
  • Droste
  • For a natural cocoa, they recommended either Hershey’s or Scharffen Berger.

Chef’s Pencil (an international food magazine) rated the following as the best chef-recommended cocoa powders.

  • Valrhona Pure Cocoa Powder, a French, Dutched cocoa
  • Callebaut Cocoa Powder, a Dutched cocoa from Belgium
  • Ghirardelli Majestic Premium Cocoa Powder, an American product
  • Cacao Barry Cocoa Powder 100% Cocoa Extra Brute, a French, Dutched cocoa

Serious Eats recommended the following Dutched cocoas with most of them being higher in fat content.

  • Nu Naturals
  • Cacao Barry Extra Brute
  • Callebaut CP777
  • King Arthur Bensdorp Royal Dutch
  • Droste
  • Valrhona

If in the past, you have just grabbed whatever carton of cocoa powder you saw on the shelf, I hope this Tip will give you the information you need to make a more informed decision.