Mel’s Kitchen Tip: Cocoa Powder 101

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Welcome to Cocoa Powder 101! Confused by recipes that call for Dutch-process cocoa and wonder how on earth it is different from “regular” or natural, unsweetened cocoa powder? Never fear! I’m here to help unravel the mystery behind cocoa powder in plain terms.

Let’s get started. I’ve called in (er, quoted) a few experts to help us along since heaven knows, I don’t have a degree in cocoa powder philosophy.

There are two main types of cocoa powder called for in baking: 1) Dutch-process cocoa and 2) natural unsweetened cocoa. I’m guessing that if you are like me, far and away, most of you have natural, unsweetened cocoa powder residing in your pantry. Common brands are Hershey and Nestle, among others. Dutch-process is a bit more expensive than natural, unsweetened cocoa and is widely heralded in foodie circles as “the” cocoa powder to use if you want deep, dark chocolate flavor.

What is Dutch-process cocoa and how is it different than natural, unsweetened cocoa powder?
Both Dutch-process and natural cocoa are made from cocoa beans. The difference is that with Dutch-process cocoa, the cocoa beans are soaked in a low-acid solution (alkaline) before being dried and ground. Natural, unsweetened cocoa is made from cocoa beans that are roasted and then ground (no soaking required).

Because Dutch-process cocoa goes through the soaking process to lower the acidity, it a) results in a darker cocoa powder and b) mellows the flavor of the cocoa making it less harsh, and according to some cocoa connoisseurs, makes a stronger, definable chocolate flavor. For years, I was skeptical that Dutch-process cocoa could really make a difference in flavor, but when I finally tried it, I realized that true to the data, it really does have a less bitter chocolate taste than unsweetened cocoa powder (see below for my own taste-test results with cocoa brownies).

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Can Dutch-process and natural, unsweetened cocoa be used interchangeably?
The main issue to bring up with substitutions in any recipe is that if you make changes of your own to a written/published recipe, the results can’t be guaranteed. Sure, it may turn out ok, but it may not. So baker beware.

As far as cocoas go, because Dutch-process has lower acidity, it is usually used in combination with baking powder in recipes, whereas, natural, unsweetened cocoa powder is usually used with baking soda (which is alkali and requires an acidic ingredient – like the natural cocoa powder – in a recipe to properly activate).

Having stated that, I also see many recipes out there that use cocoa powder without any leavening (think: fudgy brownies), in which case either cocoa powder could be used, based on preference (my preference is detailed below).

According to my favorite cooking and baking resource, Cook’s Illustrated, Dutch-process and natural, unsweetened cocoa are mostly interchangeable. They found this after doing a myriad of taste testing and test baking and concluded that because Dutch-process cocoa wins out over and over and over in taste tests, it is the only cocoa a home baker needs to keep on hand and they can sub it whenever natural, unsweetened cocoa is used (they didn’t notice a difference in their baked results based on the cocoa used, even with the leavening issue of baking soda and baking powder).

What’s my rule of thumb, you ask? Well, my opinion first and foremost is to: follow the recipe! There’s definitely no harm in that if you want the best results. However, in the interest of staying honest, I will admit that many, many times, I have subbed in natural, unsweetened cocoa for Dutch-process but not the other way around – and I’ve never had quirky results (except for perhaps a slight dip in chocolate flavor).

I haven’t fully converted to Cook’s Illustrated’s recommendation to only use Dutch-process cocoa for the simple reason that it tends to be more expensive than my beloved Hershey’s and which gets me to my next question (read on).

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What cocoa powder(s) do I keep on hand?
Because Dutch-process cocoa is exorbitantly priced in my local grocery stores (we are talking break-the-bank prices), I never, ever buy it locally. (Update: i’ve since moved to an area that sells Dutch-process cocoa in bulk bins and it is very reasonably priced!). Which means if I’m plumb out and a recipe calls for it, I’ll swap in the natural, unsweetened cocoa, like I mentioned above. (Update: thanks to some bad results, I’ve stopped swapping out one-for-one with Dutch-process and natural, unsweetened cocoa – I highly recommend following the recipe if it states a particular kind of cocoa powder, understanding that any substitutions may alter the hopefully delicious end result). 

However, when I’m on top of things, I order Dutch-process cocoa online, usually the Droste brand (came in second to Callebaut in Cook’s Illustrated taste testing) and usually from amazon.com (free shipping, baby). I always have the Hershey’s brand of natural, unsweetened cocoa in my pantry (because I can buy it in large cans at Sam’s Club and Costco).

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Is it worth keeping Dutch-process cocoa on hand simply because “experts” believe it tastes better?
Good question! If you really, really enjoy putzing around with fine-tuned, impeccable baked goods, then yes, get yourself some Dutch-process cocoa ASAP. However, if you consider yourself a non-fussy home cook (and a good one, no less!), then natural, unsweetened cocoa powder will probably do the trick for you.

I used natural, unsweetened cocoa powder exclusively for years and years and was none the wiser…and let me tell you, I am a self-proclaimed food snob. Chocolate cupcakes and brownies made with my good ol’ Hershey’s tasted fantastic (and still do) to me and my taste buds. But when I did venture into Dutch-process cocoa waters a few years back, I have to admit that the chocolate flavor imparted in brownies, in particular, is deeper, darker and even more decadent than if using natural, unsweetened cocoa.

Case in point: I have a recipe for all-cocoa powder brownies (meaning, there isn’t any melted chocolate in the batter). The recipe is shockingly delicious (I’ll be posting soon!) and the fudgy texture reminds me of the boxed brownie mixes, which means my brownies-from-a-box-craving husband looooves them. Over the years, I’ve made them with either natural, unsweetened cocoa powder or Dutch-process, whatever I get the hankering for and they are delicious either way; however, I’ve never made them side-by-side with both cocoa powders for my own taste testing…until now.

The other day I made two batches – one using natural cocoa powder and the other using Dutch-process cocoa powder. The Dutch-process brownies naturally came out darker, which I had noticed when making them on their own before. While I have always been fine with the result of natural cocoa powder in these brownies, I have to admit that after tasting the brownies side-by-side, the natural cocoa powder didn’t stand a chance next to the Dutch-process cocoa powder. In fact, after taking a taste of the Dutch-process brownies, I could hardly stand the taste of the ones made with natural cocoa powder – they had a sharp, bitter taste where the Dutch-process brownies had a mellow, deep, dark flavor. As a dark chocolate lover, the Dutch-process brownies completely overwhelmed the natural cocoa powder brownies in chocolate flavor.

Basically, I affirm that Dutch-process cocoa really does have a more mellow, deeper chocolate flavor. And I’ll continue to use it exclusively in all cocoa-powder recipes like the brownie one I just referred to. But natural, unsweetened cocoa powder also has it’s place in the baking world, so I, for one, will continue to keep them both on hand and will probably start following Cook’s Illustrated recommendations and experiment using Dutch-process cocoa in more recipes.

I hope this helps sort out the difference between natural, unsweetened and Dutch-process cocoa powders! Feel free to leave any questions or your own cocoa powder experience in the comments.