What is cocoa powder?
Think of it as a concentrated form of chocolate, says pastry master Sebastien Canonne, co-founder of the French Pastry School of Chicago.
But first, a quick review of how chocolate is made: cocoa beans are fermented, roasted, hulled, and the nibs ground up into a paste called chocolate liquor or cocoa mass.
When that cocoa mass is processed to remove about 75 percent of the fat a.k.a. cocoa butter, the crucial ingredient in chocolate, what’s left is dried and ground into cocoa powder.
Most supermarket brands are natural cocoa. In the store, you might see it labeled “unsweetened cocoa powder” or just “cocoa.”
But don’t confuse it with hot cocoa mix, which typically contains sugar, corn syrup, and other stuff.
What is Dutch-process cocoa powder?
Dip your finger in natural cocoa and have a taste. Pretty harsh on the tongue, right? That’s because cocoa beans are naturally acidic.
To make Dutch-process cocoa, the beans are soaked in an alkali solution, which neutralizes their acidity and reduces the bitterness, says Canonne.
The process, invented in 1828 by a Dutch chemist (hence the name) as a way to make hot drinking chocolate pleasant, also turns the cocoa powder quite dark.
Dutch-process cocoa is usually labeled as such or with the words “processed with alkali” or “alkalized.”
There’s even something called black cocoa, which is so heavily Dutch-processed it’s nearly black. Ever eaten an Oreo cookie? Then you’ve tasted black cocoa. It’s not available in grocery stores, but you can buy it online through a retailer like King Arthur Flour.
Why would I use Dutch-process cocoa?
In part, it’s personal preference.
Chicago pastry chef Mindy Segal, in her book Cookie Love, says Dutch-process is her go-to cocoa for its “beautiful dark brown color and rich flavor.”
But baking maven Alice Medrich favors natural cocoa, writing in her book, Seriously Bittersweet, that it tastes “vibrant, fruity, and complex” compared with Dutch-process cocoa, which, though it turns baked goods darker, doesn’t necessarily translate to a deeper chocolate flavor.
“Regardless, this flavor, mingled and perhaps confused with chocolate flavor, has developed a following of its own,” Medrich writes.
Can I substitute natural cocoa powder for Dutch-process and vice versa?
If a recipe calls for only a small amount of cocoa, or if you’re making something like a sauce, custard, or ice cream, use whichever cocoa powder you want—even if the recipe specifies one type and one type only, says Canonne.
“As long as you start with a good-quality cocoa, don’t worry about that,” he says.
But in cocoa-centric cakes and cookies that contain leavening—baking soda or baking powder—it’s best to stick to what the recipe suggests.
Baking soda needs the acidity of natural cocoa powder for the right chemical reaction to happen in the oven, so that what you’re baking will rise properly and not taste soapy, Canonne says.
Baking powder, on the other hand, is a neutralized ingredient like Dutch-process cocoa, which is why you’ll see the two paired together in recipes.
What about a recipe that calls for baking powder and baking soda?
Either cocoa will work, says Canonne.
Such recipes usually contain more baking powder than baking soda, plus another acidic ingredient such as yogurt. While the baking soda reacts with the acidic ingredient, the baking powder does the heavy lifting in terms of leavening, so the cocoa powder’s role is more about flavor and less about leavening, Canonne explains.
How do I know I’m getting good-quality cocoa powder?
It all hinges on the quality of the cocoa bean, and the price will reflect that. “The whole market of chocolate is driven by the cocoa bean,” says Canonne.
The cheapest powders start with low-quality beans. The best powders use high-quality beans with a higher percentage of fat. “Anything in the 18 to 22 percent range, those are great quality,” he says.
Check the label to see that it’s 100 percent cocoa with nothing added, and then check the nutritional panel.
“Premium cocoa has 1 gram of fat (instead of 0.5 gram) per 5- to 6-gram serving,” writes Medrich in Seriously Bittersweet.
How should I store cocoa powder?
Dry, cool, and in an airtight container in your pantry or cupboard, away from spices and other strong-smelling ingredients.
It’ll keep for up to a year, but the flavor dissipates over time, so for the most oomph, use it up within a few months—or during a few serious holiday baking sessions, whichever comes first.