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What’s the Deal with Cocoa Powder?

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When people go shopping for a very specific brand name cocoa powder, it is most often because ‘ABC Publication’ reprinted a recipe from great baker ‘Y’ whose decadent chocolate recipe said use Brand ‘X’ cocoa powder.

So the well intended home bakers march into their favorite market or kitchen shop, recipe in hand, absolutely determined to buy Brand ‘X’ cocoa powder. Unfortunately, shops and markets do not carry all brands, probably not more than one or two choices, leaving the consumer frustrated and maybe a bit confused.

The real question is, “Does using special Brand-X cocoa powder really represent a better buy than all the rest?”

The answer is complicated but could be summarized this way…

  1. Probably not
  2. The recipe also probably said “use Brand X or other similar product”.

Before we delve into this somewhat confusing topic, we need to understand a simple fact about bakers:

The only thing that a room full of bakers can agree on is that they won’t agree on anything! Each and every one has a secret process or ingredient that makes or breaks their creation(s) and no amount of logic can convince them otherwise.

The truth is that when one is talking about baking, the line between chocolate powder brands blurs easily.

Cocoa Powder Definition

Cocoa powder is the term for the nonfat component of chocolate.

In contrast, the fatty component of chocolate is cocoa butter.

The separation of the two may be accomplished by a press, or by the Broma process. The resulting powder, sold as natural cocoa powder, is more reddish than the traditional “chocolate” color, and relatively low in pH, causing a bitter or acidic taste. Dutch process chocolate has been treated so as to neutralize the acidity and has a milder flavor; it is also the traditional chocolate brown in color. Recipes where there is a lot of fat and/or sugar, such as chocolate brownies, benefit from the more intense flavor of natural cocoa.

Dutch process chocolate, or Dutched chocolate, is chocolate that has been treated with an alkalizing agent to modify its color and give it a milder flavor, among other things, compared to “natural cocoa” extracted with the Broma process. It forms the basis for much of modern chocolate, and is used in ice cream, hot cocoa, and baking.

The Dutch process was developed by Dutch chocolate maker Coenraad Johannes van Houten, who is also responsible for the development of the method of removing fat from cacao beans by hydraulic press around 1828, forming the basis for cocoa powder and simplified chocolate culture.

The Dutch process accomplishes several things:

* Lowers acidity;
* Increases solubility;
* Enhances color;
* Lowers flavor.

(From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

Simple definition right?

Basically, there are two types of unsweetened cocoa powder: natural and Dutch-processed.

Dutched cocoa powder is alkalized and has a darker color and milder flavor.

Natural or undutched is richer in flavor but is more bitter and acidic. Its acid reacts well with baking soda in recipes to produce the desired leavening action.

To add to the cocoa powder confusion, some companies are retaining higher levels of fat and including other additions to dutched powder to produce an end product that has the desired elements of both cocoa types – mainly dark color AND rich flavor.

In the simplest terms, if you like intense chocolate flavor, use natural or undutched cocoa powder.


The question that naturally comes to mind is, “Are dutched and undutched cocoa powders interchangeable?”

Yes, but not without affect.

This question about which cocoa to use is a difficult one to answer because there are so many variables. Aside from leavening affects, baking powder and baking soda contribute to the texture, color and taste in a recipe. As mentioned above, the differing acidity levels of cocoa powder also affect the leavening of your baked goods.

As a general rule, if you are using natural cocoa powder the recipe will call for baking soda as the leavening agent, while recipes using dutched cocoa will call for baking powder.

Sometimes though you will see dutched cocoa powder and baking soda in the same recipe combined with acids like vinegar or buttermilk to provide the needed acidity.

Recipes that call for both baking soda and baking powder are probably using the baking soda to offset extra acidity in the batter (from ingredients like buttermilk or molasses) and to weaken the proteins in the flour.

However when confronted with only one type of cocoa powder in the pantry, some people (myself included) just prefer to make a recipe with the type you have on hand.

Be forewarned: when using one type of cocoa powder instead of the other, the baked/finished results will vary. I have never had what I would call a failure using the “wrong” cocoa powder in baked goods even if the result wasn’t what the baker/author intended.

Note: Sweetened cocoa powder is for drinking. DO NOT use sweetened cocoa as a substitute for either dutched or undutched in baking. Personally I never use sweetened for anything, as I make my own hot chocolate with natural cocoa powder, sugar and accompanied by shaved chocolate from solid bars.

Brand Names

There are many brand names of cocoa powder out there, some from exalted chocolate purveyors, and it can get very confusing.

So this begs the question, “Is there any real difference in a finished cake or baked goods?” No, here’s why.

Even if you begin with the world’s finest chocolate (and try to get agreement on what that is or even its country of origin), the cocoa process reduces the chocolate to the solids and therefore should reflect the best elements of the product. However, when you add all the other baking ingredients (flour, eggs, sugar, other flavor elements and maybe even solid chocolate from bars or chips) the distinctive and subtler chocolate elements of the cocoa powder can get lost. What will come through is the color or flavor components elemental to the type of cocoa.

You can do your own experiments, but if someone can blindly tell the difference – in a finished product – between Valrhona, Scharffenberger and Droste cocoa powder (assuming all are the same i.e. dutched or undutched) then that person needs to get a job as a professional taster. I doubt that 99.9% of the world could taste the difference in the baked, finished product. I stick by that claim even if making a chocolate cake with no other flavor additives. This statement applies to cocoa powder only, other types of chocolate chips, chunks or bars are a different issue and would need to be dealt with in a separate post.

So when you are looking at brands and prices, understand that as long as you are using a reputable company’s unsweetened cocoa powder, you are dealing with the pure cocoa solids, free from additives. Aside from the dutched/undutched issues, buy them and bake with confidence.

This list below is not exhaustive, but is an attempt to cover the major brands available.


Hershey’s cocoa powder and special dark cocoa powder (not cocoa drinks or sweetened)
Scharffenberger (now an independently run sub-division of Hershey)

E. Guittard



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20 Responses to “What’s the Deal with Cocoa Powder?”

  1. candice

    Very informative post, I did not realize the complexity of chocolate. The science behind it peaked my interest quite a bit. I am not very picky when it comes to chocolate products, I have even been known to to eat slightly burnt brownies. I just love chocolate.

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