Cocoa powder is an essential baking ingredient. Our brownies, cakes and cookies would be nothing without it.
The thing is, though, cocoa powder also can be kind of confusing. There are two types on the shelves of most groceries stores, natural and Dutch process, and are they sometimes interchangeable ― but sometimes not!
We spoke with baking experts to help you decide which cocoa powder makes the most sense for your baked goods for the holiday season and beyond.
What Exactly Is Cocoa Powder?
Cocoa powder is the dry, solid remains of cacao beans that have been fermented, roasted and pressed. The shade and flavor of the cocoa powder can be different based on where it’s sourced from, explained Donald Wressell, Guittard’s executive pastry chef. There’s also variation in the quality of cocoa powder depending on the beans brands use. Hershey’s, although a classic, won’t be as high quality as, say, Valhrona, which is used by professional pastry chefs.
If you’re just trying to bake some brownies to enjoy a Friday night in your jammies, then Hershey’s or an equivalent will likely do the trick. But depending on what kind of cocoa powder you use, it can have an impact on the way it interacts with other ingredients in the recipe’s chemistry.
Natural Cocoa Powder
Choosing which cocoa powder to use in a recipe is often a matter of personal taste. “I always say, as a general rule, natural cocoa powder has the strongest chocolate taste,” said Meghan Splawn, a recipe developer and host of the podcast ”Didn’t I Just Feed You?”
“So if you come across a recipe and it doesn’t specify which cocoa to use, go with natural,” Splawn continued. The recipe developer likely will have built in some flexibility about which cocoa powder can be used without altering the recipe’s chemistry.
Natural cocoa powders work well in recipes that primarily use baking soda as a leavening agent, or that don’t necessarily need one (i.e., a shortbread cookie). Cocoa powder is also a good swap for melted chocolate in certain recipes.
“If you just want a brownie, using a cocoa powder-based brownie recipe is often the fastest way to get that satisfaction of a really good brownie,” Splawn said. “I think cocoa powder brownies are a little bit chewier.”
Wressell also likes to use natural cocoa powder in chiffon cake. It produces a cake that’s lighter in color and a little brighter in flavor because of natural cocoa’s acidity.
Dutch Process Cocoa Powder
Dutch process cocoa powder is different from its natural counterpart because it’s been alkalized. “Potassium carbonate is added to change the pH,” Wressell said. “The pH can deepen the flavor and mitigate some of the acidic notes that are inherent in natural cocoa powder.” As a result, Dutch process cocoa powder is typically a darker hue with richer, earthier cocoa notes.
When cocoa powder is alkalized, it becomes less acidic, which means it won’t react with baking soda (a base) but will react with baking powder (an acid). Recipes that call for Dutch process cocoa powder typically use baking powder as the primary leavening agent, though some will also call for a bit of baking soda.
“You see Dutch-processed a lot where the bake time is short because it has a lighter flavor and color to it,” Splawn said. For example, these cookies and this cake call for Dutch process cocoa powder. Splawn also uses Dutch process cocoa powder to coat chocolate truffles because it’s less bitter.
Black Cocoa Powder
Black cocoa powder is the most alkalized version of Dutch cocoa powder, and it’s rare. It has a stunning black hue, but because it’s been stripped of so much acidity, it lacks a strong chocolate flavor. “If you think about eating an Oreo cookie, it doesn’t really taste like chocolate. It tastes like it’s its own thing,” Wressell said. That’s because Oreos and other process treats use black cocoa powder — which is why it’s so fun to use it to make homemade versions of these treats, Splawn explained. Maybe start with homemade Oreos.
Can Dutch Process Cocoa And Natural Cocoa Be Used Interchangeably?
Sometimes! In a baking recipe, the type of cocoa used can change the chemistry of the treat. So it’s best to use the type of cocoa powder called for when there are leavening agents like baking powder and baking soda involved. Sometimes recipe developers build in flexibility, even with these leavening agents, but they’ll note that. There are tweaks that can be made ― but if you’re not a pro, it’s probably best to stick with what’s prescribed.
If it’s a recipe that doesn’t use a leavening agent, such as a brownie, you can use Dutch process or natural cocoa powder because the cocoa is in the recipe for flavor (choose your cocoa adventure). For something like frosting, the swap can be made based on personal preference: Dutch process will give it a richer flavor, while natural has a lighter flavor.
One Last Cocoa Powder Tip
Both Splawn and Wressell suggest blooming your cocoa powder (natural or Dutch process) before using it in a recipe. Simply add some warm water to the cocoa powder and whisk it until smooth, which will open the fiber in the cocoa powder.
“It can bring out even more chocolate flavor in the chocolate too,” Splawn explained. “And it helps mix it, especially if you’re dealing with clumpy cocoa powder.”