cocoa powder

Chocolate is one of the most flexible ingredients, it finds itself at home in savory dishes, (think stews or molé) as well as sweet (innumerable possibilities).  It’s rich, flavorful, and a little bitter. It’s complex and interesting and has transfixed and inspired mankind since it was first discovered. Chocolate has a long rich history, in fact so long that I have decided to parcel out the saga into a few posts so as not to give myself a brain hemorrhage. Today we’ll be talking about chocolate in its powder form and most particularly in the differences, we bakers encounter between the natural and dutched varieties.

Before leaping into the nuances of cocoa powder, let’s define what it is. Cocoa powder starts with cocoa beans, which are first fermented, dried, then roasted before being cracked into cocoa nibs which are then ground into a paste (called chocolate liquor). At this point, the cocoa paste still contains too much cocoa butter and some of it must be removed. There are two methods for doing this, one is achieved by pressing the liquor in a hydraulic press to remove most of the cocoa butter before grinding it. The other, seemingly simpler process, calls for nothing more than a hanging bag and a hot room and is referred to as the Broma method. Whichever process is employed results in dry crumbly remains that are ground again into the fine powder we know as natural cocoa powder.

Natural Cocoa vs. Dutch Processed

The fundamental difference between Dutch-processed and natural cocoa powder is acid.

Cocoa powder on its own is acidic, typically it runs at around  5 or 6 on the pH scale (context clue, water is 7). That slight acidity can be tasted and lends a sharper flavor to natural cocoa powder, some describe it as almost citrusy.

Dutch-processed cocoa sometimes called “alkalized” cocoa powder is not acidic. This is because the process of dutching cocoa consists of washing it in a potassium carbonate solution that neutralizes its acidity. Called “dutching” because its inventor was the Dutch chocolate pioneer Conrad van Houten this procedure lends it a much darker color than that of natural cocoa powder and renders a mellower flavor. In fact, there are many different shades of dutch cocoa powder produced ranging in color from light brown to nearly black; the darker the color, the milder the flavor.

If you’ll recall the post on the difference between baking powder and baking soda you’ll remember that baking soda requires an acid in order to activate it, but baking powder, which comes equipped with its own acid, does not. Because of this, baking powder is generally the leavener of choice when using dutched cocoa powder.

So when confronted with a recipe that doesn’t specify, examine the ingredients it’s going to be paired with. Does it call for more baking soda or baking powder? If it’s baking soda then grab the natural stuff if it’s instead baking powder then you know to use the dutched-variety.

cocoa powder

Making Substitutions

Although you can generally get away with substituting natural cocoa powder for dutched, it’s a little trickier when you start to make substitutions the other way, that’s because most recipes that call for natural cocoa powder are relying partially on the acids within it to help leave your batter. So be cautious when making substitutions, being sure to provide an acid in another form if it looks like your recipe needs it. There is a multitude of other ingredients that can be added to provide that acidic reaction, i.e. buttermilk, yogurt, molasses, cream of tartar, etc.

So here’s a quick breakdown of the characteristics of both kinds of cocoa powder. May it help you in your future baking endeavors.

Natural Cocoa Powder: is acidic, light in color, pair it with baking soda.

Dutch-processed Cocoa Powder: Alkaline, dark in color, pair with baking powder