Who doesn’t love baking with cocoa? Ah, the woodsy aroma, the intense cocoa flavour! As a chocolate lover, you’ve probably noticed recipes that call for different types of cocoa powder; usually Dutch-process or Natural. Both types of cocoa powder are unsweetened so they’re pretty bitter when tasted alone. There are two big differences between them, though, which means using the wrong one in your recipe can affect the flavour and texture of the dish.
We’re going to look at the differences between Dutch-process and Natural cocoa powder, including how to substitute one for the other. Let’s start by getting to know cocoa powder first.
How cocoa powder is made
Cocoa beans are the fruit of the Theobroma Cacao tree, a rainforest crop that only grows in the “cocoa belt”. This limited geographic region is a narrow band running 20 degrees north and south of the equator. Nearly 70% of the world's cocoa is grown in West Africa (Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire), but other countries include Indonesia, Nigeria, Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, and the Dominican Republic.
Cocoa pods must be harvested by hand, one at a time, by farmers using sharp machetes. Cocoa pods are split open and the cocoa beans inside are fermented to build the flavour profile. After that, the beans are dried and roasted, then winnowed and cracked into pieces called “nibs”. Nibs are ground into a thick, fatty paste (called "cocoa mass", "cocoa liquor", or “cocoa solids” ) which is 100% unsweetened chocolate.
To make cocoa powder, the cocoa solids are placed in a hydraulic cocoa press. Under intense pressure, this machine squishes out and separates the cocoa fat (called "cocoa butter") from the dry and crumbly cocoa powder (called "cocoa cake").
Cocoa beans are very fatty; they are made up of 54-58% cocoa fat. The cocoa fat, which we know as cocoa butter, can go on to be used in chocolate manufacturing or in other industries such as cosmetics. The remaining crumbly cocoa cake gets ground up into the fine brown powder which we know as cocoa powder. In this way, cocoa powder is the core of a chocolate's flavour, without any extra fat, sugar, or milk to get in the way.
Dutch-Process Cocoa Powder
Dutch-process cocoa (also known as “Alkalized Unsweetened Cocoa” or "Dutched cocoa") got its name from the Dutch scientist who invented the process in 1846, Coenraad Van Houten. "Dutched" cocoa has a reddish-brown colour and a mild cocoa flavour with earthy, woodsy notes.
The manufacturing of Dutch-process cocoa powder begins with washing the cocoa beans in an alkaline solution of potassium carbonate. This neutralizes their acidity, meaning Dutch-process cocoa powder is neutral, with a PH level of 7. For reference, water also has a PH level of 7.
There are two reasons why the PH balance is important:
- The powder being neutral means Dutch-process cocoa powder is easier to dissolve in liquids (for example, Hot Cocoa).
- Being neutral also means the powder doesn’t react with baking soda, so it should be used in recipes calling for baking powder. The only exemption to this rule is if there are other acidic ingredients such as buttermilk, cream of tartar, lemon juice, or vinegar).
Natural Cocoa Powder
Natural cocoa powder lighter in colour than Dutch-process and it comes with an intense chocolate flavour. Natural cocoa powder typically has a pH between 5 and 6; that acidity bears out in natural cocoa’s flavour, which gives the cocoa a fruitier, citrus taste.
The intense cocoa flavour of Natural cocoa powder makes it well suited for use in brownies, cookies, and some chocolate cakes. When Natural cocoa (an acid) is used in recipes calling for baking soda (an alkali), it creates a leavening action that causes the batter to rise in the oven.
It’s important to use the type of cocoa specified in a recipe because it may affect the recipe’s balance of acid. If you must substitute, we recommend the following formulas.When substituting natural with Dutch-process:
- Substitute equal amounts of Dutch-process cocoa for Natural cocoa.
- Leave out any baking soda called for in the recipe.
- Do not substitute instant cocoa mix for unsweetened cocoa, they’re two different things.
- Use 3 tablespoons unsweetened Natural cocoa powder plus a pinch (1/8 teaspoon) of baking soda for every 1-ounce Dutch-process cocoa.
- Use 1-ounce unsweetened Natural chocolate plus 1/8 teaspoon baking soda (reduce fat in recipe by 1 tablespoon).
Making it easy to remember
As a general rule, when the recipes uses baking powder, you want to use Dutch-process cocoa powder. If the recipe calls for baking soda, then you want to use Natural cocoa powder. This will ensure your recipe comes out as planned!
Cococo offers you a choice of cocoa powder that is right for your recipe:
Photo credit: Meg Kibyuk, Cut Cooking