What You Need to Know About Cocoa Powder
Cocoa powder may seem like chocolate’s boring sister, so what do you need to know about it? It’s often treated as a generic ingredient associated with old-fashioned recipes — like grandma made — without the sex appeal that surrounds chocolate. While it’s easy to take for granted, cocoa powder can produce very flavorful chocolate cakes and cookies with a lighter texture and more delicate crumb than chocolate can. Cocoa also makes fabulous brownies, sauces, and puddings. As with chocolate, there are more brands of cocoa available to choose from than ever, and there are quality and flavor differences among them. An intimate knowledge of cocoa powder is a huge advantage to pastry chefs, but to create and publish recipes that work for home cooks, a cordial relationship is good enough! You should know the basic difference between natural and Dutch, which to use for your recipe, and how to communicate your choice.
Cocoa powder is made by removing 75% to 80% of the fat (cocoa butter) from ground cocoa beans (aka chocolate liquor or unsweetened chocolate) and then pulverizing the partially defatted mass that remains. Cocoa powder is essentially a very concentrated powdered form of unsweetened chocolate: with all of the flavor but a fraction of the fat, it is intensely chocolaty, quite bitter, and naturally acidic. A little goes a long way.
There are two types of cocoa powder: natural (non-alkalized) — described above — and Dutch Process (alkalized). Dutch Process cocoa is treated with a chemical alkali to reduce acidity and harshness. Alkalizing produces a rich deep reddish brown color that looks more “chocolaty” and appetizing than natural cocoa powder. The process also imparts a mellow flavor reminiscent of Oreo cookies, which is beloved by many — but not a true natural chocolate flavor. (Excess alkalizing gives cocoa a charcoal color: “black” cocoa is a novelty ingredient with some fans, but no real chocolate flavor!)
Chefs use different types of cocoa for different applications and for different reasons. The acidity of natural cocoa powder may sting the tongue, but combined with sugar and butter and other ingredients, high quality cocoa contributes a vibrant complexity to the flavor of desserts and baked goods. Alkalized cocoa looks richer and may taste mellower dusted on truffles or the surface of a dessert, but some people find it harsh in its own right, and less acidity also means less of the natural fruit flavor and fewer of the “high notes” that characterize fine chocolate. These are just a few of the myriad considerations that go into choosing cocoa for a recipe, some of which are dictated by personal taste, and others by recipe chemistry.
Some Recipes Are Flexible
In recipes that do not include baking powder and/or baking soda, the cook may normally use whichever cocoa she prefers (or has on hand), although each will produce a different flavor profile. Recipes that are flexible include brownies, sauces, puddings, ice creams, cookies, genoise cakes, and more — as long as none are leavened with baking powder or soda.
An excellent way to learn which cocoa you like best is to make one of these recipes twice, once with each type of cocoa. Chocolate pudding, chocolate sauce, or brownies are great choices for this experiment. Invite friends (they will owe you big-time and you will be fascinated at different people’s preferences). Taste blind — literally without looking — so that color differences will not influence you.
Some Recipes Require a Specific Type of Cocoa Powder
Recipes leavened with baking powder and/or baking soda usually require a specific type of cocoa powder for the right flavor and correct texture: cakes rise from the interaction of leavening with an acid or alkaline batter. Batters that contain acidic ingredients like buttermilk or sour cream — or natural cocoa powder — need baking soda in their leavening. For example, my tiger cake recipe specifies unsweetened natural (non-alkanized) cocoa powder, because it contains baking soda. The wrong cocoa can destroy a great cake.
For Recipe Writers: How to Call for Cocoa Powder When a Recipe is Flexible
Make it clear that the cook has a choice, and then name the choices specifically. If you simply call for “cocoa powder” a cook who knows that there are two types may worry about which to use or may be annoyed at not being told. In my recipes, I offer the choice and sometimes express my personal preference in the ingredient list or in the headnote as well. Examples:
- 100 grams unsweetened natural (non-alkalized) or Dutch process (alkalized) cocoa powder
- 100 grams unsweetened cocoa powder (natural or Dutch process)
- 100 grams unsweetened cocoa powder, preferably natural (non-alkalized)
How to Call For Cocoa Powder When a Recipe Requires a Specific Type of Cocoa:
Be specific and don’t make the mistake of using the word “preferably” — implying choice — when only one type will do. I sometimes err on the side of extra emphasis (see the third example) when calling for natural cocoa powder because the words “natural” or “non-alkalized” do not always appear on cocoa labels. Examples:
- 100 grams unsweetened Dutch process (alkalized) cocoa powder
- 100 grams unsweetened natural (non-alkalized) cocoa powder
- 100 grams unsweetened natural (not Dutch process or alkalized) cocoa powder
How to Read a Cocoa Label
Dutch processed cocoas are usually labeled “Dutch Process” or “alkalized” on the front of the package, or “cocoa processed with alkali” on the ingredient statement on the back of the package. Absent these words somewhere on the package, you can normally assume that the cocoa is natural (non-alkalized). One warning: Valrhona cocoa powder, which is alkalized, is packaged without proper labeling, which may cause cooks to believe it is natural. Watch out for this.
Natural (non-alkalized) cocoa powder may or may not be labeled “natural” or “non-alkalized” on the front or back of the package. But, with the renegade exception mentioned above, assume that a cocoa is natural unless the words “Dutch process”, “alkalized”, or “cocoa processed with alkali” appear somewhere on the package.
Premium Quality Cocoa Powder
Cocoa powders contain from 10% to 24% fat. Better cocoas have the higher fat content, from 22% to 24%. Packages are not labeled by fat percentage, but the nutritional panel provides the necessary clues: premium quality cocoa powder contains 1 gram of fat (instead of .5 grams of fat) per 5 to 6 gram serving.
Rules of Thumb and What to Do If a Recipe Simply Calls For “Cocoa Powder”
Old recipes simply called for “cocoa powder” when the only cocoa in the baking aisle was natural cocoa. Accordingly, those old classic chocolate cakes are leavening with baking soda. If you are baffled about a recipe that simply calls for cocoa powder, look at the leavening. If there is none, use whichever cocoa you prefer. If the leavening is baking soda, use natural cocoa powder. If it’s baking powder, Dutch process cocoa is probably (but not always) correct. Recipes that call for both baking soda and baking powder are tricky; you have to test. The texture, color, and flavor of your results will tell the tale. A devil’s food or similar chocolate cake meant to have a light and tender crumb will come out with a dense and “muddy” texture, charcoal black color, and soapy flavor if Dutch process is used where natural cocoa was intended. Rules of thumb are a good start, but never infallible: obviously you should never publish a recipe without testing it. Meanwhile, if you are reviving an old recipe, it is also useful to know that vintage cakes were often over-leavened with soda. Unless you love the “oreo” cookie flavor that results, decreasing the soda a bit may result in a more vibrant and chocolaty flavor — without adding extra cocoa powder!
The included recipes demonstrate the versatility of brownies and the value of testing, because rules of thumb don’t always apply: the baking powder in my Tiger Cake would suggest the use of Dutch process cocoa. In fact, Dutch process cocoa tastes awful with the olive oil in the cake. Natural cocoa tastes good and does no harm to the cake’s texture — so natural cocoa is called for. Chocolate Pound Cake, with both baking soda and powder, needs Dutch process (alkalized) cocoa for the right texture and flavor.
For more recipes and details about cocoa powder, including formulas for substituting cocoa for all types of chocolate, see Seriously Bittersweet: The Ultimate Dessert Maker’s Guide to Chocolate.