Baking Blog

The Chocolate Lover’s Guide to Baking With Cocoa Powder

Without cocoa powder, we’d never know the goodness of brownies, chocolate cakes and other to-die-for chocolate treats! But not all cocoa powder is created equally. The variety you choose can really affect the taste of your chocolate baked goods.

Chocolate cake

From Chocolate Baking Essentials with Rose Levy Beranbaum

How cocoa powder is made

Cocoa beans

It all starts with the humble cocoa bean, responsible for all things chocolatey. The bean, which grows in tropical climates just north and south of the equator, is harvested, dried and fermented, producing cocoa nibs.

Photo of cocoa nibs

Photo via Erin Bakes

These crunchy, bittersweet nibs are the purest form of chocolate and serve plenty of uses on their own.  

When nibs are processed, they’re first ground into a paste. That paste is then separated out into cocoa butter and cocoa solids. The cocoa solids then become one of three common cocoa powder varieties (more on those in a bit!).

Do not use confuse cocoa powder for cacao powder or hot cocoa mix. Cacao powder is made from raw, unroasted beans and will be very bitter indeed. Hot cocoa mix usually starts with cocoa powder before sugar, powdered milk and other ingredients are added.

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Types of cocoa powder

Natural cocoa powder

As you might guess, natural cocoa powder is made from the processed cocoa solids. The solids are ground again into a fine powder. Natural cocoa powder is relatively light in color, has a slightly acidic taste and is commonly available in supermarkets (think: Hershey’s). It’s naturally gluten-free and vegan.

Dutch process cocoa

Bakers who prefer a milder, richer-tasting chocolate often use Dutch process cocoa, also known as European cocoa powder. This cocoa powder has been processed further to neutralize the acid in natural cocoa powder.

Black cocoa powder

There’s a spectrum of Dutch process cocoas that vary in taste, color and flavor. Black cocoa powder falls at the end of the spectrum, having the lowest acidity and a very dark, rich flavor. Because black cocoa is so rich and fudgy, some manufacturers recommend using it in combination with Dutch process cocoa, not as a straight 1:1 substitute.

Here’s a handy chart to help you keep track of them all

Illustrative chart comparing natural cocoa to Dutch process and black cocoa

Which type of cocoa powder should you use for baking?

When trying out a new recipe, it can be tempting to throw caution to the wind and grab whichever cocoa powder is closest or cheapest. For the love of chocolate cake, please don’t!

Use the cocoa that the recipe calls for. There is a reason for this, and it’s rooted what you learned in high school chemistry. It all depends on the type of leavener used in the recipe.

Three chocolate cake layers

Joshua John Russell’s Chocolate Cake

Cocoa powder with baking soda

Baking soda, a very common chemical leavener, is a mild base, meaning it’s pH level is on the opposite side of the scale from acids like vinegar, lemon juice and — you guessed it — natural cocoa.

When you combine baking soda and natural cocoa powder in baking, the acid in the natural cocoa will react to the base in the baking soda to create the carbon dioxide bubbles that will make your cake rise.

Since Dutch process cocoa powder is neutral, using it in a recipe that calls for acidic natural cocoa powder would take away some of the recipe’s leavening power. Your cake would be very different in texture, height and color than one made with the cocoa the recipe called for.

Cocoa powder with baking powder

Baking powder contains both an acid and a base used to create the leavening reaction. You wouldn’t want to use acidic natural cocoa with it because it may add too much acid to your recipe. This is why you’ll often see neutralized Dutch cocoa used in recipes with baking powder.

When in doubt, choose natural cocoa powder

You’ll get a better result using natural cocoa in a Dutch recipe than the other way around. If your recipe doesn’t call for either type of chemical leavener, you can leave it up to your taste buds.

Which type of cocoa powder is best for other chocolatey treats?

Chocolate Buttercream in a glass bowl

Joshua John Russell’s Chocolate Buttercream

If leavening isn’t part of the equation, then the best cocoa powder is simply the one you like the most! Cocoa powders are just like regular chocolate: Their flavors vary by brand and with the quality of bean used.

Using natural cocoa powder in a frosting, sauce or custard will give you a lighter colored product with a more acidic taste, while Dutch process cocoas will typically dissolve a little better in liquid and yield a darker, fudgier, richer product, making it a great choice for hot chocolate and brownies.

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One Comment

Laurie Alexander

Brilliant! I learned a lot. Thanks!

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