Cocoa Know-How: Your Baking Cocoa Questions, Answered!

Cocoa powder is a vital ingredient in any baker’s (or chocolate lover’s) repertoire. This magical brown powder is the not-so-secret ingredient in delicious brownies, cakes, cookies and, of course, hot chocolate.

Cocoa FAQ

In spite of its frequent rotation in baking, cocoa powder can also be the source of much confusion. What’s the difference between the various types of cocoa powder, and which type should be used when?

Here, we’ll tackle some of your pressing cocoa powder questions.

Dutch process cocoa is darker

Why should I use Dutch processed cocoa powder (and what exactly is it)?

Before you can understand how to use Dutch processed cocoa, it’s important to have an idea of what it is, exactly. Also referred to as “alkalized” or “Dutched” cocoa, this type of cocoa has been treated with an alkaline solution, which neutralizes its acidity.

This means that Dutch processed cocoa is most appropriate when recipes already contain an acidic ingredient. For instance, acidic cocoa is vital for to giving a red velvet cake its naturally reddish hue. In this case, Dutch processed cocoa would not be a good choice!

When making a recipe that doesn’t require the chemical reaction for leavening, the choice to use Dutch processed cocoa can be based on preference. Dutch processed cocoa tends to have a slightly milder flavor and distinctly darker color; regular or plain unsweetened cocoa has a more acidic “bite.”

Are cacao and cocoa the same?

Nope. This can be confusing, because both start with ground cacao beans, but that’s where the powders part ways. Cacao powder is made from raw, unroasted beans. When roasted at high temperatures, those ground beans gain a slightly sweeter flavor (naturally, not by adding sugar).


What type of cocoa powder is best for making brownies?

That depends. Does the recipe call for leaveners (baking powder/baking soda)? If so, then go with regular unsweetened cocoa powder. However, if the recipe does not contain the aforementioned leaveners, then the choice is yours.

Neither is “better.” It’s more a matter of your preference. Regular cocoa powder is called for in many brownie recipes, which yields a fine result indeed.

However, Dutch process cocoa has its benefits in brownies: It imparts a darker color, which can increase visual appeal. As a bonus, it dissolves a little bit better into liquid or wet ingredients, so there’s less possibility of clumps. This makes it a good choice for making DIY hot chocolate, as well!

Vegan and gluten-free

Is cocoa powder gluten free / vegan?

The short answer is yes: Unsweetened cocoa powder is both gluten-free and vegan.

However, cocoa mixes (like hot chocolate), which are not the same thing as cocoa powder, are not necessarily gluten-free or vegan. When in doubt, be sure to read the ingredients on your packaging to be certain that it’s pure cocoa and not a mix which might contain ingredients which are not appropriate to certain diets.

Hot chocolate

Is cocoa powder the same as hot chocolate mix?

The short answer? No. Hot chocolate mix may look similar to cocoa powder, but they are two different things in practice. Of course, if you’ve ever mixed cocoa powder with hot water or milk and tried to drink it, I probably didn’t need to tell you that.

Basically, the cocoa powder you use for baking is unsweetened; it’s a raw ingredient. Hot chocolate mix, on the other hand, typically starts with cocoa powder, but it’s augmented with sugar and other ingredients such as powdered milk, stabilizers or additional flavorings. It can add to the confusion that hot chocolate mix is sometimes called “hot cocoa mix.” When in doubt, read the ingredients!

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