Coo Coo for Cocoa Powder! A Primer on the Different Types of Cocoa Powder for Baking

Black Cocoa Cake | Erin Gardner | Bluprint

Photo via Erin Bakes

How is cocoa powder made?

It all starts with a little bean. The cocoa bean! It’s harvested, dried and fermented. What remains is called the cocoa nib. Nibs are the purest form of chocolate and serve plenty of uses on their own. 

Cocoa Nibs | Erin Gardner | BluprintPhoto via Erin Bakes

When nibs are processed, they’re first ground into a paste. That paste is then separated out into cocoa butter and cocoa solids. The solids are ground again and, voila, you have natural cocoa powder!

Natural cocoa powder can then be processed even further into what’s known as Dutch process cocoa or European cocoa powder. In that process the naturally acidic cocoa is neutralized, not only changing the cocoa’s level of acidity, but also the color, flavor and use. There are a spectrum of Dutch processed cocoas that vary in color and flavor. Black cocoa powder falls at the end of the spectrum, having the lowest acidity. 

What are the best types of cocoa powder for baking?

When you’re trying out a new recipe it can be tempting to throw all caution to the wind and just 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.

Chocolate Cake, Bluprint Instructor Josh Johnson | Erin Gardner | BluprintPhoto via Bluprint instructor Josh Johnson

What if the recipe does’t specify which kind of cocoa powder to use?

You can find the answer you need pretty quickly by taking a look at the leavener. Recipes in baking are balanced formulas made up of acids and bases that work together or neutralize each other to achieve the desired result. Cakes can be leavened in a number of ways within a single recipe. One way is the chemical reaction between baking soda or baking powder with the other ingredients in the recipe.

Acidic cocoa powder reacts with neutral baking soda, releasing carbon dioxide, helping the cake to rise. Since Dutch processed cocoa powder is neutral, using it in a recipe that calls for natural cocoa powder would take away some of the recipe’s leavening power. You’d likely still get a lovely cake when all is said and done, but it would be very different in texture, height and color than had you used the cocoa the recipe called for. 

Cake by Bluprint User VNicoll | Erin Gardner | BluprintPhoto via Bluprint member VNicoll

Here’s a handy chart that quickly reference each cocoa’s qualities to help you decide which kind to use: 

Chart Explaining Different Types of Cocoa Powders

What types of cocoa powder should I use in my other treats?

If leavening isn’t part of the equation, then the best cocoa powder to use in any recipe 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 processed cocoas will typically yield a darker, fudgier, richer product.

Josh Johnson Bluprint Instructor | Erin Gardner | Bluprint

Photo via Bluprint Instructor Josh Johnson. 

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