Craving a bite of brownie, a sip of hot cocoa, or a spoonful of chocolate pudding? You’re going to need cocoa powder, the key flavoring agent that makes these and countless other sweet treats downright irresistible. But did you know there are two types of cocoa powder—natural cocoa and Dutch-process cocoa—each with its own distinct color, flavor, and composition? Here’s how know exactly which type of cocoa to use when.
You’ve likely seen the words “cacao” and “cocoa” on candy bars and baking ingredients like cocoa powder, chocolate chips, and more. Lots of people assume that the two words mean the same thing. Sure, both cacao and cocoa are related to chocolate and they both come from the same place (more on that below). And they sure do sound similar! But in reality, a discussion of cacao vs. cocoa is about much more than a difference in vowels.
So, what does set these two apart? And when should you choose one ingredient over the other?
Before we dive into the differences between these two products, let’s start with the similarities: Both cocoa and cacao have the same origin—the seeds of a cacao pod, or cacao beans. Once the pod is harvested, the seeds are separated from the fatty part known as cocoa butter (yes, that’s the very thing responsible for the delicious velvety texture of chocolate!). They are then dried, fermented, and shipped to manufacturers for further processing. This is the stage that differentiates cacao vs. cocoa.
Cacao powder and cocoa powder almost seems like a spelling mistake, but these are two very different ingredients.
Let’s start with what they both have in common, chocolate!
Chocolate is made from the beans of a cacao tree. In their raw form, cacao beans have a very bitter taste. For these bitter beans to become the sweet, velvety products we’ve become familiar with, they undergo a fermentation process.
The cacao beans are roasted, ground into a liquid, and mixed with other ingredients like cocoa butter, vanilla, and sugar. Voila, now you have chocolate.
The Difference Between Cacao and Cocoa
Cacao powder is made from the fermented cacao bean. The beans are roasted at a low temperature before milling into powder.
Since cacao beans are not roasted at high temperatures, they retain most of their nutritional value. This is why cacao powder is often referred to as being raw or natural.
Due to low heat, cacao powder retains its nutritional value and signature bitter taste.
Characteristics of cacao powder:
- Not roasted
- Relatively unprocessed
- It comes in chips, nibs, pastes, powders
- Free from added ingredients such as sugar, vanilla, milk
- Bitter in taste
- More nutritional value
Cocoa powder is also made from fermented cacao beans, but these beans are roasted at a high temperature before being milled into powder. Essentially, roasting at a high temperature is what turns cacao into cocoa.
Some brands of cocoa powder can be made with added sweeteners and milk, which doesn’t make them vegan or suitable for baking. They are sold as drink mixes for making hot cocoa.
Most cocoa powder has been processed with an alkaline solution to reduce acidity and increase richness. They are often referred to as dutch-processed cocoa powder.
Characteristics of cocoa powder:
- Processed with alkali (Dutch-processed) to reduce the sharp, acidic flavor
- It comes in a wide array of forms
- Typically contain added ingredients such as sugar, vanilla, milk
- Sweet in taste
- Less nutritional value
Can I substitute cacao powder for cocoa powder in baking recipes?
Cacao and cocoa powder are both similar in function, but they have different flavor profiles for baking.
It’s important to know how each reacts when mixed with other baking ingredients.
Usually, it’s best to stick to whatever the recipe calls for. But if you’ve found yourself in a pinch with only one on hand, here are a few things to remember:
- Cacao powder has a stronger and more bitter flavor, so you’ll want to use less of it than you would cocoa powder. With cocoa powder, it’s okay to be a little heavy-handed.
- Cacao powder absorbs more liquids than cocoa powder. Adjust your recipe accordingly depending on which you are substituting.
- When using cacao powder, use baking soda as a leavening agent. If using cocoa powder, use baking powder as a leavening agent. Cacao powder contains acidity, which reacts with baking soda. Baking soda doesn’t react with cocoa powder due to a lack of acidity.
- If baking raw desserts or following a drink recipe, you will be able to get away with a direct substitute.
Should I use cacao powder or cocoa powder?
Ultimately, the choice is yours.
Both cacao powder and cocoa powder will bring a deep chocolatey flavor to your baking. It’s always good to try both and get familiar with the differences in flavor and your taste preferences.
While cacao powder has more health benefits, it’s also the pricier option.
How do I use cacao powder?
Cacao is a super tasty and more nutritious way to increase that rich chocolate flavor in cookies, cakes, and brownies. You can also add cacao powder to smoothies, oatmeal, trail mix, and festive drinks.
You’ll find that many vegan recipes call for cacao powder. When you mix cacao powder with ingredients like bananas, dates, avocados, and nut milk, you end up with some pretty tasty vegan desserts.
Are there health benefits to cacao?
There are! Cacao is a great protein, iron, potassium, fiber, and magnesium source. Cacao products usually have antioxidant properties and come unsweetened to help reduce calorie and sugar intake.
If you want to keep your ingredients as unprocessed as possible, cacao would be the best choice.
Recipes using cocoa powder
This post is a super resource all about cocoa powder for baking. If you’ve ever wondered why some recipes call for different kinds of cocoa powder, I am answering all of your questions in this post. Learn the difference between them, when you should use each kind and when you can substitute one for another.
Table of Contents
What is Cocoa Powder?
Without getting too technical, cocoa powder is basically cocoa beans that have been processed so the fat (cocoa butter) is removed. What’s left is dried and then ground into a powder.
Cocoa powder is unsweetened and adds the rich, chocolaty flavor to chocolate desserts, but you probably already knew that part! So, why are there different kinds? That’s what we’re getting into today.
The two most common types are:
- Natural cocoa powder
- Dutch-process cocoa powder
Natural Cocoa Powder
Natural cocoa powder is just the processed cocoa beans with the fat removed and dried. Hershey’s Natural Unsweetened Cocoa Powder is the most mainstream brand and the one I use the most. If you’ve ever taken a taste from the container you already know it’s bitter. When added to baked goods it produces a very rich chocolate flavor.
The bitterness is from the natural acid from the cocoa beans. Natural cocoa powder is used in recipes that have baking soda because the baking soda needs acid in order to activate, which is what causes leavening.
When Dutch-process cocoa is made it goes through an additional processing step which reduces its acidity levels. So compared to natural cocoa powder it is less bitter and lower in acidity. The color is also lighter compared to natural cocoa.
Can I Substitute Dutch-Process Cocoa for Natural Cocoa Powder?
First, things first. You should always use what’s listed in the recipe but in case it’s not specified, let’s break it down and ask these questions:
- Does the recipe have baking soda? If so, then you can’t replace Dutch-process with natural cocoa powder. Remember: baking soda needs acid in order to work probably (i.e. leaven) and natural cocoa powder has more acidity.
- Does the recipe only have baking powder? If yes, then you can use Dutch-process in place of natural.
- What if the recipe has both baking powder and baking soda? In this case, if the recipe calls for more baking powder than baking soda than you can use either Dutch-process or natural cocoa powder. If it calls for more baking soda than baking powder than use natural.
- What if the recipe doesn’t have any leavening agent? In this case, either will work! So, for things like frosting, ice cream, and hot chocolate or other chocolate drinks – basically anything without a leavener – you can use either.
What about Black Cocoa Powder?
I get asked about this one a lot so I wanted to mention it here. Black cocoa powder is an ultra-processed Dutch cocoa and it’s mainly used for color (like in Oreo cookies) and is usually mixed with another type of cocoa powder.
Black cocoa powder is really hard to find in stores – in fact, I tried to find some for a photo but couldn’t! That’s why I often use Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa powder instead of black cocoa powder because it’s less expensive and easier to find. I use it a lot for dark chocolate dessert recipes like my copycat Oreos.
Cocoa Powder Substitutions
Some recipes call for cocoa powder and others call for baking chocolate and you can substitute one for the other. This is especially handy when you need to make a dessert but don’t have time to run to the store!
In a pinch, substituting cocoa powder and baking chocolate will totally work – with a few tweaks.
- 3 tablespoons of cocoa powder + 1 tablespoon of fat = 1 square of baking chocolate
- 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder + 2 teaspoons of sugar + 2 teaspoons shortening = 1 ounce of semisweet chocolate
Recipes that use Natural Unsweetened Cocoa Powder
Recipes you could use Dutch Process Cocoa in
Recipes that use Hershey’s Special Dark Cocoa
Knowing the differences between different kinds of cocoa powder will make a big difference in your baking! I hope I’ve demystified it for you so you can make all of your chocolate desserts with confidence. Have more questions? Be sure to leave a comment and I’ll do my best to answer it!
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When it comes to baking, knowing the differences between unsweetened cocoa powder, natural cocoa powder, Dutch process cocoa powder and black cocoa powder can really help!
Most recipes you are used to making most likely call for unsweetened cocoa powder — like in my Moist Chocolate Cake Recipe. But let’s talk about why, in some cases, you’ll want to use a different kind of cocoa powder and most importantly, why it matters!
First off, what are the cocoa powder types? There is unsweetened cocoa powder, natural cocoa powder, dark cocoa powder, Dutch process cocoa powder, and black cocoa powder. Let’s take a look at the different types of cocoa powder.
What is Cocoa Powder?
Cocoa powder is an unsweetened powder that adds chocolate flavor to baked goods such as brownies, cookies, cakes, and various other dessert recipes.
Cocoa powder comes from cocoa beans, which is the seed of a cacao tree.
Cocoa powder is an end product after cacao beans have been fermented, roasted and pressed to extract about 75% of the cocoa butter. What’s left is a pasty chocolate liquor that is then dried and ground into cocoa powder.
What is Unsweetened/Natural Cocoa Powder?
That’s right! Unsweetened cocoa powder and natural cocoa powder are the same thing. You’ve even probably heard it referred to as baking cocoa. Same, same, same.
Let’s break down unsweetened cocoa powder, talk about what cocoa powder is and its important characteristics.
Unsweetened cocoa powder (or natural cocoa powder, again same thing!) comes from cocoa beans.
- Most of the cocoa butter in the product has been removed.
- Unsweetened cocoa powder is acidic.
- It is usually paired with baking soda (a base) since the acidic cocoa powder will react with it, causing bakes to rise.
- The base (baking soda) also tames the acidity in the cocoa powder. This means that when you take a bit of that cookie, brownie or cake, you don’t think “wow that’s super acidic.”
- Lighter in color.
Remember: Unsweetened/natural cocoa powder = baking soda.
Recipes Using Unsweetened Cocoa Powder
What is Dutch Processed Cocoa Powder?
Dutch process cocoa powder is unsweetened cocoa powder that has been soaked or treated with an alkaline solution to reduce its acidity.
Dutch process cocoa powder is sometimes called “alkalized,” “European style,” or “dutched.”
Dutch process cocoa has a more intense “chocolatey” flavor as opposed to natural unsweetened cocoa powder.
- Dutch process cocoa powder is neutral.
- Usually pairs with baking powder or is used in a recipe that is predominantly baking powder over baking soda.
- Baking powder is a product made up of baking soda + a powdered acid (think, cream of tartar). This means, baking powder doesn’t need an acid to react. It will react when combined with liquid.
- This means the Dutch processed cocoa powder doesn’t have a leavening responsibility in the recipe. It is merely an ingredient to add color and flavor.
Remember: Dutch process cocoa powder = baking powder.
Black cocoa powder is a type of Dutch processed cocoa powder. It is simply a heavily Dutched cocoa powder, meaning it’s been alkalized a lot longer. I go into more detail on black cocoa powder in my Black Cocoa Powder guide!
Recipes Using Dutch Process Cocoa Powder
How to Substitute Cocoa Powders
When substituting cocoa powders, it’s important to know that 3 things can be affected: the taste, the rise, and the color. (Source: King Arthur Baking Company)
Substituting Unsweetened Cocoa Powder
Using a 1:1 ratio
If you use unsweetened/natural cocoa powder in a recipe that calls for Dutch process cocoa powder, here is what to expect:
- Taste may be tangy. Baking soda will neutralize acidity in natural cocoa powder. But in a Dutch process recipe, baking powder is typically used. So, the absence of baking soda means you may have a tangy flavor if you do a direct swap.
- Color will be lighter. Unsweetened/natural cocoa powder is lighter, so the baked good will be a lighter color.
- Rise won’t be affected. Since the original recipe called for Dutch processed cocoa powder, it’s likely the leavening agent used is baking powder. This means that swapping out the Dutch process cocoa for unsweetened cocoa powder won’t affect the rise because the baking powder will react on its own when combined with liquid.
How to adjust your recipe if you are using unsweetened cocoa powder instead of Dutch process:
- Replace the baking powder with half the amount of baking soda.
Substituting Dutch Process Cocoa Powder
Using a 1:1 ratio
If you use Dutch process cocoa powder in a recipe that calls for unsweetened/natural cocoa powder, here is what to expect:
- Taste may be “soapy”. There may be a “slight soapy flavor” as King Arthur Baking Company put it. This is from the baking soda because it didn’t have an acidic cocoa powder to neutralize it.
- Color will be darker. Dutch process cocoa powder is a darker color than unsweetened, so your baked goods will be a bit darker colored and have a deeper more chocolatey flavor.
- Rise will be affected. Since the original recipe called for unsweetened/natural cocoa powder, it’s likely the recipe has baking soda. This means that if you use Dutch process, there isn’t any acidity to react with the baking soda. Your bakes could having problems rising.
How to adjust your recipe if you are using Dutch process cocoa powder instead of unsweetened:
- Replace the baking soda with double the baking powder.
How to Store Cocoa
Store cocoa powder at room temperature in a Ziplock bag or airtight container.
Do not freeze cocoa powder. It won’t lengthen the shelf life and it can actually damage it due to possible condensation.
Cocoa Powder FAQs
What is cocoa powder?
Cocoa powder is an end product after cacao beans have been fermented, roasted and pressed to extract about 75% of the cocoa butter. What’s left is then dried and ground into cocoa powder. Cocoa powder adds a chocolate flavor to baked goods.
Is unsweetened and natural cocoa powder the same?
Yes they are! Those words are used interchangeably to mean the same thing. Natural cocoa powder is just unsweetened, so both words are used.
What is dutch-processed cocoa powder
Dutch process cocoa powder is unsweetened cocoa powder that has been treated with an alkaline solution to reduce its acidity. It is a darker-colored cocoa powder with a richer chocolate flavor.
Can you substitute one type of cocoa powder for another?
Yes. Generally American recipes will be referring to the natural (AKA unsweetened) cocoa powder because Dutch process cocoa powder wasn’t as common back in the day. However, if you want to make sure your recipes bake in the way they were meant to, you may want to adjust the baking powder or baking soda for the type of cocoa powder you are using.
Is Hershey’s cocoa powder Dutch processed?
Hershey’s has a Special Dark cocoa powder which is a 100% Dutch processed cocoa powder. The Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa powder used to be a combination of unsweetened and Dutch processed cocoa, but recently the brand changed the recipe to make it 100% Dutched.
Why is it called dutch-processed cocoa?
According to Sciencedirect.com, the process is named after the Dutch chocolatier who invented the process. Coenraad Johannes van Houten is a famous chocolatier who created the process of using alkaline salts to extract the bitterness from the chocolate (removing the acidity).
Can I use unsweetened cocoa powder instead of dutch processed cocoa powder?
What is the best cocoa powder for baking?
The best cocoa powder for baking is the one that will work the best with the type of leavening agent you are using (baking powder vs. baking soda) and the one that will produce the right flavor and color for the baked good you are making!
What about cocoa powder vs. hot chocolate powder?
Since we’ve already covered all the ins and outs of what cocoa powder is, let’s talk about how hot chocolate powder is different. Hot chocolate includes cocoa powder, but it also has a few more ingredients in it such as milk powder and sweetener (such as sugar). These additions make the hot chocolate powder different from cocoa powder.
More baking tips found here.
Brown Eyed Baker and King Arthur Baking Company were sources I referred to in putting together this cocoa powder guide. Check out their websites for additional information.
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While some bakers think that using baking chocolate is always preferable to using cocoa powder in recipes, cocoa powder is actually the most concentrated form of chocolate, according to ScienceDirect. Cocoa powder is made by fermenting and roasting cacao beans which are then pressed to remove most of the cocoa butter, leaving behind a cake that is then ground up into a powder.
The health benefits of the cacao bean are concentrated in cocoa powder compared to bar chocolate, which has added ingredients like fat and sugar. Cocoa contains phytonutrients, including antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. According to the National Library of Medicine, it can even have beneficial effects on insulin resistance, cardiovascular health, and mood.
While cocoa powder is a versatile form of chocolate that is great for baking, it can also be used in frosting, sauces, and even in some savory dishes. Within categories of cocoa powder, one difference to be aware of is fat content. Higher-end brands tend to have a higher fat content than budget brands, leading to richer-tasting results.
Natural cocoa powder
Natural cocoa powder has the lightest color of all cocoa powders because it has not been alkalinized, producing naturally occurring tart, bitter, and astringent notes. According to Science Direct, natural cocoa powder is higher in the polyphenols that make cocoa powder a healthy food, and its natural bitterness can balance the sweetness in recipes. If a U.S. recipe calls for “cocoa powder,” it generally refers to natural cocoa powder.
The acidity of natural cocoa powder is why you’ll see it called for in recipes that use baking soda as a raising agent. Baking soda, which is alkaline, reacts with this acidity, giving your chocolatey baked goods a proper rise. The fat content of natural cocoa powder can vary widely from 10 percent fat in Hershey’s Cocoa Powder to higher-fat brands like Gerbs Allergy Friendly Foods running at 21.4 percent fat.
Natural cocoa powder can be substituted for unsweetened baking chocolate by using three tablespoons of cocoa powder for every ounce of unsweetened baking chocolate, plus one tablespoon of shortening to make up for the cocoa butter found in baking chocolate, according to Hershey. It can also be used in frosting and to make hot cocoa lighter in color with a fruity, bittersweet flavor. The compounds called anthocyanins in natural cocoa powder create the reddish hue of early forms of red velvet cake before diners began expecting a more vibrant red and bakers turned to food coloring, according to Mashed.
Dutched cocoa powder
Dutched cocoa powder has been alkalinized using a potassium carbonate wash, leading to deeper, earthier flavors as well as a darker color. The “Dutching” process that leads to this milder-tasting cocoa powder with caramel-like notes is named in honor of the creator of this technique, Dutch chocolate maker Conrad van Houten, according to Science Direct.
While many recipes call for natural cocoa powder, you’ll find Dutched cocoa powder used in recipes that also include baking powder in addition to baking soda or in recipes that provide an acidic ingredient to react with the alkaline raising agent. Dutched cocoa powder’s fat content varies by brand but is generally on the higher end, with Ghirardelli’s Majestic Premium Cocoa Powder running at 20 to 22 percent fat and Valrhona Cocoa Powder at 21.4 percent.
Dutched cocoa powder can be used to flour pans for chocolate cakes, cookies, and brownies to avoid leaving a white coating on darker baked goods. Recipes that call for Dutched cocoa powder are darker in color with a fudgier taste. The earthier, mellower flavor of dutch cocoa powder makes it well-suited for boosting savory meals like chili.
Rouge or red cocoa powder
Rouge or red cocoa powder is yet another stop on the scale of Dutched cocoa powders. Red cocoa powder is further alkalized compared to regular Dutched cocoa powder and has a higher pH, but it isn’t as far alkalinized as black cocoa powder.
Red cocoa powder has a deep, burgundy-adjacent reddish hue due to the Dutching process. Guittard, a chocolate brand that makes the popular and highly rated Cocoa Rouge Powder, says that this cocoa powder has a fudgy, bittersweet flavor right at home in pastries and baked goods like cakes, likely due in part to the fat content of 20 percent.
Another brand that makes red cocoa powder, King Arthur Baking, suggests using it in frostings and chocolate sauces when looking for “serious chocolate flavor.” King Arthur Baking’s cocoa powder contains 22 to 24 percent fat. While red velvet cake usually relies on natural cocoa powder (which is not Dutched), red cocoa powder can also lend a reddish hue to recipes containing an acid like buttermilk.
Double-Dutched or double-dark cocoa powder
Rather than being a result of stopping at a certain point of the Dutching process like red cocoa powder, Double-Dutch cocoa powder is a blended cocoa powder. It takes the best characteristics of Dutch cocoa powder and black cocoa powder to create a dark chocolate flavor, and it is best used in recipes for darker colors and deeper chocolate flavors.
By blending black cocoa powder (which can border on bitter and lead to a drier outcome in baked goods) with traditional Dutch cocoa powder, double-Dutch cocoa powder creates a deep chocolate flavor without the drawbacks of using pure black cocoa powder. It can be used to bake darker pastries approaching the hues of black cocoa powder as well, depending on the proportion of Double-Dutch cocoa powder in a recipe. According to King Arthur Baking, this cocoa powder (containing 16 to 18 percent fat) works well in baked goods like brownies, cookies, and cakes for that “intense” chocolate flavor.
Triple cocoa powder
Triple cocoa powder is another blended cocoa powder that combines the advantages of several different cocoa powders to create a well-balanced all-in-one product. According to King Arthur Baking, triple cocoa powder is made by mixing Dutch cocoa powder, natural cocoa powder, and black cocoa powder. This type of cocoa powder is unique to King Arthur Baking and excellent as an all-purpose cocoa powder.
This unusual cocoa powder is darker than natural cocoa or Dutched cocoa powder due to its black cocoa powder content. It has the earthier, mellower notes of a Dutched cocoa powder with some of the acidity and more rounded fruity chocolate notes of natural cocoa powder, along with a moderate percentage of cocoa fat in the range of 18 to 20 percent. Even better? It can be used as a substitute for either Dutch or natural cocoa powders, making it a handy addition to your pantry that can be used in any recipe.
Bensdorp Dutched cocoa powder
Bensdorp is a 180-year-old chocolate brand from Holland that makes high-quality cocoa powders using specially sourced West African cacao beans, according to parent company Barry Callebaut. King Arthur Baking is the only place to get your hands on Bensdorp Dutched cocoa powder as a home cook. This European-style cocoa powder has a deep chocolate flavor and a darker color with a slightly reddish tone.
It can be used as a substitute in recipes for baked goods and pastries, calling for Dutched cocoa powder, which tends to include baking soda or an acidic component. With a wide range of uses like regular Dutched cocoa powder, Bensdorp powder can also be used in brownies, cookies, cakes, and frosting for full-flavored, rounded chocolate notes. The higher fat content of this cocoa powder (22 to 24 percent fat) makes this a richer-tasting option that tastes great in hot cocoa and other unbaked recipes, like a from-scratch hot fudge sauce.
Black cocoa powder
You likely won’t find black cocoa powder on your regular grocery store shelf. This specialty item is a form of Dutched cocoa powder that has been further exposed to the alkalinizing process, leading to a dark cocoa powder with a much higher pH than other varieties.
Black cocoa powder is a natural food coloring agent used to create dark baked goods — it can be used as a substitute for Dutched but not natural cocoa powders, according to Modern Mountain Flour Company. If using it as a substitute, it’s best to only swap a portion of the cocoa powder in a recipe, according to Mashed. It’s best used in conjunction with other cocoa powders, as black cocoa powder alone can lead to crumbly, dry baked goods. This could be partly due to its lower fat content, with Weirdo Good brand running at 10 percent and Modern Mountain Flour at about 14 percent.
If the color of black cocoa powder reminds you of Oreos, you’re on the right track. Black cocoa powder can be truly black, but this depends on whether they are organic or not. According to organic black cocoa producer Weirdo Good, organic regulations only allow for certain amounts and kinds of alkalinizing agents to make black cocoa powder, preventing them from getting quite as dark as non-organic brands. They point out that there are drawbacks to a truly black cocoa powder: if the alkalinizing process is pushed far enough, ultra-Dutching cocoa powder can lead to bitter, burnt flavors.
Hot cocoa mix
While people have been drinking chocolate in some form since the Aztecs and possibly pre-Columbian cultures, according to Smithsonian Magazine, the first packaged hot chocolate mix was invented by a dairy company that overproduced dried milk for the Korean War, leading to the creation of Swiss Miss.
Hot cocoa mix combines unsweetened cocoa powder, sugar, and usually a dried form of milk, although many brands are free of dairy. Some companies include a powdered form of vanilla, and hot cocoa mix can also contain added ingredients that keep the powder free-flowing.
Hot cocoa mix, while absolutely delicious, is not purely cocoa powder and should generally not be used in baking because it contains other ingredients that will change the texture and flavor of baked goods. Hot cocoa mix can, however, be used in some recipes to boost waffles, make hot fudge sauce, and more.
Types of Cocoa Powder
Cocoa powder is made from cocoa beans, just like chocolate. The beans are fermented, roasted, and hulled, and the resulting cocoas nibs are turned into a paste, which is then pressed to remove most of the cocoa butter. What’s left is dried and ground to become the substance we know as cocoa powder. The difference between types of cocoa powder lies in how they are processed before they are ground.
To make Dutch-process, or alkalized, cocoa powder—also sometimes called “European-style cocoa”—the cocoa beans are first soaked or washed in an alkaline solution made with potassium carbonate or sodium bicarbonate. Once dried, they are finely ground to a powder. Baked goods made with Dutch-process cocoa have a dark brown, almost black hue, like our favorite One-Bowl Chocolate Cake and these Dark-and-White Chocolate Shortbread Hearts.
Natural, or non-alkalized, cocoa powder is made from pure cocoa beans that are simply roasted and ground. Baked goods made with natural cocoa powder are a lighter, more reddish brown than ones made with Dutch-process. Try the natural variety in our winning Texas Sheet Cake or Hot Cocoa with Almond Milk.
Can you substitute cacao for cocoa?
You can certainly use cacao powder in your baked goods, but you might want to take into consideration that it is exponentially more expensive. Also, because cacao powder is less processed than cocoa powder, it is a lot more bitter. It’s also important to note that cacao powder is acidic; most unsweetened cocoa powder at the supermarket is also naturally acidic, but Dutch process cocoa powder is not, so it won’t react with baking soda—keep this in mind if you’re making any swaps. Finally, know that cacao powder has more starch than cocoa powder, which makes it more absorbent, so you might want to use slightly more liquid to prevent your cake or brownies from drying out.
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Similarities and Differences
Compare these two varieties of cocoa side by side and you’ll notice that the natural cocoa powder is lighter in color, almost reddish brown. Dutch-process appears much darker, nearly black, and this color is reflected in baked goods made with each type. You might think that the darker colored powder would have a more intense chocolate flavor, but the opposite is true. In the process of alkalization, the cocoa beans lose some of their acidity, so the powder takes on a milder, less bitter flavor. (The whole point of alkalization is to remove some of the acidity, actually.) You might also notice differences in aroma.
Some pastry chefs and professional bakers prefer the mild flavor of Dutch-process cocoas in baked desserts—it’s the variety we use most often in our recipes—while others point to the bolder, almost fruity flavor that comes from natural, non-alkalized powder.
When the Cocoas Are Interchangeable
If a recipe simply calls for ‘unsweetened cocoa powder,’ you can usually use either type. This is especially true for sauces, frostings, puddings, ice creams, and hot cocoa (anything unbaked).
When and Why to Use a Specific Variety
Things get a little more tricky with substituting one for the other when you’re baking a cake, cookie, or other treat that requires baking powder or baking soda for leavening. The difference in acidity between the two cocoa powders affects the way they interact with these leavening agents, which themselves boast varying levels of acidity and alkalinity.
As a general rule, recipes that call for natural cocoa powder also include baking soda, while those that specifically require Dutch-process cocoa also include baking powder among the other ingredients. The same is true for buttermilk, since it’s also acidic and will react differently with each powder. (Brownies are often the exception to this rule, as most are made without chemical leaveners, or at least the chewy, fudgy ones—not tender, cakey brownies.) If you frequently bake cakes and cookies (if you’ve read this far, then you probably do), it’s worth stocking both types of cocoa powder in your pantry.
“Both are delicious,” says AmyGuittard, chief marketing officer of Guittard Chocolate Company, and a fifth generation employee of her family’s namesake business. Having both gives the home baker a creative advantage, and allows for versatility when baking as each imparts distinct color, aroma, and flavor, she says.
Guittard isn’t suggesting you taste the cocoa powder yourself, however. “Since they are both unsweetened, they are very strong when tasted raw, but they really come to life when used in a recipe along with sweeteners and other ingredients,” she says. Rather than tasting, she suggests you try baking the same chocolate cake or cookie recipe twice—once with Dutch-process and next with natural cocoa powder. Keep everything else the same, then do a blind tasting to see if you prefer one to the other.
Is cacao better than cocoa?
“Better” is a loaded word. Cacao is generally considered a “raw” food, so it does have more nutrients and is less processed than cocoa. However, cacao products are considerably more expensive and they have a more intense, sometimes bitter flavor, which may not be for everyone. Also, baking with cacao won’t necessarily yield a healthier treat: Baking is similar to processing, in that it subjects the cacao to high heat and destroys some of the nutrients. If you’re looking to get all the health benefits of cacao, your best bet is to consume it raw.
What is cacao?
Cacao involves much less heat and processing than cocoa. The fermented cacao beans are roasted at a low temperature, if at all, depending on the brand of cacao products. Because of minimal processing, cacao retains its nutrients and antioxidants—that’s why it’s typically considered a “superfood”! What’s more, it has little to no additives, which makes it popular in vegan diets (it’s used to make vegan chocolates). You can find the two most popular forms of cacao—cacao nibs and cacao powder—in health food stores and some grocery stores. Cacao powder is great mixed into smoothies or in oatmeal, and cacao nibs can add a welcome crunch to healthy baked goods. Just note: Nibs do not melt in the oven.
What is cocoa?
The most popular form of cocoa is cocoa powder. You’ll find it in hot chocolate mixes and some of our favorite desserts, like Ree Drummond’s Dark Chocolate Brownies (yum!). But what exactly is it? Well, after fermentation, the cacao beans are roasted at a high temperature, and then they’re ground into a fine powder and sifted—so they’re ready to be packaged and sold in the baking aisle. The high-heat processing involved here strips the beans of most of their nutrients and reduces the natural acidity of the beans. Most cocoa powder used in baking is unsweetened, but you can also find cocoa powders with varying levels of dairy, sweeteners and other additives.