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.
Cocoa powder, an unsweetened chocolate product, adds deep chocolate flavor to desserts and beverages. Cocoa powder occurs when the fat, called cocoa butter, gets removed from the cacao beans during processing. The leftover dried solids get ground into the product sold as cocoa powder.
- Origin: Fruit of a tropical tree
- Varieties: Dutch-processed and natural
- Uses: To flavor desserts and drinks
Pictured: Luker Natural Cocoa Powder 22-24% gives these Chocolate Galleta cookies an intense cocoa flavor and beautiful chocolate color.
Cocoa Powder 101! An ingredient of many uses, colors and flavors, cocoa powder is perfect for a variety of dessert applications, but knowing when to use each one can be somewhat confusing. So, we asked Executive Pastry Chef Jessica Ellington to fill us in on how to use the various types of cocoa powders available so that you can easily give your sweet creations that chocolatey flavor that you’re after.
Whether you want to top off a rich chocolate mousse cake with a sprinkle of red powder for added flair, or add a slightly bitter, cocoa flavor to ice cream, our selection of cocoa powders give you many options! Read on to learn about the differences between natural versus Dutch-process cocoa, and how to use them in your recipes.
Natural Vs. Dutch-Process: What’s the Difference?
Before we get into the nitty gritty of cocoa powders, let’s break down the basics:
Most unsweetened cocoa powders fall under two main groups: natural cocoa powder and Dutch-process cocoa powder. Natural cocoa powders are just that: natural, without any added colorants, which maintains its natural acidity. This results in a stronger, more concentrated and slightly bitter chocolate profile.
On the other hand, Dutch-process cocoa powder is known for its rounder, more mellow chocolate flavor due to a process called alkalization. As a general rule, “the difference between natural and Dutch-process cocoa is acidity,” explains Chef Jessica.
Each type has different chemical properties and will react accordingly with certain ingredients, so you’ll want to check what the recipe calls for first before choosing between natural or Dutch-process cocoa.
The most popular and versatile form of cocoa powder, natural cocoa powder is non-alkalized and is characterized by its natural reddish-brown color and rich, intense chocolate flavor.
“Natural cocoa powder is naturally acidic and can be reddish in hue sometimes. Generally speaking, red cocoa powders are natural. No coloring agent is being added – that’s just the color of some cocoa powders. The reddish hue in baked goods has become desirable over time solely for aesthetic purposes,” Jessica says.
Because of the acidic nature of natural cocoa powders, they are normally used in recipes along with baking soda as the ingredients interact with each other and cause pastries to rise. Typically dark and fragrant, natural cocoa powders work great in a wide variety of recipes such as cakes, brownies, cookies, fudge, pudding, and hot chocolate.
Our selection of natural cocoa powders include: Natural Cocoa Powder, 22:24% and Luker Natural Cocoa Powder 22-24%.
Pictured: Chocolate brownies finished with Luker Natural Cocoa Powder for an extra rich cocoa flavor.
Dutch-process cocoa powders are characterized by rich, dark hues and a more mellow flavor that comes from the Dutch alkalization process. This process starts with cocoa beans that are washed in an alkaline solution, which neutralizes their acidity.
“Dutch-process cocoa powders have been alkalized to remove and reduce the acidity, and reveal a more ‘chocolate’ forward tasting cocoa that has a rounder flavor. Typically, the darker the Dutch-process cocoa, the less acidic it is. Natural and Dutch-process cocoa are generally not interchangeable in baking recipes,” Jessica tells us.
Why is that? Since Dutch-process cocoa is neutral, it does not react with baking soda and so it normally is found in recipes that call for baking powder instead, which will take care of the leavening on its own. Therefore, Dutch-process cocoa powders are generally a little less versatile than their natural counterparts.
Use Dutch-process cocoa powders for recipes such as ganache, mousses, ice creams, sorbets, confectionery coverings, hot chocolates and pastries that call for baking powder instead of baking soda.
Our selection of Dutch-process cocoa powders include Cocoa Powder, Red, 22/24%, Amsterdam Cocoa Powder 22/24%, Extra Brute Cocoa Powder, 22-24%, Plein Arome Cocoa Powder, Extra Red Cocoa Powder, and Cocoa Powder – Extra Noir 10/12.
Pictured: Chocolate mousse cake made with DGF’s alkalized Extra Noir Cocoa Powder, featuring a beautifully intense black color.
So, Which Cocoa Powder Should I Choose?
Basically, if a specific recipe doesn’t require a leavening agent such as baking powder or baking soda, it really just boils down to personal preference. Sauces, frosting, hot cocoa, ice cream – if it doesn’t need to rise, it’s completely up to you! In a pinch you can typically use natural cocoa powders in place of Dutch-process, however swapping the other way around is usually more complicated as the recipe most likely needs another acidic ingredient in order to rise.
If you’re going for a slightly bitter, strong chocolate profile that can be used across a wide variety of applications, we’d recommend opting for our selection of natural cocoa powders for their versatility and intense, chocolatey flavor.
If you’re looking for a more mild, mellow chocolate taste or intensely rich dark color, we’d suggest giving one of our Dutch-process cocoa powders a go.
Check out our full selection of available cocoa powders here.
Want to learn how to properly taste the differences between cocoa powders without reading the label? Check out our blog post: How to Taste Cocoa Powder: A Sensory Analysis.
Have you ever experienced making a trusted chocolate cookie or cake recipe that somehow tasted different? Despite having made it the exact same way, several times before. Did you by any chance switch out cocoa powders? If so, that will have probably been the culprit!
You may think all cocoa powders are alike, like any other staple ingredient. But, that’s definitely not the case. There’s quite some variation within the world of cocoa powders, depending just exactly on how they’ve been processed. The fat content, whether or not the powder has been alkalized, and more, all impact the functionality and flavor of cocoa powders.
Cocoa Powder Comparison
Are all cocoa powders the same?
Short answer: no. There is a huge variation within the world of cocoa powders. As a consumer, you’ll have the choice between several types. As a professional, however, your range of options becomes even bigger! To properly understand these possible differences, we’ll need to have a look at the origin story of cocoa powder and looks at how it comes to be.
Cocoa powder is made from cocoa beans
Cocoa powder starts out as a cocoa bean, inside a cocoa pod. After harvest, the cocoa beans are fermented and dried. Once dry, a cocoa bean can be stored and transported all around the world. Next, the dried beans are cleaned, broken and separated into smaller pieces (nibs), and roasted. The roasted nibs are then pressed to remove (part of) the fat and get a dry cocoa powder. Some cocoa powders may also be alkalized. All of these individual steps can influence just how your cocoa powder turns out but some have a bigger impact than others, we’ll focus on two:
- Alkalized vs. natural cocoa powders
- Fat content
Six different cocoa powders with differing fat content and pH-values. The two leftmost samples are natural, the other four have all been alkalized.
Alkalized vs natural cocoa powders
Cocoa powder is naturally slightly acidic due to the acids that are formed during fermentation and further process steps. Manufacturers found that by adding an alkaline ingredient, which is the opposite of an acid, they could they the properties of the cocoa powder. For instance, it can make darker color cocoa powders. Alkalization enables the production of pitch-black Oreo cookies for instance.
Cocoa powders that have not been alkalized are referred to as ‘natural’. Those that have been alkalized may be called Dutch, Dutch-processed or alkalized powders. Terminology does differ around the world and not everywhere is this distinction made clearly on the packaging.
These powders can be referred to as ‘Dutch’ because the inventor, van Houten, was Dutch. He lived in the Netherlands.
Alkalization turns cocoa darker
Dutch-processed cocoa powder is darker in color than natural powder. During alkalization heat and pressure are used to alkalize the cocoa. This in turn impacts the Maillard reaction which is a crucial chemical reaction for color formation in food.
Baking soda needs acidic cocoa
If your product uses baking soda for leavening purposes, it’s important to keep in mind the possible role of cocoa powders. Baking soda will only leaven a product if an acid is present. This could be buttermilk, vinegar, or lemon juice for instance, but it might also be cocoa powder. Alkalized cocoa powders are no longer acidic, so if used for this purpose, choose a natural cocoa powder.
Alkalization improves solubility
During the alkalization process, certain chemical processes take place that help disperse cocoa powders in water, or liquids such as milk. It is why most chocolate milk mixes use alkalized powders, these can be mixed in more easily.
Those same six cocoa powders but with their pH-value and fat content.
Cocoa beans naturally contain a high amount of fat, about 50%. This fat is also referred to as cocoa butter and is crucial for a lot of typical chocolate characteristics. For instance, it’s the reason chocolate needs to be tempered. Cocoa butter is a very valuable ingredient and as such, greatly impacts the price of a cocoa powder. Fat content for cocoa powders can differ widely. Some, especially cheaper powders, barely contain any, others contain up to 25% fat. More fat makes the powder itself more prone to stickiness and clumping.
If a recipe uses a significant amount of cocoa powder, the fat content of the powder may impact the final product. It may result in too much, or too little fat. The labels will always mention the fat content of cocoa powder, if not explicitely, it’s mentioned in the nutritional value section. Even though cocoa powders with a higher fat content will be more expensive, that does not necessarily mean their cocoa flavor is different from that of other powders. It simply contains more fat. Whether that’s desirable, depends on your final application.
Other (minor) differences
The origin of the beans, the way they’ve been fermented and roasted, it all impacts the color and flavor of the final powder. However, generally speaking, you won’t have a choice for specific types of roasts or origins of cocoa powders. Often, manufacturers blend different varieties together to help ensure a consistent, even flavor profile over time.
Sweetened vs unsweetened
Cocoa powder is bitter, unlike chocolate. This is because chocolate contains added sugars for sweetness. Pure plain cocoa powder will always be unsweetened. Some manufacturers may add sugar and call it sweetened cocoa powder. This is especially common for powders used for making chocolate milk. Most people would expect chocolate milk to be sweetened, so manufacturers have added it on forehand. For optimal control of sweetness though, it’s best to use unsweetened cocoa powders in things like baked goods.
Choosing cocoa powders
The actual most suited cocoa powder will depend on what you’re using it for. Keep in mind that for small scale applications, the most important factor is almost always taste. Some cocoa powders clearly taste very different than others.
Differences are minor
To test some of the hypothesis we discussed here, we baked cookies with about 7% cocoa powder, using 3 different types of cocoa powder. These cookies contained baking soda and no other acid. However, despite the stark differences between powders, the differences between the cookies themselves were minor! Yes, the color of one was clearly darker than the others. But, they’d all expanded similarly and tastewise were very similar as well. It could well be that the differences are more pronounced if we’d made 1000 cookies each, but for our small scale, the differences are negligible.
The same happened when making chocolate milk from both a natural and (heavily) alkalized powder. We’d expected the alkalized one to work better since it’s supposed to disperse more easily. However, the differences were minor, except for the color. Of course, making chocolate milk at small scale is quite different to doing so at a large scale. It’s easy to mix a small amount of milk and powder, but it can be harder to do so for bigger quantities.
Use your taste buds
In the end, and especially at smaller scales, it’s all about taste. For instance, we tested three common brands of cocoa powder in the Netherlands: Blooker, Droste and Kruger. We absolutely did not like how Kruger tasted in cookies and cakes and liked both others. The label doesn’t clearly specify the difference, but I suspect the Kruger cocoa powder was (way) more alkalized which resulted in a different flavor. It was also the darkest in color. All three made cookies and cakes that looked and performed good, we simply liked one more than the other.
So, if in doubt, choose the one that tastes best. Once you’re looking at making larger quantities, keep in mind that considerations on suspendibility, acidity, etc. because they’ll only become more important at scale!
E.O. Afoakwa, Cocoa production and processing technology, 2014, chapter 12, link
Parks, S., 4 Natural Cocoa Powders That Put the Supermarket Stuff to Shame, 2018, link
Valverde-Garcia, D.; Pérez-Esteve, É.; Barat Baviera, JM. (2020). Changes in cocoaproperties induced by the alkalization process: A review. Comprehensive Reviews in FoodScience and Food Safety. 19(4):2200-2221. https://doi.org/10.1111/1541-4337.12581
I’ve been a chocolate lover since Day 1. From cakes to ice creams to pastries, if there’s a chocolate option, I’m ordering it. If it’s 9 a.m., I’ll take a chocolate croissant and if it’s 9 p.m., a chocolate cake will do. But one thing most fabulous chocolate dishes have in common? A quality cocoa powder. And so when I was tasked with finding the best cocoa powders available, you can bet I took the job seriously.
Featured image by Michelle Nash.
The Chocolate Experts
Image by Hannah Zahner
What is cocoa powder?
Before diving into the best cocoa powders for all of your needs, let’s talk about what cocoa powder actually is. (And no, it’s not just finely ground dark chocolate like I’ve been assuming all these years.) Cocoa powder is made by fermenting, drying, separating cacao beans from their fats, and then grinding up these solids. It’s highly concentrated and has an even higher percentage of solids to fats than dark chocolate, giving it the ultimate chocolate flavor.
Natural vs. Dutch Process Cocoa Powders
Basically, Dutch process cocoa powder just takes the natural cocoa powder process one step further and washes it with a potassium carbonate solution to neutralize the acidity and bring it to a pH of 7. Natural cocoa powder has a pH between 5 and 6, and has a sharp, almost citric taste. Conversely, since the Dutch process cocoa is not acidic, it will have more of a smooth, mellow flavor.
So, when it comes to baking cakes and cookies, it’s best to stick with the type of powder that is recommended. Dutch process powder won’t react with baking soda to produce carbon dioxide, which helps things rise, so it relies on baking powder and its neutral pH to do so. There are images in the article that show how the two powders affect certain recipes. However, for sauces, drinking, ice cream, or anything that doesn’t need to rise, it really just comes down to preference.
Sweetened vs. Unsweetened Cocoa Powders
“One, if I feel it necessary, I’ll add in sweeteners on my own for different applications. Two, cocoa powder on its own can offer some health benefits, so it feels like in using a sweetened option, you negate the ability to control or really know how much sugar you’re consuming, versus adding some (or none) yourself.”
The Best Cocoa Powders, According to Chefs
Why Chef Kristen loves it: One of my favorites that I use often for baking is Cacao Barry extra brute Cocoa Powder. This cacao powder is my go-to for mousses, brownies, and cakes. It is also excellent as a dusting on top of tiramisu!
Why Chef Amanda Loves It: Not only does it have a luscious rich color and silky texture (this won’t get clumpy on you), but the flavor is pure chocolate. Ten out of ten stars. I would recommend this for any baking/pastry application. I use it at home and at work specifically for chocolate sauce (also for mocha lattes), brownies, cakes, and cookies. You name it, I use it. This cocoa powder can cross all the pastry genres.
Why Chef Philip Loves It: I like it because it’s very versatile, delivers a rich flavor, and has a beautiful reddish tint to it. Aesthetically appealing and delicious!
Why Chef Krystal Loves It: This is my go-to cocoa powder for drinking. The overall taste is rich and more intense than a lot of cocoa powders, plus it blends smoothly and has a gorgeous deep red-brown color. I love that it offers such a distinct flavor but also still lends itself to pairing with other ingredients well. In the winter, you can easily make an “adult” drinking chocolate from this cocoa powder with a little added bourbon, rum or mezcal in it.
- Price: $35 for a 2.2-pound bag
- Cost per ounce: $0.99
Best Cocoa Powder for Brownies
Why Chef Margarita Loves It: This cacao powder is so rich and fatty from the higher cacao butter content. It has such a round, beautiful flavor, and I love using this for my buckwheat brownie recipe.
- Price: $57.45 for a 5-pound bag
- Cost per ounce: $0.72
Best Splurge Cocoa Powder
Why Chef Susana Loves It: It is Dutch processed which means it was processed with alkali. A Dutch process cocoa powder is a more “pure, dark, chocolate” flavor as opposed to a “softer, more mild flavored” natural cocoa powder. Some applications are better than others for the dutch V natural option.
Why Chef Krystal Loves It: A GREAT alternative to the Cacao Barry Extra Brut Red Cocoa Powder if you want to make your own drinking chocolate is the Valrhona cocoa powder because you can find it at specialty grocery stores—often in the bulk section!
Cocoa Noel Black Cocoa Powder
Why Chef Kristen loves it: When I want to make something chocolatey and add a bit of elegance, I love to use Cocoa Noel Black Cocoa Powder. Its intense color transforms any cake into a deep black color while also giving it an amazing cocoa flavor.
- Price: $37.99 for a 3-pound container
- Cost per ounce: $0.79
Lake Champlain Chocolates Unsweetened Cocoa
Why Chef Krystal Loves It: This is a favorite partially for nostalgic reasons, since I loved visiting the Lake Champlain Chocolates factory in Vermont, but it really is a good “workhorse” cocoa powder choice for multiple purposes (baked goods, drinking chocolate, hand rolled truffles, etc.). And although it is Dutch processed, I think it tastes like a “happy medium” between processed and natural cocoa powder.
Guittard Cocoa Rouge Unsweetened Cocoa Powder
Why Chef Krystal Loves It: If anyone’s looking to expand their own personal palate for cocoa powder choices at home, I’d highly recommend starting off with Guittard Products since they offer a full array of options that cover all categories and flavor profile ranges. Plus, their products can often be found more accessibly in stores or online.
- Price: $10.99 for an 8-ounce container
- Cost per ounce: $1.37
Best Cocoa Powder for Special uses
- Price: $19.66 for a 2.2-pound container
- Cost per ounce: $0.56
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 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.
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.
While chocolate is a preoccupation of connoisseurs, cocoa powder is too often regarded as a generic pantry staple — a boring, lesser form of chocolate with which we make hot chocolate for kids or the random cake.
But in truth, excellent quality cocoa powder is a baker’s secret weapon — a complex and powerful ingredient that should never be taken for granted! Even if you are an avid baker, you may not know that the cocoa powders available to home bakers are more varied and better than ever. You may be a little fuzzy on the difference between natural, Dutch-process, and black cocoas. You may be confused about which to use for what — or when you have a choice. You may not know that, in certain recipes, cocoa powder can outperform chocolate.
And you might be surprised to hear me say that a well-stocked home baker’s pantry ought to have at least two, if not three, types of cocoa on hand.
What exactly is cocoa powder?
Like chocolate, cocoa powder starts with bits of hulled and roasted cacao beans called nibs. The nibs are ground to a fluid paste called chocolate liquor (aka unsweetened chocolate). But then, instead of being molded into unsweetened chocolate bars or having sugar and other ingredients added to make other types of chocolate, the paste is pressed to remove most of its fat (cocoa butter). The remaining partially de-fatted mass is finely ground to produce natural cocoa powder.
Natural cocoa powder retains the acidity inherent in the cocoa bean. If the beans are relatively high quality and include some of what chocolate-makers call “flavor beans,” natural cocoa will also retain some of the fruity nuances, aromas, and complexities found in those beans. (These days the best natural cocoa powder surpasses the generic supermarket product you may have grown up with — and it deserves consideration alongside your favorite Dutch-process cocoas.)
Photography by Danielle Sykes; food styling by Liz Neily
Bensdorp is a Dutch-process cocoa powder that shines in recipes where you want strong chocolate flavor — like cupcakes.
What about Dutch-process cocoa powder?
Dutch-process (alkalized) cocoa is cocoa powder made from cocoa nibs that have been alkalized — that is, treated with potassium carbonate to reduce acidity. Alkalizing deepens and sometimes reddens the color of the cocoa powder, making it appear more chocolatey. Reduced acidity produces a cocoa powder with more pronounced “base” chocolate flavor, sometimes described as dark chocolate flavor, with less complexity and fewer fruity notes than natural cocoa powder. King Arthur offers two Dutch-process cocoa powders: Bensdorp and Burgundy, in addition to a blend of Dutch, natural, and black cocoas called Triple Cocoa Blend.
What about black cocoa?
A slightly different method of alkalizing — which usually takes place later in processing — turns the cocoa dramatically black and significantly alters its flavor. Black cocoa is famously responsible for America’s beloved Oreo cookie. While I do enjoy Oreos, black cocoa does not taste like chocolate to me! I think black cocoa is a whole different animal — a brilliant novelty flavor produced by subjecting cocoa beans to a massive dose of potassium carbonate. Meanwhile, others view black cocoa to be the essence of dark chocolate. King Arthur offers two types of black cocoa: Double Dark (a blend of Dutch-process and black cocoas) and Black Cocoa.
Black cocoa gives homemade Faux-Reos their deep, dark color.
Baking with cocoa powder vs. chocolate
For the baker and pastry chef, cocoa powder is essentially a concentrated, low-fat, powdered form of unsweetened chocolate. This means that a relatively small amount of cocoa contributes a great deal of flavor, without much fat. Cocoa powder is easier to use than chocolate because it does not require melting, and it will never “seize” if you are careless in handling it.
Even more important than convenience, cocoa powder can do things for a recipe that chocolate — even the best chocolate — simply can’t.
Cocoa powder can produce a pound cake or butter cake with plenty of chocolate flavor and a delicate melt-in-your-mouth crumb the likes of which chocolate can’t match. Cocoa powder can get you flavorful but light-as-a-feather sponge cakes, including genoise and chiffon cakes, that would not be possible with chocolate. Cocoa powder can make uniquely chewy cookies, tender light meringues, and delicate wafers and tuiles. And, arguably, some of the world’s best brownies are made with cocoa powder — not chocolate!
In Chocolate Mousse Cake with Raspberries, the fat comes from oil and the flavor comes from cocoa powder.
What’s cocoa powder got that chocolate doesn’t?
It’s more a matter of what cocoa doesn’t have. The best cocoa powder has a little less than half the fat of unsweetened chocolate; as such, it is dry and light with a very concentrated flavor, so a little goes a long way. This makes cocoa powder quite versatile.
In a meringue or delicate wafer, you need less cocoa than you would unsweetened chocolate for the same flavor intensity — and you are not burdened with the extra fat that comes with the chocolate. For a pound cake or butter cake, which typically includes plenty of fat, we can get plenty of chocolate flavor from cocoa powder and plenty of fat from butter or oil.
What advantage does butter or oil have over cocoa butter in a butter cake recipe? Although cocoa butter provides luxurious texture in the best chocolate bars, and perhaps in gooey, rich flourless chocolate cakes, it can be a liability in a cake with plenty of flour that is meant to have an actual crumb. Once cool, a butter cake (birthday cake, cupcakes, pound cake, devil’s food cake, etc.) made with chocolate can feel hard and sometimes even dry on the palate because cocoa butter is harder at room temperature (and even harder when cold) than butter or oil.
Why keep multiple types of cocoa in the pantry?
Dutch-process and natural cocoas taste markedly different from one another, and they work differently in recipes. If you bake a lot, I think you need both. (If you can really only fit one in your pantry, King Arthur’s Triple Cocoa Blend is a good all-purpose, one-size-fits-all cocoa powder — but having multiple varieties and flavors is much more fun.)
Triple Cocoa Blend can be used in recipes that call for either Dutch-process or natural cocoa powder.
The great news is that there are plenty of recipes (see below!) in which you are free to use either style of cocoa powder, giving you lots of creative control over the type of chocolate flavor.
However, there are also plenty of recipes that require a specific type of cocoa to work properly — that is, to rise well and have a good taste and texture. The correct cocoa is the one that works in tandem with the type of leavening(s) in the recipe — whether it’s baking soda or baking powder or a combination. PJ Hamel has parsed the chemistry of all of this in her piece on Dutch-process vs. natural cocoa.
These days, good recipes specifically call for the type of cocoa, so you don’t have to guess or know any rules. But vintage recipes, if they date from a time when the only cocoa that was available was natural, may not specify. And, just to keep things interesting, there are some cases where you can go rogue, even when a recipe specifically calls for one type of cocoa!
When must I use Dutch-process (alkalized) cocoa powder?
Recipes that require Dutch-process cocoa powder to rise well and taste good are those that are leavened solely with baking powder.
When must I use natural cocoa powder?
Any cake or cookie or baked good leavened with baking soda only (or with a combination of soda and powder where soda is predominant) requires natural cocoa powder.
This selection of powders showcases the wide variety of color in cocoa.
When can I use whichever cocoa powder I like?
In any recipe that does not call for any baking soda and/or baking powder, you are free to use natural, Dutch-process, or black cocoa. This means you are free to exercise your preferences in beverages, sauces, puddings, brownies (so long as they do not call for a leavening), meringue-based items, soufflés, cookies without leavening, etc. (Just to make things a little more complex and interesting, recipes that include both leavenings, but predominantly baking powder, often call for Dutch cocoa — but you can use natural cocoa if the recipe does not include acidic ingredients such as buttermilk, sour cream, molasses, etc. For a more complete list of acidic ingredients, see PJ Hamel’s piece here.)
Just because you can choose your cocoa in these recipes does not mean that your results will be identical with each cocoa — quite the contrary. Each result will look and taste different, often dramatically so. This difference is something to celebrate and a reason to become familiar with the flavor of natural and Dutch-process cocoa. Then you have the power to make desserts taste the way you want them to.
How to get acquainted with good cocoa powders?
You might start with three cocoas: A Dutch-process cocoa such as Bensdorp (my favorite) or Burgundy: Both of these are excellent high-fat cocoa powders. A black cocoa such as Double Dark (my preference) or black cocoa for that Oreo effect, and a high-fat natural cocoa such as Guittard Organic Natural or Scharffenberger Natural Cocoa powder.
(Heads up: At King Arthur, we only recommend the products that we, as bakers, truly love. When you buy through external links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.)
The headnote for this Super-Simple Chocolate Frosting notes: “We made it with both natural and Dutch-process cocoa, and the natural cocoa was the hands-down winner for flavor.”
Before baking, conduct a smell test
Even before I taste cocoa (plain or in a recipe), I like to close my eyes and take a whiff of each. Why do I shut my eyes? Because visuals matter: The darker cocoas will create an expectation of stronger or deeper or truer chocolate flavor — an expectation that may not prove true!
Once you’ve taken note of the aromas, you could taste the cocoa plain or make a little hot cocoa, chocolate pudding, chocolate sauce, or brownies using each of the three samples. You may find that your preferences for one cocoa over the other may change depending on the recipe. You might love pudding with Dutch-process cocoa, sauce with natural, etc. You will notice that brownies and sauce made with natural versus Dutch cocoa have different colors: You can also taste these with closed eyes to eliminate preconceptions about the relationship between color and flavor.
Next, start tasting
Here’s how I conducted my tasting: I began by lining up six cocoas according to aroma, from the most natural aroma to the most Dutch (that is, the one that smelled most like an oreo cookie!). As it turned out, my impressions from sniffing aligned with the colors, from lightest to darkest. Both aroma and color were consistent with flavor too — from the most natural flavor (with no chemical intervention) to the most heavily alkalized. My order was: natural, Bensdorp, Burgundy, Triple Blend, Double Dark, and Black.
I made several recipes with some or all of the cocoas. Although it’s instructive to taste without looking, the richer and darker colors of Dutch-process cocoa both attract us and affect how we taste. And the mellow dark flavors — absent the fruity nuances and acidity of natural cocoa — may evoke the chocolate comfort foods of childhood. The lighter color of natural cocoa may not scream chocolate to everyone, but the complex fruity flavors and aromas evoke the diversity of flavors in newer craft chocolates. Regardless of your general preference, you may switch parties for different recipes, as I do. That’s the advantage of having more than one type of cocoa in the cupboard.
Pound cake made with different cocoas.
Chocolate Pound Cake
I chose to test a pound cake because, as noted earlier, cocoa powder really shines in cakes made with lots of flour and butter or oil — where the cocoa can contribute loads of chocolate flavor without additional (hard) fat from cocoa butter. Also, the leavening in this recipe technically allows for Dutch or natural cocoa powders.
The type or quality of the beans in the Bensdorp — or perhaps the degree to which it is alkalized — gives it a more complex and interesting chocolate flavor. But the Burgundy sample tasted like classic devil’s food cake — and irresistibly so — with a slightly fudgier base chocolate flavor at the front and more alkalized (devil’s food!) note on the finish. By comparison, Triple Blend tasted a little flat and more Oreo-like. Of the two black cocoas, Black is the more extreme, but one might have fun pairing it with unexpected or novelty frosting flavors.
Finally, although the recipe called for Dutch-process cocoa, I was able to make a sample with natural cocoa as well, based on the leaveners. The result was very pleasant, but also very gentle and subtle — not the best choice for this particular recipe.
Fudge cookies made with different cocoas.
Flourless Fudge Cookies
Since there is no leavening in this recipe, I knew that I could use any of the cocoas. The Bensdorp sample had a cozy old-fashioned, pudding-from-childhood comfort food flavor. The natural sample was paler in color and had more levels of chocolate flavor, including the winey fruity notes inherent to good-quality chocolate.
I would definitely serve both cookies on the same plate, to showcase their beautiful colors and flavors. My family agreed, but one person also liked Double Dark; another opined that the cookie made with Triple Blend had a Tootsie Roll flavor. Of the two black cocoas, the Double Dark sample had a slightly more chocolatey aroma and flavor.
In conclusion, I hope you will discover the magic of cocoa powder on your own. Go down the rabbit hole, experiment, make two versions of the same recipe, each with a different cocoa. I started this piece with strong preferences, and I ended with a more nuanced understanding of them and some thoughts for future baking — possibilities that are only a few cocoa powders away.
The two basic types of cocoa powder are Dutch process and natural. You’ll find them labeled both ways, in addition to products that say “Dutch and natural blend.”
Pure ground cocoa powder has a pH level between 5.3 and 5.8, putting it on the acidic end of the scale. The acidity affects the flavor, the way it interacts with other ingredients, and its solubility.
Natural cocoa powder produced with the Broma process retains the natural pH level. It tends to be more intensely flavored, and a lighter, almost reddish-brown color. The Dutch process (sometimes called “Dutching”) bathes the cocoa beans in an alkaline solution, producing a darker brown cocoa powder with a chemically neutral pH of between 6.8 and 8.1, resulting in a more mellow flavor. Dutching also reduces the antioxidant properties of cocoa.
Cocoa powder stores for up to two years in an airtight container in a cool, dark, dry place. Cocoa powder purchased in a tin with a tight-fitting lid can remain in the original packaging. Do not store cocoa powder in the refrigerator or freezer as the moisture affects the texture and can lead to spoilage.
Cocoa Powder Uses
The Dutch process produces a cocoa powder that dissolves more easily, making it easier to work with in recipes such as ice cream and chocolate drinks.
For baking, the type of cocoa you use does matter, because the acidity of the cocoa powder might be the only thing activating the leavening agent in the recipe. If a recipe calls for baking soda, for example, natural cocoa powder works fine, because the acidity in the cocoa activates the baking soda. If a recipe calls for baking powder (or both baking powder and baking soda), then it probably also calls for Dutch-processed cocoa powder.
Bar chocolate combines cocoa solids and cocoa butter along with sugar and some form of emulsifier such as lecithin to hold the ingredients together. Cocoa powder contains primarily cocoa solids, with only about 10 to 15 percent cocoa butter vs. the 50 percent or more in chocolate.
Higher-quality cocoa powder retains slightly more cocoa butter than lesser brands. Cocoa powder is the missing ingredient in so-called “white chocolate,” which is produced by combining cocoa butter and sugar (plus an emulsifier) but no actual cocoa solids.
Cocoa powder is not the same thing as instant cocoa mix, which, when combined with hot water or milk, instantly produces a mug full of hot cocoa. Typically sold in packets, this product contains cocoa, sugar, dehydrated milk, and other ingredients. But you would not use it to bake brownies or chocolate cake. And don’t try to make a cup of hot chocolate by simply adding hot water to unsweetened cocoa powder.
What Does It Taste Like?
Cocoa powder tastes like chocolate, but without the creamy mouthfeel cocoa butter adds to bar chocolate. Dutch process cocoa tends to taste milder, while natural cocoa powder can have a sharper flavor. For candy making, the types of cocoa powder can usually be used interchangeably; use whichever cocoa you think tastes best.
Where to Buy Cocoa Powder
Groceries stores generally carry both natural and Dutched cocoa powder. Look for it in the baking aisle. You can also purchase mainstream and artisan brands online, along with Fair Trade Certified, organic, and sustainable products. Some retailers sell it in bulk volume, though you must generally purchase it packaged, not from bulk bins.
Cocoa Powder Substitutions
To swap unsweetened natural cocoa powder for the Dutch process cocoa powder called for in a recipe, add 1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar, white vinegar, or lemon juice for every 3 tablespoons cocoa powder. Conversely, if you replace natural cocoa powder with Dutch process, you need to add 1/8 teaspoon baking soda for every 3 tablespoons of cocoa powder to match the acidity.
With a recipe that calls for melted unsweetened chocolate, you can use cocoa powder as a substitute. Replace every 1 ounce of unsweetened chocolate with 3 level tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder plus 1 tablespoon of fat, such as melted butter, margarine, or oil. Substituting melted unsweetened chocolate for cocoa powder doesn’t work as well; since it may be difficult to replicate the balance of fat and cocoa solids with a simple formula.
Recipes With Cocoa Powder
Cocoa powder adds intense flavor to chocoholic recipes such as fudge or flourless chocolate cake, but it can also be used as a subtle coating on chocolate truffles or a light chocolate booster for quick breads and muffins.
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.
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.