Cocoa nut

All about powdered chocolate

May 20, 2008

Recently I rummaged through my chocolate collection, looking for a snack. As always, the chocolate-bar cupboard was well stocked. There were various Pound Plus bars from Trader Joe's, a Venezuelan 70-percent criollo bar from Chocovic, and some unsweetened Scharffen Berger bars for making brownies.

As I broke off a square of Chocovic, I noticed my lone can of Hershey's cocoa powder, and found myself wondering: Was I missing the potential of cocoa powder just because it has zero snack potential?

The short answer, it turns out, is yes. And now I have a cocoa-powder collection to rival my chocolate-bar stash, and a new understanding of this neglected ingredient. Here’s the long answer, aka The Mamster’s Cocoa-Powder FAQ.

cocoa powder
Clockwise from top: Penzeys Dutched cocoa powder, Green & Black organic natural cocoa powder, and Penzeys natural cocoa powder.

What is cocoa powder?
Cocoa powder is unsweetened chocolate (technically, chocolate liquor) that has been partially defatted and then ground into a powder.

When should you use cocoa powder and when should you use solid chocolate?
Cocoa powder is good for hot cocoa, reduced-fat chocolate recipes, super-fudgy brownies, layer cakes, chocolate tart dough, and chocolate syrup. And for rolling truffles, of course. It’s not good for snacking. Whole chocolate is best for everything else: hot fudge sauce, dipping, candymaking, ganache, and snacking.

Why does cocoa, instead of chocolate, make the fudgiest brownies?
Because you can replace the cocoa butter naturally present in a chocolate bar with dairy butter. The result is excellent, as long as you don’t think too hard about how much the brownies resemble chocolate-flavored pats of butter.

What is Dutch-processed cocoa?
Dutch-processed cocoa has been treated with an alkali compound, such as potash or baking soda, to raise its pH and make it darker in color. The process changes the flavor of cocoa to something more rounded, approachable, and — if taken too far — dull. The process was invented in the 19th century by the Dutch chocolatier Coenraad Johannes van Houten.

Heavily Dutched cocoa is called “black cocoa” and is used to make Oreo cookies. You can order it from King Arthur Flour, but you probably don’t want to, because it has little flavor.

You often read that Dutched cocoa is more soluble in liquids. I didn’t find this to be true, and in her book Bittersweet, chocolate expert Alice Medrich says it’s a myth.

Dutched cocoa is a relative newcomer to the American market: Hershey’s introduced its familiar natural cocoa powder way back in 1894, but didn’t unveil its Dutched cocoa (now called Special Dark) until 1989.

Are chocolate bars Dutch-processed?
Some bar products, such as Hershey’s Bliss, are made with Dutched chocolate. I bought some, and I wouldn’t recommend it, although I ate most of it anyway because it was chocolate. High-quality consumer chocolate of the kind I like to keep in my cabinet is rarely Dutched. There are two reasons for this.

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The first is a matter of fashion. “I think it’s just a trend that you don’t see much of anymore,” says Gary Guittard, the president of the Guittard Chocolate Company. Guittard sells a good Dutched cocoa to consumers, and sells a Dutched chocolate called Ramona in industrial quantities, but the company’s small chocolate bars are all made with natural chocolate liquor.

The second is technology. Chocolate destined for bars undergoes a process called conching, in which it is stirred at a high temperature for hours or days. Conching is frequently misunderstood, Guittard says. “It’s more about flavor than texture,” he explains. “High temperatures are really where conching is now. It does move chocolate more toward that Dutched style.” In other words, a chocolate maker looking to make a smooth and mellow chocolate bar can using conching to achieve an effect similar to Dutching.

Richard Benson, the director of research and marketing for Barry Callebaut North America, offered another reason why a chocolate maker might not want to market a Dutched bar: “On the label, the word ‘alkalized’ has that ‘chemically processed’ meaning that is not favorable to marketing, in my opinion.”

Is the cocoa I bought Dutched or natural?
Dutched cocoa will have “cocoa processed with alkali” listed in the ingredients. Hershey’s Special Dark, Droste, and Valrhona are Dutched. Natural cocoas include Hershey’s (regular), Scharffen Berger, Ghirardelli, and Nestlé. A few cocoas, such as Saco Premium, are a mix of natural and Dutched.

Which is better, Dutched cocoa or natural cocoa?
You’re expecting me to say something weaselly like “it depends,” right? Wrong. Natural is better.

Really? Natural is always better?
OK, I’ll say it: it depends. There are other important factors in the flavor of cocoa. The quality and fermentation of the cocoa bean itself is paramount, and the fat content of the cocoa is also important. A high-quality Dutched cocoa is certainly preferable to a lousy natural cocoa, but the best natural cocoas I tasted were much better than any Dutched cocoa.

chocolate syrup
Homemade chocolate syrup poured over vanilla ice cream.

There are probably two reasons for this: one, I happen to like the flavor of natural cocoa better, and two, Dutched cocoa tends to be made with lower-quality beans because Dutching can hide flaws. “Frankly, cocoa beans headed for alkalization tend to be lower in flavor quality, since the alkalization will reduce many of the off notes and the acid notes that may be problematic,” says Callebaut’s Benson.

Is higher-fat or lower-fat cocoa better?
You’re kidding, right? Medrich says the best cocoa powder has 20 to 24 percent fat. Dutched cocoas that meet this specification are widely available (Droste is the most common), but higher-fat natural cocoas are harder to find (Hershey’s, for example, has about 12 percent fat). Both Scharffen Berger and Penzeys make natural cocoas that are higher in fat than either Hershey’s or Nestlé’s natural cocoas.

Is it worth spending extra money on fancy cocoa powder?
I compared four different cocoas: Hershey’s natural, Penzeys natural, Penzeys Dutched, and Scharffen Berger (which only makes natural). I made a cup of weak hot cocoa (1 tablespoon cocoa, 1 tablespoon sugar, 4 ounces whole milk) with each and sipped delicately.

The Hershey’s had weird off-flavors and little chocolate flavor. The Penzeys Dutched was inoffensive, but not very chocolaty. The Penzeys natural and Scharffen Berger were both excellent, with the Penzeys perhaps slightly better. Also, the Penzeys is $6.80 a pound (plus shipping if you don’t live near a Penzeys outlet), while the Scharffen Berger is $24 a pound.

I also tested the two Penzeys cocoas against each other in Alice Medrich’s Best Cocoa Brownies recipe from her book Bittersweet. In terms of looks, the Dutched brownies won; they were darker, with shinier tops. In terms of flavor, though, it was no contest: natural cocoa is king. It made a complex brownie with a notable acidic tang. I’d call it a grownup brownie, but my four-year-old ate several of them. The Dutched brownie was just bland and sweet.

Incidentally, Cook’s Illustrated came to precisely the opposite conclusion when the magazine tested cocoa powders in 2005, choosing the Dutched over the natural. Taste and decide for yourself.

Can I substitute natural for Dutched cocoa and vice versa?
Usually. Recall that natural cocoa is more acidic than Dutched cocoa, and when you combine something acidic with baking soda or baking powder, you get bubbles. Some recipes depend on the bubbles from this reaction to provide leavening power. If a recipe calls for chemical leavening, use the cocoa it asks for. Otherwise, substitute at will.

Can I substitute cocoa powder for whole chocolate?
There are formulas to do this, but I don’t recommend it, because aside from being an imperfect substitution, good cocoa powder isn’t any cheaper than good chocolate.

If I’m measuring my ingredients by weight, how much cocoa is in a cup?
Four ounces.

What’s the number-one thing you learned about cocoa?
How good a mug of hot cocoa can be. I used to buy Swiss Miss Dark Chocolate Sensation in a box, but now I heat 6 ounces of milk in the microwave and stir together 2 tablespoons Penzeys natural cocoa powder and 2 tablespoons sugar in a mug. I pour the hot milk into the mug, stir well, and have a picnic on the living-room rug.

Matthew Amster-Burton writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.

There are 36 comments on this item
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1. by caleb on May 20, 2008 at 2:35 PM PDT

I often see recipes that call for both baking chocolate and cocoa powder, and my impression is that this gives the dish a more complex flavor. I’ve tried to replicate the idea in experimenting with ice cream recipes.

What’s your take, mamster? Am I better off doing this where called for, or does it only matter when I start out with lower-quality chocolate?

2. by Matthew Amster-Burton on May 20, 2008 at 4:20 PM PDT

No, caleb, I think there’s something to it. Pierre Herme’s hot chocolate recipe uses both cocoa powder and melted chocolate, and it’s fantastic. You definitely get a particular quality from the powder that can’t be replicated. I don’t think it’s right for every recipe, but there’s definitely a lot of underexplored territory.

3. by Matthew Amster-Burton on May 20, 2008 at 4:24 PM PDT

After writing this, I had an interesting exchange with Thalia Hohenthal, Senior Scientist at Guittard, who said, “Solubility of Dutched cocoa powder, however, should remain as an open question - not necessarily a myth.” She pointed out that no cocoa powder is actually soluble in water; at best you can disperse it to form a suspension. This is why, no matter how much you stir, you always get some thick sludgy stuff at the end of your mug of cocoa. (I like that part!)

Hohenthal added: “I have come to believe that many folks do not understand that “processing with alkali” is the chemical sibling of using baking soda in cookies - not at all to be feared.” I’m not sure I made that clear enough in the column, so there you go.

4. by Hillary on May 23, 2008 at 8:06 AM PDT

Oh wow, who knew cocoa powder came in so many different varieties and colors? From the picture, one of those varieties looks purple and another pink!

5. by Carrie Floyd on May 23, 2008 at 1:53 PM PDT

Thanks, mamster, for the low-down on cocoa. Given the variety of cocoas available, not to mention the prices, I’ve been questioning my loyalty to Droste. I’m ready now to think/shop/cook outside the (red) box.
An aside: have you ever tried stirring cocoa powder into vanilla ice cream? I loved it as a kid, and my own kids think I’m a genius since I showed them how to do it (smash the cocoa into the ice cream, then whip it like a whisk). It ends up tasting like not-too-sweet chocolate ice cream with a soft serve texture.

6. by Matthew Amster-Burton on May 23, 2008 at 2:18 PM PDT

carrie, I assure you we will be trying that after dinner tonight.

7. by MaryMcK. on May 25, 2008 at 3:20 PM PDT

Very interesting article!!! Thanks so much for all this information.

I don’t have wide experience but do drink cocoa regularly, and have come to prefer Droste’s out of the easily available cocoa powders (in the northeastern U.S.). On a trip to France in 2006 the easily available (and so. cheap. <whimper>) cocoa was Van Houten, and that was better than Droste’s to my taste. Hershey’s is okay, but unremarkable. I bought some bulk cocoa at Whole Foods recently, with high hopes because it has the velvety appearance of Van Houten - but it just tastes odd. After reading this I would like to try a higher quality natural cocoa from Penzey’s or King Arthur Flour.

8. by anonymous on Jun 30, 2008 at 12:06 AM PDT

I eat chocolate for the antioxidant value. I am a nurse and am wondering which of your selections would be highest (in antioxidants). I thought darker was better, but it sounds like darker powder is just more acidic.

9. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Jun 30, 2008 at 8:00 AM PDT

anonymous, dark chocolate and dark cocoa are dark for different reasons. Dark (Dutched) cocoa is less acidic than natural cocoa. If you’re after antioxidants, I would choose a dark chocolate bar, because it’s easier to eat a lot of it than any kind of cocoa powder.

10. by Crazy4Cookie on Jun 30, 2008 at 10:50 AM PDT

Hi Mamster! Ok, so I’m kinda stuck in the house for now and had the urge to make Lava Cakes. I usually make them with bittersweet chocolate bars sometimes semi-sweet, but I only have Nestle Cocoa Powder in stock. My recipe calls for the chocolate to be melted w/ butter. I apologize if this is a really stupid question, but would I be able to make that mixture with cocoa powder instead? Should I just hold off on the lava cakes till I get a chance to head out to the store?

11. by Lynne Condé on Jun 30, 2008 at 11:23 AM PDT

Hi Mamster,
I have recipes I recommend to people who need antioxidants which call for cocoa powder. I am thinking I need to steer clear of Dutch as many people are already over acidic with their sugar and beef consumption. I toured the Scharffenburger Factory in Oakland last week and heard (for the first time) that Dutch is not good. I think I will be more specific when I give recipes for heart health. What about Dagoba and Green and Black brands? I teach at Bauman College, and one of my students did a report on chocolate, but did not cover the Dutch issue. He grinds his own Peruvian beans.


12. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Jun 30, 2008 at 1:38 PM PDT

Crazy4cookie, you could try just looking up a cocoa-based cake recipe (on Epicurious, for example) and deliberately underbaking it at high temp. I can’t promise, but I think it would probably work.

Lynne, I want to be clear that I’m not a nutritionist, but again, natural cocoa is much more acidic than Dutched cocoa. I have no information about which one contains more antioxidants. I’m into chocolate purely for pleasure.

13. by The Dark Drupe on Oct 16, 2008 at 7:58 PM PDT

Thank you (OK belatedly) for the props to cocoa. Being a complete fiend (liking cocoa more than chocolate proper), I appreciated the bit. I have one objection and a few comments on comments:

Objection: Cocoa has “zero snack potential”. “It’s not good for snacking.” GASP! Heathen! :) I object! Example being when medjool dates are in season and exquisitely fresh, curl up with a small bowl of that Scharffen Berger cocoa and dab the luscious moist drupe in the cocoa prior to each bite. I nearly pass out. I have many more, but, you know... pearls before swine! I will say that if you roll up a dollar bill and put a nice line of raw cocoa powder down, its not so bad either. Now theres a snack my friend!

Comments on comments: One can investigate - many indicate the raw cocoa powders have the most antioxidants. I also find they have a bit more acidity and first flush complexities. Try them. Have tried many others including Green and Blacks: good; Dagoba: good; but find myself returning to Scharffen Berger. I will be sure to try the Penzeys. I commend the ingestion of Chocovic chocolate and is what arrested my attention initially. Mmmmmm..... I have a recipe with Chocovic Guaranda, raw cocoa, walnuts, dates, mango powder, and stuffed figs..... Poor snacking my... :)

Admission: none of my cocoa snack snacks were cocoa only. Oh, wait, one was.

14. by anonymous on Dec 14, 2008 at 6:59 PM PST

Just came back from Dominca in the Caribbean and brought back with me some cocoa nuts (they are round and very dark brown). They told me to chip some off and cook with a little water and sugar, then add milk and a little stick they also sold me. Boy is it good. Just wanted to know if it is the true cocoa nut, or is it also processed? The are a little over an inch round. What does a nut of cocoa look like? Thanks, Donna Iverson

15. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Dec 14, 2008 at 7:26 PM PST

Donna, that sounds like the real thing. Nice find.

16. by Ola on Mar 9, 2009 at 7:39 PM PDT

I want to say, I have created a Hershey’s natural cocoa powder snack for myself. It may be a little weird, but I like it.

I put 3 tablespoons of powder in a small juice glass, I add 3 tablespoons of Truvia and mix it all together. It makes a sweet powder which I eat with a spoon It is a low caloried, healthy way to help my sweet cravings. It also makes me feel really good. I eat the powder in small amounts and let it melt in my mouth. Am I strange or what?

17. by Ola on Mar 9, 2009 at 8:01 PM PDT

I have a question. Can you melt cocoa powder?

18. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Mar 9, 2009 at 8:42 PM PDT

Ola, you can’t melt cocoa powder, but you can stir it into melted butter. Generally, though, it doesn’t need to be melted because it can be suspended in liquids or combined with dry ingredients. Notice how I am subtly sidestepping your other comment.

19. by Ola on Mar 9, 2009 at 8:53 PM PDT

Ok. Thanks. I just had an idea. I am going to try it in yogurt with Truvia. Yeah, I know the other comment is pretty wierd, but it does work for me.

20. by Matt Sparks on Apr 16, 2009 at 4:59 PM PDT

I want to use cocoa powder in a recipe with buttermilk...the buttermilk is pretty acidic. I’d like to use a natural cocoa...for a more chocolate flavor, but it sounds like I’ll get the leavening...which I don’t want. Am I stuck with Dutched?

21. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Apr 16, 2009 at 8:54 PM PDT

Okay, wait, if anyone read my last comment, I got it completely backwards. Let’s reboot my brain and try that again!

What is the recipe, Matt? Substituting natural for dutched is almost never a problem.

22. by Matt Sparks on Apr 17, 2009 at 12:26 PM PDT

I think I got it. I now understand that the acids in the natural cocoa react with the baking soda(alkali), which causes rising or leavening. Dutch cocoa is alkalized for use in recipes calling for soda. I was worried that the natural cocoa would react the same with buttermilk, which is acidic, and cause it to rise. At this point, I don’t think it will. Any thoughts?

23. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Apr 17, 2009 at 3:00 PM PDT

You’re right--it won’t.

24. by Chococat on Apr 23, 2009 at 8:37 AM PDT

Anyone know how long cocoa powder keeps? thanks.

25. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Apr 23, 2009 at 9:25 AM PDT

Good question. Store it in a dry, dark place, and it’ll be good for at least a year.

26. by Chococat on Apr 23, 2009 at 11:18 AM PDT

Thanks. So, if I were to use cocoa powder that’s over 5 years old, would it not taste good or be physically damaging, or what might be the problem or effect? (hate to throw it away - sigh)

27. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Apr 23, 2009 at 12:16 PM PDT

It won’t taste good, or at best it will have little flavor. Cocoa power, like most foods, is prone to oxidation.

28. by Tara on Jun 23, 2009 at 6:52 PM PDT

Thank you so much, Matthew! I am a cake baker and use Penzey’s natural cocoa in both the cake and the icing (you add the cocoa to the butter, mix and allow it to bloom a bit) then add the melted chocolate, sugar and milk. Anyway, I appreciated your article because it explained something I couldn’t quite understand: I made an Oreo chaped cake for a client and it just never got the blackish dark brown that an Oreo has. One can add only so much cocoa before the icing starts tasting funny and chocolate icing doesn’t really take coloring well. Anyway, I think when I make my next one this Friday I’ll try the dutch processed if you say it will give me a darker color.

I’d spent some time looking at cocoas this evening and deliberating whether it was worth it to buy the Scharffenberger. Penzeys is right down the road. I guess I’ll stick with my tried and true.

Thank you.

29. by anonymous on Jan 12, 2010 at 8:57 AM PST

Okay, I admit I’m far from being a cook. I can barely make up some scrambled eggs that are edible.

But I sure do like my hot cocoa on winter nights right before going to bed. So recently I started to wonder about my cocoa powder. Not that there’s anything wrong with it. Just wondering if it’s the best I can buy.

I accidentally ran into this article. And thank goodness I did. I had never even heard of Penzeys until then. And now, because of this article, I not only have the best cocoa powder I can buy, but the best of all the other spices I love to use in the very few dishes I actually CAN make - like my killer chili.

Thanks for the heads up. Now my evening hot cocoa is to die for!

Michelle C. - St. Louis, MO

30. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Feb 23, 2010 at 7:04 AM PST

I think it’s probably marketing hype, but I’d be curious to taste-test it alongside my regular favorite natural cocoa.

31. by anonymous on May 18, 2010 at 7:24 AM PDT

can you please help me solve a mystery? why do I prefer cakes made with nestle over ghirardelli coco powder. thanks

32. by Kokoh on Jul 22, 2010 at 12:55 PM PDT

“6 ounces of milk in the microwave and stir together 2 tablespoons Penzeys natural cocoa powder and 2 tablespoons sugar in a mug”

Sounds a bit sweet to me. I use only one teaspoon sugar per each tablespoon cocoa powder. I don’t want my cocoa to taste like liquid chocolate, not that there’s anything wrong with that.


33. by Jagged Edge on Sep 26, 2010 at 10:58 AM PDT

I loved your article, Matthew and your sense of humor. I also got a kick out of all these comments. With cooler weather upon us here in the Northeast, I’m hoping to do lots o’ baking. I, too, had a 5 year old can of cocoa and although it still tastes fine to me, thought it might be time to investigate buying some truly good cocoa powder. How dare I call myself a true chocoholic! So I stumbled upon your article - and it seems Penzeys is the go-to brand. Judging by your knowledge of chocolate (not to mention your writing skill and wit), I’m sure you know what you are talking about and I’ll take your word. If I can’t find Penzeys locally, I’ll have to send away for it. Cheers. =)

34. by anonymous on Oct 31, 2010 at 7:04 AM PDT

Thanks for the wonderful information. Since you seem to be a chocoholic like myself, will share my favorite homemade dark chocolate recipe: 100% natural baker’s unsweetened chocolate, 3/4 cup of xylitol (or a little more regular sugar), and a very small amt. of coconut oil. Melt chocolate in coconut oil, add sweetener and mix. Put in mini plastic contrainers (can add nuts, raisons, or anything else you want), and put in fridge for 1/2 hour till solid. Really good dark chocolate.

35. by anonymous on Oct 21, 2011 at 5:43 PM PDT

I’ve been reading different articles about cocoa powder and one I read said that mixing it with sugar and/or milk lowers the cocoa’s antioxidant benefit by quite a bit!!! What do you think?

36. by jeri carla on Dec 12, 2011 at 2:18 PM PST

my cocoa recipe is per 1 quart cow liquid( i prefer half and half 7/8 buttermilk 1/8 blended)12 tbs cocoa 8 tbs suger or equivalent sweetener, 1/4 tsp cinnomon 1/8 tsp new mexico chilies powdered, 1/8 tsp nutmeg, 1/8 tsp ginger, whisked continuosly while bringing the milk blend to a simmer then serving. on frosty celebratory nights a shot glass of peppermint schnapps can be added like a boiler maker but then i use 24 ounce mugs for cocoa and i have been found eating cocoa powder from the jar its mmm yummy

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Unexplained Bacon

Matthew Amster-Burton sniffs out the unexplained in the kitchen, the store, and the food world at large. He blogs at Roots and Grubs, podcasts at Spilled Milk, and is the author of the book Hungry Monkey.

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