These types of cocoa aren't always interchangeable. Here's how to know which cocoa to use when.

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.

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. 

Dutch-Process Cocoa

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 Cocoa

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 Amy Guittard, 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.


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