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The Lowdown on Cocoa Powder: Natural vs. Dutch-Process

This dark, intense ingredient is a baking essential, but which type should you use when?

cocoa powder
Photography by: Johnny Miller

Craving a bite of brownie, a sip of hot cocoa, or a spoonful of chocolate pudding? You’re going to need cocoa powder. You might already have some in your pantry but do you know what kind it is off the top of your head (quick, without checking the label!)? It’s important to know the difference because the two varieties -- natural and Dutch process -- are not strictly interchangeable. Here, a closer look at cocoa powder.

 

Basics

Cocoa powder is made from cocoa beans through a very complex process -- they're fermented, roasted, and hulled, and the resulting nibs are turned into a paste, which is then pressed to remove most of the cocoa butter. What’s left over is dried and ground, finally yielding the substance we know as cocoa powder. Whichever variety you pick up at the grocery store, cocoa powder should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry place for up to a year.

 

Natural

Natural cocoa powder is left untreated, which means like chocolate, it is highly acidic. When baking, it must be combined with an alkaline ingredient such as baking soda to create bubbles of carbon dioxide, which cause leavening. Surprisingly, the lighter-colored natural variety is more chocolaty than the darker Dutch-process, with a sharp, almost fruity flavor. However, the difference in color is consistent after baking. Baked goods made with natural cocoa powder are a lighter, more reddish brown, while Dutch-process ones have a dark brown, almost black hue. Try the natural variety in our winning Texas Sheet Cake or Hot Cocoa with Almond Milk.

 

Dutch-Process

Also called “Dutched” or “European-style,” this cocoa powder differs from natural in that an alkali solution is added to the beans during roasting, mellowing their acidity (the label might also say “alkalized” or “processed with alkali”). While it still boasts a rich chocolate flavor, it’s milder and smoother than its natural counterpart, with earthy notes that complement both sweet and savory ingredients. It's the variety we use most often in our recipes. When baking, Dutch-process cocoa powder is typically combined with another neutralized ingredient: baking powder. It’s great in desserts from cakes and cupcakes to cookies and candy, and a tablespoon can transform a pot of chili or mole, or even a spice rub for ribs.

 

Substituting One for the Other

You can use either type of cocoa powder in any recipe that doesn’t include baking powder or soda, such as a dessert sauce, frosting, custard, ice cream, or hot cocoa -- it's simply a matter of personal preference. If baking powder or soda is involved, then substitutions get a little tricky. Since natural cocoa powder and Dutch-process react with leaveners differently, it’s usually best to stick to what’s called for in the ingredient list. If it doesn’t specify, look at the leaveners in the recipe -- if it relies on a majority of baking soda, then use the natural variety. If the recipe is mostly leavened by baking powder, then use Dutch-process. If you’re in a pinch, you can swap one for the other, but keep in mind that there will be differences in appearance, flavor, and texture.

 

Watch as our Kitchen Conundrums expert Thomas Joseph explains the nuances of cocoa powder: