What Is Cacao Butter, and Why Is It So Popular?
Cacao butter has gotten some attention lately, especially from those following a paleo or keto diet. Also known as cocoa butter, it's a common ingredient in lotions and lip balms because it can moisturize and protect our skin, which absorbs it well. You might consume cacao butter most frequently in candy bars, but you can use it in your cooking—assuming you understand the ingredient, that is. To learn more, we spoke with pastry chef Penny Stankiewicz, owner and creative director of Sugar Couture, a custom sugar art company.
What Is Cacao Butter?
Cacao butter is a naturally occurring plant-based fat derived from the cocoa or cacao bean, says Stankiewicz. Despite the name, it contains no butter or dairy. After cacao pods are harvested, the beans inside are fermented, dried, and roasted. Those roasted beans are then ground. The grinding process allows the cocoa butter to be separated from the cocoa mass (which often goes on to life as cocoa powder). Because cocoa beans come from the Theobroma cacao plant, this separated cocoa fat is also known as theobroma oil.
Though an oil, cacao butter is solid at room temperature. It is too brittle and hard to use without melting it first, but it has a low melting point. "It's below body temperature," says Stankiewicz. "That's the whole concept of chocolate melting in your mouth." Cacao butter has a mild chocolate aroma, but it does not provide a chocolatey taste.
How Do You Work with Cocoa Butter?
Though cacao butter melts easily, it must be melted carefully, says Stankiewicz. "You want to melt it like you'd melt chocolate, which is gently, either in a double boiler or in the microwave, starting with a one-minute burst and then using shorter bursts after that." She also cautions that it takes longer than you'd expect: "It feels like it takes forever—much longer than it takes to melt chocolate."
Some people add the melted cacao butter into smoothies or stir it into hot chocolate to make it richer. You can cook and bake with it, but you need to consider the properties of cacao butter—as well as your budget. "Cocoa butter is pricey," says Stankiewicz. "If you're going to swap it for all of your fat when baking, that is going to be a very expensive treat!" But say you were going to make brownies: "You could use cocoa butter instead of butter, but you can't use it as a one-to-one swap," says Stankiewicz. "Cocoa butter is 100 percent fat. Butter is generally 82 percent butterfat, which means the other 18 percent is water and other trace ingredients."
Stankiewicz explains that you could substitute about 82 percent of the fat the recipe calls for and then add the remainder as a liquid such as water or coffee. But more commonly, bakers will substitute only a portion of the fat in a recipe, such as swapping one-quarter or half of the butter with cacao butter.
For recipes that call for oil, which is 100 percent fat (like cacao butter), the rules are a little different. Stankiewicz says that replacing some of the oil in a vegan brownie with cacao butter works well; it can even reduce the greasy sensation that can occur with using only oil, which remains liquid at room temperature. Cacao butter is also a fair substitute for coconut oil—another oil that is solid at room temperature. Whenever baking with cacao butter, remember that the final product will set up more after baking, since cacao butter firms up as it cools.
How to Buy Cacao Butter
Food-grade cacao butter is available on the shelves of some health food stores and online. Popular brands include Navitas Organics, ($10.98, walmart.com), Terrasoul ($30.99, walmart.com), and Wild Foods ($14.99, wildfoods.com). If you're taking a deep dive into chocolate making, there is also a powdered version called Mycryo ($33.99, etsy.com) which assists in the tempering process.
How to Store Cacao Butter
Store cacao butter at cool room temperature and away from light. Choose dark containers and store them away from windows or in the refrigerator. Cacao butter is otherwise a forgiving ingredient, says Stankiewicz, "It's very stable at room temperature and can last indefinitely."