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.)
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.
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!
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.)
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
Cover photo by Danielle Sykes; food styling by Liz Neily.