What Is Cocoa Powder?

Buying, Baking, and Recipes

Cocoa powder and cacao beans on dark background, top view
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Cocoa powder, an unsweetened chocolate product, adds deep chocolate flavor to desserts and beverages. Cocoa powder occurs when the fat, called cocoa butter, gets removed from the cacao beans during processing. The leftover dried solids get ground into the product sold as cocoa powder.

Fast Facts

  • Origin: Fruit of a tropical tree
  • Varieties: Dutch-processed and natural
  • Uses: To flavor desserts and drinks

Cocoa Powder vs. Chocolate

Bar chocolate combines cocoa solids and cocoa butter along with sugar and some form of emulsifier such as lecithin to hold the ingredients together. Cocoa powder contains primarily cocoa solids, with only about 10 to 15 percent cocoa butter vs. the 50 percent or more in chocolate.

Higher-quality cocoa powder retains slightly more cocoa butter than lesser brands. Cocoa powder is the missing ingredient in so-called "white chocolate," which is produced by combining cocoa butter and sugar (plus an emulsifier) but no actual cocoa solids.

Cocoa powder is not the same thing as instant cocoa mix, which, when combined with hot water or milk, instantly produces a mug full of hot cocoa. Typically sold in packets, this product contains cocoa, sugar, dehydrated milk, and other ingredients. But you would not use it to bake brownies or chocolate cake. And don't try to make a cup of hot chocolate by simply adding hot water to unsweetened cocoa powder.

Varieties

The two basic types of cocoa powder are Dutch process and natural. You'll find them labeled both ways, in addition to products that say "Dutch and natural blend."

Pure ground cocoa powder has a pH level between 5.3 and 5.8, putting it on the acidic end of the scale. The acidity affects the flavor, the way it interacts with other ingredients, and its solubility.

Natural cocoa powder produced with the Broma process retains the natural pH level. It tends to be more intensely flavored, and a lighter, almost reddish-brown color. The Dutch process (sometimes called "Dutching") bathes the cocoa beans in an alkaline solution, producing a darker brown cocoa powder with a chemically neutral pH of between 6.8 and 8.1, resulting in a more mellow flavor. Dutching also reduces the antioxidant properties of cocoa.

Cocoa Powder Uses

The Dutch process produces a cocoa powder that dissolves more easily, making it easier to work with in recipes such as ice cream and chocolate drinks.

For baking, the type of cocoa you use does matter, because the acidity of the cocoa powder might be the only thing activating the leavening agent in the recipe. If a recipe calls for baking soda, for example, natural cocoa powder works fine, because the acidity in the cocoa activates the baking soda. If a recipe calls for baking powder (or both baking powder and baking soda), then it probably also calls for Dutch-processed cocoa powder.

Chocolate truffle
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What Does It Taste Like?

Cocoa powder tastes like chocolate, but without the creamy mouthfeel cocoa butter adds to bar chocolate. Dutch process cocoa tends to taste milder, while natural cocoa powder can have a sharper flavor. For candy making, the types of cocoa powder can usually be used interchangeably; use whichever cocoa you think tastes best.

Cocoa Powder Substitutions

To swap unsweetened natural cocoa powder for the Dutch process cocoa powder called for in a recipe, add 1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar, white vinegar, or lemon juice for every 3 tablespoons cocoa powder. Conversely, if you replace natural cocoa powder with Dutch process, you need to add 1/8 teaspoon baking soda for every 3 tablespoons of cocoa powder to match the acidity.

With a recipe that calls for melted unsweetened chocolate, you can use cocoa powder as a substitute. Replace every 1 ounce of unsweetened chocolate with 3 level tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder plus 1 tablespoon of fat, such as melted butter, margarine, or oil. Substituting melted unsweetened chocolate for cocoa powder doesn't work as well; since it may be difficult to replicate the balance of fat and cocoa solids with a simple formula.

Recipes With Cocoa Powder

Cocoa powder adds intense flavor to chocoholic recipes such as fudge or flourless chocolate cake, but it can also be used as a subtle coating on chocolate truffles or a light chocolate booster for quick breads and muffins.

Where to Buy Cocoa Powder

Groceries stores generally carry both natural and Dutched cocoa powder. Look for it in the baking aisle. You can also purchase mainstream and artisan brands online, along with Fair Trade Certified, organic, and sustainable products. Some retailers sell it in bulk volume, though you must generally purchase it packaged, not from bulk bins.

Storage

Cocoa powder stores for up to two years in an airtight container in a cool, dark, dry place. Cocoa powder purchased in a tin with a tight-fitting lid can remain in the original packaging. Do not store cocoa powder in the refrigerator or freezer as the moisture affects the texture and can lead to spoilage.

Nutrition and Benefits

Unsweetened cocoa powder has about 12 calories per tablespoon and less than a gram of total fat. Cocoa powder also provides iron, magnesium, zinc, and manganese and delivers 2 grams of fiber per tablespoon.The polyphenolic flavonoids in cocoa may help lower blood pressure and improve cholesterol. It also contains omega 6 fatty acids, which can protect against heart disease.