What's the difference between cocoa powders? | CoachSweetTooth

What is the Difference Between Various Cocoa Powders?

When my mother was ”making a home” she made brownies and chocolate cake with Hershey’s Natural Cocoa. Offered since 1989, it was the most popular and available cocoa powder available to home cooks in America (and still is). Although still King of cocoa powder, Hershey has had to make room on the shelf for other competing brands. Not only that, but there has been a rise in the demand for “Dutched”* cocoa over the last several years. Although Dutched cocoa was invented in 1828, its rise in popularity has stemmed from the popularity of cooking shows in recent years. *So named because a Dutch chemist first neutralized the acid in cacao beans.

There are two basic types of baking cocoa powder; natural and Dutched. There is some variation within the types, with some companies offering especially dark or black cocoa, or even a combination of a natural and Dutched mixture. The main difference is natural cocoa is acidic while cacoa beans meant for Dutched cocoa have been processed with an alkali (potassium carbonate, in case you are ever on Jeopardy) which lowers the acidity of the cocoa powder.

Depending on what you are making or baking, it may or may not make a difference which cocoa you use in a recipe. The difference is determined by other ingredients in the recipe. In this article, a simple guideline will be provided to help you choose which cocoa is best for your particular recipe and for your taste buds. Additionally, some history, as well as newer cocoa powder products will be presented.

If you’re anything like me, you remember that sinking feeling when you snuck into the kitchen cabinet and scooped unsweetened cocoa powder into your milk, expecting it to taste like sweet chocolate milk. The pull was magnetic, and yet we didn’t understand the difference between baking cocoa and Nestle Quik. Luckily, I’ve since figured it out, plus a few more fascinating facts about chocolate products as I’ve studied and experimented with a variety of chocolate products and recipes. There’s nothing I enjoy more than sharing this knowledge with curious, like-minded people.

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Are Cocoa Powders Interchangeable?

Maybe. That’s not to frustrate or tease you. The answer is dependent on what you are making. Simply said, if you are not baking* with the cocoa, IT DOES NOT MATTER which cocoa powder you choose. It doesn’t matter, except for personal preference, that is. So say for instance, you are making a protein shake, pudding, hot chocolate, or frosting. It will not matter which cocoa powder you use as it is not going into the oven to bake. Choose whichever one pleases your palate.

*sorry but brownies might be an exception.

If you are baking a cake, or cookies, or any other good where you are expecting it to rise, then it does make a difference. Before unpacking the reasons for this, note that brownies are sometimes excluded from this rule if you are aiming for the chewy vs cake-type variety as we don’t expect them to rise significantly.

Why the Difference Between the Baked and the Unbaked Rule?

When you place your chocolate cake in the oven, you expect it to rise, and become light and fluffy. Natural cocoa contains an acid. An acid plus a base=carbon dioxide action (i.e. your cake will rise). Generally, a recipe calling for natural cocoa will also have a base in the recipe (think baking soda). A recipe calling for Dutched cocoa powder (which is not acidic, but neutral) will need an acid added to help with rising (think baking powder which contains cream of tartar). Sometimes there is an additional acid in the recipe such as buttermilk, sour cream, yogurt, and even vinegar. If you are a baking nerd, you can manipulate your other ingredients to try to get that acid-base relationship.

How do the Different Cocoas Taste and Look?

Natural cocoa is rich and chocolaty in flavor. It is lighter in color, and robust in flavor (somewhat bitter). Dutched processed cocoa is darker in color (think Devil’s Food) and actually more mellow in taste than natural. Hershey’s Special Dark Cocoa Powder, or black cocoa powders are “Dutched” as well, but are especially dark (think OREO’s).

If you are not expecting a product to rise, you can use any cocoa powder you want. You may have to experiment to see what you like the best. I love the taste of a frosting made with black cocoa powder, but it often gives off a grayish look rather than the chocolate brown color my brain is expecting. For that reason, I stick with natural cocoa powder in my frosting recipes.

How Much Cacao is in Cocoa Powder?

When you purchase a chocolate bar, you often see the percentage of cacao displayed. This gives you an idea of how dark and bitter the bar will be. Even though cocoa powders differ in color and bitterness, they all contain 100% cocoa. The cocoa is made from fermented, roasted beans that have had most of the fat (cocoa butter) squeezed out.

What is the Best Brand of Cocoa Powder?

Like anything else, the quality of a product is dependent on several factors. The quality of the cocao bean, how long it is roasted and fermented, and the fat content of the cocoa powder are some of the factors that influence the taste and behavior in a recipe. We now have so many more ingredient choices than my mother. With online suppliers, we have access to organic, sustainable, fair market trade, and international products. The popularity and competition in the chocolate market continues to give us endless choices. King Arthur Baking Company offers five different cocoa powders/blends. There has never been a better time to update your mom’s chocolate cake recipe and maybe experiment with some new cocoa powders.


Lori Gilmore

Lori Gilmore

Lori has been a Culinary Arts instructor for twenty years. She has taught in the public school setting, at the collegiate level and through adult continuing education as well as running several cooking and baking camps for children. She has participated in several cooking, cake & chocolate contests and has been well recognized. She has raised thousands of dollars for charities using the byline “Saving the World one Cupcake at a Time”. Additionally, she has had several articles regarding food published in various magazines.

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