How much do you know about that box of unsweetened cocoa powder sitting on the shelf? Here’s everything you need to know, from Dutching to making better hot chocolate to understanding the science of it all so you can better take advantage of this culinary power player.

Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
Photo: Getty Images
| Credit: Getty Images

The world of chocolate can be a little daunting for the aspiring baker. It seems like just as soon as you’ve mastered tempering chocolate or making a ganache without it freezing up on you, you hear about something new that you don’t know Jack about—such as the difference between Dutch-process and “normal” cocoa powder. So let’s dig in about cocoa powder, and get to the bottom of what it is, how to buy it, and when it’s useful. (Tip: We gleaned a lot of this data from the excellent book Professional Baking: Fifth Edition, by Wayne Gisslen, which would be a boon to any serious home baker.)

What It Is

Cacao trees, sometimes called “cocoa trees,” produce large pods brimming with seeds called cocoa beans. These beans ferment—often between layers of banana leaves—and dry out, turning from yellowish to brown, and then spend some time drying out in the open air. They’re then shipped to processors, where they are completely cleaned and roasted, developing their oomph of flavor. After this process, the beans are cracked and the shells are removed. The broken pieces are called nibs, which are more than half fat (cocoa butter) and very little water. Grinding these nibs into a paste allows the cell walls to release cocoa butter, after which powerful presses separate the cocoa butter from the cocoa powder.

What Is Dutch Process Cocoa Powder?

According to Gisslen’s book, in the early 1800s a Dutchman named van Houten discovered that processing cocoa using an alkali (typically a soluble salt or potassium solution in which the beans are washed) made for a milder cocoa powder with a darker color. It was called “Dutching,” in an homage to van Houten. As Amber Sather, pastry chef of Lot 2 and Southside Coffee in Brooklyn, New York, explained the difference between “natural” and “Dutch-processed” cocoa powder: “They’re both bitter, because they’re not sweet. Natural [non-Dutched] cocoa powder will have a bit more of an acid taste. The texture is silkier and the color is darker in Dutch process.” Also expect a slightly smoother flavor from Dutch-process cocoa, thanks to that acid being removed. If you want to experience, er, “extreme Dutching,” look for black Dutched cocoa powder, which has been extra-Dutched, is very dark, and has been used in Oreos to give them their dark color.

How Cocoa Powder Is Used to Make Chocolate

Manufacturers will often blend the unsweetened cocoa powder with sugar and—if making milk chocolate—milk solids. Conching, a procedure in which more moisture is removed and cocoa butter is added back in, comes next. The liquid chocolate is tempered, then molded into blocks for sale.

Why Buy Unsweetened Cocoa Powder?

Its purity is part of why many pastry chefs recommend buying unsweetened cocoa powder—as opposed to sweetened powder you might use for hot cocoa—so you can control the sugar content and sweetness level. As Sather explains, “For me, with baking, it’s like using unsalted butter: I always want to add my own of an extra ingredient so you can be in control of that.”

Can I Use Dutch-Process and “Natural” Cocoa Powder Interchangeably?

Not easily. If you’re baking, because the alkali used in Dutch-process cocoa alters it chemically, if you see it called for in a recipe and you decide to use non-Dutched cocoa powder, you might also need to swap out the baking powder for baking soda. More precisely, per Gisslen’s book: Every time you use natural cocoa powder, you need to add 1.25 oz of baking soda per pound to balance the cocoa powder’s acidity. With Dutched cocoa, on the other hand, you’d need zero ounces of baking soda per pound. If you’re making a frosting, however—something that’s not baked, you shouldn’t be in too much trouble, but anticipate a different texture, taste, and sweetness level depending on which type of powder you use.

Although the science is complicated, says Sather, “With the natural [cocoa powder], because it has its acids intact, it’s paired with baking soda because the metallic taste that’s released in the baking soda is mellowed by the natural acid in the cocoa powder.” She adds, “If you’re for some reason changing up cocoa powders, you’d need to consider acid in general.” Gisslen’s book specifies that if you’ve got Dutched cocoa but not “natural” cocoa, you must “increase the baking powder by 1 ounce for each ½ ounce soda omitted. Your best bet if you want to avoid the math? If you bake often, keep both types of cocoa powders on hand.

How Do I Store It?

“Just keep it at room to cool temperatures,” says Sather, “and make sure it’s in a dry container that’s sealed.” Water completely alters the composition of cocoa powder, so it’s best to keep it super-dry. And replace it after a year, by which time it will have started to fade.

What Brand Should I Buy?

Sather only uses Dutch-processed cocoa, and is a huge fan of Cacao Barry’s rendition, which is all she uses in her work. A good bet if you want to try something new beyond Hershey’s is to see if your favorite chocolatier makes a cocoa powder, too, and see whether you like their “100% cocoa” or “100% cacao” powder (as opposed to one that contains sugar and is a cocoa mix).

How is It Different Than Regular Chocolate for Frosting?

If you think about how cocoa powder is made, separating it from its fat, it makes sense that you’d need to add that fat back in for a satisfying “chocolatey” texture. The classic chocolate ganache recipe, for example, requires simply melting chocolate and cream together, because the fat is present in the chocolate and cream! When making chocolate frosting using unsweetened cocoa powder, on the other hand, you’ll want plenty of butter along with your sugar, to replace the missing cacao fat.

How to Make a Better Hot Cocoa

If Sather—whose background is in coffee—was making her Platonic ideal of hot cocoa, she’d start with natural cocoa powder—“Dutched might be a little chalky”—and mix organic cane sugar with it and a bit of salt, making a powder. She’d add a couple tablespoons of very hot water to melt the sugar and cocoa, and stir it until it was a thick syrup. She’d pour hot milk over the whole, stirring.

Any Good Savory Uses?

Once you start playing around with good-quality cocoa powder, investigate how else it can play a starring role in your kitchen. Chef Tim Love adds it to ancho chile powder and light brown sugar for the base of a killer pork chop rub. And if you haven’t tried mixing up your baby back rib routine in a while, maybe this is a year you try this cinnamon, ginger, and cocoa powder treatment. (You don’t even need to wait till it’s grilling season!)

As is true of Puebla’s mole poblano, which relies upon a good bit of shaved chocolate to achieve its unctuous, sweet-spicy sauce, cocoa can easily slip into savory dishes. All you have to do is reach for the box.

Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in, Bon Appétit, Martha Stewart Living, Travel & Leisure, New York Magazine, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen