Baking Basics: Cocoa Powder 101. An overview of the differences between natural cocoa and Dutch-process, and when to use them!

I’m back with another Baking Basics session this week! Today we’re talking chocolate… more specifically, cocoa powder!

Cocoa powder is what is left over after cocoa butter has been extracted from cacao beans. There are two types of unsweetened cocoa powder: natural and Dutch-processed.

You may have noticed that a number of chocolate-based recipes here on the site call for one or the other – natural or Dutch-process cocoa. One of the most-asked questions I receive is whether one can be substituted for the other. Today we’re going to take the mystery out of the differences between the two and talk about when each one should be used.

Let’s go!

Dutch-Process Cocoa Powder

Dutch-process cocoa powder is also sometimes labeled as “treated with alkali” or “alkalized”. It is cocoa powder that has been washed in a potassium carbonate solution that neutralizes its natural acidity. The result is a richer cocoa powder that is darker in color and has a more mellow, less sharp-tasting flavor. It also dissolves more easily into liquids than natural cocoa powder. Since Dutch-process cocoa powder has been stripped of its acids and neutralized, you’ll often find it in recipes calling for baking powder.

Brand Recommendations: I’ve been using Valrhona Dutch-process cocoa powder for a number of years now – I really love the flavor! Another great brand is Droste, and Hershey’s also makes a Special Dark variety, which is part natural cocoa and part Dutch-process cocoa and found in most grocery stores.

Natural Unsweetened Cocoa Powder

Natural cocoa powder is usually labeled simply as “cocoa” or “unsweetened cocoa powder”. It has not had its acid stripped away, so it is lighter in color, acidic, bitter and has a very concentrated chocolate flavor. Since natural cocoa powder has all of its acid in tact, it is typically called for in recipes with baking soda. Natural cocoa powder is an acid, and baking soda is a base (science!), so the two react together to allow baked goods to rise properly.

Brand Recommendations: I am a big fan of the iconic Hershey’s natural unsweetened cocoa powder, and it’s available in pretty much every grocery store in the U.S. (plus, it was rated #1 in Cook’s Illustrated’s cocoa powder rankings!).

Troubleshooting Recipes

Are Dutch-process and natural cocoa powder interchangeable in a recipe?  I always, always, always recommend following a recipe as written (see my initial Baking Basics post on 5 mistakes to avoid when preparing a recipe). Doing so gives you the best chance for success, especially if it’s your first time making the recipe. So, in a word, no. If you switch the cocoa powder, you’ll need to start playing around with the leavening agents, as well.

However, for recipes that do not use any leavening agents – things like sauces, frostings, puddings, hot chocolate, ice cream, some brownies – it’s perfectly fine to make substitutions based on your personal taste preference or what you have available.

What if a recipe only calls for ‘cocoa powder’?  This is fairly common, especially in older recipes. I’ve found that most really old recipes (from church cookbooks, grandma’s index cards, etc.) are referring to natural cocoa powder, simply because that’s all that was available at the time.

However, you should always take a close look at the recipe. If it calls for a majority of baking powder, you should use Dutch-process cocoa. Conversely, if the recipe calls for mostly baking soda, then use natural cocoa powder.

Bake On!