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Cocoa Powder 101

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Have you ever wondered what the difference is between cocoa powder types? Learn the difference between natural, Dutch, and black cocoa and how to know which one to use in your recipe.

Top view of three bowls. From top to bottom, they contain: natural cocoa powder, Dutch cocoa, and black cocoa.Top view of three bowls. From top to bottom, they contain: natural cocoa powder, Dutch cocoa, and black cocoa.

I have been a cook for a long time. I grew up watching my grandmother make her famous pumpkin rolls and easy cheesecake and I loved helping my mother in the kitchen.

But I know that not everyone learned to cook and bake as a child. So many of us try to learn as much as we can as adults.

If you're one of those people, there's nothing wrong with not knowing how to quickly make a buttermilk substitute or not needing someone to teach you how to measure flour or how to properly cream butter and sugar.

Cocoa powder is one of those baking ingredients that seems really basic, but then you walk into the baking aisle of the supermarket and see different types. How do you know which type to buy? What is natural cocoa powder and how is it different from Dutch cocoa?

Before you panic, read on. I’ll teach you about the types of cocoa powder, how to know which one to use, and some tips on how to store them and know if and when they go bad.

The two main types of cocoa powder

There are two main types of cocoa powder, the most used in recipes and the easiest to find in supermarkets.

A bowl of unsweetened cocoa powder with a spoon inside.A bowl of unsweetened cocoa powder with a spoon inside.

Natural cocoa powder (also known as unsweetened or pure cocoa powder)

Unsweetened or natural cocoa is what most of us grew up with. It’s probably what we saw our mothers and grandmothers using.

Natural cocoa is unsweetened chocolate from which most of the cocoa butter has been removed and ground into a powder.

Because it’s just unsweetened chocolate ground into a powder, natural cocoa has the same acidity as cocoa beans, which are surprisingly acidic! And if you’re buying really good quality natural cocoa, it will also have the complex aromas and flavor notes of the beans.

A bowl of unsweetened cocoa powder with a spoon inside.A bowl of unsweetened cocoa powder with a spoon inside.

Dutch Cocoa (also known as Dutch Cocoa, European Style, or Alkalized Powder)

Dutch cocoa is made from cocoa beans that have been alkalized before being turned into cocoa powder. Alkalization means that the beans are treated with potassium carbonate to make them less acidic (or more alkaline).

This process also creates a different flavor and color. Dutch cocoa has a milder flavor and darker color than natural cocoa.

A bowl of unsweetened cocoa powder with a spoon inside.A bowl of unsweetened cocoa powder with a spoon inside.

And the bitter cocoa powder?

If you spend a lot of time in the sweets aisle, you might have seen black cocoa. It is also sometimes called ultra-Dutch cocoa.

Black cocoa is also alkalized. BBut the process is a little different and is done at a later stage to create a cocoa powder with a very, very dark color and a much more delicate and less bitter flavor.

Many chocolate lovers think that black cocoa tastes less like chocolate than natural or Dutch-processed cocoa, even though it is the key ingredient. Oreo Cookies!

Three tablespoons, each containing a teaspoon of cocoa powder. From bottom to top, they are: natural cocoa, Dutch cocoa, and black cocoa.Three tablespoons, each containing a teaspoon of cocoa powder. From bottom to top, they are: natural cocoa, Dutch cocoa, and black cocoa.

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Why use cocoa powder instead of chocolate in a recipe?

Don’t be fooled into thinking that cocoa powder doesn’t taste as good as chocolate or isn’t as good as chocolate in baked goods. It’s actually better in many recipes!

Because most of the fat (cocoa butter) has been removed, baked goods don't feel heavy like melted chocolate.

For example, while melted chocolate is perfect for dense, fudgy recipes like Snickers brownies, it fails to create the light texture and delicate crumb we desire in our chocolate cake recipes.

You can also use cocoa powder to create a light and airy chocolate frosting. Chocolate is best for toppings like chocolate ganache.

Even novice bakers will find it easier to use cocoa powder, since they don’t have to worry about dissolving it.

Homemade truffles covered in cocoa powder.Homemade truffles covered in cocoa powder.

How do you know which one to use?

Since the main difference between cocoa powder types is acidity, one of the main factors that determines which cocoa powder to use in a recipe is whether the recipe calls for baking powder or baking soda.

If a recipe calls for leavening primarily with baking soda, use natural cocoa powder.

Recipes like my Texas Hold'em Cake, Eggless Chocolate Cake, and Peppermint Coffee Cookies call for only baking soda, so they require natural (unsweetened) cocoa powder.

My Chocolate Strawberry Cake and The Best Chocolate Cake use a combination of baking soda and baking powder. But because there is more baking soda than baking powder in the recipe, the cake is made mostly with natural cocoa, with the option of adding a little Dutch cocoa if desired.

If a recipe calls primarily for baking powder, use Dutch oven cocoa powder.

In my chocolate stout cake I only use baking powder, so also Dutch cocoa powder.

These are general guidelines, so sometimes you’ll see recipes that don’t follow these rules exactly. For example, my chocolate bread uses cocoa powder and baking powder, but it still turns out great.

Three white bowls next to each other, each containing natural cocoa, Dutch cocoa or dark cocoa powder. The bowls are surrounded by chocolate baked goods.Three white bowls next to each other, each containing natural cocoa, Dutch cocoa or dark cocoa powder. The bowls are surrounded by chocolate baked goods.

Frequent questions

Are there any cases where I can use any type of cocoa powder in a recipe?

If the recipe doesn't call for baking soda or baking powder, you can use your favorite cocoa powder.

How long is it good for? Does it go bad?

When you buy a container of cocoa powder, you may notice that it has an “expiration” date instead of a true expiration date. This is because, as long as it doesn't have mold or an unpleasant odor, cocoa powder isn't Truly it goes bad.

Instead, it will lose its strong flavor over time. You can use cocoa powder that is a couple of years past its expiration date, but it may not have the same strong flavor as one you bought last week.

What is the best way to store cocoa powder?

Store cocoa powder in an airtight container in a cool, dry place away from moisture.

It’s fine to keep it in your kitchen pantry, in the tub it comes in. But you may want to move it to a more airtight container if you live in a very humid environment.

To make the product last longer, remove it from the container only with a clean, dry spoon or measuring cup.

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