What’s the Difference? Dutch-Processed, Natural and Drinking Cocoa

Three cocoas: Dutch-processed (L), Valrhona natural (R) and Les Confitures à l'Ancienne drinking cocoa (bottom)

Three cocoas: Dutch-processed (L), Valrhona natural (R) and Les Confitures à l’Ancienne drinking cocoa (bottom)

At this time of year, customers often pop into the shop looking for cocoa – whether for baking a dense chocolate torte or for a warming cup of hot cocoa after hours of shoveling. There are a few different type of cocoa available and we thought it would be helpful to shed a bit of light on the differences.

What is cocoa?
Cocoa is the result of processing raw cacao seeds into what is called cocoa mass or cocoa liquor. Cocoa mass is made up of roughly equal parts cocoa solids and cocoa butter. When you buy a chocolate bar it often has a percentage figure on it. If, for example, the label indicates 75%, that means the bar is made up of 75% cocoa mass and unless other ingredients are mixed in, 25% sugar. If  you’ve ever had a taste of 100% cocoa mass, you know how important the sugar is to counterbalance the natural acidity and tannic quality of the pure cocoa. In some cases, a bit of extra cocoa butter may be added to give the chocolate a smoother textural dimension – a greater melt-in-your-mouth quality.

What is cocoa powder?
Cocoa powder is made by pressing cocoa mass through extremely high pressure rollers that separate the dry matter of the cocoa solids from the fatty matter of the cocoa butter. The dry matter is formed into cakes which are further pulverized into a fine powder.

It is worth noting that cocoa powder is never entirely devoid of cocoa butter. When we make macarons in our bakery, despite all other things being equal, the batter for the chocolate macarons always yields less than our raspberry and pistachio varieties. This happens regardless of who makes the macarons and we suspect that the trace cocoa butter left in the cocoa has a slight deflating effect on the batter. Somehow it may also be the reason for a greater stability in the chocolate macarons as they seem less affected by atmospheric and/or baking conditions than our other varieties.

What are the different types of cocoa powder?
Cocoa powder made for drinking usually has sugar already added to it. Bakers generally prefer unsweetened cocoa powder, which allows for greater control over the amount of added sugar. There are two main types of unsweetened cocoa available: natural and Dutch-processed.

Dutch-processed (L) vs. Valrhona natural (R) cocoa

Dutch-processed (L) vs. Valrhona natural (R) cocoa

Natural, unsweetened cocoa from a quality source is pretty much just that – pure, unadulterated cocoa powder with nothing added. This powder retains all of the natural acidity of the cocoa and gives a deep chocolate flavor to baked goods. Ruddier in color than Dutch-processed cocoa, it can lend a reddish hue to baked goods – it is sometimes thought that it was this redness that was the origin point for the Red Velvet cake (indeed, most recipes still call for some cocoa), a redness that is now usually exaggerated with food coloring or beets.

In contrast, Dutch-processed, unsweetened cocoa is treated with an alkali – and is sometimes referred to as alkalized cocoa. This addition has the effect of neutralizing the cocoa’s natural acidity and darkening the color of the powder. With the chocolate’s natural acidity neutralized, Dutch-processed cocoa will not react with baking soda and must be used in recipes calling for baking powder (unless there are other acidic ingredients that can jump-start the chemical leavening process).

Within the world of Dutch-processed cocoa, there are variations on the theme depending on the amount of alkalization. Moving up the scale from lightly Dutched to more heavily Dutched, the most common is light cocoa, followed by red cocoa, dark cocoa and finally black cocoa. In an excellent blog post on the topic of cocoa, pastry chef David Lebovitz writes, “black cocoa is cocoa powder that has been heavily-Dutched. If you’ve ever had an Oreo cookie, the outer cookies are a good example of black cocoa. Because it has a strong, very brusque flavor, it’s best used in conjunction with another cocoa powder and is mostly used to boost color.”

Here at the shop, we use Dutch-processed cocoa in the bakery. On our shelves, we stock several natural cocoas – at the moment we have ones from Askinosie (US), Maglio (Italy) and Venchi (Italy). In terms of Dutch-processed cocoa, we usually stock Valrhona (France) and Rademaker (The Netherlands). For drinking, we stock a wide variety in the winter time from the likes of Rancho Gordo (cocoa with cane juice and cinnamon added), Confitures à l’Ancienne (cocoa with sugar and vanilla), Maglio (cocoa with sugar) and Cocoa Felice (cocoa with sugar). Stop on by before your next chocolaty baking project or the next snowstorm when a hot cup o’ cocoa will not go amiss!

  • ichabod crane

    you failed to discuss the cardiovascular benefits of cocoa. in addition, I believe these benefits are lost during the Dutch process.

    • http://www.formaggiokitchen.com formaggiokitchen

      Thank you for reading! Unfortunately, we’re not qualified to weigh in on the medical pros or cons of cocoa but any cardiovascular benefits would be welcome!

  • Pingback: Summer food list: Red Velvet Brownies | Om.Nom.Dallas()

  • Chris

    So now I am really confused. lol What is the best cocoa to use when making icing for cupcakes. I don’t want dark chocolate icing somewhere in the middle. Help? This is my first attempt at making chocolate icing, I have not found an chocolate icing in a can I like.

    • http://www.formaggiokitchen.com formaggiokitchen

      Hi Chris – Thank you for checking out our blog! We recommend using Dutch processed cocoa for frosting (unless you prefer a little more acidity in flavor) – it’s what we use in our bakery! Happy baking!

  • Zamarie

    I read your link to David Lebovitz post on the matter and it states Valrhona is Dutch-process….your post says Valrhona is natural cocoa powder…Clarification would be appreciated.

    • http://www.formaggiokitchen.com formaggiokitchen

      Hi Zamarie – Thank you for your comment and for noticing the discrepancy! The labeling we looked at did not indicate the cocoa was Dutch-processed but we just rang Valrhona to confirm and they stated that all of their cocoa is indeed Dutch-processed. We have updated the post accordingly to reflect the correction. Thank you for bringing it to our attention and happy baking!