The most chocolate-y of holidays is upon us—Valentine’s Day!—so I’m bringing up a chocolate-y subject. What’s the difference between natural and Dutched cocoa powder?
I’ll be the first to admit there’s not a huge variation between the two. But it’s worth being at least a little familiar so your baked goods will turn out like you like them. I mean, if you’re going to spend the time and energy to make, for example, Chocolate Muffins (pictured here) for Valentine’s brunch, you want them to be the best they can, right?
Besides, the different terms on boxes of cocoa powder are confusing. And who needs that? No one. So let’s clear it up.
What’s cocoa powder?
If all you did was grind up cocoa nibs—the meat, if you will, of a cocoa bean—what you’d have is a thick paste that’s roughly equal parts cocoa solids and cocoa butter. If you then take away the cocoa butter, or at least most of it, you’d be left with unsweetened chocolate. And if you grind that up, you’d have cocoa powder. (For more on the amazing story of how chocolate is made, read this post.)
So what’s natural cocoa powder?
Natural cocoa powder, also known as raw cocoa powder, is just that—ground up cocoa solids.
But note that because it’s called natural or raw, it sort of has a healthy glow that’s somewhat undeserved. There are some nutritional differences between cocoas, but more than anything “natural” is simply a way to distinguish cocoa powder hasn’t been Dutched (I’ll get to what Dutching is in a sec).
Also note that natural or raw cocoa powder is definitely not raw—the cocoa beans that become any kind of cocoa powder are roasted. (Raw cacao, however—cacao, not cocoa—doesn’t use roasted beans, so is considered a raw food.)
Then what’s Dutched cocoa powder?
Dutched cocoa has been processed exactly like natural cocoa, but adding an alkali treatment to reduce its acidity. This is why Dutched cocoa is also known as alkalized cocoa. And because this alkalizing, also known as Dutching, was invented by—you guessed it!—a Dutch person, Dutched cocoa is also sometimes called European-style.
Why treat cocoa with alkali? When I first learned about chocolate-making, I was told it was originally a way to mask the imperfections of inferior chocolate and it simply stuck. I don’t know if that’s true.
What I do know is that, because of its reduced acidity, Dutched or alkalized cocoa tends to have a smoother, richer chocolate flavor. Also because of its reduced acidity, Dutched cocoa behaves differently in baked goods than natural.
The bottom line
At its most basic, it means that if you like a lighter, brighter chocolate flavor and a cakier texture, use natural cocoa. If you like a richer chocolate flavor and a more fudgy, dense texture, Dutched cocoa is for you.
The flavor difference is because of the flavor difference between more acidic natural cocoa power and more neutral Dutched. The texture difference is because of how the different cocoas react to leaveners, which is because of their different acidities.
Take my Chocolate Muffins, for example. If you look closely at the photos, you’ll see that they alternate in color, some lighter and some darker. That’s because I made half with natural cocoa powder and half with Dutched. While they both tasted equally chocolate-y—and delicious, by the way—the natural were a lighter sort of chocolate flavor and texture, while the Dutched were indeed more intense and dense-seeming.
Circling back to where we started, I admit the variation wasn’t huge—although it might be more so in other recipes. That said, I’m a firm believer that it’s the little things that make the difference between good cooking and great cooking.
Whether you use natural or Dutched cocoa powder could be that difference.
For a deep dive into the science of cocoa powders and higher detail about when the chemical properties of one make more sense over the other, read this great article from King Arthur Baking.