What is Dutch Processed Cocoa Powder? This month on Kitchen Geekery, Dr. J. explains the science of cocoa powder and why Dutch Processed Cocoa can make a big difference to your baking results!
“Scandal!” I know that’s what you were thinking when you read the title, but it’s true: not all cocoa powders are the same, and I’m not just referring to quality. I’m also referring to pH, and we all know pH (or whether an ingredient is acidic or basic) can literally make or break a baking recipe.
Where does cocoa powder come from?
From the cocoa pod to cocoa powder, there are many, many steps, so here’s a very brief summary of them all. The cocoa beans are removed from the pods, and those beans are fermented and dried, then roasted and ground into a thick cocoa liquor (the liquor is actually made up of the very fine, broken down bean cell particles and cocoa butter that was tucked away inside the cocoa nibs, which were inside of the beans). The cocoa liquor is pressed to extract the cocoa butter, leaving behind a cocoa cake made up of fine cocoa bean particles. The cocoa cake is ground to make cocoa powder.
What does “Dutch-processed” Cocoa imply?
Though the process from cocoa pod to cocoa powder is very interesting, there’s a key step that can really play tricks on your baking: Dutch processing.
If you think of the pH scale ranging from 0 to 14, where 0 is acidic, 14 is basic, and 7 is neutral, cocoa powder that is not Dutch processed falls in around pH 5, so on the acidic side of the scale, with a pronounced chocolate flavour and bitterness.
The Dutch chocolatier van Houten developed a “dutching” process where the cocoa beans are treated with pot ash or other basic ingredients raising the pH of the cocoa to 7 (neutral pH) or 8 (basic/alkaline pH). Besides increasing the pH of the cocoa powder, the Dutch process alters the colour and flavour of the cocoa, giving it a browner, and often darker, colour, as well as a milder, less bitter flavour. The “dutching” process alters the astringent notes in cocoa beans, which can be considered unpleasant in some cases. As a rule, the darker the colour, the milder the flavour of the cocoa powder.
Pay close attention to your cocoa-based recipes, like cocoa-based chocolate cakes. Sometimes, cocoa-based cake recipes will call for baking soda as a leavening agent, with no baking powder added and no obvious acid listed among the ingredients (like no buttermilk, nor sour cream). Remember, baking soda reacts with an acid to form carbon dioxide gas, which gives your cakes that rise (for a refresher on baking soda, check out my Kitchen Geekery article on the subject). These cocoa-based recipes may rely on the acidity of the cocoa powder to react with that baking soda.
Without the acidity from the cocoa powder, your cakes will have a hard time rising, like if you happen to use a Dutch-processed cocoa. Your cakes may fall short, literally, without the addition of an acid (such as vinegar or buttermilk) and/or of baking powder. So when you are following a cocoa-based chocolate cake, consider the type of cocoa you are using and take the time to analyze your ingredient list and make sure that you are using the correct type of cocoa powder and that your baking soda has an acid to react with or that your recipe calls for baking powder. This way you are sure your cakes are going to rise properly.
How do I know which cocoas are Dutch-processed and which aren’t?
This one’s tricky. Some manufacturers will include the alkaline agent used for Dutch-processing in their list of ingredients on the cocoa powder (like potassium carbonate in No Name brand cocoa powder or sodium carbonate in Fry’s cocoa). Unfortunately not every company does this. I spoke with somebody at Cacao Barry and found out that their cocoas are all Dutch-processed. Hershey’s cocoa powders are Dutch-processed except for their Natural Cocoa Powder, which is not Dutch-processed.
Of course, the term “natural” is being tossed around on a lot of product labels these days and it isn’t a term that is regulated. I would avoid using “natural” as an indicator of whether your cocoa powder has been Dutch-processed or not. Your best bet is to read the ingredients, consult websites, and even contact the company if you are unsure.
A note on “instant cocoas” and hot cocoa mixes
The instant cocoa mixes on the market often include a lot of sugar and emulsifiers, like lecithin, to help the cocoa mix better with water. They sure are convenient, but personally I like to make my own hot cocoa from scratch. Also, don’t use hot cocoa mix in place of cocoa when you are baking. Unless your recipe explicitly says to use a hot cocoa mix or chocolate milk powder, just use cocoa powder.
Got the winter blues?
If you’re like me and you’ve got a mean case of the winter-why-oh-why-do-you-suck-so-much, there’s always hot cocoa, which in my opinion is one of the easiest and best ways to enjoy your cocoa. Here’s a quick recipe to help you get through this tough season until Spring kicks in.
- 2 cups (500 mL) milk (I like to use 2%)
- 4 tbsp Dutch-processed cocoa powder
- 2 tbsp maple syrup
- In a small saucepan, heat the milk.
- Sift the cocoa powder over the hot milk and whisk it in. Whisk in the maple syrup.
- Serve hot, either straight or with a dollop of whipped cream or a scattering of tiny marshmallows.
Kitchen Geekery is written by Janice Lawandi. Janice is a PhD-chemist-turned-baker, which is why she loves to use science to understand and solve problems in the kitchen. She is currently working as a recipe tester and writer in Montreal, QC. Visit Janice’s blog, Kitchen Heals Soul, for more baking science and inspiration. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.