NOTE This is an update of the original post, with the addition of several more cacao powders to the tasting notes.
With the proliferation of cocoa powders available today, how is a cook to know which is the “best” to use for any particular purpose?
Types of Cocoa Powder
To complicate the selection process, there are three types of cocoa powder: natural, alkalized (Dutch process) and super alkalized (black or onyx). Often, it doesn’t matter which one you use, but if you are baking with chemical leaveners, it does.
If your recipe calls for baking soda (alkaline) as the leavener, you need to counterbalance with a natural cocoa powder (acidic), unless the recipe calls for sufficient other acidic ingredients to activate the baking soda. An alkalized cocoa powder, which is neutral, will not activate the baking soda.
If your recipe calls for baking powder (balanced alkali and acid) as the leavener and contains no additional acidic element, you do not want the cocoa powder to shift the balance, thus you need an alkalized (neutral) cocoa powder. If an acidic element is also present, however, you might want to balance it with an alkalized cocoa powder.
To make sure we keep these straight, keep in mind that:
- Natural process cocoa has no added alkali. It has an intense bittersweet flavor with high natural acidity and full fruity flavor.
- Alkalized cocoa (also called Dutch process cocoa) is treated with an alkali, which helps neutralize cocoa’s natural bitterness and acidity. The alkalization process produces a powder that is typically darker and redder than naturally processed cocoa. Don’t assume, however that darker color implies deeper flavor. Alkalized cocoa is typically milder in flavor than naturally processed cocoa.
- Super-alkalized cocoa (also called black or black onyx cocoa) is alkalized to the extreme, producing an almost black cocoa powder. It contains less fat than other cocoa powders, and this lack must be compensated for in any recipe in which it is used.
To ascertain what the “best” cocoa powder is for you or for a specific culinary creation, purchase several cocoa powders (some natural, some alkalized) and conduct a taste comparison.
And remember that “best” is a relative term. Everyone’s taste buds are different, and you may appreciate a cocoa powder that I don’t, or vice versa. In addition, sampling a cocoa powder straight on with only a little sugar and water may give a different perception than the same cocoa powder baked into a brownie or blended into a pudding. So you may want to put a few of your favorite cocoas through a couple of basic baking tests as well.
To Sample a Range of Cocoa Powders
- Set a small, narrow, clear glass in front of each cocoa container. A shot glass is perfect for this exercise.
- To each glass, add 2 teaspoons cocoa powder, 1 teaspoon superfine sugar, and 1 tablespoon hot tap water.
- Stir to dissolve the cocoa and sugar. Set a clean spoon in front of each glass.
- Now, start on one end of your row of samples and taste your way through the cocoas, making sure not to mix the spoons.
- Take brief notes as you taste. Note color, aroma, texture, flavor notes, balance, and finish. Try not to jump to an immediate conclusion. Taste again very slowly and deliberately.