The Wonderful World of Unsweetened Cocoa Powder

The Wonderful World of Unsweetened Cocoa Powder: Comparison of 17 Cocoa Powders

 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.

The Wonderful World of Unsweetened Cocoa Powder: Comparison of 17 Cocoa Powders

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.

The Wonderful World of Unsweetened Cocoa Powder: Comparison of 17 Cocoa Powders

To Sample a Range of Cocoa Powders

  1. Set a small, narrow, clear glass in front of each cocoa container. A shot glass is perfect for this exercise.
  2. To each glass, add 2 teaspoons cocoa powder, 1 teaspoon superfine sugar, and 1 tablespoon hot tap water.
  3. Stir to dissolve the cocoa and sugar. Set a clean spoon in front of each glass.
  4. Now, start on one end of your row of samples and taste your way through the cocoas, making sure not to mix the spoons.
  5. 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.

Jump to Twenty-One Cocoa Powders (Five New)

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Comments

  1. stan says

    This blog is older, so probably moribund, but I was researching cocoa for health purposes and came across it. Thought I’d share some nutrition information.

    The flavor of a chocolate seems to be inversely related to its health benefits. The raw theobroma seed is bitter because of the (epi)catechins and flave3ols it contains. They are there to protect the seed against all the nasty things that want to eat it in the tropical environment. They are also the source of all the wonderful health benefits that theobroma provides. Processing the seed is what yields the rich flavor of chocolate. Most important is the fermenting of the seeds, since it destroys the most (epi) catechins, and thus bitterness. Roasting destroys more of them, though less than fermenting. And Dutching or alkalizing, completely eliminates them. But, oh, it does wonderful things for the flavor.

    So, there is a trade off between health and flavor. Of all the chocolates you tested, the one whose taste description by you comes closest to raw cocoa powder is the standard Hershey. It probably provides the most health benefits, by sacrificing chocolate flavor. Guess it depends what you want the cocoa powder for. Maybe a raw(er) one for health (a teaspoon a day) and a more processed one for flavor is the way to go.

  2. Jen says

    Hi! Which cocoa powder do you think can be a substitute for Valrhona Cocoa Powder? Do you think Callebaut Cocoa is a good one?

    • Susan S. Bradley says

      Jen, I have always liked Callebaut chocolate but have not actually tried the cocoa powder. I’m not sure where it is available except by special order. Any of the 2 or 3 star chocolates that I list taste especially good to me.

  3. Lee says

    I recently purchased a 2.2lb bag of Valrhona for baking. Using your method of taste testing I noticed a very peculiar taste so dominant that it took away the joy of the chocolate flavor. I went ahead and baked
    a batch of bouchons, thinking that the odd taste would be eliminated. It wasn’t and when I served them
    everyone commented on the odd flavor. Can you add any light on this? I don’t know if I have an inferior
    unit of product or if this is how this product tastes.

    • Susan S. Bradley says

      Lee, that is very odd. Valrhona usually tastes like heaven. Is this the first time you’ve tasted it? It sounds like something went wrong in the manufacturing or packaging process. Please alert the manufacturer.

      • Lee says

        I have tasted Valrhona cocoa used in baked products before and never noticed an odd smell
        or flavor, however, I never have used it personally. I am taking it back to the restaurant supply
        tomorrow. I will email the manufacturer. Thanks for your help.

        • Susan S. Bradley says

          Lee, I’m very curious to hear what they have to say. I’ve never experienced anything odd with Valrhona cocoa powder. For the price, it better be PERFECT. :-)

  4. says

    Awesome blog! Is your theme custom made or did you download it
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  5. Jonathan Clarke says

    I really loved this post! I live in Canada and was wondering how I could go about procuring any of the cocoa powders mentioned above?

  6. says

    Thank you for this comprehensive comparisons! I just tasted Scharffen Berger cocoa for the first time, and it’s spoiled me. I could have it unsweetened. Might make the leap to Askinosie, but it is pricey. So many choices!

  7. says

    Quite the tasting service you’ve provided! I recently bought some cocoa, I wanted something fair trade and organic, since that would also insure that it would be slavery-free (organic certification includes a labor quality standard). Another way to avoid slave labor is to avoid chocolate produced in the Ivory Coast. I chose between the three kinds at PCC co-op. Guess I’m glad I didn’t pick Equal Exchange since you really didn’t like it. I chose Rapunzel which isn’t on your list, and while it worked in my recipe, I’m not convinced it’s the best I can get. Dagoba is fair trade, you didn’t seem to like it either. Fortunately, so is Green & Black which you liked a lot better. I will try that next time.
    Mary (Fit and Fed) recently posted…Chocolate Orange Jalapeno SorbetMy Profile

  8. says

    It would have been interesting to see the results of a blind taste test and know the origin of the cocoa beans for each brand but thanks for the information. I’m always in pursuit of the best products to use in my baking and you’ve given me some new ones to evaluate.

  9. Rod says

    A sophisticated palate and complementary evaluations! Thanks for the feedback.

    I had ignored cocoa powders until this year (except for an occasional cold day hot cocoa drink). I did not know that such variety exists. Might we hope for a business to offer an introductory box containing many samples?

    • Susan S. Bradley says

      Thank you, Rob, and you have a great idea there. It was VERY costly to purchase all those cocoa powders, but I get a little thrill now whenever I open the cupboard dedicated to their storage. :-) At my former cooking school, Northwest Culinary Academy, we did extensive chocolate tastings, which were always interesting. It was only later though that I realized cocoa powders were just as diverse in flavor.

  10. Rod says

    The Tessera de Cocoa recipe (online, using Black Cherry Concentrate) was created with Ghirardelli Natural Unsweetened Cocoa for its characteristics (as described in this comparison list), but also for its general availability, price and assumed level of antioxidants. Do the higher rated natural process cocoa powders in this list also rate higher in antioxidant level?

    • Susan S. Bradley says

      Rod, I am guessing that antioxidant levels are similar in these quality cocoa powders. Please note that the rating here is entirely subjective, based on only my palate. My intention with the comparison is to get folks to conduct comparisons themselves. Also, while I may prefer some of the pricier cocoas, I do consider cost when choosing which cocoa to use in any given recipe.

    • Rod says

      I tried adding chocolate nibs to the Tessera recipe to increase the antioxidant level and create chewiness. After the cocoa powder was mixed with virign coconut oil, I soaked the nibs in hot water, drained them and added them to the heated chocolate mixture in the pan. Lesson learned: oil and water don’t mix (the remaining water in the nibs separated, creating a gooey mess). Next time, I’ll just grind the nibs a bit in a coffee grinder and add them directly to the warm chocolate mixture.

      • Susan S. Bradley says

        Rod, oh yes, I have many a hard lesson with chocolate myself. But why do you want to grind the nibs? They have a lovely crunch. I’m afraid if you grind them that they will lend only grittiness. Let me know what happens.

        • Rod says

          Susan,

          The granular size of the nibs is not complementary to the Tessera recipe concept. I had to purchase another bag of nibs for today’s testing and discovered that some brands are better than others (tastier, less gritty fiber).

          But I first tried simmering the nibs in vigin coconut oil: crispier nibs (I should have known), but an interesting option for snacking, dessert toppings and some recipes!

          Then, I ground the nibs in the coffee grinder: as you expected, the grittiness was still present. However, a new food item was created: natural chocolate flavoring for brewed coffee! I’ll keep a supply next to my ground coffee (or mix the two ahead of time).

          Analysis: no nibs for this recipe (but nibbling on the side is nice).

        • Rod says

          Clarification: the simmered nibs were not used in the coffee grinder. Also, I was reminded to not lick spoons used to stir hot oil – nibs or not!

        • Rod says

          Comment: Cocoa powder clogs coffee filters – the ground nibs should have the same texture as regular ground coffee. Using 1 tbsp ground nibs to 2 tbsp ground coffee, the chocolate flavor is subtle, but pleasing.

        • Rod says

          Comment (again): the ground nibs and coffee are very good! (even as reheated coffee). Unlike adding flavoring or chocolate powder (or syrup) to brewed coffee, the nibs add flavor depth similar to ground coffee beans.

        • Rod says

          I’ve already settled into a coffee brewing routine using the “cacao brewing nibs” (1 tbsp brewing nibs per 2 tbsp ground coffee). The nibs seem to mellow the coffee slightly (perhaps like chicory) as well as give it a light chocolate note. My inexpensive coffee grinder creates some cocoa powder, so I use a strainer to isolate the brewing nibs. This coffee flavor is such pleasing accompaniment to chocolate desserts that I’ll need to wear a seat belt when the dessert cart rolls by!

        • Rod says

          I should have said “creates some cacao powder” since cocoa powder involves more processing than just grinding nibs.

      • Rod says

        Adding the moistened nibs to the heated Tessera mixture in a pan on the stove was the mistake. This procedure is best (for the recipe quantity):

        1. Soak 1/3 cup nibs, covered in very hot coffee, for 30 min. (cover the container wihle the nibs are soaking). Then drain well with a strainer and allow the strainer to set on paper towels while the Tessera mixture is prepared.

        2. Before pouring the Tessera mixture into the bowl, spread the moistened nibs evenly in the bowl. Then, slowly pour the mixture over the nibs.

        3. Refrigerate, then slice as per the recipe.

        Nibs soaked in coffee (or hot water), then drained well, may also be stored in a covered container in the refrigerator for later use. The nibs remain very chewy, but not so crunchy.

        • Rod says

          A final comment about adding goodies: spread dried black currants and/or raw sunflower seeds on the wax paper (instead of the nibs) for healthy “energy squares”.

        • Rod says

          My previous comment posted before editing was completed. It should have read:

          More experience: Cacao nibs that are not moistened grind best when cool (more oil might be separated from nibs that are warm).

          Also, 3/4 cup of black currants (or dark zante currants) perfectly complement the quantity of chocolate mixture in the Tessera recipe when creating “energy squares”. Don’t like currants? Try diced, dried cherries or dried wild blueberries!

  11. maria says

    great post — have not been able to find out where to purchase Pralus Cacao Poudre Plantation in the US. Can you please direct me? thanks

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  13. laura says

    Thanks for all this information – really helps clarify for me, and I’ll know where to start, with so many options!

    • Susan S. Bradley says

      Laura, there are more wonderful cocoa powders available every month it seems. I am having a difficult time keeping up with all of them myself. :-)

  14. Ida says

    Hi! This post was awesome, I had only recently found that there are so many better options for cocoa powders that are not Hershey’s. I have a question though, if the recipe doesn’t specify whether or not to use natural or Dutch, and the baking soda & baking powder are of equal quantity, what would be better to use?

    • Susan S. Bradley says

      Thank you, Ida. In my recipes, I try to always specify which cocoa powder I used to get the results described and shown. However, in the case you mention, if the cocoa powder type is not specified, I would assume the author intended natural process cocoa powder. Either would likely work though. Hope this helps.

  15. Linda says

    what would you recommend as the best chocolate powder to be used for a rich dark chocolate flavor with non fat yogurt, I make a great chocolate like mouse sweetening it with stevia…been using Hersheys dark chocolate powder and wondering about trader Joes if it would be dark flavor enough…I would like a darker chocolate flavor than that Hersheys as well…thanks ….Linda

    • Susan S. Bradley says

      Linda, all unsweetened cocoa powders on the list have a deep chocolate flavor. However, overall flavor varies considerably. To my palate, Hershey’s cocoa powder has a distinctive, unpleasant flavor that is both metallic and musty. Per my tasting notes on Trader Joe’s organic cocoa, the acidity level may not be what you want with yogurt. Perhaps try Valrhona cocoa power instead.

  16. gail says

    I’m going to make a chocolate beet cake that has 2 teaspoons of baking soda but also has the beets. Makes me wonder whether I should be using natural cocoa as you suggest or alkalized. Important as we’ve got a dessert competition going on Christmas Eve! Thanks for your post.

    • Susan S. Bradley says

      Gail, of course there are always recipes that feature exceptions to the rule, but in general, baking soda (an alkaline) interacts with acid (natural cocoa powder) to create the leavening action. You’re correct to suggest that the beets also provide acidity. However, with this extreme quantity of baking soda (1/4 teaspoon baking soda = 1 teaspoon baking powder), my inclination would be to use a nautural (non-alkalized) cocoa powder. Check out the Heavenly Chocolate Beet Tea Loaf I created earlier this year: http://thelunacafe.com/heavenly-chocolate-beet-tea-loaf/. It uses a small amount of baking soda to offset the natural cocoa and then baking powder as well. So you have options here. Hope this helps. Happy baking! …Susan

  17. Sarah says

    Here is a question you may or may not be able to assist with… this post is delightfully helpful in finding the best cocoa powder, but I have a recipe that presents a bit of a problem… it is a cake, and it uses both baking soda AND baking powder.

    Now this is my scientist side coming out… there is a considerably larger amount of baking soda than baking powder (2 teaspoons of soda to 1/2 teaspoon of powder). My logic would dictate, then, that I should probably use a natural cocoa powder, since there is more of the alkaline soda than of the neutral powder… do you think this would be a safe assumption?

    • Susan S. Bradley says

      Sarah, your conclusion is correct. You need acid (natural chocolate) to react with the baking soda (alkaline). However, that’s a ton of baking soda; the equivilent of 8 teaspoons of baking powder. It will be interesting to see how that turns out. Do let us know.

  18. says

    My Trader Joe’s has an alkalized cocoa powder. I haven’t tried it, but none of the other grocery stores carry descent alkalized cocoa powders, so I was thinking of trying it. Can anyone recommend it?

    • sms bradley says

      Karen, the stores are listed under each cocoa in the Purveyor line. I also linked each cocoa to the producers web site, in case you want to purchase the cocoa online. I bought all of these cocoas in Portland Oregon at either City Market, Pastaworks, Sur La Table, Williams Sonoma or Cacao. Hope this helps. Best…Susan

  19. Dani H says

    Wow! This is an excellent post that I’m sure is going to be a resource that I’ll rely on for all of my future cocoa needs. To be honest, I couldn’t afford to sample this many cocoas. I’m getting into truffle-making, so it really is a treasure. Thanks, Susan.

    • sms bradley says

      Thank you, Dani! So pleased this post is helpful to you. I got a little carried away buying all those cocoas. :-) On the other hand, what a delight to have them on hand.

  20. dee dee says

    looking for a dark chocolate unsweetened powder to use for drinking with milk…can the dark chocolate powders you listed here be used for this simple purpose or are they meant exclusively for baking?

    • sms bradley says

      Oh yes, Dee Dee, premium quality cocoa powder makes superb drinking chocolate. The basic proportions are 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder, 2 tablespoons sugar, and 1 cup milk. You can tweek to your taste. You might also be interested in a richer style drinking chocolate that I talk about in the the post titled A Gift of Drinking Chocolate at http://thelunacafe.com/a-gift-of-drinking-chocolate/. Best…Susan

  21. says

    Amazing post–and I am totally impressed by your tasting expertise! (I tried to do the same with wine once. . . sadly, I just got tipsy). Also worth mentioning that the natural process (unalkalized) is higher in flavonoids that act as antioxidants in the body–more natural, and much healthier, too!
    .-= Ricki´s last blog ..Apple Pumpkin Crumble Bars (ACD Friendly) =-.

    • sms bradley says

      Ahhh Ricki, thanks for mentioning that aspect of the natural versus alkalized cocoa conundrum. I recently read that the original reason for the alkalization process was to make bad (rough, bitter, overly acidic) cocoa beans palatable. Okay, that makes sense. However, now the quality of beans that the best producers use is so high that alkalization is not necessary. Best…Susan

  22. says

    Bravo! I been baking with Green & Black and Cacao di Pernigotti — both alkalized. Glad to see they got stars! I see I have to try some natural cocoas and you’ve provided such a great resource to get me started. Many thanks.
    .-= Nancy @ TheSensitivePantry´s last blog ..Chocolate Crumb Cake =-.

  23. says

    What an excellent post. I’m in awe at all the many varieties of cocoa powder you have there and your knowledge about them. I’ll be sure to increase my supply of cocoa powder soon based on your advice. Thank you.

Trackbacks

  1. […] While most sites say that baking soda can be replaced with baking powder, I do not think that would be the case for our cupcakes. Baking powder, though also a leavening agent, has a neutral pH and cannot balance the acidity of the cocoa powder. According to this site, it does alter the taste much if you do not balance the acidity of cocoa powder. In conclusion, you probably do not need to substitute baking soda with anything when baking chocolate cupcakes. Another option would be to use alkalized, or Dutch cocoa powder. […]

  2. […] The thought is to use cocoa powder that’s unsweetened so we don’t get high sugar/glucose spikes in your bloodstream after celebration or eating cocoa powder. You can pacify cocoa, if indispensable with a splash of stevia. Or we can supplement a small almond milk. Maybe you’d like to supplement your possess spices such as cinnamon, cloves, or chili powder.  See,  The Wonderful World of Unsweetened Cocoa Powder | LunaCafe. […]

  3. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by ddh77: RT @LunaCafe: Love Rules! All Chocolate! All Month! Post 2: The Wonderful World of Unsweetened Cocoa Powder. #foodblogger…

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