All About Cocoa Powder

I have never really underst00d what cocoa powder is and the difference among its varieties. This article, which I adapted from the Weight Watchers newsletter and which was entitled The Skinny on Cocoa Powder, is very helpful.

What is cocoa powder?
Like chocolate, cocoa powder starts with a seed pod, hanging off the cacao tree. The little beans inside are fermented, dried and roasted. The inner part of these cacao beans (called the “nib”) is then crushed and heated into a thick paste before being pressed to remove most of the cocoa butter. What’s left is a dry powder—aka cocoa powder.

There are 4 types of cocoa powder:

  • Natural: Not processed with alkali and doesn’t dissolve quickly in liquids, thus requiring more whisking. However, it has strong chocolate taste, more like bittersweet or even dark chocolate, although oddly, it is lighter in color, sometimes almost beige.
  • Dutch-processed: Contains an alkali to help it dissolve in liquids—and to turn it much darker in color, more like melted chocolate. The alkali also softens the taste, reducing some of the chocolate flavor, particularly any heavy, dark-chocolate notes.
  • Black: A specialty cocoa powder, treated with lots of that alkali so that the color is very deep, giving you gorgeous cakes and cookies with an extremely mild, subtle chocolate taste.
  • High-fat: It can be Dutch-processed or natural, but more of the cocoa butter is left in the cocoa powder after processing.

Tips for using cocoa powder

  • Uses for natural cocoa powder: Rich brownies, red velvet cakes, or any baked good that can stand up to its dark, slightly bitter taste such as chocolate cream pie or chocolate sorbet. It’s also terrific for chocolate pudding (although you’ll have to whisk a bit more to get it dissolved).
  • Uses for Dutch-processed cocoa powder: Baked products that call for a deeper color but a milder taste. It’s great for chocolate whipped cream (it dissolves easily) or chocolate meringue cookies. Dutch-processed cocoa is also terrific in hot chocolate because it has fewer bitter notes—you’ll need less sugar in the end.
  • Don’t substitute: If a recipe specifically calls for Dutch-processed or natural cocoa powder, you cannot substitute one for the other. Because of the addition of the alkali, you may end up with leavening issues (the cake or quick bread may not rise—or the cookies may puff up when they should be flat and crunchy). However, if a recipe does not make a distinction between the two, the choice is up to you.
  • Never substitute a hot cocoa mix for cocoa powder (even if it’s sugar-free): The package will have additional flavorings and additives, none beneficial for baking.
  • Always sift cocoa powder: Humidity and temperature changes can make the powder clump. Before measuring the powder, put it in a fine-mesh sieve set over a piece of wax paper, then gently shake and tap the sieve until all the powder has fallen through. Little hard grains may be left behind in the sieve. Now measure the necessary amount of the sifted powder on the wax paper for your recipe.

Do you get what you pay for? Yes.

  • Inexpensive brands of cocoa powder are often lower in natural cocoa butter and are thus more heavily processed.
  • More expensive and artisanal brands contain more of the cocoa butter and will provide a more complex, richer taste. Some brands may be labeled “high fat.”

For Weight Watchers and other dieters:

Cocoa powder is a good choice. Whether low or high in cocoa butter, it is 1 point per 3 tablespoons on the PointsPlus plan—as compared to semisweet chocolate which is 6 points per 3 tablespoons.

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