The big debate in cocoa powder has always been Dutch-processed versus natural. Is that really the most important factor?
Last Updated Feb. 14, 2023. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 19: Chocolate Delights
When we want big chocolate flavor in everything from cookies and cakes to puddings and pies, we turn to cocoa powder. It has a higher proportion of flavorful cocoa solids than any other form of chocolate, so ounce for ounce, it tastes more intensely chocolaty. It's made in two styles—Dutch-processed and natural—and there's fierce debate in the baking world about which is best. Both styles have staunch supporters who are convinced that using the wrong type will ruin a dessert. For years, we also viewed Dutched and natural cocoa powders as distinctly different products. But when we last evaluated cocoa powder, something surprising happened: A natural powder won, a Dutched powder came in second, and the rest of the lineup was a jumble.
In the years since, we've remained curious about cocoa powder. Some of our test cooks prefer the dark color of Dutched powder and swear that it has richer, deeper chocolate flavor to match. Are they onto something? Is choosing between Dutched and natural the most important decision you can make when buying cocoa powder, or is there more to it than that?
To find out, we sampled eight nationally available cocoa powders (priced from $0.34 to $1.70 per ounce): four Dutched and four natural. To zero in on how much Dutch processing matters, we carefully selected recipes for testing: two different sheet cake recipes—one that calls for natural cocoa powder and another that uses Dutched—and a cookie recipe that doesn't specify which style to use.
The results were mixed. While some desserts were simply acceptable, others were excellent. The good-enough cakes and cookies were tall and “airy” with a “crumbly” structure but a little “dry.” Across the board, we preferred “moist” and “fudgy” desserts. Our favorite cakes had a “plush” texture, and cookies toed the line between chewy and tender. As for flavor, samples ranged from “mild” and “slightly fruity” to “intense,” “complex,” and “earthy,” with the slight bitterness of good espresso or dark chocolate. Why had some desserts been dry, mild, and lean, while others were so rich, flavorful, and decadent?
Cocoa powder—and all real chocolate—starts with cacao pods, the fruit of the tropical evergreen tree Theobroma cacao. Each pod contains between 20 and 50 beans (also called seeds). The beans generally taste bitter and are surrounded by a fruity-tasting, milky-white pulp, according to Gregory Ziegler, a chocolate expert and professor of food science at Penn State University. The beans are fermented, a critical process that develops their dark brown color, before being roasted. The fermented beans are either roasted whole or are shelled and roas...
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Kate is a deputy editor for ATK Reviews. She's a culinary school graduate and former line cook and cheesemonger.