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The Best Cocoa Powder
The big debate in cocoa powder has always been Dutch-processed versus natural. Is that really the most important factor?
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What You Need To Know
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?
From Pod to Powder
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...
Everything We Tested
Our longtime favorite Dutched supermarket cocoa powder was the clear overall winner. It has a high fat content and therefore has less starch, so cookies were “perfectly chewy and moist.” Cakes were very “moist,” “rich,” and “fudgy.” We also loved its dark color and “earthy,” “woodsy” chocolate flavor.
Because this cocoa powder contains the most fat in our lineup, it also contains the least starch. As a result, it trapped less moisture than other powders and baked goods were delightfully decadent and “fudgy.” With less starch to absorb moisture and no acidity to react with the baking soda, it produced the widest and flattest cookies in our lineup. Cookies and cakes had “deeper chocolate flavor” that was reminiscent of good “espresso” and “molasses.”
The priciest cocoa powder in our lineup delivered “intense,” “rich chocolate flavor” in all three recipes. Some tasters even detected slightly “smoky,” “bitter” notes, which added complexity. Cookies were pleasantly tender and chewy, and cakes had a “brownie-like” and “velvety crumb.”
By far our favorite natural cocoa powder, this product had “mild” yet pleasant chocolate flavor that “tasted familiar.” Cookies rose higher than with Dutched powders due to the combination of fairly high acidity and high levels of moisture-absorbing starch. Some tasters deemed the sheet cakes “light and almost airy.” Others on our panel thought they were “a little dry.”
Although it's high in fat, this natural cocoa powder couldn't compete with the high-fat Dutched cocoa powders. Its flavor was distinctly “bright” and “fruity,” and some tasters wanted “a bit more bitterness.” Desserts were “fluffy” and “light” and tended toward dryness.
Alongside boldly flavored samples, this inexpensive, low-fat cocoa powder tasted “mild,” “like milk chocolate.” Throughout our tastings, it produced “tall,” light-colored desserts that were a little more “crumbly” than our favorites.
Cakes and cookies made with this natural powder tasted “sweet” and “bright” but weren't as deeply chocolaty or intense as those made with higher-ranked products. Although the textures of the cakes and cookies were “perfectly OK,” we preferred products that combined big chocolate flavor and fudgy consistency.
This was the only low-fat Dutch-processed cocoa in our lineup, and we missed the extra fat. Its “dark,” “deep,” almost “bitter” flavor earned mixed scores. While cookies made with it had “nice height” and tasters approved of one cake, the other cake was a little too dry.
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The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing.
Kate is a deputy editor for ATK Reviews. She's a culinary school graduate and former line cook and cheesemonger.