Taste Tests

Cocoa Powder

Published January 1, 2005.

How is Dutch-processed cocoa different from "natural" cocoa? Does the home cook need both? After weeks of testing, we discovered a simple, surprising answer.

The very name “Dutch-processed” presents a problem when choosing a cocoa powder. The idea that a product treated chemically to remove characteristic flavors might taste better than the original simply runs counter to the basic tenets of ingredient selection. Especially when that original is called "natural." To narrow the field, we tested five Dutched and five natural cocoas separately, first in hot chocolate and then in chocolate shortbread. The top two Dutched cocoas and the top two natural cocoas moved on to compete in a final showdown—an expanded series of tests that included not only hot chocolate and shortbread but also low-fat chocolate pudding, devil's food cake, and chocolate pudding cake.

We also added one additional element--we decided to cover the cups of hot chocolate with sip tops (like the ones used for takeout coffee) to keep tasters from seeing each sample. The logic was simple. The Dutching process--treating cacao beans with alkaline chemicals--has a striking effect on color: Natural cocoa looks beige; Dutch-processed cocoa boasts a deep, dark, rich-looking brown. That kept our testing all about taste.

The winning shortbread? Dutched. The devil's food cake? Dutched. The pudding, the pudding cake, the hot chocolate tasted through a sip top? Dutched, Dutched, Dutched. Not quite ready to award Dutched cocoa the undisputed crown, we considered explanations other than Dutching itself.

Fudge Factors

Because makers of upscale cocoa powders often tout their product's high fat content, we first compared cocoa-butter percentages. But our results convinced us that fat had little to do with cocoa preference. Next we considered price. Once again, the data belied that hypothesis. The price ranges for the Dutched cocoas ($0.36 to $1.08 per ounce) and the natural cocoas ($0.29 to $1.37 per ounce) were very close. What's more, the only two cocoas priced at more than a dollar an ounce came in dead last in their respective categories. A call to the only manufacturer represented by both Dutched and natural cocoas in our tasting also put to rest the possibility that Dutched cocoas simply begin with higher-quality beans. According to the company spokesperson, the only difference between the company's Dutched and natural cocoas is the Dutching.

Basic Solution

That left Dutching itself as the source of preferred flavor. To figure out why, we brushed up on cocoa-making basics. Chocolate and cocoa come from chocolate liquor, a paste made from beans scooped from the pods of the tropical cacao tree. The beans are fermented, roasted, shelled, and ground into a paste. Half fat (cocoa butter) and half cocoa solids, the paste is hardened in molds. Some is sold as unsweetened baking chocolate. The rest is fed into hydraulic presses to remove up to three-quarters of its fat, then pulverized and called cocoa powder.

Beans destined for life as Dutched cocoa have one extra stop between shelling and grinding. The shelled beans (or nibs) are soaked in an alkaline (low-acid) solution, usually potassium carbonate. They're pressed, pulverized, and dried--and Dutch-processed cocoa powder is born.

There's nothing particularly Dutch about the Dutching process except for the person who thought it up: a 19th-century Dutchman named Coenraad J. van Houten. Van Houten had pioneered the use of the hydraulic press to defat chocolate liquor, prompted by his aversion to the greasy scum that rose to the top of his favorite beverage, hot chocolate. But van Houten still wasn't satisfied. The drink, now made with cocoa powder, tasted harsh and had an insipid color.

Van Houten's remedy lay in simple chemistry. Cocoa in its natural state is slightly acidic, as indicated by its pH value of around 5.4. By soaking the cocoa nibs in a basic (or alkaline) solution, he found he could raise the pH to 7 (neutral) or even higher. The higher the pH, the darker the color. What's more, the acids present in natural cocoa were neutralized, reducing its harshness.

The Bitter End

If tasters had described the Dutched samples as more mellow than the natural samples, all would be explained. But that wasn't the case. Tasters consistently perceived the Dutched cocoas as having a stronger chocolate flavor. How could neutralizing part of the cocoa flavor profile result in a more chocolatey taste? What flavor remained?

Like wine, chocolate has a complex flavor profile that consists of hundreds of attributes. The most common notes are sour, bitter, astringent, fruity, figgy, raisiny, floral, nutty, smoky, hammy, and even "chocolatey," the essence of cacao beans themselves. Dutching eliminates only the fundamentally acidic components--sour, bitter, astringent, fruity. The others remain intact. Tasters' comments on the natural cocoas reflected that supposition. Bitterness and sourness were common complaints, as was an unexpected fruitiness. Two alert tasters even picked up on astringency in a few samples. The Dutched cocoas, by contrast, seldom lost points for bitter, sour, fruity, or astringent notes.

More intriguing was a phenomenon called flavor masking. The removal of a cocoa's harshest notes lets us better appreciate the remaining flavors--the notes that recede into the background when forced to compete with acidic notes

The only case remaining for choosing natural cocoa concerned leavening. Getting a baked good to rise properly depends on a delicate balance of acids and bases. Conventional wisdom thus dictates that Dutched cocoa and natural cocoa cannot be used interchangeably. Many cookbooks include cautionary notes about the dangers of substitution. With these caveats in mind, we chose two recipes (for devil's food cake and hot pudding cake) that call for a particular type of cocoa--one Dutched, one natural. We noticed no difference in leavening among the four samples in either of these applications. And, across the board, the two Dutched cocoas beat out the two natural cocoas in terms of both flavor and texture.

So does the home cook need both Dutched and natural cocoas? Not based on our findings. But buyer beware, too much “dutching” is not a good thing. Our tasters found that while moderate Dutching helps alleviate harsh notes, the overzealously Dutched cocoa we tasted took on a taste and consistency reminiscent of talcum powder.

See the Results