What's the Difference Between Dutch Processed and Natural Cocoa Powder?

Turns out Dutched cocoa powder is more basic than you'd think.

It's hard to imagine what the world would be like without cocoa. In use since the days of the Maya and the Aztecs, it's now a key ingredient familiar to all bakers, confectioners, and chocoholics around the world.

While the cocoa plant and its various beans, butters, and powders are responsible for immense joy, bakers may sometimes find themselves scratching their heads over the two major types of cocoa powder: so-called natural cocoa powder and Dutch process cocoa powder. Maddeningly, the Dutch option here doesn't really yield any clues on what it is, why it's special, or when to use it, which can lead to a sort of cocoa powder paralysis.

There are real differences between natural cocoa powder and Dutch process cocoa powder, but it's not necessarily as crazy as you'd think. Here's a closer look at what defines the two powders, the important distinctions between them, and when to use each.

Where Does Cocoa Powder Come From Anyway?

Before we delve into the differences between Dutch vs natural cocoa powders, it's worth covering how we get from the cocoa bean to cocoa powder in the first place.

It starts when the beans are fermented, dried, and roasted. Then, they're ground into a paste, which becomes chocolate liquor. That is less boozy than its name suggests.

From there, cocoa butter, a fatty component that's used to make everything from chocolate to cosmetics, is extracted. What's left behind (which usually weighs about half of the initial chocolate liquor) is called cocoa solids. Once those cocoa solids are powdered, well, you can probably figure out what it's named from there.

What Is Natural Cocoa Powder Like?

Cocoa powder in its natural form has a few distinct properties. One is associated with supposed health benefits, and another is the impetus for Dutch processing.

Most importantly for our purposes, natural cocoa powder tends to have a pH (the 0 to 14 scale that measures the acidity or basicity of a substance) somewhere between five and six, which registers as mildly acidic. Some say this lends natural cocoa powder a certain citrus-like quality to it — which makes sense once you recall that it technically comes from a plant.

In terms of other salient qualities, natural cocoa powder is lauded for its concentration of flavonoids. Flavonoids are a group of polyphenolic compounds that perform important functions for plants. Because they're antioxidants, flavonoids can be pretty useful for humans, too. They supposedly function as a useful anti-inflammatory compound, with some believing that they play a role in regulating incidence of heart disease. When you hear about how the occasional glass of red wine is actually healthy, it's the flavonoids that are responsible. That's also why you'll occasionally see cacao nibs, which have an even higher concentration of flavonoids than red wine, marketed as a health product.

So What Does Dutch Processing Do to Cocoa Powder?

Though cocoa powder is safe to consume at any pH level, sometimes there's a reason to play around with the balance — especially once you consider that there's chemistry involved in baking. However, despite the name, there are sadly no bicycles, canals, or tulips involved in Dutch processing.

At its basic (pun intended) level, Dutch processing is the process of eliminating some of the acidity in natural cocoa powder, raising its pH a bit. To do that, the cocoa powder undergoes "alkalization," which involves giving the powder a potassium carbonate bath. This washes out the acidity, giving the cocoa powder a more neutral pH of 7 — just like water has.

In terms of other changes, so-called "Dutched cocoa powder" tends to have a bit of a deeper, darker color than its natural cousin. Taste-wise, some think Dutched cocoa also swaps out those hints of citrus for something a bit toasted and nuttier, though you might catch a hint of alkaline taste given the transformation the cocoa undergoes.

When Would You Use "Dutched" vs. Natural Cocoa Powder?

Whether your baking should employ natural or Dutch processed cocoa powder will depend on what kind of chemical balancing does or doesn't need to happen. Recipes that call for an alkaline baking soda will require natural cocoa powders. Why? Because these are chemical leaveners, and the basicity you'd find there needs to be counterbalanced by the acidity of a natural cocoa powder.

On the other hand, a recipe that only calls for baking powder requires Dutch processed cocoa, since adding that hint of acidity would throw off the pre-existing balance in the neutral leavening agent.

There's no absolute, universal truth (especially as other acidic ingredients come into play), but a generally useful rule of thumb is to use natural cocoa powder when a recipe calls for baking soda, and Dutch processed cocoa when baking powder is mentioned. American recipes also seem to generally call for natural cocoa powder, so use that as an additional context clue if needed.

Are the Two Types of Cocoa Powder Interchangeable?

It depends on how you're using it. If there's no leavening action taking place in your baking (ice creams, puddings, and custards come to mind), the choice comes down to personal taste and preferred color. Creations using Dutch processed cocoa powder will tend to turn out slightly darker, everything else being equal. So if what you're making isn't going into the oven, then the choice of cocoa powder is up to you.

What Happens if You Use the Wrong Cocoa Powder?

On the other hand, the wrong choice of powder could interrupt the leavening process. Cakes may have a tougher time rising if the wrong powder is used. If you add Dutched cocoa to a recipe that relies on the acidity of natural cocoa as a balancing agent, the end result will also taste a bit more bitter and soapy — which makes sense given that soap is tilted toward the basic end of the pH scale.

So hopefully you're now an expert in the two types of cocoa powder. While that chemistry crash course might feel complex, just remember that this is ultimately about choosing between only two different types of cocoa powder. Even if you retained none of what you just read, you've already got a 50-50 chance of getting things right. The odds could certainly be worse.

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