Test Kitchen tips: Natural versus Dutch-process cocoa
Like chocolate, cocoa powder is made from cacao beans. After the beans are processed into a paste known as chocolate liqueur, some of the cocoa butter is removed and the remaining solids are pulverized into a powder. Natural (or non-alkalized) cocoa powder is typically sold unsweetened, and while it may taste rather bitter and harsh on its own, its natural acidity works with baking soda to help leaven baked goods, giving a finished dish a balanced chocolate flavor.
Cocoa powder is often treated with an alkali to make what is known as Dutch-process or alkalized cocoa. The alkali helps neutralize the natural acidity of the powder, giving the cocoa a more mellow and smooth, less bitter flavor. Because of this, Dutch-process cocoa is often preferred when "dusting" or garnishing a finished cake or desserts; in baking, it's used in recipes that call primarily for baking powder as a leavener. It can also have a richer, deeper color than natural cocoa.
When baking, keep in mind that natural and Dutch-process cocoa powders are not always interchangeable -- blindly substituting one for the other can upset the delicate chemical balance in a recipe, spoiling results and flavor (you don't want your chocolate cake to taste like it was made with soap). Sometimes one cocoa powder can be substituted for the other in recipes. According to "The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion":
"If a recipe calls for natural cocoa and baking soda and you want to use Dutch-process cocoa, substitute an equal amount of Dutch-process cocoa but replace the soda with twice the amount of baking powder. If the recipe calls for Dutch-process cocoa powder and baking powder, substitute the same amount of natural cocoa but replace the baking powder with half the amount of baking soda."
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-- Noelle Carter
Photo: Richard Hartog / Los Angeles Times