vessels of cocoa powder

Cocoa: The Forgotten Ingredient

Explore the powder's production process, types and applications.

Pastry Chef Rory Macdonald researches how the common yet often overshadowed baking ingredient is made and tests the aroma, color, texture and flavor of three types of cocoa powder in choux, puff pastry and laminated dough.

For years I have been passively using cocoa powder. Very rarely is cocoa powder the main ingredient in products I make so I rarely give it much thought. I always focus on the type of chocolate, the type of fruit or just the main flavor of the item, and cocoa powder usually plays a supporting role — until now.

Recently I was creating a tiramisu dish for a project in Hong Kong and after lots of recipe testing, I didn't like the type of cocoa I was using. It was too bitter for the dish, so I started to do some research on cocoa brands and realized I really knew nothing about how cocoa is made, where it comes from or the types available.

Cocoa Powder vs. Cacao Powder

Many of the processes involved with the production of cocoa powder are similar to the production of chocolate (couverture). Both originate from the cocoa bean, which is most commonly found throughout Africa and South America. As with couverture, there are many variants that depend on the beans and where they come from, so it makes sense that there are options and flavors when it comes to cocoa powder.

The cocoa beans are fermented and then dried at origin as is done for chocolate manufacturing. A winnower machine removes the shell and the nibs are alkalized for Dutch process cocoa powder. After roasting, the ground nibs (or cocoa mass) are pressed to extract cocoa butter. The remaining cocoa cake is then ground and cooled to create natural or Dutch unsweetened cocoa powder.

Chef Rory tests cocoa powder in puff pastry for a mille feuille with banana and cardamom caramel.
Chef Rory tests cocoa powder in puff pastry for a mille feuille with banana and cardamom caramel.

Dutch vs. Natural Cocoa Powder

Natural cocoa powder is exactly as it sounds. It’s directly from roasted cocoa beans and has not had anything added to it. It’s acidic and bitter with a very strong and concentrated chocolate flavor and almost no sweetness, very similar to 100% chocolate. This cocoa powder is often used for products made with baking soda, such as cookies or brownies, because the acidity reacts and creates a good rise. The color of this cocoa will always be a light chocolate brown.

Dutch cocoa powder has been processed with an alkaline solution to counter the natural acidity. The cocoa nibs are treated with either potassium or sodium bicarbonate. This method makes the flavor less acidic, milder and more chocolatey and creates a darker and more red color. The color of these cocoas can range from dark brown to deep red to jet black. The product made from the process of alkalization is called Dutch cocoa because it was invented in Holland sometime in the 19th century.

Types of Cocoa Powder

The Dutch brand deZaan, founded in 1911, is renowned for quality in the cocoa world. The company’s at the forefront of cocoa powder innovation and research and has multiple types on offer. The range runs from fruity natural to bitter cocoa, and from vibrant red to dark browns and black. Each type of cocoa has a different fat content, which affects the color, texture and taste. I began testing with three of the six types: True Dark, Crimson Red and Terra Rossa. I test with base pastry recipes and compare how each one fairs in terms of flavor, color and texture – is there one that ticks all the boxes or does each type have a technique or method that is best suited to it? I started testing with a laminated dough, puff pastry and choux pastry, which are the basis of so many classic desserts and pastries.

Laminated dough with Crimson Red cocoa powder
Laminated dough with Crimson Red cocoa powder

Chocolatine Research & Development

I first tested laminated dough with deZaan’s Terra Rossa cocoa powder, substituting for about 5% of the flour. The chocolatine came out very nicely, however, the color and flavor were really lost after baking. So I wanted to test a stronger flavor with deZaan’s Crimson Red, which is my favorite type of cocoa powder from this brand. The flavor, aroma and color — a very deep red — were all fantastic with this type, but there was so much moisture absorption the pastry was almost wet inside. It tasted very nice, but from a consumer point of view, it would seem raw even fully cooked.

puff pastry with True Dark cocoa powder
Puff pastry with True Dark cocoa powder

Puff Pastry

For the puff pastry, I went with the True Dark flavor of cocoa powder. I wanted the color and flavor of a natural cocoa powder but needed to have less moisture absorption. There is so much butter in the dough, it has to be able to dry out after it’s risen or it will be very wet without flaky, crisp layers.

Testing types of cocoa powder with chocolatines
Testing types of cocoa powder with chocolatines

pH Level and Fat Content

The flavor, aroma and color are the most obvious differences with using different types of cocoa, but I wanted to know why the results in texture vary with each cocoa. Why does a Crimson Red Dutch powder have a much higher moisture retention than a natural powder, such as True Dark? I asked an expert: Wouter Stomph, head of product development and innovation at Olam’s Cocoa Innovation Center in Chicago. I wanted to know why, for example, my Crimson Red chocolatines were so wet inside, even though I used the same ratio as with the Terra Rossa.

Wouter explained that the more alkalized the powder, the more water absorption will happen. Crimson Red has a pH level of 8.0 while the Terra Rossa can have a pH as low as 7.2. That explains why the True Dark (a natural, non-alkalized powder with a pH level of 5.2 to 6) works so well with my puff pastry, as I really don’t want high water retention for a pastry with so much fat that I want cooked thoroughly. Knowing this, I sought a solution. Could the high pH powders be dried out or toasted in the oven before use?

Wouter said no, the powders have a moisture content of less than 5%, so toasting would have little effect and because of the high-fat content, could create lumps and lose the temper of the cocoa powder and the appearance after cooling. The best approach is to use a little less until the ratio is correct.

The fat content affects color, texture, and most importantly, taste. Higher alkalized powders with higher fat content have the better flavor for baked goods while the lower pH and fat of natural powders work best with dairy products such as ice cream.

Cocoa powder is a much more diverse and versatile product than I previously imagined. The pH and fat levels can make a huge difference in the application and flavor, and choosing natural or Dutch can be a huge variable for the end product. Where the beans come from and how they are processed, much like with chocolate couverture, determines the types of cocoa powder, opening up many more possibilities with this (previously) forgotten product.

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Submitted by Maura Lanzarone on February 23, 2021 11:51am

Chef McDonald—Thank you so much for this in-depth examination of Cocoa powders.  I have given many culinary classes and I always try to include some mention of food science related to the topic.  It is my belief that a better understanding of the science makes for a better cooking experience, and often a more healthful one too.  I plan on saving this article and sharing it with my students in future classes utilizing Cocoa powder.

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