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Cocoa nut

(article, Matthew Amster-Burton)

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Recently I rummaged through my chocolate collection, looking for a snack. As always, the chocolate-bar cupboard was well stocked. There were various Pound Plus bars from Trader Joe's, a Venezuelan 70-percent criollo bar from Chocovic, and some unsweetened Scharffen Berger bars for making brownies. 

As I broke off a square of Chocovic, I noticed my lone can of Hershey's cocoa powder, and found myself wondering: Was I missing the potential of cocoa powder just because it has zero snack potential?

The short answer, it turns out, is yes. And now I have a cocoa-powder collection to rival my chocolate-bar stash, and a new understanding of this neglected ingredient. Here’s the long answer, aka The Mamster’s Cocoa-Powder FAQ.

[%image powder float=left width=400 caption="Clockwise from top: Penzeys Dutched cocoa powder, Green & Black organic natural cocoa powder, and Penzeys natural cocoa powder."]

What is cocoa powder?
Cocoa powder is unsweetened chocolate (technically, chocolate liquor) that has been partially defatted and then ground into a powder.

When should you use cocoa powder and when should you use solid chocolate?
Cocoa powder is good for hot cocoa, reduced-fat chocolate recipes, super-fudgy brownies, layer cakes, chocolate tart dough, and chocolate syrup. And for rolling truffles, of course. It's not good for snacking. Whole chocolate is best for everything else: hot fudge sauce, dipping, candymaking, ganache, and snacking.

Why does cocoa, instead of chocolate, make the fudgiest brownies?
Because you can replace the cocoa butter naturally present in a chocolate bar with dairy butter. The result is excellent, as long as you don't think too hard about how much the brownies resemble chocolate-flavored pats of butter.

What is Dutch-processed cocoa?
Dutch-processed cocoa has been treated with an alkali compound, such as potash or baking soda, to raise its pH and make it darker in color. The process changes the flavor of cocoa to something more rounded, approachable, and — if taken too far — dull. The process was invented in the 19th century by the Dutch chocolatier Coenraad Johannes van Houten.

Heavily Dutched cocoa is called "black cocoa" and is used to make Oreo cookies. You can order it from King Arthur Flour, but you probably don't want to, because it has little flavor.

You often read that Dutched cocoa is more soluble in liquids. I didn't find this to be true, and in her book Bittersweet, chocolate expert Alice Medrich says it's a myth.

Dutched cocoa is a relative newcomer to the American market: Hershey's introduced its familiar natural cocoa powder way back in 1894, but didn't unveil its Dutched cocoa (now called Special Dark) until 1989.

Are chocolate bars Dutch-processed?
Some bar products, such as Hershey's Bliss, are made with Dutched chocolate. I bought some, and I wouldn't recommend it, although I ate most of it anyway because it was chocolate. High-quality consumer chocolate of the kind I like to keep in my cabinet is rarely Dutched. There are two reasons for this.

The first is a matter of fashion. "I think it's just a trend that you don't see much of anymore," says Gary Guittard, the president of the Guittard Chocolate Company. Guittard sells a good Dutched cocoa to consumers, and sells a Dutched chocolate called Ramona in industrial quantities, but the company's small chocolate bars are all made with natural chocolate liquor.

The second is technology. Chocolate destined for bars undergoes a process called conching, in which it is stirred at a high temperature for hours or days. Conching is frequently misunderstood, Guittard says. "It's more about flavor than texture," he explains. "High temperatures are really where conching is now. It does move chocolate more toward that Dutched style." In other words, a chocolate maker looking to make a smooth and mellow chocolate bar can using conching to achieve an effect similar to Dutching.

Richard Benson, the director of research and marketing for Barry Callebaut North America, offered another reason why a chocolate maker might not want to market a Dutched bar: "On the label, the word 'alkalized' has that 'chemically processed' meaning that is not favorable to marketing, in my opinion."

Is the cocoa I bought Dutched or natural?
Dutched cocoa will have "cocoa processed with alkali" listed in the ingredients. Hershey's Special Dark, Droste, and Valrhona are Dutched. Natural cocoas include Hershey's (regular), Scharffen Berger, Ghirardelli, and Nestlé. A few cocoas, such as Saco Premium, are a mix of natural and Dutched. 

Which is better, Dutched cocoa or natural cocoa?
You're expecting me to say something weaselly like "it depends," right? Wrong. Natural is better.

Really? Natural is always better?
OK, I’ll say it: it depends. There are other important factors in the flavor of cocoa. The quality and fermentation of the cocoa bean itself is paramount, and the fat content of the cocoa is also important. A high-quality Dutched cocoa is certainly preferable to a lousy natural cocoa, but the best natural cocoas I tasted were much better than any Dutched cocoa. 

[%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="Homemade chocolate syrup poured over vanilla ice cream."]

There are probably two reasons for this: one, I happen to like the flavor of natural cocoa better, and two, Dutched cocoa tends to be made with lower-quality beans because Dutching can hide flaws. "Frankly, cocoa beans headed for alkalization tend to be lower in flavor quality, since the alkalization will reduce many of the off notes and the acid notes that may be problematic," says Callebaut's Benson.

Is higher-fat or lower-fat cocoa better?
You're kidding, right? Medrich says the best cocoa powder has 20 to 24 percent fat. Dutched cocoas that meet this specification are widely available (Droste is the most common), but higher-fat natural cocoas are harder to find (Hershey's, for example, has about 12 percent fat). Both Scharffen Berger and Penzeys make natural cocoas that are higher in fat than either Hershey's or Nestlé's natural cocoas. 

Is it worth spending extra money on fancy cocoa powder?
I compared four different cocoas: Hershey's natural, Penzeys natural, Penzeys Dutched, and Scharffen Berger (which only makes natural). I made a cup of weak hot cocoa (1 tablespoon cocoa, 1 tablespoon sugar, 4 ounces whole milk) with each and sipped delicately. 

The Hershey's had weird off-flavors and little chocolate flavor. The Penzeys Dutched was inoffensive, but not very chocolaty. The Penzeys natural and Scharffen Berger were both excellent, with the Penzeys perhaps slightly better. Also, the Penzeys is $6.80 a pound (plus shipping if you don’t live near a Penzeys outlet), while the Scharffen Berger is $24 a pound.

I also tested the two Penzeys cocoas against each other in Alice Medrich's Best Cocoa Brownies recipe from her book Bittersweet. In terms of looks, the Dutched brownies won; they were darker, with shinier tops. In terms of flavor, though, it was no contest: natural cocoa is king. It made a complex brownie with a notable acidic tang. I'd call it a grownup brownie, but my four-year-old ate several of them. The Dutched brownie was just bland and sweet.

Incidentally, Cook's Illustrated came to precisely the opposite conclusion when the magazine tested cocoa powders in 2005, choosing the Dutched over the natural. Taste and decide for yourself.


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Can I substitute natural for Dutched cocoa and vice versa?
Usually. Recall that natural cocoa is more acidic than Dutched cocoa, and when you combine something acidic with baking soda or baking powder, you get bubbles. Some recipes depend on the bubbles from this reaction to provide leavening power. If a recipe calls for chemical leavening, use the cocoa it asks for. Otherwise, substitute at will.

Can I substitute cocoa powder for whole chocolate?
There are formulas to do this, but I don't recommend it, because aside from being an imperfect substitution, good cocoa powder isn't any cheaper than good chocolate.

If I'm measuring my ingredients by weight, how much cocoa is in a cup?
Four ounces.

What's the number-one thing you learned about cocoa?
How good a mug of hot cocoa can be. I used to buy Swiss Miss Dark Chocolate Sensation in a box, but now I heat 6 ounces of milk in the microwave and stir together 2 tablespoons Penzeys natural cocoa powder and 2 tablespoons sugar in a mug. I pour the hot milk into the mug, stir well, and have a picnic on the living-room rug.

p(bio). [ "Matthew Amster-Burton"] writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.

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