I like baking because of the science and the precision. Cooking you have a little more leeway to freelance but if you do that in baking chances are you’re going to end up with something that doesn’t resemble the picture in the cookbook. So, check your pantry right now. Do you have natural or Dutch cocoa powder? Can you substitute one for the other?
The answer isn’t totally straightforward. It’s a mix of preference and science and depends on what you are baking.
One big thing to understsand is that the two varieties don’t taste the same.
Natural cocoa powder is much more acidic than the Dutch variety and the lighter-colored natural variety is more chocolaty than its darker Dutch cousin.
Why is it called Dutch cocoa powder?
Coenraad Van Houten, a Dutch chemist created the process in in 1825 (or 1828, depending on which source you check) to change the way chocolate was made and consumed.
“Dutched” cocoa powder has an alkali solution added to the beans during roasting, mellowing their acidity. Its flavor is milder and smoother than the natural variety.
What is cocoa powder?
First, some quick background. Cocoa powder is the dry solid remains of fermented, dried, and roasted cacao beans. The beans are cracked into nibs, which are then ground into a paste made of cocoa solids suspended in cocoa butter. Once processors extract the butter they’re left with the crumbly solids, which are then ground into a fine powder. At this point, it’s natural cocoa powder. This is the most common variety found in the US.
Dutch process cocoa powder (also sometimes called “alkalized,” “European style,” or “Dutched”) includes an additional step. This is the step that gives the Dutch powder a noticeably darker hue. It is washed with a potassium carbonate solution that neutralizes cocoa’s acidity to a pH of 7. That pH level is important.
First, the good news. If you are making a sauce, frosting, ice cream or anything that doesn’t include baking powder of baking soda, you can use either one depending on your taste preference.
Okay, here comes a little science. Remember that pH level in the Dutch version? That is the reason you can’t freely substitute one cocoa powder for another in certain baked goods.
If a cake or cookie recipe only calls for baking soda, it likely uses acidic natural cocoa. If it only uses baking powder, it’ll probably ask for Dutch process cocoa instead.
If a recipe calls for both baking powder and baking soda, you’ll need to follow the recipe to get the proper balance of acid and alkaline. Recipes that use baking powder will likely rise regardless of tweaking, but not as well; it’s best to stick to the cocoa that a recipe calls for.
If you are stuck and have to make the switch, all is not lost. 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.”
In summary, check what is leavening your recipe before swapping natural for dutch cocoa (or vice versa). If the recipe rely on neutral-pH baking powder for leavening go with the neutral pH Dutch process cocoa. If the baked goods are leavened by baking soda, stick to natural cocoa powder.
If the recipe calls for both baking powder and baking soda, either will work, but it’s best to stick to what the recipe calls for to get ideal results.