brushing up on baking basics: dutch vs natural cocoa powder and a trick to keep 'em straight

I read recently that depressed people tend to eat more chocolate than others. This made me chuckle a little because I've loved chocolate pretty much my whole life, but I most DEFINITELY suffered from depression for months after I had Myles and, yes, I was completely addicted to hot chocolate. I'd skip good wholesome meals to drink the stuff. That's not to say I take depression lightly. Depression feels like wearing heavy weights on your soul while trying to mask a terrible ache every time you breathe in. Depression is real and it sucks, and I wish I could erase it from the face of the earth, but because my case wasn't terribly severe (and I sought help), chocolate definitely helped. 

By the way did you guys ever watch Giada Di Laurentus' cooking shows? Back in the day, I did occasionally - and only occasionally because I was too annoyed that such a small person could eat so much pasta and still be so skinny - but the one thing I did love about her is that she LOVED chocolate and frequently made chocolate desserts. When homegirl loves chocolate with me I automatically feel like we've bonded and I've dropped all grudges against her pasta eating superpowers. 

BUT, if you're not a chocolate person, or have never experienced depression, that's totally cool. Two of my best friends are absolutely NOT chocolate people, and they're especially not crazy dark chocolate lovers like I am - I'll straight up buy an 85% cocoa chocolate bar and call it heaven and they would gag at the thought. We can still be homegirls together. 

So! Chocolate lover or not, chances are you're gonna bake or make something in your lifetime with cocoa powder so let's get down to the big fat question on the mother of all chocolate goodness: cocoa powder. 

(ps. I've been meaning to do this for awhile - get down to the fun core bits of baking with you, so finally! Here we are. Yay.)

hold up, What is cocoa powder exactly?

Cocoa powder is the pulverized bits of the cocoa bean after it's been separated from most of it's cocoa butter (or fat). It's the removal of this fat that makes the chocolate a powder, because the fat makes the chocolate a solid. Cocoa powder + cocoa butter = solid chocolate bars. 

As you can probably see from the pictures here, cocoa powder comes in several different varieties. Usually these varieties have to do with what country the cocoa bean came from and how long it's been roasted. But origin set aside, there are basically two different ways cocoa powder has been treated: it's either been dutch processed or left alone, or what we'll refer to as natural. 

Dutch vs Natural.... So what the heck does it all mean? 

Sometimes dutch processed cocoa is referred to as "European Cocoa" and natural cocoa is referred to as "American Cocoa" because most American brand chocolates and cocoa powders are natural and most European cocoas are dutch processed. Think, Americans really tend to love their milk chocolate (think Hershey's) and Europeans pretty much hate our American chocolate and prefer their dark chocolate.... and for good reason, it's just better, (hehe)

Dutch Processed Cocoa: Is cocoa that has been alkalized - or in other words it's been given a bath in a baking powder-like substance that reduces it's acidity. This makes for a really deep, rich cocoa that's sometimes almost black. Think, Oreo cookies. (Which is so ironic because Oreos are SO American, yet they use the "European" style cocoa.) This cocoa flavor is deep and earthy and rich and sometimes give hints of coffee. It's significantly less acidic than natural cocoa and a cocoa that makes chocoholics (eh hem, me) happy dance because it's just so dang rich.

Natural Processed Cocoa: Means it has not been washed in this baking powder-like substance, which means the flavor is more acidic. Think fruity, citrusy and is always lighter in color. Sometimes it can taste like strawberries, graham crackers, orange or grandma's christmas fudge (think sweetened condensed milky fudge). Natural processed cocoa usually has reddish hues (like the deep red earth you can find in Hawaii) - and fun fact! This is the type of cocoa that is used in red velvet cake... specifically for it's reddish, mild chocolate flavor. 

So does it matter which cocoa I use?

I can't tell you how many times I've crinkled my nose at this question when making something. DOES IT REALLY MATTER? Because sometimes recipes don't call for a specific cocoa AT ALL. Usually, American recipes call for natural cocoa (because #america) and European recipes call for their style of cocoa (because #europe). 

In short, it matters. But it also doesn't matter. lol!

Here's why it matters and also why it doesn't: 

When choosing a cocoa powder for something like ice cream, custard, frosting and pudding - it doesn't really matter which cocoa powder you use, because these goods do not rely heavily on leavening agents. If you're making a cake, brownie, cookie, bar or bread - or any other baked good that relies heavily on leavening agents (like eggs, yeast, baking powder, baking soda or steam to make the good rise) it matters; Especially if a recipe (like a cake recipe) calls for dutch processed cocoa. Because dutch processed cocoa has been bathed in a baking soda like solution, it can react with the baking soda/powder/any other leavening agent already called for in the cake recipe. 

The trick to help you remember: 

Here's a good rule of thumb: the darker (blacker) the cocoa powder, more alkalized it is, meaning the more dutch processed it is, so if you're using it for a cake or brownie and the recipe doesn't call for dutch processed cocoa but you use dutch processed anyway, you may have a little bit of a reaction - meaning your baked good may rise too much or not enough or rise and then sink. Honestly I've used dutch processed cocoa and natural cocoa interchangeably in tons of baked goods. In my humble opinion, the biggest thing I notice is flavor.... but texture is affected slightly. I have made cakes that have sunk and lemme tell you, no one turned it down. I say this, so you don't stress about it to much. Remember it's dessert. It will make everyone happy no matter what. 

How to measure cocoa powder: 

Usually when measuring cocoa powder I scoop and fluff. Meaning I scoop and fluff the cocoa powder with a dinner spoon in a large container or it's original package first and then scoop it into a measuring cup. Really, the best way is to measure it is to fluff it and then weigh it with a digital scale. 

Resources: Cocoa powders I've used and really loved: 

Cocoa Metro 

King Arthur