So my awesome sis-in-law, Tammy, brought me a treat a couple of months ago when we got together on family vacations: cocoa powder! What more could I have asked for? Anyway, I've been wanting to do a little more baking with cocoa powders because like everything else, not all cocoa powders are created equally. From the origin of the beans to the way that it is processed.....it all makes a difference. And if you want that end product to turn out absolutely divine, well, it definitely helps to start out with good quality raw ingredients.
How is cocoa powder made in the first place? I thought you'd never ask. To quote, from the Hershey's website (http://www.hersheys.com/nutrition-professionals/cocoa-powder.aspx):
"Cocoa Powder is the end product from a pressing or extraction process that removes a significant portion of the fat or cocoa butter from the cocoa bean. The starting cocoa bean material that is pressed is usually in the form of chocolate liquor. This liquor contains no alcohol but is simply the roasted cocoa bean material (either whole beans or ground beans referred to as nibs) that is finely ground and refined into a paste that becomes fluid at temperatures above 40°C. This fluid paste or chocolate liquor is then subjected to a pressing process at 6000-12,000 psi., removing most of the fat or cocoa butter from the liquor. The resulting material is called “cocoa press cake” and typically contains from 10-12% residual cocoa butter, reduced from approximately 54% cocoa butter. This press cake is then mechanically broken into smaller pieces and subsequently ground into a fine powder which is commonly known as “cocoa powder”."
So, of course when you go to the common grocery store, this is what you're going to see on the shelf: Hershey's, Ghirardelli, and one common one around here is Saco (dutch-processed). I've used 'em all, but I wanted to try some new ones. So Tam brought me a sampling of Sharffen Berger and Valrhona (dutch-processed).
First, what is the difference between natural cocoa powder and dutch processed? There is a significant difference in flavor so it's worth understanding. And to quote again from Hershey's (same webpage):
"Natural Cocoa Powder comes from pressing cocoa beans with no additional modifications. The resulting natural cocoa powder is usually a light brown color.
Alkalized Cocoa Powders, sometimes referred to as Dutched, come from cocoa nibs and/or chocolate liquor that have been treated with mild alkali solutions in order to raise the pH. This alkalizing or dutching process is a safe and approved process for cocoa that is used to modify the color, taste, and functionality of cocoa powder in food products. Alkalization can be used to create a range of dark brown and red-brown colors that add desirable appearances to some food products that contain cocoa powders. Alkalization can improve taste by reducing some of the sourness and bitterness associated with natural cocoa powders. The alkalization of cocoa powder can also improve the solubility of cocoa powder in certain beverage applications."
I didn't want to over-complicate things when testing out these new powders, so I kept it simple and tried them out in a chocolate frosting on top of my favorite boston cream cupcakes. They were both really great, but surprisingly I found that my taste liked the Valrhona dutch-processed a bit better for the frosting. The flavor was a little darker and richer. I also read that a taste test on Cook's Illustrated found that most people prefer dutch-processed in baking over natural, although too much dutch was no good. I think I'll just have to keep testing things out to see if this holds true for other recipes :)
In the meanwhile, I've read some opinions that natural cocoa powder is tastier for stuff like homemade hot chocolate. Well, I know I grew up on Hershey's cocoa powder in my household, and I loved the hot chocolate my dad used to make, so I can buy into that....
Anyway, have fun testing out different cocoa powders! Next time you go buy cocoa powder, try a different kind. Just do it! It will be a baking adventure.
On a side note, I'm really craving cocoa nibs right now. I tried some cocoa nib brittle a few weeks ago, and I think I am now addicted.....