If you’d ask me to bake cookies, cakes or pies, chances are it will be a chocolate flavoured one. A good dark brown, slightly bitter, not to sweet, chocolate cookie or cake is almost always a guarantee for success. However, have you also experienced making a chocolate cookie that just did not turn out that good? That it somehow tastes a little off and not exactly as you might have expected? Even though you had used the recipe before?
Chances are: you might have been using a different cocoa powder than you normally would. A lot of us may view cocoa powder as a staple ingredient, just like flour or sugar. As long as you buy the same type (e.g. granulated sugar), it should not be that different. However, that is definitely not the case for cocoa powders. Even cocoa powders that look similar from the outside may taste quite different.
So how do you decide and what should you be looking for?
What is cocoa powder?
Cocoa powder is made from processed cocoa beans. Processed cocoa beans contain a lot of flavour as well as fat. They are ground done into a paste. By removing all or most of the fat from this paste you get cocoa powder. Cocoa powder literally contains all the components that a processed cocoa bean does but without part of the fat.
Flavour of cocoa powder
The flavour of cocoa powder can be impacted by a lot of steps along the process, most of which you don’t have any specific control over as consumer. Some examples of those are:
- The cocoa bean itself: different varieties have a different flavour profile
- Fermentation process: after harvesting the cocoa beans are fermented and a lot of flavour is created during this step
- Roasting process: just like coffee beans, cocoa beans are roasted, it kills micro organisms but also develops the flavour further
It is generally not possible to find out how these parameters differ between manufacturers. Luckily, there are a few properties that you can look out for: alkalization & fat content. These are properties that will be given on a label of a package or on a specification (if you’ve requested one from your supplier).
Cocoa powder is slightly acidic by nature. It has a pH-value of about 5-6 (where neutral would be 7). Some cocoa powders are neutralized for pH in a process called alkalization (sometimes called Dutch processing). The cocoa is mixed with alkaline (the opposite of acidic) ingredients such as potassium carbonate. This raises the pH to a value of approximately 7.
This alkalization process impacts the flavour and colour of the cocoa. Alkalized cocoa powder is less acidic and darker brown in colour. You will definitely taste the difference between the two types. Alkalization again can be executed to various degrees. This way manufacturers can make a range of brown colours and flavour, depending on the application.
Since regular cocoa is slightly acidic and alkalized is more neutral, it does impact how they react with leavening agents such as baking powder and baking soda in your recipe! Baking soda only leavens your baked good if there’s an acid in your recipe to help activate in. In a lot of cases this can actually be the cocoa powder (non-alkalized). If you would used the alkalized version, which is not acidic, your baking soda will not be able to do its job.
Note: noticed how black Oreo cookies are? These also get their colour from cocoa, that’s been processed in such a way to actually turn black!
The fat from cocoa beans, cocoa butter, is one of the most expensive ingredients made from cocoa. As a result, manufacturers will be careful using it. This is why most cocoa powders contain low amounts of fat (close to what is legally minimally required). Another reason for lowering the fat content, is that a high fat content will make the cocoa powder more prone to stickiness and clumping.
However, fat content does impact how your recipe turns out. If there’s a lot more fat in your cocoa powder, the overall fat content of the recipe will go up. This can result in a richer, creamier final product. At the same time, that more bitter cocoa flavour will be reduced, since there’s less of it in there! It’s worthwhile checking your fat content if you think your cocoa powder behaves very differently all of a sudden.
Cocoa powder taste test comparison
So how do you decide on your cocoa powder? The first thing to think about is whether you need the more acidic component of non-alkalized cocoa to get your baking soda to work and leaven your product. If you decide you do not need it, choose for flavour or colour.
The best way to go ahead here is to buy small packs of different types of cocoa powder and just taste them. Which one do you like, which one don’t you like? Once you’ve found one you like, either just stick with that brand, or write down as much as you can about it. Has it been alkalized? What is the fat content? That way, when you’re looking for a next purchase, you can use these for your reference.
If you’re a manufacturer, make sure you request the specification and ask more details about their alkalization process.
Taste test results
For our small comparison we compared three cocoa powders. One of them we had used for a chocolate cookie recipe (see below) and we just weren’t happy with how the cookie tasted. Once we tasted the cocoa we immediately understood why. We could easily recognize that flavour that we didn’t appreciate as much!
Sample 1: Krüger cocoa powder
This one is the darkest in colour and is clearly the most bitter. Not my favorite. This is the only of the cocoa powder that contains a second ingredient, the E-number E501, potassium carbonate which points to alkalization.
Sample 2: Blooker cocoa powder
This is the ‘in between’ sample. It is the least sour sample, but moderately bitter. It’s the cocoa powder we used for a second batch of chocolate cookies which came out great!
Sample 3: Droste cocoa powder
It has a slightly sour taste, but is surely the least bitter of the three. I would say this cocoa powder is the mildest of the three.
- 100g butter (softened, but not molten)
- 150g brown sugar
- 1 egg
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 175g flour
- 30g cocoa powder (best to use non-alkalized*)
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
Optional (choose none, one or several, if you use all, reduce the quantities)
- 50g coloured candies (I used M&M's)
- 50g chocolate chips
- 20g coconut flakes (unsweetened)
- 40g nuts chopped into smallish pieces (e.g. pecans)
- Mix the butter (100g) and brown sugar (150g) using an electric mixer. Add the egg and vanilla extract (1 tsp).
- Fold in the flour (175g), cocoa powder (30g) and baking soda (1/2 tsp). Mix through until you have a homogeneous slightly gooey dough. Don't mix too long it will make the cookies drier because of gluten development).
- Mix in the optional ingredients. When you're using coconut, make sure you mix them in very lightly, they should not be too much incorporated or they might dry out the dough. It's ok if they sit more on the outside of the dough.
- Take a spoon and deposit small clumps of material. If you use a tablespoon you'll end up with about 20 cookies, of course, making smaller cookies will give more of them!
- If it's very warm in your kitchen you might want to cool down the cookie dough for a few minutes in the fridge before putting it in the oven. This will prevent the dough from being too runny.
- Bake in the oven at 180°C (375°F) for 15 minutes.
*In the post we discussed how alkalized cocoa powder can't activate the baking soda. If you want to use alkalized, replace the baking soda with 3/4 tsp of baking powder.
Because of the high content of butter and sugar these cookies don't really turn out that crispy, they're soft. We've written about the role of all of these ingredients before. If you want crispier cookies (like I do) do the following:
- reduce the butter content with 20g
- replace half of the brown sugar with regular granulated sugar
E.O. Afoakwa, Cocoa production and processing technology, 2014, chapter 12, link
Parks, S., 4 Natural Cocoa Powders That Put the Supermarket Stuff to Shame, 2018, link