Explainer 101: What's the deal with cocoa powder?

Cocoa versus cacao: Is there really any difference?
Cocoa versus cacao: Is there really any difference? Photo: James Brickwood

Everything you need to know about cocoa powder.

What is it?

Some cocoa beans are turned into chocolate; others take a detour and end up as cocoa powder. When chocolate "liquor" (roasted, ground cocoa beans) is pressed, the cocoa butter is extracted, leaving cocoa solids. These are dried and ground to create cocoa powder.

Cocoa or cacao

The two words are frequently – and confusingly – used interchangeably: there are no rules. "Cacao" comes from the scientific name of the cocoa tree. It is sometimes used to distinguish the "raw" powder made from unroasted cocoa beans from the regular cocoa made from roasted beans. However, all beans are fermented and this process raises the temperature to more than 50C, which is technically not raw anyway. In terms of taste and utility, there's little difference between unsweetened pure cocoa and "raw" cacao.

Double Dutch

Dutch-processed cocoa is washed with a potassium carbonate solution to neutralise its natural acidity, making it darker and mellower. Dutched and natural cocoas react differently to leavening agents such as baking powder and bicarb soda. Dutched cocoa plays nice with baking powder but won't react to bicarb. If a recipe calls for bicarb and cocoa, it's safest to use natural cocoa or risk baking flat cakes.

Powder power

Dutch chocolatier Conrad van Houten invented "Dutching", so traditionalists often look for Van Houten-brand cocoa. Droste is another good Dutch brand. Cadbury's Bournville and Nestle's Baker's Choice are consistent Dutch-processed cocoa for baking. No commercial producer has a transparent ethical supply chain – cocoa is way behind Fairtrade chocolate. When thinking natural, Red Tractor is organic and tastes pretty good.

Did you know?

The first chocolate drink was made by the ancient Mesoamerican Olmecsin Mexico, possibly as early as 1900BC.