Cocoa powder is used in baking to add color and to give foods a deep chocolate flavor. Unlike drink mixes for hot cocoa, which contain sugar and powdered milk, cocoa powder is generally unsweetened and contains no ingredients outside of pure cocoa. At its most basic, cocoa powder is untreated, ground cacao beans, with all of the natural fat of the beans removed.
When to Use It
Because of its strong taste, cocoa powder is commonly used in small amounts in cooked foods and baked goods. Cocoa powder adds chocolate flavor, for example, to sauces such as mole or chocolate cake. Because cocoa powder does not contain any fat or milk, it is less rich than whole bar chocolate and baking chocolate, which is generally sold unsweetened. As a result, cocoa powder cannot be substituted directly for whole chocolate in recipes, because it will affect the overall texture and taste of the finished product.
Cocoa Powder and Chocolate
Think of cocoa powder as the pure, natural essence of cocoa. It is made by removing the natural fats -- cocoa butter -- found in chocolate liquor, which is the paste produced from grinding whole, dried, fermented cacao beans. After the fat extraction, the solids left over from the chocolate liquor are ground again to produce cocoa powder. When sold as is, natural and unchanged, the powder contains no fat, sugar or milk.
Dutch Process Cocoa
Dutch process cocoa, also known as European-style cocoa powder, is treated with an alkalizing agent that lowers cocoa's naturally acidic pH level. When treated, the cocoa powder darkens from a slight red-brown color to a very dark brown. The flavor also becomes earthier, woodsier and more mellow. In some cases, Dutch cocoa powder is further treated to turn it a black color, which has a bittersweet taste.
Choosing a Cocoa Powder
You can cook and bake with all types of cocoa powder, but each affects the taste and chemical reactions that occur in baked goods. Because Dutch process cocoa has a neutral or alkaline pH level, it does not react with certain leaveners, such as baking soda. If you decide to use Dutch process cocoa in place of natural cocoa for baked goods, substitute the baking soda for baking powder in a 1-to-4 ratio to produce the desired leavening effect. This substitution is only necessary when more than a 3/4 cup of cocoa powder is needed.