Two bowls of cocoa powders for the writing, what's the difference between cocoa powders?

How did cocoa powder come to be?

The early Mayans revered chocolate. (Who doesn’t, right?) More correctly, they revered cocoa. It was prepared by first harvesting beans from cacao trees. The beans were then fermented, dried, and roasted. After that, the Mayans removed the shells and ground the precious seeds into a paste that was mixed with water, cornmeal, chili peppers, and spices. Mayan royalty and priests regularly drank this bitter cacao concoction they called xocolat.

An illustration of a Mayan drinking cocoa to help depict the difference between natural and Dutch-process cocoa powders..

What is natural cocoa powder?

The Mayan approach is essentially the same process that’s used today to create what we know as natural cocoa powder. The taste is extraordinarily strong, concentrated, acidic, and somewhat bitter or astringent. Chances are you’ve seen the viral video about the sweet little blond boy who demands to eat cocoa powder…and then gets a strong dose of disappointing reality. Well, that’s natural powder.

A little boy eating cocoa powder as part of the article on the difference between natural and Dutch-process cocoa powders.

What is Dutch process cocoa powder?

In 1828, nearly 1,000 years after the Mayans concocted cocoa powder, a Dutchman—Coenraad Johannes van Houten—added potassium carbonate to cocoa powder to alkalize, or neutralize, the acidity of cocoa powder. (More science: potassium carbonate is a type of salt commonly known as potash. Table salt, as we all know, is sodium chloride. They are not interchangeable.) What results is a smoother and less acidic cocoa powder that’s darker in color and more mellow in taste and that easily dissolves in liquids. This came to be known as Dutch process cocoa.

A photograph of Coenraad Johannes van Houten, the founder of the Dutch-process for neutralizing the acidity of cocoa powder.

Can I substitute one type of cocoa powder for the other?

So, are the two types of cocoa powder interchangeable, you ask? That all depends on what you’re making.

Look at your recipe. If it calls for natural cocoa powder, it’ll most likely also include baking soda. These two ingredients cause a chemical reaction (acidic cocoa and base baking soda) that allows your baked goods to rise beautifully.

If it calls for Dutch process cocoa, the recipe likely calls for baking powder. That’s because Dutched cocoa and baking soda are simply unable to react with one another. The spark simply isn’t there. (And, sometimes, a recipe will call for a combination of both, because kitchen science is rarely perfect, right?)

Confused? If your recipe is something that you don’t expect to rise, use whichever cocoa powder you prefer (or whichever is in your pantry). Something like avocado chocolate pudding, chocolate and cinnamon swirl meringues, or Mexican hot chocolate made with chocolate disks and a molinillo.

Four individual white bowls of avocado chocolate pudding with spoons on a wooden table.

If you’re baking something that you want to be big and wonderful, that’s where the alkalinity and science come back onto the scene. For something like David’s favorite Hershey’s chocolate cake, you’ll need a leavening agent. In particular, the proper leavening agent for the type of cocoa powder you’re using. To further simplify this for those of us who aren’t very left-brained:

An equation showing how natural and Dutch-process cocoa powders can be used with baking soda or baking powder.

You should always, always try to use the type of cocoa powder specified in a recipe, but we all know that we find ourselves in a bind now and then, so in a pinch, you CAN use natural cocoa powder in place of Dutch process cocoa powder. What you should never do is use Dutch process instead of natural. Your results will suffer. (And please don’t try to out-science the kitchen gods and just add a bunch of salt to natural cocoa powder. Ain’t gonna work.)

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About Diana Fijalkowski

Diana began cooking with her mother and grandmother at an early age. She most remembers taco nights after a day at the lake, angel food cakes resting atop glass Pepsi bottles, a counter spread with fresh praline pecans, and thousands of frosted Christmas cookies each December.

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  1. I really don’t like to cook. For me it is a long and laborious process. The chopping, the dishes, never seeming to have all the right ingredients on hand (no matter how hard I try), but yet I must because I love homemade food and my kids eat a lot! However, the science of cooking and baking is absolutely fascinating! Sitting and reading a cookbook that breaks down the “why” of cooking is a pleasure! Thank you for explaining the how and why of chocolate. Perhaps someday I will come to enjoy a process so many seem to like so much and make it look easy.

  2. Thanks for this. Fascinating stuff! I only recently started seeing recipes which mentioned ‘Dutch’ cocoa powder, rather than just ‘cocoa’ powder and thought this was just a snobby chef/cook thing, as to be honest, after decades of cooking, I had never saw it mentioned in ingredient lists. Cocoa is cocoa after all, right? Even when shopping I don’t see the two varieties obviously labelled and parked side by side on the shelf. However, now you have given me the facts (and the science) I can start re-exploring the world of cocoa, starting with granny’s 100 year old recipe book.

    1. Johnnie, you’re so very welcome. I, like you, had only seen the distinction recently. But then we started getting questions from readers inquiring which kind of cocoa to use in a particular recipe, and so we’re going back and adding which type to all our older recipes just to try to minimize the chance for confusion (and disappointment!) when baking. And I have my grandma’s recipe book here, too, and love that’s where you chose to start. Wishing you much intrigue as well as all those old baking memories.

  3. This statement is WRONG: “If it calls for natural cocoa powder, it’ll most likely also include baking soda. These two highly acidic ingredients cause a chemical reaction that allows your baked goods to rise beautifully.” Cocoa powder is acidic and baking soda is basic – it is an acid-base reaction that release CO2 and causes the rise to occur.

    1. Thank you for pointing that out, Skeptic – great catch. The statement has been corrected. Have a great day!