Ask Peter: Dutch cocoa
Can I use regular cocoa powder instead of Dutch cocoa powder when baking? We live in a rural area so don't have many choices in grocery stores. And is it possible to substitute powder for block dark chocolate in recipes? Are there some general rules to follow if I make that substitution?
Thanks, Katherine Fraser.
I’ve asked a few pastry chef friends exactly how interchangeable the two cocoa powders are and the word on the street, and in the kitchen, is that a recipe is more likely to "still work pretty good’' when you use cocoa powder to replace Dutch cocoa, but the recipe is likely to fail if you use Dutch to replace regular. This should work in your favour, then. It’s worth noting what the difference between the two is though, and not surprisingly, it’s all about chemistry, which so much baking revolves around anyway.
Dutch cocoa is made by rinsing the cocoa beans or nibs in a potassium (an alkaline element) solution before roasting and grinding them, which tempers the natural acidity of the cocoa beans and makes the cocoa more neutral in pH. The potassium also causes the beans to become quite dark which isn’t a bad thing at all and might make you think it’ll be strong in flavour, whereas in fact Dutch cocoa is milder than regular cocoa powder. "Regular'’ cocoa powder (without its rinse with potassium) is slightly acidic, which adds character to it as an ingredient, as it can to wine, but it can also cause a bitter taste — which is generally no problem at all, seeing as cocoa is used mostly in sweet desserts, the sugar masking the bitterness.
What this means to the baker is that when using Dutch cocoa you’ll generally leaven the dough or cake batter using baking powder (which is also pH neutral) whereas when using regular cocoa powder you’ll get better results using baking soda (alkaline) as this reacts with the inherent acidity causing the finished product to taste neutral and not soapy.
Having said that, in a batter, dough or mixture where the amount of cocoa in the sifted dry ingredients (and you always need to sift cocoa to disperse it evenly) is very small, less than 10 per cent, then they are pretty much interchangeable. The same when used in icings, frostings or a drink — you aren’t needing any of these to rise, and it might be that you want a particular coloured icing, so use Dutch for something darker.
Having said that, you can easily buy Dutch cocoa in New Zealand via the internet, and Equagold would be a good starting point. It's worth pointing out the two cocoa powders I’m talking about here are both 100 per cent pure cocoa, both gluten and dairy free. Trouble only begins to raise its head when you use drinking chocolate in place of either cocoa powder, which I have seen so often that it’s slightly worrying. Drinking chocolate will contain everything from milk powder to sweetener in some form or another. If using this in place of cocoa you really do need to look hard at the recipe and begin to remove sugar and dairy from the ingredients while trying to figure out how to get a really grunty cocoa taste in the finished product — which will be hard.
As to whether or not you can use chocolate in place of cocoa — that really does depend on what you’re making. I make a lovely Mexican Oaxaca inspired mole (mo-lay) negra which contains grated dark chocolate, the darker the better. If you only had milk chocolate, you would do much better to use cocoa powder of either variety, mixed into a slurry with water or milk, added to the sauce.
Block chocolate 99 per cent of the time contains fat (cocoa butter and/or milk or cream) so to keep the menu true, you do need to introduce fat. Cocoa powder sits around 20 per cent fat, so you need to add extra fat to the dish to bring the recipe back in balance. If you were to make a rich dark brownie but had no dark chocolate to melt and add to the mixture, you can simply use extra butter and sift plenty of extra cocoa powder into the flour and raising agent (as described above). As with all cooking, in my opinion, you want to bring a balance of bitter, sour, savoury and sweet to your food, so keep a note of exactly what you did and improve it next time. But never ever substitute drinking chocolate powder for dark block chocolate as no good will come of it!
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to email@example.com and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.
A selection of recipes using cocoa powder.