Lately, I’ve been determined to create a “knock your socks off” kind of brownie. A gluten-free, nut-free kind too. I’m now 3 batches in, all with different results, and I’ve started to notice a few things:
1) I use nuts in almost everything I bake
2) Brownies are a real art form
3) Baking with cacao is VERY different than cocoa powder
The last revelation has taken me down a deep rabbit hole into the world of cacao. I’ve always used cacao over cocoa powder in baking, knowing it’s more nutrient dense with significant amounts of polyphenols, magnesium, manganese, fiber, and antioxidants - who wouldn’t want that? But I’m finding that most of my chocolatey desserts are too dry... well, come to find out, cacao is more absorbable than standard cocoa powder. Meaning, you typically need more liquid to compensate for how much it soaks up. So yeah, when I found this out, I had a major ah-ha moment.
Before we get into the nitty gritty of cacao, cocoa, and everything chocolate related, I should first explain that cacao powder and cocoa powder are two different products - which may clarify a few things if you’ve been confused up until this point.
You might not think twice about it when you’re looking at a package on the shelf in a grocery store, but if you were to open the bag and compare them side by side, you’d be able to see a difference. Cocoa powder is darker, and with that, a little less nutritious but pretty mild in flavor.
Where does Cacao come from?
Cacao beans come from Theobroma cacao trees that are native to West Africa, South America, and a few countries in Asia. In fact, over half of the world’s cacao production comes from West Africa. I personally had no idea. I remember taking a chocolate class in Switzerland and when they mentioned this, I realized just how little I actually knew about my beloved cacao. This is also when I learned that cacao is a fruit… you may already know that.
During the class, they explained that the trees grow fruit pods, where the cacao beans live until their ripe. When they’re ready to be harvested, the pods are cracked open to remove the cacao seeds (also known as the beans) and then placed in heaps, or bins, to ferment for a few days. This step is important as it enhances the flavor and kills the germ. After their fermentation, the beans are left to dry in the sun for several days.
Once the drying process is complete, things start to look very different depending on what is being produced. In some cases, the cacao beans are simply crushed into tiny pieces and ready to be consumed, aka cacao nibs! This is the purest form of cacao that we might eat, which also means it contains the most amount of naturally occurring nutrients from the bean.
After the beans are dried, they’re often ground into a powder, which is what we know as either cacao or cocoa powder. This powder is separated from the fat of the bean, which becomes cocoa butter.
So, what’s the difference between cacao and cocoa powder?
Cocoa powder comes from cacao beans that have been roasted at high temperatures, post-fermentation. Unfortunately, the high heat removes most of the bean’s nutrients but it creates a more mild flavor that many prefer.
On the flip side, cacao powder is extracted from beans that have been roasted at much lower temps, if at all - this depends on the manufacturer. Because of its minimal processing, cacao powder is considered a raw, nutrient-dense food, as it hasn’t been heat-stripped of its nutrients and antioxidants. In fact, its nutrient profile is actually quite incredible, loaded with trace minerals, it’s known as a superfood!
Are there different types of cocoa powder?
Yes! Cocoa powder can be found in two primary forms: natural and Dutch-processed. Natural cocoa, sometimes referred to as untreated, is slightly higher in nutrients than Dutch. This is because it’s processed in a way that maintains the bean’s pH level, making it more acidic and quite bitter in taste - still subtle in comparison to cacao though.
Dutch-processed involves soaking the beans in potassium carbonate, an alkaline solution that reduces their acidity. This produces a mellow, sweeter flavor that’s darker in color, often making it the preferred choice for baking. However, the added processing reduces its total antioxidant effects, making it the least nutritious of the 3 powders.
Can you replace cocoa with cacao when it comes to baking?
Definitely, but there are a few things to keep in mind before dumping it into a recipe. Because cacao is less processed, it’s far more bitter. I personally love the taste, but not everyone enjoys it. If this is a concern, you may consider reducing the amount of cacao in the recipe and adding a smidge more sweetener. When it comes to cacao, a little really goes a long way.
Remember how I mentioned that cacao is more absorbent? This is because it has a slightly higher starch content. So if you choose to bake with it, you may want to consider adding a bit more liquid to avoid a dry dessert - I wish I found this out before my back-to-back batches of failed brownies.
Lastly, consider the baking temp of whatever you’re making. Even though cacao powder contains more nutrients, those nutrients can still be lost if you expose it to high heat. So if the recipe calls for a high temp (I’d say over 375F), you may consider saving the money and buying an organic, natural cocoa powder.
Can you use natural cocoa and Dutch-processed cacao interchangeably?
Technically, yes. Though I personally prefer avoiding Dutch-processed cocoa because of the significant processing and fewer nutrients. That said, there are a few differences when it comes to baking with these.
If you come across a recipe that calls for cocoa and baking powder, they’re usually referring to Dutch-processed cocoa. Remember acids / bases from 8th-grade chemistry… or maybe you erased that phase of your life from your memory (I wouldn't blame you). Either way, you may recall that bases neutralize acids and when combined together, they release carbon dioxide. When applied to baking, the carbon dioxide is what helps your dessert rise.
Since Dutch-cocoa is not acidic, you need to add an acid to get the rise you’re looking for - baking powder contains an acid, so combined with the Dutch-cocoa, you’ll get the much-loved lift to your dessert. It also darkens the cocoa and enhances its flavor.
The opposite is true for natural cocoa / cacao. Since they're more acidic, you want a base to react with them, which is why baking soda is often used - it’s not acidic.
I’ll always encourage baking with cacao when possible to get the biggest nutrient bang for your buck. However, if you have to bake at high temps, an organic natural cocoa powder will save yourself some money (the stuff's expensive).
Despite whatever powder you choose, I recommend looking for a brand that is organic and local when possible. You may also see labels that say Fair Trade, Direct Trade, sustainable, the list goes on. These are all great to consider; however, there is a bit of controversy behind these labels. The first two come with a fee and not every business owner has the means, time, or resources to get certified, even though they may be practicing those methods. The oversight of these farms is not always reliable either, but that's a loaded topic for another day.
In general, I'd recommend purchasing from a chocolate company that's as local as possible and opting for organic when you can - cacao beans are no exemption from chemicals.