In 1828, the way the world had experienced chocolate was about to change. A Dutch chemist named C.J. Van Houten, took out a patent for a process he invented to manufacture chocolate with a reduced fat content. This chocolate was made in block or cake form and could be easily reduced to a fine powder. Van Houten accomplished this by using a hydraulic press. This powdered chocolate could now be made on a large scale, meaning that it would become more affordable for the mass population. Another benefit is a lower fat content making the cocoa easy to digest and less likely to go rancid than chocolate with the usual higher fat percentage.
Today, hydraulic presses are still used in the manufacture of cocoa powder. Roasted cacao beans are cooled, then the shells are cracked by large rollers. Puffs of air are used to blow the broken bits of shells away leaving the edible part of the bean called cocoa nibs. The nibs are then crushed and ground into a fine paste. This process breaks open their cellular structure and causes the release of the cocoa butter in the nibs. Friction during this process produces enough heat to melt the cocoa butter, and the combination of crushed, ground nibs and cocoa butter produces chocolate liquor, also known as unsweetened chocolate. This chocolate liquor (which contains no alcohol) is compacted by powerful hydraulic presses so that much of the cocoa butter is pushed out of it. The resulting blocks or cakes of cocoa are crushed to make the cocoa powder.
There’s more than one kind of cocoa powder available to today’s consumers. There are variations in fat content, depending upon how much cocoa butter is pressed out of the chocolate liquor. Standard cocoa powder is listed as “10/12”, which means it has between a 10 and 12 percent fat content. But there’s also “22/24”, cocoa powder with a fat content of between 22 and 24 percent.
Originally, Van Houten processed his cocoa with alkaline salts. This alkaline cocoa powder came to be called “Dutch processed” cocoa. Dutch processed cocoa has been treated with an alkali which helps neutralize cocoa’s natural bitterness. It’s a richer, darker and slightly milder powder that is perfect for hot cocoa and other chocolate beverages. Dutch processed cocoa powder has a darker color, a more alkaline pH, and is easier to blend into liquids than non-Dutch processed cocoa (also known as “natural” or “non-alkalized”cocoa). Natural cocoa has a strong, bittersweet flavor that is great for baking. Natural cocoa is what to use when cocoa is called for in Mexican recipes. Use three tablespoons of cocoa plus one tablespoon fat (shortening, butter, etc.) to replace a one ounce square of unsweetened chocolate. Dutch processed cocoa powder also has a milder chocolate flavor. Substituting one type of cocoa powder for the other in recipes can be difficult. The acidity levels vary enough to cause them to react differently to some chemical leavenings, such as baking soda. There are a few other varieties of cocoa powder as well, including a black cocoa powder (also known as “Black Onyx” cocoa). Black onyx cocoa powder has been alkalized to the extreme, producing a beautiful dark, purplish black cocoa that when used in baking makes for an exquisite black-as-coal colored end product. Because black onyx cocoa has less fat, it does tend to create a drier texture. When using black cocoa powder, it’s best to use a 50/50 mixture of black cocoa and Dutch cocoa to add more fat. If you do want to use 100% black onyx, then be sure to increase the fat in the recipe. This will also alleviate the dryness issue. It may take you a few tries to get it right, but the outcome will be phenomenal once you do.
There’s also a controversy about Dutch processed cocoa these days. Perhaps a decade ago, Dutch processed saw a rise in popularity within the United States. It was all the rage among many famous chefs, and a lot of recipes called for its use and it became much easier to find. More recently, however, Dutch process cocoa has fallen out of favor. It’s been claimed that the Dutch processed is used to cover up a cocoa powder made from beans of inferior quality. I’m not sure if this is true, but currently there is no way to tell otherwise unless the company specifies the beans being used. One thing I can advise against is using the Hershey’s Special Dark Dutch Processed Cocoa. They reformulated the brand and started adding salt to the cocoa. So there’s a cocoa powder for all of your cooking, baking and confectionery needs. Experiment, learn and taste the difference each variety of cocoa can bring to your table.