It was hard enough knowing which cocoa powder to use when we had two choices: Dutch-process and natural. Rachel Rotterman of Boston points out there’s a third option—cacao powder. She wondered if it could be used in place of the others.
All three are made by processing the dried, fermented beans of cacao pods; the differences arise in how they are processed. Natural cocoa powder is extracted from beans that have been roasted at high temperatures to remove much of the bitterness. Dutch-process cocoa powder is made much the same, but the beans are treated with alkali, neutralizing their natural astringency and giving them and the resulting powder a darker hue.
For this reason, many recipes that specify natural cocoa powder also include baking soda, which has alkaline qualities that balance the cocoa’s acidity. Beans for cacao powder are cold-pressed, which exposes them to much less heat, allowing their bitterness—and depth—to come through clearly.
To see how all three compared, we used them to make brownies and chocolate cake. Tasters much preferred the balanced sweetness and intense chocolate flavor of cacao powder in the brownies. With the cake, the results were less straightforward, with smooth Dutch-process cocoa as the favorite, and cacao and natural cocoa tying for second place.
In general, cacao powder can be substituted for natural cocoa when a more robust chocolate flavor is desired. But poor substitute in recipes that call for Dutch-process cocoa.