Culinary Arts

What Is Cocoa? Culinary Uses of Cocoa Powder

Written by MasterClass

May 22, 2019 • 4 min read

Whether it's the iconic slab of Hershey's or the fancy bean-to-bar newcomer, the hot après-ski drink topped with a plouff of whipped cream, or the namesake ingredient in the pastry world’s most luscious creations, cocoa is a culinary cornerstone.


What Is Cocoa?

Cocoa, the primary ingredient of chocolate, is derived from the cacao bean—Theobroma cacao, a native plant of the Amazon that was domesticated more than 5,000 years ago and used by pre-Columbian cultures like the Olmecs, Mocayas, and Mayans. (“Cocoa” is an anglicization of the Spanish “cacao,” which came from the Nahuatl “cacahuatl.”)

There are three varieties of cacao trees: Forastero, Criollo, and Trinitario, though 80 to 90 percent of the world’s production is Forastero. In more recent years, an emphasis on fair trade cacao sourcing has become a priority for many producers.

What Is the Difference Between Cocoa and Cacao?

Technically speaking, cocoa powder comes from the beans of the cacao plant, but ‘cacao bean’ and ‘cocoa bean’ are used interchangeably by chocolatiers and producers in many different circumstances. It’s easiest to think of cocoa powder as processed cacao.

Where Does Cocoa Powder Come From?

Cocoa powder is made from the dried cocoa solids extracted from cocoa butter, which is a product of the ground nibs of roasted, fermented cacao beans. The cocoa paste (or “liquor”) at this stage is bitter, but aromatic—turning them into chocolate products requires sugar, and occasionally vanilla and dairy, to soften the flavors, as with white chocolate and milk chocolate.

What Are the Health Benefits of Cocoa?

Cacao is shown to have a whole roster of health benefits, mostly thanks to its infamous antioxidant levels, besting even acai and blueberries. Eaten in its raw or natural form (think of an 80 percent dark chocolate bar—so no, chocolate cake doesn't count) it has has been shown to boost your mood, due to the presence of phenylethylamine—the same chemical our brain releases when we’re in love—and brings lots of minerals to the party: magnesium, iron, potassium, calcium, zinc, and manganese, to name a few. When cacao is processed however, it’s nutritive properties diminish (which is why hot cocoa isn’t exactly a sports drink).

3 Different Types of Cocoa Powder and How to Use Each

All cocoa powders are not created equal, and you may find a few different options staring out at you from grocery store shelves. Depending on what you’re using them for, you may be able to use them interchangeably, but if there’s a specific type called out in a recipe, there’s a reason and it usually comes down to texture and science.

  1. Dutch process. Also known as “European style,” this is alkalized cocoa powder with a pure chocolatey flavor that has been washed with a potassium-carbonate solution in order to neutralize its pH (that’s 7, the same as water, for you chemistry whizzes). As a result, it doesn’t produce carbon dioxide when mixed with a leavener like baking soda—so recipes calling for Dutch process cocoa powder also require baking powder. If you’re making something like pudding, hot cocoa, or ice cream, the intense flavor of Dutch process cocoa might be the best bet for dialing up that sumptuous profile.
  2. Natural. Natural cocoa powder is the most commercially available, with a lower, more acidic pH at 5 or 6, which gives it that signature citrusy tang you find in many natural chocolate bars.
  3. Raw. Raw cacao powder is the result of cold-pressed, raw cacao beans. (Cocoa powder, by contrast, is cacao that has been roasted.) It’s usually a little pricier, but its chocolate flavor is more nuanced than other unsweetened cocoa powders—as long as you don’t bake it. Raw cacao nibs are great in smoothies or trail mix.

4 Cocoa Powder Recipes

  1. Homemade Hot Cocoa or Hot Chocolate Recipe. Yes, there’s a difference! Hot cocoa is made just from cocoa powder, whereas hot chocolate (the richer of the two) is made with melted chocolate and just a dash of cocoa powder. The best cocoa powder for hot cocoa is Dutch processed, making for a mellow, sweet cup. To make a batch, combine ¼ cup cocoa powder with ½ cup powdered sugar and a dash of salt. Bring 4 cups of milk to a simmer, then gently whisk in the dry mix until silky and evenly combined. Serve with marshmallows or whipped cream!
  2. Cocoa Banana Bread Recipe. Add ½ cup natural unsweetened cocoa powder to your favorite banana bread recipe for a classy chocolate subtlety that’s less overbearing than chocolate chips.
  3. Cacao Powder Smoothie Recipe. Take advantage of raw cacao’s killer flavor and mood-boosting benefits and mix a tablespoon or two in a blender with frozen bananas, almond butter, and cashew milk.
  4. Chef Dominique Ansel’s Chocolate Cake Recipe. Chef Dominique’s whimsical chocolate cake is a wonder to behold—and will make a fantastic cake to use as a showstopper at your next dinner party. Find his chocolate cake recipe here.

How to Store Cocoa Powder

Store cocoa powder in an airtight container, in a dark, cool, dry space.

Learn more baking techniques in Chef Dominique Ansel’s MasterClass.