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What’s the Difference Between Cacao and Cocoa? Plus 9 Recipe Ideas

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 4 min read

All variants of chocolate start at the same source: the cacao plant. Anyone who’s eaten a chocolate bar, be it milk or dark chocolate, is already intimately acquainted with cocoa. But the paths of cocoa and cacao diverge in their processing. The result is two ingredients with different characters—one that’s best friends with brownies, and the other a star of the health-food aisle.



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What Is Cocoa?

This confectionary actually starts with a plant: the South American Theobroma cacao tree. Cocoa producers harvest the pods from the Theobroma plant, open them and remove the seeds, or beans, inside. They then dry, ferment and roast the beans at high temperatures, which sweetens their flavor.

Any usage of the word “cocoa” signifies that the product has gone through this high-heat process. At this point, the beans’ fats—or cocoa butter—are separated from the dry solids, which are then milled into cocoa powder. Cocoa butter is also a key ingredient in confectionary, especially white chocolate, and gives chocolate bars their rich, fatty mouth-feel. But the term cocoa on its own usually signifies the dry powder.

Learn more about cocoa powder and its culinary uses here.

What Is Cacao?

The term “cacao” can refer to the Theobroma plant itself or its beans. It’s also the name for the products made by processing cacao beans, minus the high temperatures.

This is where the difference between cocoa and cacao arises. The latter only encounters such low temperatures that it is sometimes even termed “raw cacao.” Products created through this process include raw cacao powder, cacao butter and cacao nibs (cacao beans chopped into small pieces, like chocolate chips).

Without cold processing, cacao retains its bitter taste as well as a host of health benefits. Some people like to think of it as the purest form of chocolate.

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What’s the Difference Between Cacao and Cocoa?

While they’re confusingly close in name, cocoa and cacao have their differences. These are:

  • Taste. Cacao is more bitter than cocoa, although both still taste chocolatey.
  • Processing. Cocoa is processed at higher temperatures.
  • Health benefits. Raw cacao beans are superfoods, packed full of antioxidants that protect cells from damage by free radicals; and flavanols that improve the functioning of blood vessels. The high heats of cocoa processing change the beans’ molecular structure, however, so some of this nutritional value is lost. That makes cacao a healthier choice than cocoa.
  • Cost. Cacao powder usually has a higher price tag to cocoa powder, as it is a specialty product.
  • Use. While it’s possible to use cocoa powder and cacao powder in the same way, they do produce different tastes. Cocoa tends to be the better choice for sweet baked goods and hot chocolate, while cacao can bring a chocolatey kick to healthier concoctions.

When Should You Use Cacao Instead of Cocoa?

Consider using cacao when you want a nutritious treat that will boost your wellbeing. Theoretically, you should be able to swap regular cocoa powder and cacao powder one to one in any recipe where you are happy with a less sweet flavor.

Where a recipe calls for Dutch-processed cocoa, however, approach with caution—that’s cocoa that’s had additional processing to alkalize it, lowering its acidity and increasing its sweetness further. Dutch-processed cocoa is often used to dust desserts, and you don’t want bitter cacao for that.

Cacao works best as a substitute in raw desserts, where you know it won’t upset the delicate alchemy of baking.


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4 Recipe Ideas for Cacao

Some tried and tested recipes using cacao include:

  1. Trail mix. Cacao nibs can seem like a true treat when nestled in between nuts, seeds, and goji berries.
  2. Smoothies. A couple of tablespoons of cacao powder make a healthy smoothie of banana or blueberries taste like an indulgence.
  3. Homemade magic shell. Combine raw cacao powder with melted coconut oil and a sweetener like honey or maple syrup to make a liquid chocolate syrup that sets instantly over ice-cream.
  4. Cacao and avocado mousse. Blend cacao powder with avocados, banana, dates and nut milk to make this silky vegan dessert.

5 Recipe Ideas for Cocoa

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There is no shortage of recipes out there incorporating cocoa, a longtime staple of the baker’s store cupboard. And they can also be healthy—particularly if dairy and sugar appear only in moderation. Consider some of these more unusual cocoa recipes:

  1. Chef Dominique Ansel’s chocolate cake. This show-stopping chocolate cake features cocoa in both a dark chocolate mirror glaze and smooth chocolate mousse.
  2. Chocolate mug cake. Mix together a small amount of flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, egg, oil, milk and vanilla extract and microwave in a mug to make a quick cake for one.
  3. Chocolate pancakes. Add cocoa powder to your pancake batter and serve with chocolate sauce and strawberries for an indulgent start to the day.
  4. Chipotle salsa. The flavors of cocoa and smokey chipotle peppers in adobo sauce pair well together. Combine with tomatoes, onion, garlic, and salt to make a salsa.
  5. Oatmeal. Cocoa powder can be healthy too. Just add it to your porridge, with honey or maple syrup to sweeten.

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