Natural cacao powder is pulverized untreated cacao solids. Once the nibs are ground and pressed, the remaining defatted solids are milled into a fine powder. It is lighter in color and is lower in pH (between 5 and 6). Due to the powder being left in its natural state, it has the stereotypical bitter taste that is associated with cacao. If this is used as an ingredient in baking, usually baking soda is required to balance the pH of the food.
On the other hand, there is alkalized cacao powder (sometimes known as Dutched, Dutch or European style cacao powder). It was first made in the 19th century by a Dutch chocolate maker called Coenraad Johannes van Houten. It is treated with 2% potassium carbonate (a salt), which neutralizes the cacao’s acidity to a pH closer to 7 (the same pH as water which is considered neutral). The more alkali and more reaction time, the darker the powder, that has a softer taste.
Adding just 2% potassium carbonate will create a redox- reaction. Even though the taste is just as satisfying as natural powder, some of the natural powder volatile aromas are lost during this process. But the advantage is that alkalized cacao powder has a better dispensability in water-based solutions, so it is mostly used for beverages including beer brewing and cold chocolate milk. For hot beverages, such as a mug of hot chocolate or hot cocoa, you may use either, but the alkalized will also delay the sedimentation of the particles on the bottom.
There is also an option to hyperalkalize the cacao, which turns it black, like Oreo cookies. However, hyperalkalizing cocoa strips most of its flavor and aroma away, and is mostly done to low-quality cocoa powder and used mostly for the color.
In the case of cacao powder, a darker color does not equate to a more chocolatey flavor, but just to lower acidity and milder astringency.
For baking, if the recipe does not explicitly state which type of powder to use, check the other ingredients. If the recipe uses baking soda (sometimes including some baking soda), opt for natural cacao powder. If it ONLY uses baking powder, alkalized cacao powder is best. Using the wrong type of powder can cause the cake not to rise, or the dessert to have a funny texture.
Use natural cocoa powder for:
- Baking if the recipe includes baking soda (can include baking powder)
- Hot beverages
- Ice creams
- Health snacks (it retains most of its natural antioxidants)
Use low or medium alkalized cocoa powder for:
- Baking if the recipe does NOT have baking soda (or only baking powder)
- Beer brewing
- Ice creams
Use hyperalkalized cocoa powder (jet black, or black cocoa) for:
- Coloring of any dessert or food