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Curating Your Cocoa Powder

(This article appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)

We all use cocoa powder for various preparations, ranging from chocolate cakes to frozen desserts. As pastry chefs, we will select the chocolate we use for our recipes very carefully, but may view cocoa powder as slightly more limited in variety. In this installment of Pastry Virtuosity, we encourage professionals to explore cocoa powder in new and creative ways.

The process of achieving a finished cocoa powder takes substantial time and effort. Even with machines, the process involves harvesting, opening the pods, fermenting, drying and roasting. Then the winnowing step removes the outer shell from the beans, which can then be ground into cocoa powder.

Cocoa powder adds deep chocolate flavor to desserts and beverages. Cocoa powder occurs when the fat, cocoa butter, gets removed from the cacao beans during processing. The leftover dried solids are ground into the product sold as cocoa powder. Fat content for cocoa powder is generally either ‘10-12’ or ’20-22’. For formulations where there is already substantial fat, a lower fat cocoa powder may be desirable. For most professional applications, a high quality 22-24 cocoa powder is the most desirable for our guests craving chocolate flavor. That said, the number of customers who appreciate raw chocolate is growing, and those guests may desire a natural-process product.

Pure ground cocoa powder has a pH level between 5.3 and 5.8, putting it on the acidic end of the scale. The acidity affects the flavor, the way it interacts with other ingredients, and its solubility. The two basic types of cocoa powder are Dutch processed and natural. The higher acidity of natural process cocoa powder can assist chemical leavening in recipes.

Natural cocoa utilizes the Broma process, which involves hanging bags of roasted cocoa beans in a very warm room, above the melting point of cocoa butter and allowing the butter to drip off the beans, where it is collected. Natural cocoa powder produced with the Broma process retains the natural pH level. It tends to be more intensely flavored, and a lighter, almost reddish-brown color. The Dutch process bathes the cocoa beans in an alkaline solution, producing a darker brown cocoa powder with a chemically neutral pH of between 6.8 and 8.1, resulting in a more mellow flavor. ‘Dutching’ also reduces the antioxidant properties of cocoa.

Some of our favorite cocoa products still have staying power. Cacao Barry’s Plein Arome is a 22-24 Dutched cocoa powder with a medium brown color and light acidity, while Valrhona’s 100 percent cocoa powder sports a warm red mahogany color and offers a dark, rich color to finished dessert items.

Less established but interesting and distinctive is República del Cacao’s cacao powder, which contains the highest natural cacao butter content available on the market today. It has a wonderful tropical wood color, with rich red hues.

The new deZaan cocoa powder range includes six high-quality cocoa powders whose flavors range from light and fruity citrus to velvety chocolate and caramel notes. It is interesting to note the color palette includes everything from red to black. The deZaan line has introduced two natural powders, True Gold, with its flavor notes of flowers and citrus, and a light natural color, and True Dark with its nutty fruitiness, and a dark color more associated with Dutched powders. “Like many chefs,” says Pastry Chef Andrew Pingul of deZaan for Professionals, “I was used to working with one or two cocoa powders. Now, experimenting with the deZaan range has made me realize that the type of cocoa powder you choose allows you to take control of your recipe and enhance the results. These cocoa powders offer bitter, floral and fruity notes, as well as different aromas and textures.”

Lately I have been experimenting in the lab with deZaan True Gold, which has a uniquely light roast that complements fruit and caramel. No matter which brands you prefer, I encourage all chefs to expand their arsenal of cocoa powders to create more variety and nuance in their work.

Jimmy MacMillan
Jimmy MacMillan
Jimmy MacMillan is a celebrated pastry chef, food writer, and award-winning videographer. Working under the label Pastry Virtuosity, his mission is to inspire and nurture pastry chefs and sweet businesses one project at a time. For more information, visit: www.pastryvirtuosity.com.