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Glossary of Foods: Cocoa

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Cocoa is a deceptive ingredient that looks like chocolate and smells like chocolate but has an intensely bitter flavor! While it may not be straight up snackable like chocolate, cocoa is the key ingredient to the best brownies and hot cocoa. While they may have very different flavor profiles and culinary purposes, the origin of cocoa and chocolate is the same.


Cocoa and chocolate come from the same source: the cacao tree. Cocoa is made by roasting, grinding, and processing the cacao beans. Cacao beans are found inside the pods which grow on the trees. To learn more about the origin and growth of the cacao tree, read our Glossary of Foods: Cacao.

From bean to powder, the process of making cocoa powder involves many complicated steps. After the cacao beans have been dried, they are roasted to bring out the flavor, then milled to create a paste called cocoa mass. The grinding process breaks down the cocoa solids and cocoa butter, the fat from the cacao bean. The cocoa mass is strained and purified, removing any large solids, which creates a more fluid product called cocoa liquor. This liquor is then pressed by machines to remove most of the cocoa butter from the cocoa solids. Cacao beans are about 50% cocoa butter before processing. The cocoa butter can be used for other purposes now that the solids have been removed. The pressed solids are dried to stabilize any remaining cocoa butter, then sifted into a fine powder and ready to be used in cooking and baking.

The next time you're in the baking aisle at the grocery store, you'll understand all of the work it takes to make that jar of cocoa powder! However, you may need to be aware of some differences in types of cocoa powder when you're purchasing it for use in recipes. First, be wary of sweetened and unsweetened varieties of cocoa powder. Some recipes will specify which type is needed, but usually cocoa powder designates the unsweetened kind. The second thing you need to watch out for is the Dutch process variety. Dutch process cocoa powder has been treated with an alkali to neutralize the natural acids found in cocoa. The color of Dutch process is a deeper brown and the flavor is smoother and milder. Use Dutch process cocoa powder in recipes that call for baking powder, not baking soda. Natural, non-Dutch process cocoa powder should be used in recipes that require baking soda, as the natural acidity of the powder will react with the baking soda as a leavening agent.

>> Read more: 13 Healthy Benefits of Dark Chocolate