So asks reader Fleur, and it’s a great question. I’m not sure I’ve ever really blogged about “Dutching” before. The answer, Fleur, is that it’s cocoa made from cacao (fresh harvested chocolate) nibs that have been treated with an alkaline. More often than not that alkaline is good ol’ potassium carbonate, a once-common kitchen chemical known as “pearl ash” or “pearlash”…as sort of precursor to baking soda.
The process was invented, not surprisingly, by a Dutchman named Conrad van Houten in 1828 (he’s also the fellow who invented cocoa powder). At the time, van Houten was looking for a treatment that would help his new powder incorporate more readily into milk. Being fatty stuff, cocoa powder doesn’t mix with watery milk terribly well.
As it happened the alkaline treatment, though it didn’t do all that much to help with with the mixiing, did dramatically change the flavor of the chocolate. It mellowed it, taking off the harsh, acidic edge that chocolate picks up when it ferments, as all chocolate must before it’s processed. Remove the harshness, van Houten discovered, and chocolate’s more subtle flavors come to the fore, creating a subtler, more elegant eating or drinking experience.
In the century and a half that followed van Houten’s innovation, Dutching was the norm for fine chocolate and cocoa powder generally. All that started to change in the 90’s, when studies came out claiming that chocolate contains antioxidants that are good for the heart. The darker the chocolate, the more the antioxidants, particularly if the chocolate is “un-Dutched” since alkalines are hard on flavanols (the particular antioxidants in chocolate). A trend toward darker, edgier chocolate began that endures to this day. In fact, so dramatic was the move away from Dutched cocoa that now it can now be quite difficult to find, at least here in the States.
The change has had an effect on bakers, since the relative acidity of cocoa powder can have an effect on leavening reactions. As a general rule of thumb, assume that recipes written prior to 20 years or so ago are calling for Dutch-processed when they call for cocoa powder, and newer recipes are calling for un-Dutched (unless otherwise stated of course).
Much of the time cocoa powder containers indicate whether the product is Dutched or not. If yours doesn’t, you can judge by the color of the cocoa. If it’s a light, leather-brown then it’s very likely un-Dutched. A dark-roast-coffee-brown powder is generally the Dutched product, because the alkalinity creates more browning reactions during roasting. Those browning reactions, by the way, also create more, and more interesting, flavors. Which is why I think Dutched cocoa is a lot better than un-Dutched.
That’s probably more than you wanted to know, Fleur. But I’m traveling on business at the moment and have little else to do!