What is “Dutched” cocoa powder?

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!

21 thoughts on “What is “Dutched” cocoa powder?”

  1. Not at all Joe – thank you so much for taking the time to answer my question – I’m reading it all with great interest 🙂

    Being from Switzerland, I’ve been wondering since I’ve never ready of any requirements for “dutched” or “undutched” in our recipes. I do recall having learned about the alkaline treatment of cocoa powder a long time ago!

    I’ve just checked the cocoa powders in my pantry. Judging from the color, the look to be dutched. The “Cailler” brand states only “cocoa powder” on the list of ingredients. And the regular supermarket package says “cocoa powder and E501” – which is potassium carbonate!

    So, it seems like dutching is still a standard procedure here in little Switzerland. But I’m also guessing that the specialty dark chocolate brands which have come up during the last few years may be undutched.

    Glad to keep learning every day 🙂

    1. Hello again!

      Yes I think Dutching is still the norm in Europe. The aesthetic is simply different there, a little less “rough and ready” than here in the States, especially these days. Personally I think chocolate makers in America were only too happy to dispense with Dutching. It’s an expensive and tricky process. If you judge the amount of acid incorrectly, and there’s more potassium carbonate than you need to neutralize it, then the alkaline combines with the fatty cocoa butter to make soap…not something you want in your Callebaut grand cru! 😉

      But you’re right, I don’t make the distinction here on the blog. That’s because I generally don’t factor cocoa into a leavening reaction. Most of the time I don’t mind the bit of extra acid that cocoa powder brings. Contrary to what many people think, batters need not have a perfectly balanced pH. In fact a little extra acid can be great for adding tenderness.

      Thanks again, Fleur!

      – Joe

  2. I’ll skip the flavanols. Since first hunting down Dutch processed cocoa at least 10 years ago for a recipe the specified it, I vastly prefer it. The flavor is so much smoother and complex. I think it’s responsible for a lot of the raving I get over thing like chocolate icing (or it could be that so many people are used to that glop out of a can that any homemade icing tastes like ambrosia, lol).

    1. I’m with you, Sandi! Plus it’s more chemically neutral, so you don’t have to factor it into a leavening reaction. Three cheers for van Houten!

      – Joe

      1. Hip Hip Hooray! Hip Hip Hooray! Hip Hip Hooray!
        I do appreciate a good Dutched cocoa powder to make my chocolate baked goods sing, and I appreciate the background on Mr. van Houten. I think he should have received a Nobel prize for that invention!


  3. There is a “new kid” that I see a lot now called “Black Cocoa”. I understand that is also considered a Dutched cocoa and is the type that makes Oreos so dark. I love using it in recipes because people note that “the chocolate is so dark in color!”.

      1. I’ve seen the black cocoa for sale, but I doubt it’s used in Oreos — it’s a gourmet item. I’m pretty sure what makes Oreos, and many other commercial “chocolate” products, very dark is artificial coloring. In fact, I won’t eat a commercially prepared black chocolate anything because I assume they’re covering up the minimal amount of real chocolate with flavoring and coloring.

        1. Hey Paula!

          Though I don’t know for certain about Oreos, I do know that different grades of chocolate can be alkalized to different degrees. It’s possible they’re using less expensive chocolate tut processing it the same way.

          – Joe

  4. Our Cadbury is light coloured, but still alkalised (Dutched). The guy at Cadbury said it’s “very lightly alkalised”. Much much paler than Equagold, which is prominantly labelled as being “Dutch Process”. The “black cocoa” for oreos is very very heavily alkalised from what I have read. Basically the darker the cocoa the more alkaline it is.

    1. I was hoping you’d be weighing in on this Bronwyn. Have you any idea what happened to Cadbury cocoa a few years ago. I suddenly became unable to make my famous brownie recipe and others complained of the same thing. Our brownies suddenly became drier. I eventually resorted to making it with Nestle cocoa, and got a good result. This bothers me as I try not to buy Nestle products.

      1. No idea, I’m afraid. But the people at Cadbury do answer emails. They won’t tell you what “added flavours” are in their cocoa powder because it’s a trade secret – although I suspect vanilla amongst other things – but they are actually quite helpful. Google their site and find the “contact us” bit and ask them.

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