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What exactly is “Dutched” cocoa powder?

I’ve written about Dutched cocoa powder before, but mostly in passing, and reader Elaina wants to know what exactly Dutched cocoa powder is, where it comes from, and why some baking recipes — especially older baking recipes — seem to call for it. Well Elaina, I’ve got nothing to do this afternoon. Let’s do this thing.

Dutched cocoa powder is cocoa powder that has been treated with an alkaline (originally, good ol’ potassium carbonate). The process was invented, as you might expect, by a Dutchman. His name was Conrad van Houten. At the time — the year was 1828 — van Houten was looking for a treatment that would help his new cocoa powder incorporate more readily into milk. Being rather fatty, cocoa powder doesn’t blend very well with milk. All that water, donchaknow.

To van Houten’s disappointment, the treatment didn’t do much to solve the blending problem. However it did change the flavor of the chocolate rather dramatically. Which is to say it mellowed it by taking off the harsh, acidic edge that chocolate picks up when it ferments, as all chocolate must before processing. 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 chocolates and cocoa powders generally. All that started to change in the 1990’s, however, when studies emerged touting the health benefits of antioxidants. Chocolate contains a lot of those, especially darker chocolates, which have unusually high levels antioxidant flavanols. The problem is that flavanols are damaged by the Dutching process. And so a trend toward darker, edgier chocolates began — and it endures to this day. So dramatic has been the move away from Dutched cocoa that now it can now be quite a difficult thing to find, at least here in the States.

The change has had a fairly significant effect on bakers, since the acidity of newer cocoa powders can screw up leavening reactions. As a general rule of thumb, assume that most recipes written prior to the mid-90’s actually mean “Dutch-processed cocoa powder” when they call for “cocoa powder”. Conversely you can safely assume that all newer recipes call for un-Dutched (unless they specifically state otherwise). 

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 (like the cocoa powder in the picture above) then it’s very likely un-Dutched. A dark-roast-coffee-brown powder is generally the Dutched stuff, 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 really is a lot better tasting than un-Dutched. I’m not alone in that.

I think that’s everything you wanted to know, Elaina! Good luck with the project!

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