Cocoa powder adds intense chocolate flavor to baked goods, and just as different chocolates have different taste notes, cocoa powders vary as well. The best cocoa powder is the one that delivers the flavor profile you like best. Look for cocoa powders with 22 to 24 percent fat content. They bring the most chocolate flavor to desserts. If fat percentage is not listed, look for brands with a gram or more of fat per serving.
Natural Cocoa Powder
Natural cocoa powder is made by grinding cocoa nibs into a paste, which is processed to remove cocoa butter. Chocolate companies grind the remaining solids into a very fine powder and package it.
Most cocoa powders sold in the U.S. are natural cocoa powder, unless otherwise specified, and many American recipes are designed to use natural cocoa powder.
Natural cocoa powder is acidic, which gives it a slightly tangy or astringent taste. Recipes developed for natural cocoa powder often contain baking soda, which reacts with the acid in the cocoa to leaven cakes and other baked goods.
Dutch-Processed Cocoa Powder
Dutch-processed cocoa begins in the same way as natural cocoa powder. Before packaging, processors treat it with a potassium carbonate solution to neutralize its acidity.
Dutch-processed cocoa powder is darker and tends to have a smoother, more mellow flavor than natural cocoa. In desserts, it comes across as tasting richer than natural cocoa.
Recipes that specifically call for Dutch-processed cocoa are designed to take advantage of its dark, fudgy color and smooth, rich flavor profile.
Black Cocoa Powder
Black cocoa is not as common as natural or Dutch-processed cocoa, but it can be found in gourmet stores and online. It is a variant of Dutch-processed cocoa that has been heavily treated with potassium carbonate to raise its pH to 8.
Black cocoa tends to be very dark -- almost black -- and has a strong, bittersweet flavor. It is rarely used alone. Instead, recipes that call for black cocoa usually use it for its color and to heighten the chocolate flavor of another cocoa.
How to Substitute One Cocoa for Another
In some recipes, you can use whichever cocoa you prefer. Hot chocolate is a good example of this. If you like your chocolate light and tangy, use natural cocoa. If you like it smooth and rich, use Dutch-processed cocoa. For variety, try mixing in some black cocoa.
It's usually best to use the cocoa called for in recipes calling for chemical leaveners such as baking soda and baking powder. These recipes have been specifically designed around the acidity or alkalinity of each type of cocoa.