Natural cocoa versus Dutched cocoa powder

When working with cocoa, there is one concept that you must understand, especially when making cakes. It's important to know when to use natural cocoa powder versus 'dutched' (Dutch-processed) cocoa powder.

pH levels of ingredients

The pH level of 7.0 is considered as neutral pH. Anything below 7.0 is considered to be acidic, while, everything above 7.0 is considered to be alkaline. This being said, it’s the chemical reaction caused by an alkaline ingredient mixed with an acidic ingredient that causes the release of carbon dioxide gas, which in turn causes the leavening of baked products.

Examples of acidic and alkaline foods are shown in the table below;

ACIDIC VS ALKALINE INGREDIENTS
IngredientAcidicAlkaline

Natural cocoa powder is acidic, by nature, while natural cocoa powder that has been Dutch-processed, turns alkaline. Why do we need to know this? Well, if using natural cocoa powder (which is acidic) in a chocolate cake recipe,  you need to use an a alkaline ingredient, like baking soda, in order to release carbon dioxide gas, to leaven the cake. If you are using Dutch-processed cocoa powder (alkaline), you need to use an acidic ingredient, like baking powder, in order to release carbon dioxide gas, to leaven the cake. Baking soda is also  known as sodium bicarbonate or bicarbonate of soda.

How do you distinguish between the two cocoa powders? Dutch-processed cocoa powder  has a darker redish color in comparison to natural cocoa powder, which is light brown in color.

If a recipe asks for cocoa powder, but does not specify which cocoa powder to use, what do you do? Look which leavening agent is used in the recipe (baking powder or baking soda). If baking soda is used, it would be best to use natural cocoa, while if baking powder is used, it would be best to use Dutch-processed cocoa powder. 

Other useful info on baking soda and baking powder

Baking soda is an active ingredient in antacid medications, used medically to alleviate excess stomach acid. It is also used in fire extinguishers. Baking soda starts to react and release carbon dioxide gas as soon as it is moistened by the batter. Make sure to bake a batter that consists of baking soda immediately. Baking soda gives cocoa powder a reddish color.

Baking powder is normally made of three different ingredients; An acid, an alkali (a base) and a filler (cornstarch) to absorb the moisture. This extends the shelf life of the baking soda, by preventing any chemical reaction to occur, unless a liquid is added.  Too much baking powder can cause the batter to be bitter tasting.

Acid ingredients taste sour, while alkaline ingredients taste bitter. A salty taste is derived from the combination of an acid and an alkaline (base).