Chocolate or cocoa powder? This is the question! What is your first choice when making desserts? Chocolate in and of itself is a great dessert, but when you want to make cakes and brownies, you should first consider using cocoa powder!
Ever since I can remember, my mother always made cakes and other baked goods using cocoa powder. She only used chocolate when making a glaze or when she wanted to top her sweets with grated chocolate. When I was a toddler, the way she made her choices was a mystery: why go for chocolate or cocoa powder? Later, I started to think she only followed the recipes. The truth is I never knew until recently which one is better – chocolate or cocoa powder – when I make desserts. Do they work the same way when baking? Is price a good criterion? Which one to choose and when?
What’s chocolate and what’s cocoa powder
Cocoa powder and chocolate come from the same source: the cacao bean. Chocolate has two main components – cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Cocoa solids give chocolate its flavor, and cocoa butter gives it the rich texture. Cocoa powder is like chocolate, only in a purer form. It contains mainly cocoa solids and very little cocoa butter. Because of its low-fat content (cocoa butter), it’s a powder. Cocoa powder generally contains just 10 to 12 percent of cocoa butter, while pure unsweetened chocolate contains about 55 percent.
When I was a child, good chocolate wasn't very affordable. For this reason, my mother used to make cakes and cookies using mainly cocoa powder. But these days it’s easy to buy amazing chocolate from all over the world. Now, it seems that many people have forgotten about the old cocoa powder.
It’s natural to use the best ingredients when you cook and especially when you make baked goods, but if you’re thinking that excellent chocolate is the key to intensely flavored chocolate desserts, think again. Cocoa powder – both natural and Dutch – gives your sweets a deep chocolate flavor.
Chocolate or cocoa powder? Your best option for desserts
When you make desserts it’s important to stick to your recipe. But it’s also good to know when to use chocolate or cocoa powder in the kitchen.
Use chocolate in creamy desserts
Some desserts need the silkiness that only the cocoa butter found in chocolate can provide. Cocoa butter is an unusual fat because it melts at a temperature very close to our body temperature. When you make puddings, ganache, and mousses choose the best chocolate you can find. This doesn’t mean that cocoa powder isn’t good for these desserts. In fact, if you want to boost the chocolate taste, add one or two tablespoons of cocoa powder along with the chocolate.
It's complicated with cakes
In cakes, you can use both chocolate and cocoa powder most of the time. But be aware that your choice will determine the flavor and texture. Also, when you make a choice, consider the other fats used in the recipe.
Cakes made with cocoa powder and oil are tender and intensely flavored. The flavor is stronger in recipes without milk or butter, which dilutes the pure chocolate flavor of the cocoa solids. Another advantage of using cocoa powder and vegetable oil is that oil is moist and doesn’t become harder at room temperature, and that means tender cakes even if you keep them in the refrigerator.
Cakes made with unsweetened chocolate are temperature-sensitive. A slice of cold chocolate cake is dry and crumbly, because of the cocoa butter that becomes harder in cold places and even at cool room temperature. When you bake goods using chocolate, you should know that it’ll take longer to melt and that will influence the release of the flavor. Cakes made with chocolate should be served at room temperature.
In brownies, it depends on your tastes
If you want brownies with a fudgy texture, use chocolate. If you're looking for a chewy texture, use cocoa. Brownies are chewy when they’re high in sugar, fat, and eggs but low in flour. The texture of a brownie is given by the nature of the fat you’re using, specifically how hard the fat is at the temperature the brownies will be served.
Butter is soft at room temperature, so brownies made with cocoa powder plus butter or oil have a soft and chewy texture, plus the flavor is intensely chocolatey with a nice buttery flavor.
By contrast, brownies made with chocolate plus butter are often firmer, almost fudgy, because of the cocoa butter, that is harder than butter at room temperature. The more chocolate the recipe contains, the fudgier the brownies will be.
Here you can see how to melt chocolate: