The Absolutely Necessary Brownie Experiment that Definitely Wasn’t Just an Excuse to Eat Brownies370
with Michael Kimball
Test Kitchen Chef
Did you ever, as a chocolate-loving child, naive teen, or just an adult who’s never baked before, take a trusting taste of cocoa powder, expecting concentrated chocolate flavored bliss, only to be betrayed by the intensely bitter bite of what couldn’t possibly be the craveably ambrosial flavor of chocolate? Yeah, me too.
Thankfully, all you need to do is add a little butter, sugar, and flour to get to a safe place I like to call brownies.
But with five kinds of cocoa powder to choose from, the question we need answered is: Which cocoa powder makes the best brownies? Should you play it safe with Natural Cocoa Powder or go Dutch? Do you want to spice things up with Mexican or Mayan Cocoa or does mysteriously dark Black Onyx sound more like your thing?
Before we make an excessive amount of brownies to figure this out, let’s talk about what makes each of these cocoa powders unique.
What is Natural Cocoa Powder?
When cocoa beans are ground, the majority of the cocoa butter and cocoa solids separate. The solids are dried and further refined into a powder for culinary use. This cocoa powder retains the natural acidity of fermented, dried, and roasted cocoa beans. This imparts a slight sharpness with earthy and fruity undertones. The acidity also plays into how baked goods are leavened, because the acid reacts with basic baking soda, creating bubbles of CO2. It is typically 22-24% fat, which is an important characteristic for our baking objectives, as fat adds tenderness, moisture, and carries chocolate flavor.
Best for: Lighter and brighter cocoa flavor. Recipes that call for only baking soda, as opposed to only baking powder or a combination.
What is Dutch Cocoa Powder?
European style, Dutched, alkalized: it’s all the same thing. Natural cocoa powder is treated with an alkali, a chemical compound such as potassium carbonate, that neutralizes some of the cocoa’s natural acidity (typically taking it from a slightly acidic 5 or 6 to a neutral 7 on the pH scale). This results in a slightly darker cocoa with reduced astringency and richer, milder flavor. This also means that the cocoa powder will no longer react with baking soda to leaven baked goods, so an additional acid-containing ingredient such as cream of tartar or baking powder is needed. The fat content of Dutch cocoa is also about 22-24%.
Best for: Darker and richer cocoa flavor. Recipes that call for baking powder.
What are Mexican and Mayan Cocoa Powders?
Mexican cocoa adds warmth and complexity to Dutch Cocoa Powder with Ceylon Cinnamon, Indonesian Cinnamon, and Vanilla Powder. The Mayans, the original chocolatiers, take it to the next level with a pinch of chile spice.
Best for: Spicing up your baking game or mixing into heated, sweetened milk for a special cup of hot cocoa.
What is Black Onyx Cocoa Powder?
The alkalization process is taken one step further to produce a slightly basic cocoa powder (about an 8 on the pH scale). Nearly black in color, this cocoa imparts an intriguingly dark chocolate color to any recipe. Just smelling it in comparison to other cocoas reveals sweeter, richer, milder characteristics with none of the sharpness of natural cocoa. The trade-off is a lower fat content, about 10-12%. Because of this, it’s recommended that for any given recipe you use only 25-50% Black Onyx and use Dutch cocoa for the remainder. Otherwise, you may dry out your baked goods. Another option would be to add the lost fat back in with additional butter or egg yolks.
Best for: Darkest and richest chocolate flavor. High-fat recipes that call for baking powder.
Many brownie recipes call for melted chocolate, which would interfere with our ability to directly observe each cocoa powder. So, for this highly scientific experiment, I found a brownie recipe that only called for cocoa powder.
I measured my ingredients by weight and made each batch exactly the same way, apart from adding one extra egg yolk to the Black Onyx batch to balance the reduced fat content. I brought in 30 taste-testers to weigh in on which brownie was best. I hypothesized (see, scientific) that the Natural Cocoa Powder would edge out over the others, because familiarity and nostalgia are powerful forces when it comes to food, and it is the most commonly sold and used cocoa powder in the U.S.
Let’s take a look at this pie chart I made out of even more brownies for the results:
While each cocoa powder got some love, the natural took the cake. Chocolate cake. Oh yeah, that’s what I want. Next experiment: same thing, but with cake.
My personal favorite was the Black Onyx, but as a man of brownie science, I resisted the temptation to skew the data in its favor.
But don’t take my or 30 taste-testers’ word for it. It sounds like you need to conduct your own totally necessary experiment to find out what your spirit cocoa powder is.