Cocoa powder is made from roasted and ground cacao seeds from which much of the fat has been removed. It is naturally tart and acidic. A little cocoa adds plenty of chocolate flavor.
There are two types of cocoa: natural (nonalkalinized) and Dutch Process (alkalinized). Natural cocoa powder (also called unsweetened) is simply untreated cocoa powder; it is rarely labeled with the word natural on the package, but will simply say cocoa. Dutch Process cocoa ― so named because a Dutch man invented the process –– has been treated with an alkali to reduce its harshness and acidity. Along the way, "dutching" gives the cocoa a rich dark appetizing color, mellow toasted flavor, and coffee notes.
If a recipe simply calls for cocoa, use natural cocoa. Because Dutch Process cocoa is more alkaline, it may alter the chemistry in a recipe, reacting differently than natural cocoa with baking soda or baking powder. In recipes with no leaveners, natural and Dutch-process cocoa are interchangeable.
It's best to store cocoa away from herbs and spices and other aromatic substances, as it picks up other flavors relatively easily.
Chocolate is grown in the tropics near the equator. The biggest crops of cacao come from Brazil and the Ivory Coast in Africa. Cacao refers to the tree as well as its fruit and seeds. Yellow-green grooved, oval fruit, about 12 inches long, grows directly from the trunk and lower branches of the tree. At harvest, the pods are cut from the trees, split open, and emptied of their 24 to 40 navy bean-sized seeds. The seeds are then fermented by heaping them into bins and covering from three to five days, during which they are shoveled and turned daily. Without proper fermentation, there is no possibility that the seeds, or cocoa beans, can be transformed into good chocolate later.
After fermentation, the seeds are dried in the sun before they are bagged and shipped to chocolate factories. At the factory, the cocoa beans are cleaned, roasted, and winnowed to remove their hulls. Winnowing also breaks the hulled beans into pieces, called cocoa nibs. Nibs from different varieties and origins are usually blended after roasting, to create different chocolates with distinct flavor characteristics, just as grapes are blended in making wine. After blending, the nibs are ground into chocolate liquor, which you know as unsweetened baking chocolate.
When chocolate looks gray and streaky or dull on the surface, or when the interior looks crumbly, the chocolate has "bloomed." Bloom is caused by moisture or temperature fluctuations, but does not mean the chocolate is spoiled. Melted for recipes, it behaves and tastes like any other melted chocolate.
Bloomed chocolate is also safe to eat as is, but its texture may be grainy, and it may be less flavorful. If you have a choice, melt and use bloomed chocolate in a recipe. Otherwise (and most chocolate lovers would agree), bloomed chocolate is surely better than no chocolate at all for other purposes.
Normally, the Cooking Light Test Kitchens use national supermarket brands of chocolate such as Hershey's, Nestle, or Baker's for recipe testing. We wanted to know if spending extra time and money seeking out imported chocolate would improve upon our top-rated Bittersweet Chocolate Souffles recipe. Here's what we found: Compared side by side, desserts made with premium versus supermarket brand chocolate are only subtly different.