I'm not usually one for kitchen hacks, but sometimes there really is one simple trick that can change your life. If you're a baker, anyway! And it's as easy as this: Stop baking with low-fat cocoa powder. Because, unless you’re a cocoa enthusiast, I guarantee the cocoa sitting on your shelf right now is low-fat.
But upgrade your cocoa powder, and in one fell swoop your favorite cakes will suddenly taste more aromatic and rich, your cookies will be less crumbly and more flavorful, and your hot cocoa will be bolder and more velvety. I could go on (I haven't even talked about ice cream and fudge), but I think you get the idea.
In the realm of chocolate, fat is flavor, so why settle for brands that skimp?
To fully appreciate the answer, it's important to understand what cocoa powder is: the slightly acidic mass of dry matter left behind after the oily cocoa butter is extracted from cocoa beans that were previously fermented and roasted for maximum flavor.* So the resulting powder will vary depending on the type of cocoa bean involved, its quality, how long it was fermented, how darkly it was roasted, and how much of its fat was removed. That means that the flavor, color, and richness of natural cocoa powder will vary from brand to brand.
*For Dutch-process cocoa, the process is exactly the same, but an alkalizing agent is added to neutralize the cocoa’s natural acidity.
The FDA stipulates that cocoa powder must contain at least 10% cocoa butter, so most brands squeak by with the bare minimum required to meet that legal qualification. Cocoa butter is expensive, so the more they can squeeze out, the lower the final cost. But the more cocoa butter they extract, the greater the concentration of cocoa solids, which are fibrous, starchy, and less aromatic—characteristics that can make desserts seem chalky, dry, and bland.
In the olden days, that's all home cooks had to work with, and, while there's something to be said for their ingenuity, we don't face those same limitations today. Anyone can hop online and choose from an array of natural cocoas that offer a better balance of flavor and fat. But wading through that huge number of options would be a full-time job, and that's where I step in. After baking and tasting my way through more than a dozen different brands, I've narrowed the list down to my top four natural cocoa powders.
In a simple chocolate sheet cake, these brands provided an outstanding combination of flavor, color, richness, and aroma. Compared with the same cake made with low-fat cocoa powder, the difference was almost comical. When compared with each other, on the other hand, their individual nuance was all but lost to the competing flavors of butter, brown sugar, eggs, and vanilla in the cake. However, in less complex recipes, such as a basic chocolate pudding or a mug of hot cocoa, the character of each cocoa powder came through loud and clear. For me, one cocoa in particular stood out above the rest, but you may feel otherwise depending on your own go-to applications.
Consider this list a springboard for jumping into natural cocoa powder beyond the standard supermarket fare, and a way to add life to your favorite recipes without reinventing the wheel.
Author’s Note: Since this guide was first published, the Herbal Secrets brand has changed its sourcing for cocoa powder to a formula that no longer meets our standards for minimum cocoa butter content. We've removed that product from our list, although references to it may remain in the comments and elsewhere on the site.
With a fat content in the 22-to-24% range, Barry Callebaut's natural cocoa (also called Gerbs) is absolutely legit.
It has a rich chocolate aroma that’s both classic and complex, super chocolaty up front but with an undercurrent that reminded me of dried figs: undeniably fruity, yet simultaneously earthy and deep. What struck me most was its aroma, which wafts up from the bag and into your nose like some scene from a cartoon. Those qualities make it a versatile cocoa for baking—bright enough to pair with light and fruity desserts, but dark and aromatic enough for satisfyingly intense brownies and hot chocolate. When all the testing was done, this was the brand I reordered for myself, a good all-around option that's sure to play nice in any recipe that calls for natural cocoa.
Despite a tawny color that’s much lighter than the packaging suggests, there's nothing pale about the flavor of Sunfood Organic Cacao Powder.
This cocoa brings a lot of personality to the table, with an aroma reminiscent of dried fruit or an oaky wine, something a little woodsy but sharp—just the right acidity to cut through its fat content of around 40%. Some bakers may find it a bit too distinctive for a classic hot cocoa, but it'll sing in fancier applications, like a chocolate sourdough, or as the dusting for some high-end truffles. Reach for it in any recipe that calls for natural cocoa, especially those you intend to pair with fruit or wine.
For many bakers, Penzeys Natural High Fat Cocoa is the original gateway to the realm beyond supermarket cocoa, and there's a reason it's a cult fave among serious bakers.
This cocoa is as earthy and dark as it looks, with a classic cocoa flavor that’s rich and smooth. While not as fruity or acidic as some of the others, it has a pleasant mustiness about it, like nutmeg or freshly cut hay. It's as versatile as they come, and perfect for whatever desserts you have in mind.
Pure Natural Miracles
With a fat content of just 14%, Pure Natural Miracles is the leanest cocoa powder of the bunch, but it's a worthy contender.
It has a no-frills chocolate flavor that’s super straightforward, but more nuanced than that of typical supermarket cocoa. While not as fruity as some of the other options, it has a hint of mellow acidity along the lines of golden raisins, something simple and bright. Because of its lean formula, this cocoa wouldn’t be my first choice for drinking, but I think it would be a workhorse cocoa for bakers who’d like to step up their game without straying too far from the familiar flavors and textures of supermarket cocoa.
Ultimately, picking "the best" natural cocoa is a highly subjective decision that depends on personal preference as much as usage. The true worth of these cocoas isn’t in their tasting notes or cocoa butter percentages, but in their ability to help us understand how natural cocoa affects the flavor and texture of dessert. If nothing else, it's an excuse to pick out something new and start baking!
“CFR - Code of Federal Regulations Title 21.” Accessed August 19, 2021. https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/CFRSearch.cfm?CFRPart=163