Dutched Chocolate

My sister recently asked me "Why is cocoa processed with alkali in so many chocolate flavored products?"

First what is alkali processing or dutching? A solution of alkali (a base), usually potassium carbonate, is added to the cocoa nib before roasting. It's also possible to dutch cocoa liqueur or powder. Most of the cocoa liqueur used for making cocoa powder is dutched but the majority of liqueur used for making chocolate is not. Alkalising was developed in the 19th century in the Netherlands by Coenraad Johannes van Houten1. He was trying to develop a chocolate powder that dissolved better in milk or water. Whether or not dutched cocoa dissolves better is still disputed but what the process definitely does do is change both the color and flavor of the cocoa.

The trick is to add just the right amount of base not too much because too much base will cause the triglycerides found in the cocoa butter to saponify thus giving it a soapy flavor. To avoid these off putting flavors small amounts of ethanoic or tartaric acid added to neutralize the high pH.

Some cocoa nibs are very acidic and the alkalising greatly helps flavor of the final chocolate product. Another thing that the base does is promote the formation of Miallard products (see another great article about how bases catalyze the Miallard reaction here.) Miallard products are those great flavors that form when proteins and sugar react.

The color change in the cocoa is due to reactions of the tannins in the cocoa. Tannins are polyhydroxyphenols, which means they are aromatic compounds (as apposed to an aroma compound) with several alcohol (-OH) groups. In the figure you can see a common one in cocoa, epicatechin. Depending on how the nib is fermented, dried, and roasted the tannins can join together, oxidize, and react with other chemicals in the cocoa to form color-giving molecules. This makes the cocoa much darker in color. By varying the pH, moisture content, and processing conditions it is possible to make cocoa of many different colors.

So when should you use alkali unprocessed cocoa? Well that depends on your leavening agent. Baking soda needs an acid to make it form CO2 and cause your cake to fluff up nicely. Adding acidic unprocessed cocoa will cause it to rise. Further more, baking soda is a base and if added to the already basic dutched cocoa it can cause the cocoa butter to saponify and give soapy flavors to the dish. But because baking powder is a mixture of an acid and baking soda you want to use dutched cocoa so that it doesn't taste too acidic.

1Casparus van Houten, Coenraad's dad, figured out how to easily remove cocoa butter from the nibs enabling the creation of cocoa powder. The nib contains about 54% cocoa butter by weight and this butter makes it difficult to mix into water or milk to make a drink. By pressing the beans, either with a hydraulic press or with a screw press, about half of the butter is expelled from the bean and the cocoa mass that is left can be ground into cocoa powder. This then allowed others to combine cocoa powder and sugar together and then remixing it with some of the cocoa butter thus forming something very close to the of chocolate of today.


heather said...


Marci said...

I'm so glad to have this information. I use Dutch processed cocoa in my favorite chocolate fudge cake but I was never sure exactly why I needed to use the Dutch cocoa. Very interesting!

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