Cocoa powder is a staple ingredient for everyone who likes to bake and is called for in most chocolate recipes, because it adds an intense chocolate flavor to everything from cookies to pies. Cocoa power is also a somewhat expensive ingredient and, in a recent issue (Nov/Dec 2012), Cook’s Illustrated set out to taste test supermarket cocoa powders to see what brands offered the best flavor and the best value.
They primarily looked for flavor in the eight brands they tested. They found that, for the cookie recipes and hot chocolate recipes that they used in their tests, it didn’t matter whether the cocoa was natural or dutched processed in their rankings (cakes, however, may call for one or the other for more precise chemical leavening reasons). It turned out that how the cocoa nibs were roasted before being ground into powder and just how fine that powder turned out to be were the most important flavor factors for the cocoa. It also turned out that price didn’t necessarily translate to a flavor that the test kitchen loved.
Their top ranked supermarket brand turned out to be Hershey’s Natural Unsweetened Cocoa. It was inexpensive and produced an “assertive” chocolate flavor with a lot of depth that taste testers loved. Second place went to Droste Cocoa, a Dutch process that ranked high in taste tests but was almost three times the price of the Hershey’s. The other top spots went to Hershey’s Special Dark Cocoa and Valhrona Cocoa Powder, which was good but too smokey for some tasters.
Brands that received a “Recommended with Reservations” rank included Ghirardelli Natural Unsweetened Cocoa, Scharffen Berger Unsweetened Cocoa, Nestle Toll House Cocoa and Equal Exchange Baking Cocoa.
The test kitchen did have one other cocoa powder that they loved, but that wasn’t included in the results of this taste test because it isn’t a supermarket brand. Their top cocoa powder was actually Callebaut Cocoa Powder (which is what I primarily use). The pricy cocoa is typically only available from specialty retailers and some restaurant supply-type stores, but it has exceptional depth and richness to it. The Hershey’s came close in a side-by-side bake off with the Callebaut, so it deserves its top ranking in the supermarket brand test, but Callebaut is still a test-kitchen favorite.