Cacao vs Cocoa Powder for Baking

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Aren’t they both just chocolate? Well, yes and no, but don’t worry, I’ll explain the difference between using cacao and cocoa powder for baking!

spoon filled with cocoa powder.

Cacao powder and cocoa powder are not a spelling mistake, but are two very different ingredients.

Let’s start with what they both have in common, chocolate!

Chocolate is made from the beans of a cacao tree. In their raw form, cacao beans have a very bitter taste. For these bitter beans to become the sweet, velvety products we’ve become familiar with, they undergo a fermentation process. 

The cacao beans are roasted, ground into a liquid, and mixed with other ingredients like cocoa butter, vanilla, and sugar. Voila, now you have chocolate.

The Difference Between Cacao and Cocoa

Cacao powder is made from the fermented cacao bean. The beans are roasted at a low temperature before milling into powder.

Since cacao beans are not roasted at high temperatures, they retain most of their nutritional value. This is why cacao powder is often referred to as being raw or natural.

Due to low heat, cacao powder retains its nutritional value and signature bitter taste. 

Characteristics of cacao powder:

  • Not roasted
  • Relatively unprocessed
  • It comes in chips, nibs, pastes, powders
  • Free from added ingredients such as sugar, vanilla, milk
  • Bitter in taste
  • More nutritional value

Cocoa powder is also made from fermented cacao beans, but these beans are roasted at a high temperature before being milled into powder. Essentially, roasting at a high temperature is what turns cacao into cocoa.

Some brands of cocoa powder can be made with added sweeteners and milk, which doesn’t make them vegan or suitable for baking. They are sold as drink mixes for making hot cocoa.

Most cocoa powder has been processed with an alkaline solution to reduce acidity and increase richness. They are often referred to as dutch-processed cocoa powder.

Characteristics of cocoa powder:

  • Roasted
  • Processed with alkali (Dutch-processed) to reduce the sharp, acidic flavor
  • It comes in a wide array of forms
  • Typically contain added ingredients such as sugar, vanilla, milk
  • Sweet in taste
  • Less nutritional value

Can I substitute cacao powder for cocoa powder in baking recipes?

Cacao and cocoa powder are both similar in function, but they have different flavor profiles for baking.

It’s important to know how each reacts when mixed with other baking ingredients.

Usually, it’s best to stick to whatever the recipe calls for. But if you’ve found yourself in a pinch with only one on hand, here are a few things to remember:

  • Cacao powder has a stronger and more bitter flavor, so you’ll want to use less of it than you would cocoa powder. With cocoa powder, it’s okay to be a little heavy-handed.
  • Cacao powder absorbs more liquids than cocoa powder. Adjust your recipe accordingly depending on which you are substituting.
  • When using cacao powder, use baking soda as a leavening agent. If using cocoa powder, use baking powder as a leavening agent. Cacao powder contains acidity, which reacts with baking soda. Baking soda doesn’t react with cocoa powder due to a lack of acidity.
  • If baking raw desserts or following a drink recipe, you will be able to get away with a direct substitute. 

Should I use cacao powder or cocoa powder?

Ultimately, the choice is yours.
Both cacao powder and cocoa powder will bring a deep chocolatey flavor to your baking. It’s always good to try both and get familiar with the differences in flavor and your taste preferences.
While cacao powder has more health benefits, it’s also the pricier option.

How do I use cacao powder?

Cacao is a super tasty and more nutritious way to increase that rich chocolate flavor in cookies, cakes, and brownies. You can also add cacao powder to smoothies, oatmeal, trail mix, and festive drinks.
You’ll find that many vegan recipes call for cacao powder. When you mix cacao powder with ingredients like bananas, dates, avocados, and nut milk, you end up with some pretty tasty vegan desserts. 

Are there health benefits to cacao?

There are! Cacao is a great protein, iron, potassium, fiber, and magnesium source. Cacao products usually have antioxidant properties and come unsweetened to help reduce calorie and sugar intake.
If you want to keep your ingredients as unprocessed as possible, cacao would be the best choice. 

Talking so much about cocoa has got me thinking…

Recipes using cocoa powder

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  1. Susan lings says:

    Can I use a drinking cacao powder, loving earth, in a chocolate cake recipe instead of cocoa powder!?

    1. Jhanelle Golding says:

      Hi Susan,

      Drinking cacao won’t work for a cake recipe since there are other ingredients the drink mix. It’s best to use pure cocoa powder.