Best Cocoa Brownies

Cocoa brownies have the softest center and chewiest candylike top “crust” of all because all of the fat in the recipe (except for a small amount of cocoa butter in the cocoa) is butter, and all of the sugar is granulated sugar rather than the finely milled sugar used in chocolate. Use the best cocoa you know for these fabulous brownies.

Ingredients

  • 10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter
  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (natural or Dutch-process)
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2 cold large eggs
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2/3 cup walnut or pecan pieces (optional)
  • Special equipment: An 8-inch square baking pan

    Preparation

    Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 325°F. Line the bottom and sides of the baking pan with parchment paper or foil, leaving an overhang on two opposite sides.

    Combine the butter, sugar, cocoa, and salt in a medium heatproof bowl and set the bowl in a wide skillet of barely simmering water. Stir from time to time until the butter is melted and the mixture is smooth and hot enough that you want to remove your finger fairly quickly after dipping it in to test. Remove the bowl from the skillet and set aside briefly until the mixture is only warm, not hot.

    Stir in the vanilla with a wooden spoon. Add the eggs one at a time, stirring vigorously after each one. When the batter looks thick, shiny, and well blended, add the flour and stir until you cannot see it any longer, then beat vigorously for 40 strokes with the wooden spoon or a rubber spatula. Stir in the nuts, if using. Spread evenly in the lined pan.

    Bake until a toothpick plunged into the center emerges slightly moist with batter, 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool completely on a rack.

    Lift up the ends of the parchment or foil liner, and transfer the brownies to a cutting board. Cut into 16 or 25 squares.

    Chocolate note: Any unsweetened natural or Dutch-process cocoa powder works well here. Natural cocoa produces brownies with more flavor complexity and lots of tart, fruity notes. I think it’s more exciting. Dutch-process cocoa results in a darker brownie with a mellower, old-fashioned chocolate pudding flavor, pleasantly reminiscent of childhood.

Supermarket Cocoa Powder

Overview:

Cocoa powder is a chocolate powerhouse, packing in more flavor ounce for ounce than any other form of chocolate. In the test kitchen, we reach for it ­constantly when making cookies, cake, pudding, hot ­chocolate—even chili—which is why we’re picky about what brand we keep around. When we last tasted cocoa powders, in 2005, the super­market cocoas produced such insipid results that we reluctantly resorted to sending away for the one brand that boasted real chocolate flavor and depth: Callebaut, which also rings in at a whopping $16 per pound (and that’s without shipping).

But given that all chocolates (milk, bittersweet, unsweetened, etc.) have witnessed an upgrade in recent years, we wondered: Have supermarket cocoa options improved as well? Furthermore, several higher-end brands, such as Valrhona and Scharffen Berger, can now be found in many markets nationwide. That was all the convincing we needed to revisit the category. We didn’t want to sacrifice quality for convenience, but if we could identify a brand that delivered the deep chocolate flavor we were after without the prohibitive cost or waiting for the postman, we’d happily make the switch. Pretty soon we were baking up a storm, incorporating eight widely available brands of cocoa into chocolate butter cookies, chocolate cake, and hot cocoa. As they evaluated the samples on the intensity and complexity of the chocolate flavor, tasters reconfirmed that the brand of cocoa you use really does make or break a dessert or a drink. Lesser powders produced “wan” cakes and hot cocoa that tasted like “dust dissolved in water”; good versions delivered “profound” chocolate flavor and made cookies seem downright “luxurious.”

At first we thought that differences might have to do with whether the cocoa was natural or Dutch-processed. Dutching, which was invented in the 19th century by Dutch chemist and chocolatier Coenraad Van Houten, raises the powder’s pH, which neutralizes its acids and astringent notes and rounds out its flavor. (It also darkens the color.) But according to our numbers, whether a cocoa was Dutched didn’t matter. Our winner was a natural powder, and there was no pattern to the rest of the rankings.

Fat content also seemed like a potential factor in the rankings. Cacao beans naturally contain 47 to 54 percent fat, and how much of that fat is retained after processing is a bragging point for many higher-end brands of cocoa. More fat suggests a richer-tasting product, and pricier brands often contain twice as much fat as do standard powders. But again, our preferences proved those assumptions wrong. Both our first- and last-place brands contained nearly the same low level of fat (about 11.5 percent), and in between those extremes the levels jumped up and down.

With pH and fat out of the running, we took a step back to remind ourselves of the main feature dividing the pack: bold, rich chocolate flavor. The top-ranking brands had it, the bottom-ranking didn’t. To understand why this would be so, maybe we needed to answer a more fundamental question: Where does chocolate flavor come from, anyway?

The Whole (Bean) Story

It starts with the cacao pod—the football-shaped fruit of a stout tropical tree, Theobroma cacao, that grows below the jungle canopy in humid climates 20 degrees north and south of the equator, a swath of land sometimes referred to as the “Cocoa Belt.” Each pod contains 20 to 50 beans, and inside each bean are the nibs—the dark, meaty flesh that is ground and later refined to make chocolate. When harvested, the pods and their contents neither smell nor taste like chocolate (in fact, the white flesh surrounding the beans is said to taste like a combination of watermelon, strawberries, and kiwi). After harvesting, the beans are left to ferment, a process that eats away at the fruity flesh surrounding the beans and initiates the development of flavors that are recognizably chocolaty. The beans are then dried, bagged, and sent to a processing facility to be roasted.

This is the most exacting—and critical—phase of the process. Roasting triggers the Maillard reaction, in which proteins and sugars in food break down and develop more complex flavors. In cacao beans, this means the potential for nearly 500 new flavor compounds to be formed. To achieve this, manufacturers roast beans within the same relatively low temperature range following one of two methods: They either roast the beans whole and discard the shell after roasting (the traditional approach), or they remove the shell and roast just the nibs. To further develop flavor, chocolatiers often blend beans during roasting, mixing nibs and powder from various origins (manufacturers wouldn’t reveal their bean sources to us) to achieve the exact specifications of color, texture, and flavor. During the final phases of roasting, some chocolatiers even carry out taste checks on the beans or nibs, scooping them from the roaster at 15-second intervals to nail down the exact point at which they believe flavors are optimized.

Figuring that the roasting phase of the process might shed some light on our cocoa preferences, we contacted all eight manufacturers to inquire about their methods and, sure enough, uncovered a pattern: The top brands in our lineup separate the nibs before roasting, while lower-ranking brands roast the whole bean, shelling afterward. According to Gregory Ziegler, a chocolate expert and professor of food science at Pennsylvania State University, roasting just the nibs offers a distinct advantage: The nibs roast more evenly outside the shell, making under-or over-roasting less probable. So why wouldn’t all chocolatiers shell their beans first? Ziegler thinks it’s probably just a bias toward tradition. Other experts we spoke with say money is the real issue. Roasters are extremely expensive, and since many manufacturers are equipped with traditional whole-bean roasters, they don’t often upgrade.

On the Ground

After roasting, the nibs are ground into chocolate liquor (which contains both cocoa solids and cocoa butter); that liquor is then pressed to remove cocoa butter and ground into small particles. With this information in mind, we took a closer look at the cocoas and realized that some seemed to be ground finer than others—an observation that was confirmed when we put each powder under a microscope. Here again a pattern emerged: In general, our top brands had small, distinct particles, while weaker-tasting powders had much larger particles. Though manufacturers wouldn’t disclose the aim of their grind size to us, our finding made sense: The smaller the particle the more surface area that’s exposed, hence the more flavor that’s released.

Our preferred brands, including our top pick, shared these two key features: They were roasted from nibs versus whole beans, and they boasted a smaller particle size. In cookies, cake, and hot cocoa, tasters repeatedly singled out our winner’s chocolate flavor and particularly deep complexity. Even better, this cocoa met our original goal: Not only is it one of the least expensive brands on the market but it’s one of the most widely available, too.

We had just one more test before we were satisfied: To see how our winner measured up to the Callebaut, we baked chocolate cakes with each brand and tasted them side by side. Just as it did in our previous tasting, the Callebaut wowed tasters, who swooned for its elegant “dark-chocolate” flavor. But our winner didn’t disappoint, earning high marks of its own. The bottom line: We’ll still stock Callebaut for special-occasion baking, but for everyday cocoa needs, our winning supermarket brand takes the cake.

Methodology:

Twenty-one Cook’s Illustrated staff members tasted eight cocoa powders selected from a list of top-selling brands compiled by the Chicago-based market research firm SymphonyIRI Group, sampling them baked into chocolate cake and chocolate butter cookies and stirred into hot cocoa. An independent lab analyzed pH and fat content. Information on processing was provided by the respective cocoa companies. Prices were paid in Boston-area supermarkets and online, and brands appear in order of preference.

The Benefits of Cooking With Cocoa Butter

II you decide to cook with cocoa butter, there is no chance that you will run out of recipes! Cooking with cocoa butter is great for savory recipes as well as for sweets.

Cocoa butter is well known for its cosmetic benefits like healing stretch marks and scars, and moisturizing dry skin.  We can find pure cocoa butter under various forms such as cocoa butter lotions, cocoa butter oil, pure organic cocoa butter facial masks, and cocoa butter cream to name a few.  But it must be known that food grade cocoa butter is mainly used in the kitchen in many countries where cocoa is a primary ressource.

To make cocoa butter, you need cocoa nibs.  Which explains its name, but also its fine vaguely cocoa flavor.  For this, a cold pressing of the cocoa nibs is required, leaving all the nutritional value of the cocoa.  Cooking with cocoa butter will always taste a little sweet, like chocolate in the mouth (and it pleases!).

Where to buy cocoa butter for cooking

You can buy cocoa butter in many places.  Food grade and organic cocoa butter for cooking is easily available in organic markets, online stores, and even on Amazon! Check this page gathering a selection of pure cocoa butter for cooking.

Cooking with cocoa butter in savory recipes

The advantage of cooking with cocoa butter is that it is not mandatory to use it in large amounts, contrary to cooking with other fats.  We can therefore make a beef fillet in the pan and sprinkle over the natural cocoa butter for a tender and attractive color, without adding oil or butter.

The advantage of cooking with cocoa butter is its resistance to high temperatures without burning, which sets it apart from other fats that tend to burn out at 200 ° C.  We can cook with cocoa butter, purchased already grated or just buy it and use the weight for the kitchen, as we like to do for beauty masks.

Cooking with cocoa butter in sweet recipes

Cooking with cocoa butter in chocolate pastries gives chocolate its flavor and smoothness. In different dessert recipes such as Bavarian, add some grated food grade cocoa butter to give it a delicious “hidden” chocolate flavor.

Another tip is using cocoa butter as a substitute for gelatin.  It creates a more airy and tasty dessert.  It has the creamy taste of butter with a discreet chocolate flavor.  We can also replace butter with cocoa butter in cakes, which decreases the amount of fat, allowing you to make healthier desserts.

Mel’s Kitchen Tip: Cocoa Powder 101

Welcome to Cocoa Powder 101! Confused by recipes that call for Dutch-process cocoa and wonder how on earth it is different from “regular” or natural, unsweetened cocoa powder? Never fear! I’m here to help unravel the mystery behind cocoa powder in plain terms.

Let’s get started. I’ve called in (er, quoted) a few experts to help us along since heaven knows, I don’t have a degree in cocoa powder philosophy.

There are two main types of cocoa powder called for in baking: 1) Dutch-process cocoa and 2) natural unsweetened cocoa. I’m guessing that if you are like me, far and away, most of you have natural, unsweetened cocoa powder residing in your pantry. Common brands are Hershey and Nestle, among others. Dutch-process is a bit more expensive than natural, unsweetened cocoa and is widely heralded in foodie circles as “the” cocoa powder to use if you want deep, dark chocolate flavor.

What is Dutch-process cocoa and how is it different than natural, unsweetened cocoa powder?
Both Dutch-process and natural cocoa are made from cocoa beans. The difference is that with Dutch-process cocoa, the cocoa beans are soaked in a low-acid solution (alkaline) before being dried and ground. Natural, unsweetened cocoa is made from cocoa beans that are roasted and then ground (no soaking required). Because Dutch-process cocoa goes through the soaking process to lower the acidity, it a) results in a darker cocoa powder and b) mellows the flavor of the cocoa making it less harsh, and according to some cocoa connoisseurs, makes a stronger, definable chocolate flavor. For years, I was skeptical that Dutch-process cocoa could really make a difference in flavor, but when I finally tried it, I realized that true to the data, it really does have a less bitter chocolate taste than unsweetened cocoa powder (see below for my own taste-test results with cocoa brownies).

Can Dutch-process and natural, unsweetened cocoa be used interchangeably?
The main issue to bring up with substitutions in any recipe is that if you make changes of your own to a written/published recipe, the results can’t be guaranteed. Sure, it may turn out ok, but it may not. So baker beware. As far as cocoas go, because Dutch-process has lower acidity, it is usually used in combination with baking powder in recipes, whereas, natural, unsweetened cocoa powder is usually used with baking soda (which is alkali and requires an acidic ingredient – like the natural cocoa powder – in a recipe to properly activate). Having stated that, I also see many recipes out there that use cocoa powder without any leavening (think: fudgy brownies), in which case either cocoa powder could be used, based on preference (my preference is detailed below).

According to my favorite cooking and baking resource, Cook’s Illustrated, Dutch-process and natural, unsweetened cocoa are mostly interchangeable. They found this after doing a myriad of taste testing and test baking and concluded that because Dutch-process cocoa wins out over and over and over in taste tests, it is the only cocoa a home baker needs to keep on hand and they can sub it whenever natural, unsweetened cocoa is used (they didn’t notice a difference in their baked results based on the cocoa used, even with the leavening issue of baking soda and baking powder).

What’s my rule of thumb, you ask? Well, my opinion first and foremost is to: follow the recipe! There’s definitely no harm in that if you want the best results. However, in the interest of staying honest, I will admit that many, many times, I have subbed in natural, unsweetened cocoa for Dutch-process but not the other way around – and I’ve never had quirky results (except for perhaps a slight dip in chocolate flavor). I haven’t fully converted to Cook’s Illustrated’s recommendation to only use Dutch-process cocoa for the simple reason that it tends to be more expensive than my beloved Hershey’s and which gets me to my next question (read on).What cocoa powder(s) do I keep on hand?
Because Dutch-process cocoa is exorbitantly priced in my local grocery stores (we are talking break-the-bank prices), I never, ever buy it locally. Which means if I’m plumb out and a recipe calls for it, I’ll swap in the natural, unsweetened cocoa, like I mentioned above. However, when I’m on top of things, I order Dutch-process cocoa online, usually the Droste brand (came in second to Callebaut in Cook’s Illustrated taste testing) and usually from amazon.com (free shipping, baby). I always have the Hershey’s brand of natural, unsweetened cocoa in my pantry (because I can buy it in large cans at Sam’s Club).

Is it worth keeping Dutch-process cocoa on hand simply because “experts” believe it tastes better?
Good question! If you really, really enjoy putzing around with fine-tuned, impeccable baked goods, then yes, get yourself some Dutch-process cocoa ASAP. However, if you consider yourself a non-fussy home cook (and a good one, no less!), then natural, unsweetened cocoa powder will probably do the trick for you (I could very well get slaughtered in the food-snob world for encouraging this, mind you).

I used natural, unsweetened cocoa powder exclusively for years and years and was none the wiser…and let me tell you, I am a self-proclaimed food snob. Chocolate cupcakes and brownies made with my good ol’ Hershey’s tasted fantastic (and still do) to me and my taste buds. But when I did venture into Dutch-process cocoa waters a few years back, I have to admit that the chocolate flavor imparted in brownies, in particular, is deeper, darker and even more decadent than if using natural, unsweetened cocoa.

Case in point: I have a recipe for all-cocoa powder brownies (meaning, there isn’t any melted chocolate in the batter). The recipe is shockingly delicious (I’ll be posting soon!) and the fudgy texture reminds me of the boxed brownie mixes, which means my brownies-from-a-box-craving husband looooves them. Over the years, I’ve made them with either natural, unsweetened cocoa powder or Dutch-process, whatever I get the hankering for and they are delicious either way; however, I’ve never made them side-by-side with both cocoa powders for my own taste testing…until now. The other day I made two batches – one using natural cocoa powder and the other using Dutch-process cocoa powder. The Dutch-process brownies naturally came out darker, which I had noticed when making them on their own before. While I have always been fine with the result of natural cocoa powder in these brownies, I have to admit that after tasting the brownies side-by-side, the natural cocoa powder didn’t stand a chance next to the Dutch-process cocoa powder. In fact, after taking a taste of the Dutch-process brownies, I could hardly stand the taste of the ones made with natural cocoa powder – they had a sharp, bitter taste where the Dutch-process brownies had a mellow, deep, dark flavor. As a dark chocolate lover, the Dutch-process brownies completely overwhelmed the natural cocoa powder brownies in chocolate flavor.

Basically, I affirm that Dutch-process cocoa really does have a more mellow, deeper chocolate flavor. And I’ll continue to use it exclusively in all cocoa-powder recipes like the brownie one I just referred to. But natural, unsweetened cocoa powder also has it’s place in the baking world, so I, for one, will continue to keep them both on hand and will probably start following Cook’s Illustrated recommendations and experiment using Dutch-process cocoa in more recipes.

I hope this helps sort out the difference between natural, unsweetened and Dutch-process cocoa powders! Feel free to leave any questions or your own cocoa powder experience in the comments.