Cacao powder and cocoa powder are often confused with one another, likely due to their similarities in spelling. They’re practically the same word—so just how different can they really be? As it turns out, kind of a lot.
How Is Chocolate Made?
To explain the differentiation between cacao and cocoa powders, we first need to address this key question. Chocolate is made from cocoa beans, the dried and fermented seeds of the cacao tree, a small evergreen tree native to South America and West Africa. The raw seeds are intensely bitter, and only begin to develop the flavor you’re familiar with once they are fermented. After fermentation, the beans are dried, roasted, crushed into pieces called nibs, and ground into a (non-alcoholic) liquor, that is often combined with milk, cocoa butter, vanilla, sugar, and other ingredients to make chocolate.
Cocoa vs. Cacao
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The difference between cacao and cocoa is that cocoa has been processed at high heat, which destroys much of the nutritional benefits of the cacao seed.
Cacao powder is made of fermented (not roasted) seeds that are processed at low temperatures and then milled into a powder. This ensures that its nutritional benefits—and its bitter flavor—are preserved. Cacao nibs are often used as an ingredient or to top baked goods and smoothies, but cacao is also great for bringing out depth in savory dishes, like these chile-rubbed pork chops.
Cocoa powder, meanwhile, comes from fermented and roasted beans that are processed at a higher heat and milled into a powder. Cocoa powder is often alkalized during processing (or Dutch-processed) to reduce acidity. The result is a product that’s less bitter and more soluble when added to liquids.
Health Benefits of Cacao
Cacao seeds have even more calcium than cow’s milk, as well as a healthy dose of iron, magnesium, and antioxidants. Many people believe that cacao can reduce stress, control blood pressure, and contribute to heart health. Again, though, many of these benefits are lost during processing.
Can I Substitute Cacao Powder for Cocoa Powder?
When you’re making something that calls for either cocoa or cacao powder, it’s probably best to just stick to the recipe. However, if you absolutely insist on substituting one for the other, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Cacao powder has a stronger flavor, so you’ll probably have to use less of it than you would cocoa powder.
Cocoa powder does not absorb as much liquid as cacao powder, so you may have to use more or less liquid depending on what you’re substituting.
Cocoa powder is less acidic, so it will not react with baking soda in the same way that cacao powder will. If you’re using cocoa (opt for natural cocoa over Dutch-processed) in a baking recipe that calls for cacao, you should probably also substitute baking powder for at least part of the baking soda.