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Spice Spotlight: Cocoa

Spice Spotlight: Cocoa

From a child’s birthday cake to an Aztec emperor’s goblet of cocoa, who could deny themselves chocolate? Cocoa has come a long way since its wild origins in the jungles of Mesoamerica. It has become a staple ingredient throughout global cuisine, enhancing dishes both sweet and savory, and captivating appetites across all cultures.

What is Cocoa?

By definition, cocoa is a powder made from fermented, roasted, and pulverized cacao beans that have had the natural fat (known as cocoa butter) removed. Chocolate on the other hand is a ready-to-eat product commonly made from cocoa powder, cocoa butter, and sugar.

Both chocolate and cocoa begin their lives as a flower sticking right out of a tree trunk. That tree is a cacao tree, scientifically known as, Theobroma cacao—an evergreen species native to tropical Mesoamerica. The word “theobroma” literally means, “food of the gods.” Early botanists knew it was special when they assigned its Latin name.

Once pollinated, that little flower transforms into a green seed pod that resembles a football-shaped gourd, called a cacao pod. As these pods ripen, they display varying hues of red, purple, yellow, and orange.

Ripe pods are split open to reveal raw, white cacao beans. The raw beans are aged and fermented, turning a purplish brown color. Beans are then shelled, cracked into nibs, and roasted. Once they are roasted, their name changes from cacao to cocoa. Roasting is also where cocoa’s bittersweet and floral flavor truly develops.

The roasted cocoa nibs are then pulverized, forming a rich liquid called cocoa liquor. The liquor is pressed, so the solids can be separated from the liquid. You then have two products, cocoa butter and pressed cocoa cakes. The dense cocoa cakes are pulverized once more and sifted to create cocoa powder.

Natural Cocoa Powder vs. Dutched Cocoa Powder

There are two main types of cocoa powder, Dutched and natural. Each has their own advantage in both flavor and chemistry, an important detail for bakers.

Dutched cocoa powder has undergone alkalization, a natural chemical process that removes acidity, and gives it a darker color and smoother flavor. This process occurs before the cacao nibs are roasted. Dutched cocoa’s deep brown color lends food a richer look, which is one reason why it is so often used in confectionary chocolate, ice creams, and hot beverages.


Natural cocoa powder is lighter in color and more bitter, making it perfect for balancing the flavors in many sweet recipes. Although it is more bitter, natural cocoa retains all 300 of its unique and complex flavor compounds. Its natural level of acidity is also essential for activating baking soda and leavening cocoa-based baked goods. This is why it is important to check which type of cocoa powder a recipe calls for.


What are Cocoa Nibs?

Cocoa nibs are broken and roasted pieces of the inner cacao bean. They are deliciously crunchy and make an excellent ingredient for trail mix, homemade granola, or as a topping for ice cream. You can also use cocoa nibs for savory recipes, like a homemade spice rub for cowboy steaks. Try this at home by mixing lightly crushed cocoa nibs with freshly ground coffee, cracked black pepper, minced garlic, and coarse sea salt. Generously rub it on a T-bone steak before tossing it on the grill.


What is Hot Cocoa Mix?

Drinking cocoa is a tradition that dates back 3,000 years. Traditionally, cocoa was a room temperature drink made with ground cocoa beans, chile peppers, corn, and water. Aztec emperor Moctezuma II was said to drink 50 goblets of cocoa a day to preserve his vitality.

Today, our cocoa mixes are a gourmet blend of natural and Dutched cocoa powders, seasoned with sugar, vanilla, and a pinch of salt. To make your own royal cup of hot cocoa, mix 2 tablespoons of cocoa mix with 1/4 cup of hot water and stir well to make a smooth paste. Add 3/4 cup milk, heat and enjoy. Check our article on Unexpected Uses for Hot Cocoa Mix for more inspiration using our cocoa mix blends.


Cooking with Cocoa

While sweet recipes often draw the most attention, let’s not forget cocoa’s transformative effect on savory recipes. Here are a few of our favorite cocoa-infused recipes to inspire you.

Hot Cocoa Muddy Buddies


Cloud Nine Chili


Hot Cocoa Marble Pound Cake


Mexican Hot Chocolate


Garam Masala Brownies


Oaxacan–Style Mole Sauce



Article by Geoff Marshall, Staff Writer



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