Is Cheap Cocoa Powder As Good As The Pricier Stuff?

We put three popular cocoa brands to a cupcake taste test. Read on to see which brand we crowned cocoa champion.
Is Cheap Cocoa Powder As Good As The Pricier Stuff?

The world loves chocolate. With over  4.5 million tons of cocoa beans consumed annually across the globe, the numbers don't lie. We take chocolate seriously in the Chatelaine Test Kitchen as well (hey, it's our job), and we've developed a whole lot of chocolate recipes, from chocolate cake recipes to chocolate bars to chocolate pudding. (Maybe you've eaten your way through some of these chocolate desserts?)

As a result, we've gone through a lot of cocoa powder for baking over the years. The No Name brand is the Test Kitchen's go-to, but we'd never tried it alongside other supermarket favourites to see how it stands up. So we pitted the inexpensive No Name cocoa powder against the ubiquitous Fry's as well as Camino, a premium fair-trade product, in a chocolate cupcake bake-off.

Our panel of judges ranked the cupcakes on three key components: fragrance, rich chocolate flavour and colour.

A graphic featuring cannisters of No Name Cocoa, which Chatelaine found to be the best cocoa power for baking.

What is the different between Dutch process cocoa powder and natural cocoa?

A quick note on Dutch processed versus natural cocoa: While both are made from roasted cacao beans, natural cocoa powder—which is untreated and has a lower pH level—is typically lighter in colour and features fruity, acidic notes. Dutch processed cocoa, which is treated with potassium carbonate, has less acidity and often a darker colour—though, as you'll see shortly, this isn't the case for all brands.

These differing acidity levels mean that they interact with leaveners such as baking powder and baking soda in different ways. It's best to check the recipe first to see if Dutch process and natural cocoa can be used interchangeably.

Here's how three popular cocoa powders stack up

Camino Fair Trade Cocoa Powder ($7  for 224 g)

A cannister of Camino Fair Trade Cocoa, which Chatelaine tried in a quest to find the best cocoa power for baking.

Fragrance: Subtle. Missing a strong chocolate scent. Flavour: The mellowest chocolate notes of the three. Colour: This cocoa has a lighter complexion than the other two, with a pleasant shade of bronze. When baked, it became darker than Fry's but had a more golden hue compared to No Name. Dutch processed? Yes

Although suitable for those who prefer fair-trade and organic products, this cocoa powder—which is certified as Kosher, lacked strong flavour when used in our chocolate cupcake recipe.

Fry’s Premium Cocoa ($5 for 227 g)

A cannister of Fry's Premium Cocoa Powder, which Chatelaine found to be the second best cocoa power for baking.

Fragrance: Classic, almost milk chocolate-y. Flavour: Satisfying, but similar to Camino in that it is also lacking in intensity. Fry's was also the most savoury tasting of the three brands. Colour: This cocoa is a pale, cool-toned brown. It bakes to a dark, golden sheen. Dutch processed? Yes

Although Fry's is considered a traditional and sentimental brand for some of our testers—who had fond memories of it from their childhoods—they ultimately felt that it didn't satisfy their desire for a strong chocolate flavour. (Similar to Camino, Fry's is also certified as Kosher.)

Use it for ice cream and hot chocolate as well.

No Name Cocoa ($3.50 for 227 g)

A cannister of No Name Cocoa, which Chatelaine found to be the best cocoa power for baking.

Fragrance: Intense, dark chocolate. Flavour: Dark and very chocolate-y. Colour: This cocoa is a deep brown colour and bakes to a very dark and shiny finish. Dutch processed? Yes

The chocolate cupcakes made with No Name cocoa were a rich dark brown, with a strong cocoa flavour. They quickly disappeared and were the favourite of our testers for baked goods.

And the best cocoa powder is...

While none of the cocoa powders we tested will bake a bad chocolate layer cake—or chocolate icebox cookie, or sticky chocolate loaf—our panel of tasters agreed that No Name is the best for baking. It has the most chocolatey flavour and provides the darkest, glossiest finish. Fry’s still ranked highly, but in the end came second to No Name’s richness and ability to darken the cake crumb to an ultra-decadent brown-black. Add the fact that it rings in at the lowest price, and we're crowning No Name cocoa powder the chocolate champion.

Watch: How to make the easiest-ever chocolate cake

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