You know the scenario. After weeks of working up to it, you’ve finally decided to take on that decadent chocolatey dessert you’ve been meaning to make. But after mixing the flour, butter, and sugar, you reach for the cocoa powder, only to discover the expiration date has come and gone. Do you scrap your dessert plans? Head out for a new container of cocoa powder? Before you give up on that delicious chocolatey goodness or rush out in your slippers, we invite you to read on as we answer the burning question: does cocoa powder go bad?
But first, if you’re not in the middle of an impending chocolate catastrophe, let’s get in to the ins and outs of different types of cocoa powder.
When shopping for cocoa, you may run across both sweetened and unsweetened cocoa powder.
Other than the fact that one has added sugar and the other doesn’t, what’s the difference?
When it comes to baking, everything.
Sweetened cocoa powder is intended for making hot chocolate, not baked goods. Not that that means you should confuse it with hot cocoa mix. Because while hot chocolate mixes also contain cocoa and sugar, they include milk powder as well, which is why you only need to mix them with hot water to make hot chocolate. By contrast, sweetened cocoa powder contains only cocoa and sugar, so it has to be added to milk to create the perfect cup of hot cocoa.
Unsweetened cocoa powder, as the name suggests, is what you’re left with after cocoa beans have been processed. To create cocoa powder, the seeds of the cacao tree are dried, fermented, roasted, shelled, and ground into a paste. This product, which is a combination of cocoa solids and cocoa butter, then has most of its cocoa butter removed, while the remaining solids are dried and ground into cocoa powder.
At this point, cocoa powder can be sold as the so-called natural powder we’re familiar with in cakes and cookies or further processed into Dutch cocoa.
What’s the difference, you ask?
The main thing that sets them apart is their respective levels of acidity. Cocoa beans are naturally acidic. This acidity is also what gives natural cocoa powder its deep, rich chocolate taste.
However, when chocolate is put through a Dutch process, it’s treated with an alkalizing agent (potassium carbonate), which raises its pH. This not only makes the chocolate darker but also creates a smoother, more mellow chocolate that’s often favored for use in ice cream.
Interestingly, though you can often substitute one for the other, recipes that call for baking soda assume you’re using natural cocoa because the acidity in the cocoa reacts with the baking soda to aid in the rising process. By contrast, recipes that include baking powder work just as well with Dutch cocoa.
But if you’re looking for the most intense chocolate flavor, we suggest raw cacao powder. Unlike regular cocoa powder, which is roasted, cacao is cold pressed, which means it retains more of its nutrients. While cacao can be used just like other types of cocoa powder, heating it will destroy some its antioxidants—though not its flavor.
Whew! Who knew chocolate was so complicated? And there’s still more because we haven’t even told you about black cocoa powder!
Have you ever looked at an Oreo and wondered how on earth they managed to get them so black? You probably thought it was some kind of artificial coloring or some nifty trick invented by someone in a lab.
But guess what?
It’s no trick.
That dark color actually comes from black cocoa powder.
This intensely dark cocoa is the result of pushing the Dutch process to its furthest extent. Once all the acid in the cocoa beans has been neutralized, the cocoa becomes a rich black color and all the bitterness of natural cocoa disappears.
However, it’s important to remember that the process used to create black cocoa powder removes almost all the fat along with the acidity, so many cooks recommend combining black cocoa powder with either natural or Dutch cocoa powder to ensure a less crumbly dessert.
With all this talk of cocoa, you may find yourself debating whether to have a cup of hot cocoa before retiring for the evening. But if you’re sensitive to caffeine, it’s also helpful to know exactly how much caffeine you may be getting.
The bad news is that the amount of caffeine you’ll find in cocoa powder varies depending on a number of factors—including growing conditions and processing method—so we can’t give you an exact figure.
However, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, you’re likely to find about 198 milligrams of caffeine in a cup of unsweetened cocoa powder. So if you consider that there’s about 95 milligrams in a cup of coffee, that means you’re getting the equivalent of a cup of coffee with each half cup of cocoa.
But there’s more to cocoa than caffeine. That’s because cocoa powder is also a concentrated source of theobromine—a powerful stimulant that’s also behind chocolate’s toxicity in dogs.
We know by this point you’re dying to know whether cocoa powder expires, so we promise we won’t hold you in suspense any longer.
The answer to this all-important question is … yes and no.
When it comes to cocoa powder, you can think of it like a spice. For while spices don’t technically spoil with age (though sage has a tendency to get pretty nasty looking if left to its own devices), they do lose potency over time. The same holds true for cocoa powder.
But if you store your cocoa in a sealed container in a cool, dry place (which means humid environments like your refrigerator and freezer should be avoided), it’ll maintain its potency for a couple of years.
And if you find yourself with a box of expired cocoa powder?
Just give it a sniff. If it still smells like chocolate, you’re good to go. Otherwise, we’re afraid your best bet is exchanging those comfy slippers for street shoes and braving the wilds to pick up a new batch of cocoa powder at your local market.