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Why Cocoa Powder Makes the Best Brownies of All

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My recipe for cocoa brownies has ricocheted across the internet for a few years, made a lot of “best ever” lists, and generally made lots of people happy. I’ve made several variations too, including a gluten-free version in Flavor Flours, and one made with brown butter that elicited an actual expletive—of delight—from the editor of a respected magazine.

So (you might be thinking), what could be so good about cocoa brownies? Isn’t chocolate the best ingredient for brownies? Aren’t cocoa brownies second-best?

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Alice Medrich's Best Cocoa Brownies
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Alice Medrich's Best Cocoa Brownies

I’ll just say this: A great recipe made with great cocoa gets you great brownies. This from someone with a huge repertoire of brownies and over 50 years of brownie-making experience, and a no-discrimination policy: If it's good—and I know it when I meet it: a balance of flavor, texture, sweetness, and chocolatey-ness—I don’t care if it's make with cocoa or with chocolate.

That said, are several advantages to cocoa.

Aside from the fact that you don’t have to melt the chocolate—still a source of anxiety for many cooks—brownies made with cocoa can have very deep chocolate flavor and still retain a softer and moister texture than an equally chocolatey brownie made with a bar of chocolate.

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Here’s why: Brownies made with cocoa require extra butter to replace the fat (cocoa butter) that would have been present in a batch made with bar chocolate. Cocoa butter becomes quite firm at room temperature, while butter remains soft. Therefore, a brownie with made with loads of chocolate has lots of cocoa butter, which makes it firm at room temperature. Have you noticed that ultra-chocolatey brownies tend to get hard or even dry and crumbly after a while, especially if they get cool or cold? (Commercial brownies may even contain oil or corn syrup to keep them soft!) A cocoa brownie contains more butter than cocoa butter, so it stays soft without those extra (not so nice) ingredient additions.

Dutch-Process vs. Natural Cocoa Powder (+ When to Use Them)
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Dutch-Process vs. Natural Cocoa Powder (+ When to Use Them)

Another advantage to cocoa brownies is that you can choose natural, Dutch process, or even black cocoa powder to make them. I have my own very decided preference for natural cocoa, but each cook can choose their preferred flavor profile. Fun, right? It’s even more fun to make the recipe twice, once with natural and once with Dutch process. Your guests or family members will adore tasting two kinds of brownies, and you’ll get some insight into the flavor and color differences.

If you’ve never considered making brownies with cocoa, give it try. You can use my recipe or you can convert your own favorite brownie recipe made with chocolate into one that is made with cocoa.

The formula for converting chocolate to cocoa powder depends on the cacao percentage of the chocolate called for in the original recipe. All calculations assume you are replacing chocolate with a premium (a.k.a. “high fat”) unsweetened cocoa powder, which contains 1 gram of fat per 5- to 6-gram serving: Find grams of fat per serving on the ingredient panel, as you will not usually find the words “high fat” on grocery store cocoa packages. More discussion of chocolate and cocoa powders, and more formulas for converting from one type of chocolate to another, or for converting to non-premium cocoa powder can be found in my book, Seriously Bittersweet (Artisan Books, 2003).

More: Learn how to tell the premium cocoa powder from the non-premium stuff.

Photo by James Ransom

To convert chocolate to premium unsweetened cocoa powder in a recipe:

Don’t be afraid of finicky-looking calculations; they are quite easy to do if you simply forget about teaspoons and tablespoons and multiply the gram weights. Measuring cocoa by weight is a good idea anyway: Cocoa is very strong and small differences in measurement can make big differences in results.

If the original recipe calls for unsweetened chocolate:
Replace each ounce (28 grams) of unsweetened chocolate with 18 grams of premium cocoa powder, plus 9 grams butter.

Example: If your recipe calls for 5 ounces of unsweetened chocolate, multiply 18 grams of cocoa powder and 9 grams of butter each by 5. You will replace the total amount of chocolate with 90 grams cocoa powder and 45 grams of butter.

Photo by James Ransom

If the original recipe calls for 70% chocolate:
Replace each ounce (28 grams) of chocolate with 12 grams of cocoa powder plus 8 grams sugar and 8 grams butter.

Example: If your recipe calls for 8 ounces of 70% chocolate, just multiply 12 grams of cocoa powder, 8 grams of sugar, and 8 grams of butter each by 8. You will replace the total amount of chocolate with 96 grams of cocoa powder plus 64 grams of sugar and 64 grams of butter.

If your recipe calls for 55% to 62% chocolate:
Replace each ounce (28 grams) of chocolate with 8 grams cocoa powder plus 13 grams sugar and 8 grams butter.

Example: If your recipe calls for 10 ounces of 55% to 62% chocolate, just multiple 8 grams of cocoa, 13 grams of sugar, and 8 grams of butter each by 10. You will replace the total amount of chocolate with 80 grams of cocoa powder plus 130 grams of sugar and 80 grams of butter.

What makes a brownie truly excellent to you? Share your list of must-haves in the comments.


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Tags: alice medrich, baking basics, brownies, cocoa powder, substitutions