Explore the differences between cacao vs cocoa, from raw intensity to processed versatility. Learn when to use each in baking, desserts, and more for distinct flavors and nutritional benefits!
Cacao vs. Cocoa
Cacao trees produce the cacao pods containing cacao beans that give the world cocoa and chocolate!
Cocoa is the delicious result of fermented and roasted cacao beans, which are basically the seeds of the cacao tree.
What are Cacao Bean Pods?
Cacao bean pods are large, elongated fruits, typically oval or oblong in shape.They can vary in size and color, with colors ranging from yellow and green to reddish-brown depending on the variety and ripeness of the pod. The outer shell of a cacao bean pod is thick and leathery, making it difficult to open.
Cacao pods grow directly on the trunk and large branches of the cacao tree, rather than on its smaller branches. Each tree can produce numerous pods throughout the year during multiple harvests. The pod’s color and size signals maturity, and alerts the pickers to climb the trees and cut them down. Harvesting cacao pods is a labor-intensive process, as workers must carefully cut the pods from the tree without damaging the beans inside. This is usually done with a machete. More on this later as the tree climbing machete wielders are often children.
Inside a cacao pod, you’ll find a cluster of cacao beans embedded in a sweet, white pulp or mucilage. The beans are surrounded by this pulp, which has a fruity, slightly tangy flavor and is eaten by some people in the regions where cacao is grown.
Cacao beans are small, usually about the size of an almond, and are shaped like flattened ovals. They have a dark brown to purple-brown color. Cacao beans are composed of various components, including cocoa solids and cocoa butter. The ratio of these components can vary depending on the type of bean and growing conditions. Cacao beans are known for their bitter, slightly nutty, and earthy taste, which is the foundation for the rich chocolate flavor when processed.
Beans Produce Cacao or Cocoa
Cacao Production from Cacao Beans
What happens to the beans once harvested depends on whether the final product is to be Cacao or Cocoa. The processing of cacao beans into both cacao and cocoa products starts with fermenting the beans. To produce cacao the beans are processed at a low temperature to produce cacao nibs which can then in turn be ground into a cacao powder. You might have struggled to find cacao nibs or powder 20 years ago, but they are becoming much more readily available.
Cocoa Production from Cacao Beans
Cocoa, usually referring to cocoa powder, is produced a bit differently. After harvesting, the cacao beans are removed from the pods and placed in shallow containers to ferment for a few days. This fermentation process helps develop the bean’s flavor. After fermentation the beans are spread out in the sun or in drying rooms to develop their characteristic flavor and reduce moisture content. The dried beans are then roasted to bring out their rich chocolate flavor. The specific roasting temperature and duration can vary, and it can affect the flavor of the cocoa.
Following roasting, the cacao beans are cracked open, and the outer shell or husk is removed leaving the edible cocoa nibs which are ground into a paste known as chocolate liquor, which doesn’t contain alcohol despite the name. The chocolate liquor can be pressed to separate the cocoa butter from the cocoa solids which become cocoa powder. Some cocoa powder is further treated with an alkaline solution in a process known as Dutch processing. This results in “Dutch-processed” or “alkalized” cocoa powder, which has a milder flavor and darker color.
This process gives us cocoa powder. It is naturally quite bitter and fairly low-calorie. I think as kids most of us saw a cocoa powder container in the kitchen and tried it only to find that it wasn’t the sweet chocolate we thought! This is why cocoa powder is generally combined in recipes with sugar or some other sweetener.
Flavor Difference Between Cacao and Cocoa
Cacao powder generally has a more intense and more bitter chocolate flavor compared to cocoa powder.
Cocoa powder tends to be milder and less bitter, making it a preferred choice in some dessert recipes. The flavor difference between these two is the primary reason to substitute cacao powder for cocoa powder. It is just a matter of preference.
Cacao powder is often considered a healthier option because it retains more antioxidants and beneficial compounds due to the minimal processing. It is a good source of minerals like magnesium, iron, and potassium. On average, one ounce (28 grams) of cacao powder contains approximately 130-140 calories.
Cocoa powder, especially when it’s labeled as “Dutch-processed” or “alkalized,” may have a smoother texture but can have reduced nutritional value. One ounce of unsweetened cocoa powder typically contains around 110-120 calories.
You can, for the most part, use cacao powder interchangeably with cocoa based on your taste preferences, so experiment a bit.
When using cacao, keep in mind its intense, slightly bitter taste due to minimal processing. Some uses for cacao include:
- Raw Desserts: Ideal for raw desserts like energy balls, smoothie bowls, and raw chocolates.
- Baking: Can be used in baking for a deep, rich chocolate flavor in brownies, cakes, and cookies.
- Hot Chocolate: Provides a rich, complex flavor when used to make hot chocolate.
When using cocoa, remember that it has a milder, slightly sweeter taste compared to cacao due to processing that can remove some of its natural bitterness. Some uses for cocoa include:
- Baking: Widely used in baking recipes as it mixes well and imparts a balanced chocolate flavor.
- Hot Beverages: Commonly used in making hot cocoa due to its smooth texture and easier blending with milk or water.
- Cooking: Used in savory dishes like chili or mole sauce to add depth and richness.