Our Favorite Ingredients: Cocoa/Cacao

Cocoa has become almost synonymous with chocolate. Which is largely fair.

It’s cocoa, after all, that makes chocolate chocolate, that gives chocolate its distinctive flavor unlike anything else.

But it’s due to the fact cocoa is so closely tied with chocolate that its utility as a spice often goes unappreciated.

Why it has gotten lost in many (but not all) of the world’s cuisines, buried beneath churro dipping sauces, Sacher tortes, pains au chocolat, truffles, and other dessert-like things.

While we will never fail to appreciate cocoa’s dominance as chocolate first and foremost – honestly, it’s chocolate – we do lament its reputation almost solely as the base ingredient for chocolate because it can be so beneficial in so many other things.

What we use cocoa/cacao in: More things than you might think, both sweet and savory.

Favorite cocoa/cacao pairings: Broths, soups, and sauces of all kinds, baked goods (of course)

Cocoa also does great things to meat.

Cocoa/cacao forms: Powdered

Cocoa/cacao health henefits: Cocoa/cacao isn’t just a good source of polyphenols/flavanols, antioxidants that reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure, help keep blood sugar levels in check, and improve blood flow, it is one of the BEST sources of polyphenols.

Ounce for ounce, it has the highest concentration of flavanols of all foods.

Flavanols, in particular, have been shown to improve nitric oxide levels in the blood, which improves overall blood vessel function, reducing blood pressure and increasing blood supply to the brain.

This improved blood flow has been shown to not only reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, but to possibly reduce the risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, as well.

But that’s not all.

Flavanols in cocoa also slow down the absorption of carbohydrates, which can help control the body’s release of insulin and even result in a lower BMI, while all polyphenols found in cocoa have been shown to improve the texture, hydration, and resilience of the skin (due to increased blood circulation).

Of course, sugar counteracts many of these benefits of cocoa, which is why incorporating cocoa into your diet in less obvious (and less sweet) ways can be so advantageous.

The cocoa caveat: Cocoa easily turns into chocolate, which sounds like a great thing until you accidentally end up with chocolate soup. Which also sounds like a pretty good thing, unless you don’t want chocolate soup.

When you use cocoa in recipes with naturally sweet-tasting foods, like tomato sauce or carrots, things can quickly go awry.

This makes it important to add cocoa to anything savory in very small amounts and find that sweet spot if you don’t want your cocoa to become chocolate.

Why we love it: For us, the word that best describes cocoa is “rich.” When used in proper measure, cocoa can add noticeable richness to many surprising a dish. (We’ve even used it in chicken noodle soup!)

Quite often, if something tastes flat or bland, cocoa is the ingredient we reach for first.

Just a little dash can pull a blasé dish out of the doldrums.

Our hard sell: If there’s one thing we don’t think we have to sell many people on, it’s chocolate. So, here’s our pitch for cocoa as a versatile, adaptive spice.

Cocoa only tastes sweet if you make it sweet, and it loses its bitterness fast amongst other ingredients.

It doesn’t take much to add a whole lot of depth (and a whole lot of antioxidants) to an otherwise lackluster dish.

While using cocoa in savory recipes is definitely a balancing act (too many naturally sweet components and things get weird fast), when it comes to savoriness and flavor-enhancement there’s really nothing that quite competes.

About Our Favorite Ingredients

You’ll find many ingredients in our recipes again and again. These are our favorite ingredients, the ingredients we always have on hand, the disks in the backbone of our daily diet.