Cocoa powder is unsweetened. To combat its natural bitterness, many manufacturers produce "Dutch-processed" cocoas, adding an alkaline substance to reduce the naturally occurring acid.
Another option is low-fat cocoa powders, but the process used to extract the fat typically accents the bitter overtones.
To offset the bitterness, tried-and-true recipes instruct hot cocoa makers to mix the cocoa with water, sugar and a pinch of salt (to round out the flavors) over low heat to form a paste. Why? According to food scientist Shirley Corriher, the water dissolves and melts the fat in the cocoa powder; the heat simply speeds up the chemical reaction and facilitates the release of flavor. Then milk or cream is slowly mixed into the paste and simmered to meld the flavors and produce a mellow cocoa.
We tested the following cocoas, all available locally, in the same cocoa recipe for taste, texture and appearance. None were as mild and sweet as our childhood favorite, Nestle Quik (now NesQuik), but in general we found the Dutch-process cocoas were less bitter than the low-fat ones. Cocoas are listed in order of preference; prices are approximate.
Droste Cocoa ($4.79 for 8.8 ounces) was the undisputed winner, the hot cocoa of our childhood dreams. It was chocolaty in just the right way with the perfect tinge of bittersweet and barely a hint of graininess. It even wooed one tester who was an openly avowed hot chocolate (as opposed to cocoa) lover. It also was the only cocoa that emitted a haze of lightly colored froth atop the rich brown liquid while heating.
Ghiradelli Premium Unsweetened Cocoa ($4.99 for 10 ounces) possessed a pronounced dark chocolate flavor and a not-too-grainy texture. Not too bad, not too good.
Scharffen Berger Natural Cocoa Powder ($8.50 for 6 ounces) melted into a very smooth-tasting cocoa that was a tad on the bitter side, but not as overwhelming so as we expected from a non-alkalized powder. Not grainy, but not particularly memorable.
Bensdorp Dutch Cocoa ($12.50 for 12 ounces) made a rather watery brew that was inoffensive but that lacked any trace of a rich cocoa flavor.
Hershey's European Style Dutch-Processed Cocoa Powder ($2.79 for 8 ounces) resulted in a very dark cocoa with a syrupy quality that reminded us of sludge. It tasted (surprise!) just like Hershey's syrup--straight from the bottle, prior to being mixed with milk.
Chatfield Premium Alkaline-Free Cocoa Powder ($2.99 for 10 ounces) conveyed no resemblance to chocolate; rather, it left a very unpleasant aftertaste.
Lake Champlain Cocoa ($5.49 for 8 ounces), a low-fat cocoa, tasted decidedly flat with light bitter overtones and a mildly chemical aftertaste. Muddy in texture. Just what one might expect from a low-fat contender.