“What you see before you, my friend, is the result of a lifetime of chocolate.” – Katherine Hepburn
Everyone has eaten chocolate at some point in their lives, most likely many times and in many forms, probably as a rich hot drink, in cakes, sauces, puddings or as perfectly shaped pieces of heavenly smoothness. Nothing quite compares with a coffee and a box of Belgian chocolates but in an ordinary kitchen, this symbol of indulgence, can spell disaster and become synonym of confusion.
What is the difference between unsweetened and bittersweet? What does ‘dutched’ cocoa mean? How do you temper chocolate? Why are some chocolates so much more expensive than others?
In this guide, we will try to answer some of these questions so that next time you are standing in front of the chocolate aisle, you’ll know exactly which one is right for the job.
A little bit of history
Chocolate was introduced to the Western world around the 1500s but had been used to make a ‘warm beverage’ (which is what the word means) by Central Americans for at least 1200 years. It is only in the 1800s that chocolate was first used in a solid form, as we know it today.
Chocolate is extracted from cacao beans, the fruit of the rare cacao tree, grown commercially in South America, New Guinea, the West Indies and Vanuatu. The cacao nibs are removed from their shells through a long process where they are fermented, dried, roasted and hulled. The nibs are then ground and melted to create a thick paste referred to as chocolate liquor. At this point, cacao becomes cocoa, the processed version of the bean.
In its purest form, hardened chocolate liquor, composed of half cocoa butter and half cocoa solids, becomes unsweetened cooking chocolate. Extra cocoa butter can then be added for a better melting quality and lushness. Other ingredients like sugar, milk or vanilla might be added to create the different varieties of chocolate.
The final stage of the process is called ‘conching’, when the chocolate is kneaded to make it smooth. The longer it is conched, the smoother (and more expensive) it will become. This process goes a long way in explaining the difference between low quality chocolate that feels gritty on the tongue and the best Belgian or Swiss chocolates that are so famously smooth.
The highest quality chocolates are then aged for 2 or 3 months.
Chocolate is categorized by its chocolate liquor and cocoa butter content as unsweetened, bittersweet, semi-sweet, milk or white.
Unsweetened chocolate ( “bitter”, “baking chocolate” or “cooking chocolate”) is pure chocolate liquor mixed with some form of fat to produce a solid substance. The pure, ground, roasted cocoa beans impart a strong, deep chocolate flavor.
Bittersweet chocolate is chocolate liquor (or unsweetened chocolate) to which some sugar (less than a third), more cocoa butter, vanilla and sometimes leicithin has been added. It has less sugar and more liquor than semisweet chocolate, but the two are interchangeable when baking. The higher the percentage of cocoa, the less sweet the chocolate is.
Semi-sweet chocolate is frequently used for cooking purposes. It is a dark chocolate with half as much sugar as cocoa.
Milk chocolate is solid chocolate made with milk. It might only contain about 20% cocoa solids.
White chocolate is a confection based on sugar, milk, and cocoa butter. It doesn’t actually contain any cocoa solids.
Couverture chocolate is used to create a thin, even coating with a pronounced gloss. It has a high level of cocoa butter and is recommended for general cooking uses because of its quality and flavour. It is available in bittersweet, semi-sweet and milk.
Cocoa powder is available in two forms : either ‘natural’ or ‘dutched’ which refers to a chemical process designed to neutralise the acids of the chocolate.
Natural Unsweetened cocoa powder is very bitter and gives a rich chocolate flavour to baked goods. It is better suited rich recipes like brownies or chocolate cakes. Because of it’s acidic content, it will cause batter to rise when used in recipes calling for baking soda.
Dutched cocoa powder was chemically treated to neutralize its acids. As a result, it must be used in recipes calling for baking powder, unless there are enough other acidic ingredients used. It has a milder flavor than natural cocoa and is better suited to more delicate baked goods like pastries. Dutched cocoa is also more soluble than natural cocoa making it better suited to chocolate drinks.
Preparation (based on The cooks companion by Stephanie Alexander)
Chocolate is often required to be melted but before you do, keep these few tips in mind to avoid any problems:
- Chip or grate the chocolate before melting
- Your spoon and bowl must be completely dry. Moisture will cause the chocolate to seize and tighten. A couple drops of vegetable oil will rescue it but be careful not to use butter as it contains moisture and will simply make it worse.
- Melt chocolate on low or medium heat. High heat will cause it to turn dry and grainy.
- Melt chocolate in batches, it will be easier to maintain an even temperature throughout.
- Melted chocolate should feel warm rather than hot.
In a double boiler: Bring water to a full boil in the bottom of a double boiler, then turn off the heat. Place grated chocolate in the top of the double boiler. The water in the bottom should come right up to the level of the chocolate. Allow the chocolate to stand undisturbed for 5 minutes, then stir it completely melted.
Over hot water: Bring a saucepan of water to the boil, then turn the heat very low. Put the grated chocolate in a bowl wide enough to sit on top of the saucepan. The bowl must sit tightly on the pan as steam will spoil the chocolate. Allow the chocolate to stand undisturbed for 5 minutes, then stir it completely melted.
In a microwave oven: Put the chopped chocolate in a microwave proof bowl. Do not cover as moisture could form. Microwave on medium for 1 to 2 minutes. Stir the melted chocolate until smooth.
With other ingredients: To melt chocolate with milk, cream, coffee or water, add chocolate to cool rather than hot liquids and melt gently over direct heat while stirring. When adding liquid to already melted chocolate, the liquid should be warm to hot, otherwise the chocolate will seize and tighten.
Recipe: Olive oil chocolate mousse (from Rosa Jackson’s Les Meilleurs Desserts des Paresseuses)
- 100g of good quality chocolate around 65% cacao (Bittersweet or Ecuador)
- 2 tbsp mild olive oil
- 2 egg yolks
- 1 pinch of salt
- 1 tsp caster sugar
- A few drops of olive oil to finish
- Melt the chocolate with the olive oil in a bain-marie (double boiler) or in the microwave. Combine well, then add the egg yolks one at a time, while stirring.
- Beat the egg whites until firm peaks form with the pinch of salt, adding the sugar when the eggs are 2/3 of the way. Fold in 1/3 of egg whites into chocolate. Carefully fold in the remaining egg whites; combine until egg whites have been completely incorporated.
- Pour the mixture into a souffle dish or ramequins. Chill in refrigerator for at least 3 hours. Before serving, drizzle a few drops of olive oil.
This should get us started, understanding the many different types of chocolate available out there and how to work with this most decadent of ingredients. In our next post, we’ll talk about tempering chocolate and share 3 different techniques to experiment with at home, just in time for Easter.
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