Never mind Champagne and caviar; bring on the chocolate! It’s the ultimate indulgence and arguably the world’s most popular flavor, starring in candies, cookies and every great dessert menu.
It Begins With Beans - Chocolate is an ingredient, a flavor, a candy. It begins with cocoa beans, originally harvested in Central America but now cultivated in equatorial regions around the world.
The beans are fermented, roasted, shelled and crushed into bits called nibs. These nibs, which are more than 50% cocoa butter, the fat of chocolate, are ground and compressed into a mass called chocolate liquor—which with only a little further refining becomes unsweetened chocolate. Or, depending on the amount of sugar added, the chocolate liquor becomes bittersweet, semisweet or sweet chocolate, all called dark chocolate.
The addition of milk solids results in milk chocolate. When about three-fourths of the cocoa butter is removed and the remaining chocolate liquor is pulverized into powder, it becomes cocoa powder.
Much like coffee, chocolate manufacturing starts with beans or blends of beans. The end product depends on how the beans are harvested and fermented, how they are roasted, and then how the chocolate liquor is processed and how much extra cocoa butter is added (for smoothness and richness). This explains why some chocolates are quite inexpensive, while others are remarkably pricey.
Buy chocolate from a store with good turnover. The packaging should be clean and neat. Avoid any that looks old, shopworn or dusty. Acceptable baking and cooking chocolate is sold in supermarkets, while specialty shops sell better, more expensive, often imported brands. Better chocolate often produces a better baked good or candy but for many chocolate aficionados, “better” is a matter of personal taste and experimentation. Most of all, buy the kind you like. If used in a recipe, just make sure it’s the type of chocolate (unsweetened, bittersweet, cocoa powder and so on) called for since chocolates react differently when cooked.
Wrap chocolate well in aluminum foil and plastic wrap and store at cool room temperature. Do not keep chocolate, especially milk and white chocolates, near foods with strong odors or flavors. If you refrigerate or freeze chocolate, wrap it very carefully in a double layer of freezer-weight plastic wrap and allow it to come to room temperature before unwrapping it. When properly stored, dark chocolate keeps for up to 1 year; milk and white chocolates keep for up to 8 months.
Glossary of Types of Chocolates:
Chocolate is categorized by how much chocolate liquor it contains. Unsweetened, or bitter, chocolate is 100% chocolate liquor with no sugar added. Bittersweet and semisweet chocolates have cocoa butter and sugar added to the liquor but still contain at least 35% and 15% liquor, respectively. In most cases, these two chocolates are interchangeable in recipes. Milk chocolate, which contains at least 10% chocolate liquor and 12% milk solids, behaves differently in recipes and should not be used in place of other types of chocolate unless specified.
- Bittersweet Chocolate - Made from chocolate liquor sweetened with sugar and blended with additional cocoa butter. This chocolate is at least 35% chocolate liquor, with sugar making up about 40% of its weight. In general, European dark chocolates are called bittersweet, while American dark chocolates are called semisweet. For everything but the most specialized confectionery, the two can be used interchangeably in baked goods, frostings, sauces and candies. Bittersweet chocolate also has devoted fans who eat it right out of the wrapper.
- Chocolate Chips – These small droplets of semisweet, milk or white chocolate let you incorporate the confection evenly into batters or doughs, of which a favorite example is chocolate chip cookies. Although their slightly lower cocoa butter content helps them keep their shape when baked, chocolate chips also melt easily and evenly, eliminating the need to chop blocks or bars of chocolate for melting.
- Cocoa Powder - Cocoa powder is made by removing nearly all the cocoa butter from chocolate liquor and then grinding it to an unsweetened powder. While less fatty than other chocolate, it still contains about 22% cocoa butter. Alkalized, or Dutch process, cocoa powder is treated with an alkali to make it milder and more soluble than nonalkalized cocoa powder. Nonalkalized, or natural, cocoa powder is lighter in color but bolder in flavor than the alkalized powder.
- Couverture Chocolate - This high-quality dark chocolate is used for specialty candy making. Because of its relatively high percentage of cocoa butter, it melts smoothly, making it easier for enrobing, dipping and molding chocolate. When properly tempered and cooled, it forms a thin, glossy shell. You will find couverture chocolate in some specialty-food shops and in mail-order catalogs.
- Dark Chocolate – This term describes any sweetened chocolate without milk solids, usually referring to bittersweet and semisweet chocolates.
- Milk Chocolate – This familiar chocolate contains milk solids, cocoa butter and sugar. Milk chocolate is most often eaten out of hand in the form of a candy bar, although it appears in recipes from time to time. It should not be substituted for bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, except in the form of chips for chocolate chip cookies.
- Plain Chocolate - In the United States, the term plain chocolate refers to unsweetened chocolate, while in Great Britain the term commonly refers to bittersweet chocolate. See Unsweetened Chocolate.
- Semisweet Chocolate - This dark chocolate is at least 35% chocolate liquor. Semisweet chocolate is what Europeans call bittersweet; the terms are interchangeable.
- Sweet Chocolate - Sweet chocolate is dark chocolate that is sweeter than semisweet but is not milk chocolate. It is an ingredient rarely called for in recipes, except for German chocolate cake, named for the chocolate’s inventor.
- Unsweetened Chocolate - Also called baking, plain or bitter chocolate, unsweetened chocolate is chocolate liquor that is refined but not sweetened. This product is used only for baking and cooking and never for eating out of hand.
- White Chocolate - White chocolate is a mixture of cocoa butter, sugar and milk solids but no chocolate liquor. Some manufacturers market a product called confectionery coating, which is like white chocolate but contains vegetable fat instead of cocoa butter and is less expensive.
Satisfy your sweet tooth with these readers’ favorite chocolate recipes from Williams-Sonoma:
- Chocolate Brownie Cookies
- Chocolate Pudding Pie
- Flourless Chocolate Torte
- French Chocolate Macaroons
About the author: A graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York City, Natasha is the Williams-Sonoma Culinary Expert for the Wichita, Kansas store. She is the mastermind behind the in-store technique and cooking classes and is often on the road training other Williams-Sonoma Culinary Experts.