Humans have been enjoying chocolate for a minimum 2000 years—but that doesn’t seem to make us any more decisive in the chocolate aisle when faced with rows and rows of colorful, shiny, delicious sounding products. Firstly, there are so many different kinds to choose from: notorious white chocolate, melt-in-the-mouth milk chocolate, dark chocolate in its semisweet, bittersweet, and unsweetened forms. But whatever your decision for a mid-afternoon pick-me-up, when it comes to cooking, there are a few rules of thumb that make choosing the right chocolate easy.
How to Choose the Right Chocolate for Cooking
There’s a choice chocolate for every recipe
So you’re not pulled under a chocolatey tow a la Augustus Gloop, let’s first wade through the basic terminology and take a dive into all things cocoa helped along by our friends at Ritter Sport.
The chocolate dictionary: It’s as easy as A, B…C!
Cacao can refer to the cacao tree which grows cacao pods, inside of which you find cacao beans or seeds which—when fermented, roasted and ground—make chocolate. Then there’s raw cacao powder, touted for its antioxidant qualities, that is made by cold-pressing cacao beans into a powder, which keeps the cacao but removes the cocoa (or cacao) butter.
The powder made by pressing roasted cacao beans.
Cocoa (or cacao) solids
These solids, also known as cocoa mass, determine the intensity of a chocolate. To get cocoa solids, the inside of the roasted cacao seeds, called the cacao nibs, are ground up. This crumbly mixture is then heated into what is called cocoa liquor (don’t worry, it’s not alcoholic). This mixture is then separated into intense cocoa solids and creamy cocoa butter.
Different manufacturers may either say cocoa butter or cacao butter, cocoa solids or cacao solids but intend the same thing.
What does the percentage on chocolate packages mean?
The percentage on dark chocolate packaging (e.g. 74%) refers to the amount of cocoa solids used. The higher the percentage, the more intense and bitter the chocolate will taste. Its texture can also be more brittle as there is less cocoa butter to give that melt-in-the-mouth sensation.
How to choose the best chocolate for cooking
As with most grocery items, you want to look for a product with the least amount of ingredients. Plain dark chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa solids technically only needs three ingredients: cacao, cocoa butter, and sugar (added bonus that it’s vegan) while milk chocolate has one extra—milk, usually in the form of milk powder. If the label indicates these essential ingredients with no unnecessary additives, you’re onto a good thing! Note that many milk chocolates contain emulsifiers and white chocolate, vanilla etc.—in these cases look for short lists with pronounceable ingredients, our favorite rule of thumb for any processed products.
While we’re looking at the label, let’s delve a little deeper. As with olive oil or coffee, single origin (meaning the cacao is all sourced from the one place) is a good thing and creates a flavor that shows its roots. The packaging is usually marked accordingly with the country (e.g. Nicaragua, Peru, or Ghana) or even the particular region of harvest.
Even better if it’s fair trade, meaning you can rest assured you’re supporting a product that is economically and environmentally sustainable and supports small-scale local farmers.
What to do with different types of chocolate
This creamy ‘chocolate’ in fact contains no cocoa solids at all and is instead made up of cocoa butter, sugar, and milk—hence the richness. In cooking, it tends to be reserved for baking with its most famous cameo in white chocolate cheesecake.
This much-loved, melt-in-your-mouth chocolate contains milk powder or condensed milk. Since it can contain a minimum of anywhere between about 10 – 25% cocoa, it can at times be too sweet and too creamy to add to recipes but, by the same token, might be just what you need if you’re looking to create something velvety like a chocolate sauce, ice cream, or kid-friendly desserts.
The cook’s favorite, dark chocolate is the failsafe chocolate to use in cooking. The higher cocoa percentage means the flavor will still shine through at the end as many baking recipes tend to use flour, cream, milk, and other flavor diluting ingredients. The same goes for chocolate in savory recipes, as using really dark chocolate in your chilis, moles, or braised meat dishes (which all benefit from a high-percentage dark chocolate) means you’ll get all the nutty depth of chocolate, without any milk muddying your dish or adding too much sweetness. You’ll find dark chocolate with anything from 55 – 90% cocoa or more, meaning there’s a full spectrum of mild to incredibly intense dark chocolates to try.
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As a rule of thumb, use milder dark chocolate to highlight sweetness, add creaminess, or aid binding in chilled desserts.
Lastly, you might encounter a few different terms when shopping around for dark chocolate—semisweet, bittersweet, and unsweetened.
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Semi- and bittersweet chocolates are often used interchangeably by producers—bittersweet should indicate a lower level of sugar than bittersweet, but for both, the percentage of cocoa hovers somewhere above 35%.
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Unsweetened chocolate, just as its name suggests, contains no sugar and is made up solely of cocoa solids and cocoa butter. It’s strong and bitter and definitely not something to snack on! This should be used in recipes where sweetness and creaminess are already taken care of. It’s actually great to bake with since it adds chocolatey flavor without compromising the recipe.
Dark chocolate flavor pairings
For an edible lesson in the strengths of cooking with different chocolates, let’s consider this double chocolate tart. A milder, 55% dark chocolate is added to the tart base (made of crumbled butter cookies and almonds) to bind the mixture, impart chocolatey flavor, and add a little sweetness. Meanwhile, the filling uses a stronger, milk-free 74% dark chocolate that will let the chocolate remain as the top flavor note even with the addition of milk and double cream. And, on top of that, because chocolate is the name of the game, we added black cocoa powder for a midnight hue.
What chocolate do you like to cook or bake with? Let us know in the comments!
Published on March 8, 2019