Getting to Know: Chocolate
All chocolate starts with the cacao bean. From there, different processing, flavorings, ingredients, and percentages of cocoa solids and cocoa butter can produce chocolate of all sorts. Here’s a sampler.
The aptly named James Baker started manufacturing unsweetened chocolate in Massachusetts in 1765; his Baker’s Unsweetened Chocolate is still sold today. Hershey’s followed about a century later, and it’s our favorite for its “intense” chocolate flavor and “caramel” and “cinnamon” nuances. For every ounce of unsweetened chocolate called for in a recipe, you can substitute 1½ ounces of bittersweet or semisweet chocolate and subtract 1 tablespoon of sugar.
Milk chocolate must contain at least 12 percent milk solids, says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It’s usually sweeter than dark chocolate, too, although manufacturers today are making deeper, darker milk chocolates. Dove Silky Smooth Milk Chocolate is our favorite brand. Store all chocolate in a cool, dry place to prevent “bloom,” a harmless but unsightly gray coating.
Dark chocolate has a higher cocoa percentage and less sugar than milk chocolate, thus deeper, more complex flavor. Labels may say either “bittersweet” or “semisweet,” but the FDA doesn’t distinguish between them, so look for the cocoa content: Dark chocolate must contain at least 35 percent. We like much more than that—60 percent—for baking. For fast melting, microwave chopped dark (or any) chocolate in 30-second intervals, stirring between intervals.
Because it contains no cocoa, white chocolate is not actually chocolate. It’s made from cocoa butter (the fat from the bean), sugar, vanilla, and milk solids. Our favorite brand, Guittard Choc-au-Lait White Chips, replaces much of the cocoa butter with hydrogenated palm kernel oil (so the chips hold their shape better). We use white chocolate to add creaminess and structure in some surprising places, such as vanilla ice cream.
In the 1930s, the innkeeper at the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts, chopped up a chocolate bar to mix into ordinary butter cookies and made cookie history. Some time later, she struck a deal with Nestlé. First, it printed her recipe on its bar chocolate package. Soon the company was manufacturing chips. These chips have less cocoa butter than bar chocolate, so they retain their shape in baked goods. For creamy recipes, like mousse, use bar chocolate, which melts without getting grainy.
These cracked bits of roasted cacao beans—the raw material for bar chocolate and cocoa powder—are unsweetened, giving them a bitter but not unpleasant flavor; tasters found them “woodsy,” “leathery,” and “earthy.” Cacao nibs add intense flavor and crunch to granola and many baked goods, such as chocolate cookies or pavlovas. Find them in natural foods stores and in some supermarkets.
You may know the flavor of gianduia from Nutella, a popular hazelnut and chocolate spread. Gianduia also comes in bars for baking and as candies called gianduiotti, which are popular in Torino, Italy—gianduia’s birthplace. Hazelnut paste gives this (milk or dark) chocolate its nutty flavor and soft, fudgy texture. Make your own spread to top toast, fill crêpes, or sandwich together cookies.
Serious bakers use this chocolate for coating candy or making chocolate decorations. Extra cocoa butter (between 32 and 39 percent) helps it form a thin shell, and tempering (a process of melting and cooling chocolate) gives it good snap and high gloss. Couverture is usually sold by the pound in pellets, or “callets,” for even melting. You can buy it online and in some baking supply stores, but we usually leave couverture to pastry chefs and chocolatiers.
Vanilla extract is a staple in every baker’s pantry, so why not chocolate extract? Like vanilla, chocolate extract uses alcohol to draw out the bean’s flavor. Chocolate extract gave our favorite brownie batter richer, more complex chocolate flavor. Try substituting chocolate extract for half of the vanilla in recipes for chocolate cake or brownies. It costs about as much as vanilla.
Much Mexican chocolate is stone-ground in the traditional manner, which accounts for its gritty texture. (Other chocolate is conched, a process invented in the late 19th century to smooth and refine it.) Sweetened Mexican chocolate (which is often ground with cinnamon) tastes of molasses, dried fruit, and/or coffee, our tasters found. In the United States, look for Taza, Abuelita, or Ibarra brands.
Natural Cocoa Powder
Cocoa powder, made from partially defatted, ground, and dried cocoa solids, is our go-to ingredient when we want chocolate flavor without added sugar or fat (or when we make hot chocolate). We like Hershey’s Natural Cocoa, because it’s “intense,” “complex,” “bright,” and affordable. For many recipes, we “bloom” cocoa powder in hot water, which makes the chocolate taste fuller and richer.
Dutch-Processed Cocoa Powder
Dutching, a process invented in the 19th century (by a Dutchman), neutralizes naturally acidic cocoa powder. Despite that, we’ve found that Dutch-processed cocoa is usually interchangeable with natural cocoa. The exception is when you want the reddish tinge that comes from the reaction of baking soda and natural cocoa powder—for instance, when baking devil’s food or red velvet cakes.