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Chocolate Facts & Tips

Facts and helpful tips on chocolate, including information about the different varieties of chocolate and its historical time line.

"The craving for chocolate is physical, arising out of the desire for its uniquely dark, slightly bitter, rich taste. But the craving is also emotional for chocolate symbolizes, as does no other food, luxury, comfort, sensuality, gratification and love." - An exerpt from Chocolate, A Sweet Indulgence, by Karl Petzke and Sara Slavin.

Although chocolate may not actually be a true aphrodisiac it does contain theobromine, a mild relative of caffeine and magnesium, a component found in some tranquilizers, so it has the unique ability to simultaneously both pick you up and calm you down. In addition, it's said eating chocolate releases a chemical in your body similar to that which is produced when you're in love.

Despite the fact we've been consuming chocolate in copious quantities since the nineteenth century (although the Aztec emperor Montezuma was drinking it -- about 50 goblets a day -- centuries earlier) Americans don't win the prize for highest world wide chocolate consumption. No that distinction goes to the Swiss whose per capita consumption is a whopping 19 pounds a year. The Swiss are followed by the citizens of Norway, the United Kingdom, Belgium/Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden -- and then the U.S.A. where every man, woman and child is said to munch down 9 pounds a year.

Chocolate is the most popular dessert flavoring around. But as you'll discover it's a long way from cocoa bean to chocolate bar. Detailing the process chocolate expert Elaine Gonzalez writes in The Art of Chocolate (Chronicle Books, 1998) "Chocolate is made from beans that grow inside the pods of the cacao trees, which flourish in hot, rainy climates within 20 degrees of the equator. Cocoa beans, as they are known in the United States, don't develop their distinctive chocolate color, flavor and aroma until they have been fermented, dried and carefully roasted to precise temperatures. The roasted beans are then shelled and cracked into small pieces called nibs. The nibs are then ground, producing a thick, semi-fluid mixture called chocolate liquor, the primary ingredient in all forms of chocolate, except white chocolate."

Because chocolate is so delicate to work with many cooks often find they have a problem melting it properly. Keep in mind that chocolate naturally melts just below body temperature, so applying direct heat, say atop a stove is apt to scotch it. Instead utilize a double boiler and melt it slowly in a heatproof bowl or pot set above a pan of simmering water, being careful both to stir frequently and make sure none of the water below or the condensation from the steam created leaches into the chocolate.

You can also use a microwave oven to melt chocolate with good results, just be sure you stop it frequently to stir it. Generally when the chocolate appears melted about two-thirds of the way through, remove it from the microwave oven and continue to stir it until smooth. The residual heat contained in the melted chocolate will work to help melt the rest.

The Difference in Chocolate Varieties

  • Unsweetened Chocolate is pure chocolate liquor, also known as bitter or baking chocolate. It's unadulterated chocolate: ground roasted chocolate beans with no other added ingredients imparts a strong, deep chocolate flavor in all the sweets you add it to. With the addition of sugar however it's used as the base for American style layer cakes, brownies, frostings and cookies.
  • Couverture or Coating Chocolate is a term used for cocoa butter rich chocolates of the highest quality. Popular brands of couverture used by professional pastry chefs and often sold in gourmet and specialty food stores include: Valrhona, Callabaut, Lindt, and Schraffen-Berger. These chocolates contain a high percentage of chocolate liquor (sometimes more than 70 percent) as well as cocoa butter, at least 32-39%, are very fluid when melted and have an excellent flavor. In fact, chocolate of this quality is often compared to tasting fine wine because subtleties in taste are often apparent, especially when you taste a variety of semisweet and bittersweet couvertures with different percentages of sugar and chocolate liquor.
  • Bittersweet Chocolate is chocolate liquor (or unsweetened chocolate) to which sugar, more cocoa butter, lecithin, and vanilla has been added. It has less sugar and more liquor than semisweet chocolate but the two are interchangeable in baking. The best quality bittersweet and semisweet chocolate is produced as couverture and many brands now print the percentage of chocolate liquor it contains on the package. The rule is the higher the percentage of liquor the more bittersweet the chocolate will be. Generally Europeans favor bittersweet chocolate and Americans opt for semisweet chocolate which has more sugar than bittersweet chocolate.
  • Sweet Chocolate is not as common today as it once was years ago. Developed by the American chocolate manufacturer, Baker's Chocolate, it is called for in a few recipes and can be found in most supermarkets.
  • White Chocolate isn't really considered chocolate at all due to the absence of chocolate liquor. Quality white chocolate however always contains cocoa butter. Be wary if you find white chocolate made with vegetable shortening and/or labeled "confectioners' coating" which pales in comparison -- taste wise -- to real white chocolate. And be especially careful when melting white chocolate which is particularly fragile.
  • Powder, there are two types of unsweetened baking cocoa available: natural cocoa (like the sort produced by Hershey's and Nestle) and Dutch-process cocoa (such as the Hershey's European Style Cocoa and the Droste brand). Both are made by pulverizing, partially defatted chocolate liquor (unsweetened chocolate) removing nearly all their cocoa butter. Natural cocoa is light in color and somewhat acidic with a strong chocolate flavor. In baking use natural cocoa in recipes which call for baking soda (because it's an alkali). Combining the two creates a leavening action that allows the batter to rise during baking. Dutch-process cocoa has been processed with alkali to neutralize it's natural acidity so it's darker often with a reddish cast. Dutch cocoa is slightly milder in taste and deeper in color than natural cocoa. Use Dutch cocoa in recipes that call for baking powder as it's leavener. I also prefer to use Dutch process in recipes like truffles and tiramisu where the taste of the unsweetened cocoa powder plays an important role.

Chocolate Tips

  • Do not store chocolate in the refrigerator or freezer because when it's brought to room temperature condensation will form on the surface of the chocolate and effect it's ability to melt smoothly. In fact, in most cases chocolate and water makes a disastrous combination. If you're melting chocolate all by itself and even a drop of water accidentally makes its way into the pot, you can possibly cause the chocolate mixture to "seize", meaning the chocolate will tighten and form an unworkable mass. If this should happen when you are melting chocolate add a few drops of vegetable oil to the chocolate which will allow it to relax enough that other ingredients can be mixed in.
  • Chocolate chips, also known as morsels, are fine for cookie baking but don't be tempted to melt them down and utilize them in lieu of semisweet or bittersweet chocolate. When forced to melt you'll find the consistency is thick and difficult to use because it contains significantly less cocoa butter (about 29%) than average bar chocolates.
  • It stands to reason the better tasting the chocolate you elect to use the better the chocolate dessert.
  • Be sure to choose chocolate that has a glossy, unblemished surface. Superficial imperfections such as bloom, that white dusty film, is an indication that the chocolate has been improperly stored and/or has melted and hardened once again, although it may not always affect its taste.
  • Chocolate in fine condition will snap cleanly when you break it, poor quality chocolate on the other hand will crumble.
  • Select chocolate that smells chocolately and appetizing and make sure the chocolate you buy is neither initially or subsequently stored in or around very aromatic foods like garlic, tea, coffee, or detergents, all which can affect it's flavor.
  • Last, try to buy chocolate you've had a chance to try first. Wondering how to judge a good chunk of chocolate? Just place a piece on your tongue and hold it in your mouth allowing it to slowly melt. If it coats your mouth with a smooth, velvety feel that's a good sign you're eating an excellent, albeit most likely, an expensive piece of chocolate. A sandy, grainy texture however should be avoided.

The Chocolate Time

  • 1824: John Cadbury, an English Quaker, begins roasting and grinding chocolate beans to sell in his tea and coffee shop. In 1842 Cadbury's Chocolate Company in England creates the first chocolate bar.
  • 1875: A Swiss chocolate maker, Daniel Peter, mixes Henri Nestle's con- densed milk with chocolate and the two men found a company to manufacture the first milk chocolate.
  • 1894: Milton Hershey adds a line of chocolate to his caramel manufacturing business. Soon he invents the Hershey Bar by experimenting with milk chocolate. Hershey's Cocoa appears next.
  • 1896: Leonard Hershfield invents the Tootsie Roll, named after his daughter.
  • 1897: Brownies are first mentioned in print, listed for sale in the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalogue.
  • About 1900: A machine called the enrober is invented to replace the task of hand-dipping chocolate.
  • 1930: Franklin Mars invents the Snickers Bar.
  • 1939: Nestle introduces semisweet chocolate morsels.
  • 1940: The Mars company invents M&M's for soldiers going to WWII.

Sources: Chocolate facts and tips excerpted from article by Laurann Claridge, Chef and Food Talk Columnist of the Houston Chronicle, Houston, Texas USA. Chocolate Time Line excerpted from Chocolate, A Sweet Indulgence by Karl Petzke and Sara Slavin (Chronicle Books, 1997).

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