Chocolate Tidbits

As February – and thus Valentine’s Day – approaches, chocolate may be entering your mind. Or, if you are like me, chocolate is never far from your mind! In this Cooking Tip, I would like to talk a bit about this delightful ingredient.

Chocolate comes from the cacao tree, which produces cacao pods. These pods contain cocoa beans and when the husks are removed from the beans and the beans are roasted and dried, you are left with cocoa nibs. These nibs are then ground to produce what is termed cocoa mass or cocoa liquor. This cocoa liquor is the main ingredient in chocolate. It is composed of cocoa particles suspended in 50-60% cocoa butter. When this chocolate liquor is further processed and mixed with sugar, cocoa butter and sometimes milk solids, you end up with what we think of as chocolate.

When you look at chocolate in the supermarket that is meant for culinary purposes, you will be faced with terms such as white, milk, semisweet, bittersweet or unsweetened. You may also see the term “dark” chocolate, which is often accompanied by a chocolate percentage. Let’s delve a little deeper into these terms by looking at requirements that the FDA has set for some of these terms.

Unsweetened chocolate is solid chocolate liquor. It will sometimes be labeled as 100% chocolate. It has its place in baking but is extremely bitter, unsuitable for munching.

For milk chocolate, the FDA specifies it must contain not less than 10 percent chocolate liquor. You may not know the exact percentage as often the manufacturer does not list a chocolate percentage on these bars. Other ingredients that are allowed are cocoa fat, sweeteners, spices, nuts, flavorings, dairy products and emulsifying ingredients.

White chocolate contains no cocoa solids but only cocoa butter – not less than 20% according to the FDA. Other allowable ingredients include sweeteners, dairy products, spices, nuts, flavorings and emulsifying ingredients.

The FDA does not distinguish between bittersweet and semisweet chocolate. To be labeled such, it needs to contain at least 35% chocolate liquor. This low amount may be surprising to you as I suspect most of us think that to be called bittersweet or semisweet, it should contain at least 50% chocolate liquor. As with the other types, the FDA allows cocoa fat, sweeteners, spices, nuts, flavorings, emulsifying agents and even dairy. This, again, may be surprising to you as I think many of us assume dark chocolate will not contain any dairy. Many do not. However, the FDA tested nearly 100 dark chocolate bars looking for the presence of milk. They found that 61% of the bars contained milk, including those that did not list milk as an ingredient. They postulate this may be due to the fact that companies use the same equipment to process both milk and dark chocolate and so there may be traces of milk on the equipment that makes its way into the dark chocolate. If you want more info on this study, email me.

Another label that we often see on chocolate bars in the store is “dark” chocolate. This is not a term defined by the FDA. However, it is generally thought of as a product with a higher percentage of chocolate liquor and no milk products. Many do, though, contain milk. These are what we think of when we see bars labeled such as 60%, 70%, etc.

Coating chocolate (or melting wafers) are not real chocolate at all. Although some of them may contain some cocoa, a look at the ingredient list will show you how far they are from real chocolate. The advantage of this product is that it does not require tempering to give you a hard & shiny coating that does not melt in your hand. If you have ever made candy or truffles and coated them with melted chocolate, you will quickly see why tempering is important. Without tempering the coating will be dull, soft and melt in your hands. Tempering is a method of melting and cooling the chocolate so that specific fat crystals form. This results in chocolate that is shiny, has a snap when broken and does not melt in your hand.

What is the best type of chocolate to use for your culinary needs? I always recommend starting with whatever is specified in your recipe. If it calls for dark chocolate, something around 60% would be a good place to start.

As far as brand of chocolate, everyone has their favorites. I did a little research to see what the food community thought. As can be expected, there were a wide variety of opinions – too many to even report. An excellent brand to start with is Ghiradelli, especially if you want dark chocolate. It is also readily available in most supermarkets. For unsweetened chocolate, Baker’s unsweetened baking bar is preferred by many and, again, should be in your local supermarket.

Another question that is often asked is if you can substitute chocolate chips for chocolate bars. As with so many questions, the answer is “It depends”. First, it depends on the brand. Some chocolate chips (including Ghiradelli) have the same ingredients as the bars and thus, you most likely can substitute without problems. However, some chocolate chip brands contain added stabilizers that help them hold their shape when baked. You would not want to use these for making candy, truffles, puddings, etc. However, they will work just fine in brownies or bars.

Enjoy your chocolate in whatever form you prefer. Bake something special, munch on a box of truffles or indulge in a decadent hot chocolate!