After two decades ( I assume I started pre-kindergarten) of eating chocolate coated pecans from Bastrop, chocolate glaze donuts from Shipley’s, and the perfect chocolate dessert that is Texas Sheet Cake, I feel like I know my way around a chocolate bar. But it never fails, the minute I turn my grocery cart into the baking aisle I panic at the thought of having to choose from the overwhelming variety of chocolate chips, bars, baking bits, feves, melts, chunks, and powders. This is one of many reasons why I believe that home economics should be reinstated in schools, if only to teach young adults the difference between baking chocolates.
For example, I prefer to eat dark chocolates over milky varieties, but what kind best suits a chocolate ganache? Which percentage cocoa will make fudge smooth and silky and chocolate mousse even more chocolatey? Why do we call white chocolate chocolate? And why does no one seem to appreciate the delicious irony of the Baker’s Chocolate Company which was named after its founder, James Baker, who liked to bake? These are the kind of questions that pop into my head while perusing the grocery store and the main reason I can never run in for just a carton of milk and some bread. So to satisfy my own curiosity and broaden my chocolate know-how, here’s the next installment in my on-going Ingredient Study: A Study in Chocolate (and a few chocolate impersonators).
So most of us know how chocolate is made, but here’s quick refresher: chocolate is a product made from the beans of the cocoa tree, which grows in mostly tropical locales along the equator. These beans are harvested from their pods, dried, roasted, and subjected to various separation techniques to produce things like cocoa nibs, cocoa powder, and cocoa butter. A mixture of pulverized cocoa nibs and cocoa butter creates chocolate liquor which is the main ingredient in most chocolate products. Unless it says “unsweetened,” most chocolate bars and chips contain additional ingredients like sugar, vanilla, or dairy products.
Cocoa Nibs: After roasting, cocoa beans are cracked open and shelled. The little leftover pieces are called cocoa nibs and they are intensely flavored and absolutely delicious. A small bag will could set you back a dozen or so dollars, but a little bit of these nibs goes a long way. Sprinkle them like you would a fine spice into a baked good or add a scant teaspoon to your morning muesli.
Dark Chocolate: Also known as bittersweet, semi-sweet, and extra dark, this specific designation of chocolate refers to a rather large range of cocoa percentages. Depending upon the chocolate manufacturer and the country of origin, dark chocolates can contain anywhere between 55% to 99% cocoa. Each country has its own rules and regulations regarding the different designations of dark chocolate. Here in the US, to be considered Bittersweet (typically 65% +) a chocolate must contain chocolate liquor and less than 1/3 total sugar. Nowadays, chocolate manufacturers print the percentage of cocoa on dark chocolate packages and save the term “bittersweet” for specific baking chocolates. In my opinion, the higher the percentage, the better for snacking.
German’s Chocolate: Not actually German chocolate, German’s chocolate is a specific blend of chocolate, sugar, and cocoa butter made by the famous Baker’s Chocolate Company. Consisting of around 48% cocoa, German’s chocolate is relatively mild and sweet. It gained it’s confusing name thanks to its role in the equally confusing German Chocolate Cake, which also has no real connections to the chocolate-loving European country. In addition to German’s Chocolate, the Baker’s Chocolate Company produces several other baking chocolates including bittersweet, semisweet, and unsweetened. Each are formed into perfectly portioned, labeled, and easily broken bars.
Semi-Sweet Chips: Technically part of the dark chocolate range, semi-sweet chocolate, including these chips, typically contain about 50 % to 58 % cocoa. This seems to be the perfect ratio of cocoa butter, sugar, and cocoa solids to appease fans of both dark and lighter milky chocolates. Chips are a relatively new invention in the long life of chocolate: in the late 1930s, Ruth Graves Wakefield chopped up a Nestle chocolate bar to add to her famous homemade cookies that she baked for boarders at the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts. Now the chocolate chip cookie is an American staple. The whitish, dusty appearance of the chips in the above picture shows what happens to chocolate, especially processed chips, when it “blooms.” While there are many causes of chocolate bloom – sometimes due to poor tempering or cooling techniques – it is simply a result of the physical changes of the fat contents within the chocolate. And for some reason, up here in chilly New England, my chocolate chips always seem to bloom really quickly. Nevertheless, these chocolates are entirely safe to eat and still taste great nestled in a big chocolate chip cookie.
Chocolate Syrup: The first in the “technically not chocolate” group, chocolate syrup is a staple in a chocolate-lover’s arsenal. While most brands contain some rather dreary ingredients – like High Fructose Corn Syrup – they do indeed contain real, genuine cocoa, which should allow them to outrank white chocolate at least. While the bottled stuff is easy to grab, take few minutes and DIY this one (it’s one of the few that you can) with Seeded at the Table’s easy 5-ingredient recipe.
Milk Chocolate: A favorite for most, milk chocolate can vary from 10% to 25% cocoa solids and is often sold in bars for eating rather than baking. Made with the same ingredients as darker chocolates, milk chocolate also includes dairy in dry, liquid, or condensed forms, thus earning its informative title. And, fine, it is really, legally, and technically chocolate. I just don’t like it.
Cocoa Powder: While most people use the terms hot cocoa and hot chocolate interchangeably, cocoa powder is not, in fact, chocolate. It is, however, one of the main ingredients in making chocolate. One of the purest forms of cocoa, cocoa powder consists of pulverized cocoa solids and no additional ingredients like sugar or flavorings. Most common cocoa powder is labeled as “natural,” but you can also find Dutch-process cocoa meaning that the beans were processed with an alkaline substance which lowers the acidity of the powder and typically makes it darker in color.
Blonde Chocolate: Supposedly the result of a recent kitchen mistake, blonde chocolate was created in the Valrhona test kitchens when a batch of white chocolate was left in a double boiler for too long and took on a toasty look and flavor. This particular chocolate is labeled as containing 32% cocoa and is best for pairing with fruits, cheeses, and other small nibbles.
Carob: Arguably, the least chocolatey, yet nowhere near the artificiality of the Candy Melt, carob is the chocolate alternative for those poor souls who are allergic to cocoa. Interestingly, dogs can eat carob, which is kinda cool and, in my opinion, a pretty nifty thing for those allergic to chocolate, because dogs are awesome. Also known as Ceratonia siliqua or St. John’s Bread, carob is a type of small tree belonging to the botanical family, Fabaceae, which also includes important edible plants like peas, beans, kudzu, licorice, and peanuts. Essentially it’s amazing and it also tastes a lot like chocolate, so win, win. Thanks to advances in grocery supplies, carob is available in a powder, chip, and bar for all your baking and eating needs.
White Chocolate: Technically speaking, white chocolate really isn’t a chocolate. While most varieties contain cocoa butter (cheaper bags substitute with palm oil and other scary ingredients), white chocolate does not contain any chocolate liquor or cocoa solids, i.e. the main chocolatey ingredients of even the cheapest chocolate bar. That being said, white chocolate has it’s place – like in cranberry+ pecan cookies – and deserves your attention as much as its cocoa-cousins. You can even DIY this one with The Cupcake Project’s nifty recipe.
Candy Melts: Moving further and further away from the cocoa bean, candy melts are definitely not chocolate. While you can buy “chocolate flavored” versions and many folks are crazy about those trendy cake-balls coated in all colors of “dipping chocolate,” Candy Melts are not chocolate. I repeat, not chocolate. Pretty, pastel, and fun to play with, but not chocolate.
Finally, I feel like I can enter the baking aisle with my head held high. Come at me, chocolate, I dare you. If nothing else, I can discern (and possibly judge) the various Valentine’s Day chocolates I will receive this week. I mean, that I hope to receive this week.