A variety of chocolate products including cocoa powder, chocolate chips, and chocolate bars

“Cooking With Chocolate: A Beginner’s Guide”

Lately, as a stressed out nursing mom who can’t drink wine whenever I want, chocolate has been a frequent comforting companion. But, after my Homemade Hot Cocoa Mix recipe, I realized while talking with people that many characteristics of chocolate, and the differences in the products available isn’t common knowledge. A guide to cooking with chocolate was quickly born!

If you love chocolate, and are ready to get cooking with it, here’s the perfect intro guide for you.

The History of Chocolate

Chocolate has a long and rich history, estimated at around 5000 years, but we know very little about most of it.

According to my favorite food science and history podcast Gastropod, it’s believed to be the Olmec people, who lived in what we now recognize as southern Mexico, who first roasted and consumed chocolate.

They, and eventually other civilizations would mix roasted cocoa bean paste with water and a variety of flavors like magnolia blossom, chiles, spices, and vanilla to create a beverage. The drinks were offered to royalty and used in many religious rituals. The dried beans were widely prized and even used as a form of currency.

Cocoa was carried back to Europe by the conquistadors and grew in popularity very swiftly. However, eating it as a dessert didn’t happen for years. Most chocolate consumption was still in beverage form and was often offered up as a meal replacement or given to soldiers as a stimulant to keep them awake on duty.

It wasn’t until the 1820’s, in Switzerland, that innovation took hold of cocoa. Cocoa butter, the fat content of the beans, could now be extracted from the beans. The hard pellets left behind were ground into what we know as cocoa powder.

From that innovation, chocolate exploded. We discovered adding milk solids and created the milder milk chocolate. Nestle and Hershey’s grew into household names. Then Lindt chocolatiers discovered the conching process. It ground the beans so fine that a lusciously smooth final product, the chocolate bar we know today, could be made for the masses.

A Variety of chocolate used in cooking

Health Benefits of Chocolate

While I hardly need any convincing to eat dark chocolate, here’s a fun fact. Several studies documented that consuming chocolate with 70% cocoa solids or higher on a regular basis can actually reduce the risk of heart disease.

Sadly, for you milk chocolate lovers out there, the ratio of cocoa does have to be high to get these benefits. In the US, to label something as chocolate it only has to contain a tiny percentage of actual cocoa. Like 10% tiny. All those Hershey’s bars, Easter bunnies, and who knows what else, are mostly sugar and milk.

The Chocolate Making Process

Making those chocolate bars, milk or dark, isn’t a simple process.

First, cacao farmers split open cacao fruit. Inside the oblong, large pods is sweet, fruity, edible white pulp and a lot of seeds. The wet seeds and pulp are fermented anywhere from 2-8 days and before drying. Farmers then sell it to manufacturers, who roast and process the beans.

After roasting, the beans are cracked open to release the nibs for grinding. The grinding process produces cocoa liquor. This is basically a mixture of cocoa butter and superfine nib particles so small that our tongues can’t detect them.

From this chocolate liquor, tons of products are created. If conched (agitated) with various ingredients like sugar, milk, or vanilla the chocolate we most frequently consume is created.

Or the liquor is refined. Cocoa butter is separated from the particles, and sold to consumers or used for manufacturing different chocolate products. The particles separated from the butter are pressed into hard cakes and then pulverized into cocoa powder.

There is a huge variety available to us as consumers. Bitter dark chocolates, milk chocolate, chocolate chips, and more. You can even purchase cocoa nibs that pack a wallop of pure, bitter chocolate flavor in specialty groceries.

Dark, Milk, or White Chocolate

Let’s delve into just what the differences are between the common forms of chocolate we see.

  • Dark: The closest most of us come to eating pure chocolate. Dark chocolate is made by combining that chocolate liquor with sugar. The higher the percentage of cocoa solids, the stronger the bitter flavor will be. While I personally love an 80% bar, I have a 92% in my cupboard that is exclusively for baking, I can’t eat it! Bittersweet and semisweet chocolates are forms of dark chocolate.
  • Milk: Milk chocolate is just that, chocolate that has added milk. It’s the most consumed form of chocolate world wide, milder, and sweeter than dark chocolate. The milk solids and large proportion of sugar outweigh the chocolate content of the bar.
  • White: Since white chocolate contains no actual cocoa, just cocoa butter, milk, and sugar, it isn’t really chocolate! Also no health benefits unfortunately, but a unique and contrasting flavor, and pairs nicely with darker chocolates in many desserts.

Cooking with Chocolate – Common Forms

Most of us know what kind of chocolate we prefer to munch on. Often however, when it comes to cooking with chocolate, the bars we eat aren’t what we use.

Cocoa Powder

Cocoa powders

Cocoa powder is pure cocoa. No sugar, no cocoa butter. It packs all the flavor of chocolate in a concentrated form. Combine it with the right ingredients and the nuances of chocolate flavor develop beautifully. But not all cocoa powders are created equal. So when it comes to cooking with chocolate, what do you need and when?

  • Natural Cocoa Powder: A powerhouse of chocolate flavor, natural cocoa powder is an acidic ingredient, with a pH around 5. This is important to know when baking with it.
  • Dutch Processed Cocoa Powder: This cocoa powder comes from cocoa beans that have been treated with potassium carbonate. This raises their pH levels to 7 or 8, stripping them of the acid properties. The flavor is significantly impacted, often resulting in a milder cocoa flavor and sometimes, a baking soda-esque alkaline flavor. The darker your dutch processed cocoa, the milder the chocolate flavor will be.

In my personal baking experience, it’s better to have natural cocoa powder over dutch-processed cocoa. Natural cocoa will work for almost all baking and cooking needs, but Dutch-processed cocoa will not. In recipes that require cocoa to activate leavening agents like baking soda, dutch-processed cocoa will fail.

However in recipes that don’t require the acidic pH of natural cocoa, Dutch-processed cocoa is completely fine. Simply compensate for less chocolate flavor by using more cocoa powder. My Homemade Hot Cocoa Mix is a great example of a recipe that works with either cocoa powder.

Some uses for the powerhouse of chocolate flavor called cocoa powder are:

Chocolate Chips

Chocolate chips

Chocolate chips are convenient little morsels that many use frequently when cooking with chocolate. Invented and marketed by Nestle in 1941, the little teardrop nuggets are widely available in a massive variety of flavors.

During my last trip to the grocery store I saw semi-sweet, dark chocolate, milk chocolate, white chocolate, butterscotch, mint chocolate, caramel, and even carob chips. Many of these aren’t actually chocolate, but they are used interchangeably in many recipes that call for chocolate chips.

Chocolate chips are great for baking, they hold their shape while taking on a pleasant soft texture. Chop and sprinkle them as a topping on a cake. Most commonly, they’re used to provide little studs of chocolate flavor in our cakes, cookies, ice creams, and more.

Chocolate chips can be melted, but contain less cocoa butter than a chocolate bar. This makes them more difficult to work with than chocolate bars. For melted chocolate applications, choose bars when possible.

Chocolate Bars

A chocolate bar

Chocolate bars are ideal for a HUGE variety of baking and cooking purposes. Most of your chocolate cooking needs can be met with cocoa powder and a few good quality chocolate bars in your pantry. Here are some suggestions to use them for:

  • Chocolate chip replacements
  • Chocolate Shavings
  • Tempering/Chocolate coatings
  • Ganache
  • Brownies, chocolate cake, and chocolate cookies
  • Sauces and drizzles (including savory applications such as Mexican mole!)
  • Mousses and puddings

When working with chocolate bars or slabs, understanding the tolerance of the chocolate you’re working with is important.

  • Dark chocolate can handle more heat, up to around 200°F before it’s at risk of burning or separation. It can be melted and solidified over and over again (see why it’s the best chocolate yet?). Do be careful over direct heat, or when microwaving, stir frequently and watch your temperatures! The higher cocoa butter content also leads to a great snap in melted and cooled applications.
  • Milk or white chocolate on the other hand, due to the high levels of milk solids and low cocoa solids, are less tolerant of heat and need to be heated gently and watched carefully.

A Final Note

I want to quickly mention that not all cocoa beans are the same. Much like wine grapes will taste differently when grown in different regions, chocolate produced in different parts of the world or handled in different ways will have different flavors. One cocoa powder may have fruity, vibrant undertones, and another will be more reminiscent of fudge.

The only way to know what you like is to try them. See which brands you prefer, and stick with them, but don’t be afraid to let your palate guide you!

Go on, Go Cook!

Armed with the basic understanding of chocolate forms, flavors, and properties, I hope you can attack your next cooking project with confidence. There is always, always more to learn, so I’d be happy to answer any questions you may have. Comment below, or message me here if you need more info on the wonderful world of cooking with chocolate. Happy eating!

Cooking with chocolate: A Beginner's Guide

If you’d like to read more about the history and health benefits behind chocolate, you can visit Gastropod’s transcript here. These ladies are fantastic and I highly recommend their podcast for fellow food lovers.

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