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How to cook with chocolate

How to cook with chocolate

Chocolate can be dated back to Central America almost 4,000 years ago when cacao was made into a frothy drink, usually with spices added to it. Packed full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, it was drunk for its health-giving properties in religious ceremonies – the Aztecs even used cacao beans as a currency.

It wasn’t until the exploration of Christopher Columbus in the sixteenth century that chocolate was brought to Europe, where it quickly became a popular drink with the addition of sugar or honey served in chocolate houses across Europe. In 1828, a cocoa press that could powder chocolate was invented, and it was only a matter of time until the first chocolate bar was created. But it was not until 1879 that Lindt introduced the first conching machine which could heat and agitate chocolate, decreasing acidity and improving the flavour. Finally in the early twentieth century industrialisation brought down the price of chocolate, and Cadbury’s Dairy Milk made chocolate accessible to all.

Three things determine the quality of chocolate – the genetics of the bean, the post-harvest process and the way in which the chocolatier makes the chocolate. Of the three types of cacao (Forastero, Trinitario and Criollo), Forastero is the hardier strain and has a higher yield of cacao pods. As a result it accounts for more than eighty-five percent of the world’s cacao crop, but it is somewhat bland and often acidic. Most is grown on the Ivory Coast. The various strains of Trinitario and Criollo beans are where you'll find the most interesting flavours. They are like fine wines – over 400 flavour notes have been identified in cacao. During the post-harvest, the cacao is fermented at temperatures up to 52˚C to develop the flavour of the beans. This is a critical step, but only the best beans tend to be properly fermented and dried for cost reasons.

Once in the factory, most chocolate is made in a continuous industrial process that takes a few hours at high temperatures. However, the best beans will be chosen by artisan producers who make the chocolate in small batches at lower temperatures, taking days or even weeks in order to preserve the precious flavour notes of the beans.

Chocolate is one ingredient that will simply never go out of fashion. Most chefs will have a chocolate dessert on their menu year-round and it is a favourite in kitchens for its versatility. And, of course, it tastes delicious!

What to look for when buying chocolate

Chocolate varies greatly in quality. The best cacaos have deep, complex flavours that could be softly nutty, brightly fruity or with toasted caramel notes. The real fun in cooking with chocolate is when you start pairing these flavour profiles with other ingredients.

The best way of checking quality is by looking at the packet and ingredient list. If it doesn’t say where the beans come from then they are likely to be a blend of commercial beans that will have a vaguely chocolatey flavour without distinct notes. Single origin beans mean they come from just one country, but that is a bit like saying 'French wine'. To get the best, you are looking for single estate beans – old strains that come from a specific farm and have their own unique flavours. These are the fine wines of the cacao world.

Look to see if there is any soya lecithin – this is a sign of industrially made chocolate. Soya lethicin is a processing aid which allows the chocolate to flow better through the factory machines and leaves a distinct aftertaste. Vanilla is often added to create a general background flavour, too, but the best chocolates avoid it as it would hide the natural flavour notes of the beans.

In white chocolate, which is made with cocoa butter instead of cocoa solids, vanilla is even more problematic for cooks as you are often combining it with more subtle ingredients (and you don’t want the vanilla to overpower everything). Look for white chocolates made with natural (not deodorised) cocoa butter and no vanilla. In all chocolates you need to avoid bars which substitute cocoa butter with vegetable fats as they will be poor quality – this is most likely to be found in milk and white chocolates.

Finally look at the percentage of cocoa solids that different recipes need. In savoury cooking you will usually be using 100% pure cacao, or chocolate with a very high percentage. Classic dark chocolate is around seventy percent cocoa solids, while milk chocolate cannot have less than twenty percent in order to be called chocolate at all.

Chocolate usually comes in bar form but it is available in pellets and drops for cooking. Look for chocolate that is certified fair trade or is directly traded to ensure the farmers have received a fair price for their beans.

How to cook with chocolate

Chocolate can be used as an ingredient in most recipes with no preparation at all. The main area to watch out for is melting chocolate, when you need to be very careful (particularly with milk and white chocolate). If a recipe calls for chocolate to be tempered, this is a skill to be mastered in itself.

Recipes by professional chocolatiers such as Paul A Young or intricate patisserie will often require using couverture chocolate and careful tempering before use. Though quite a technical skill, all you really need is a thermometer and a little confidence. It involves slowly heating and then slowly cooling the chocolate so that the fats crystallise uniformly and the chocolate ‘snaps’ rather than crumbles when broken. Once tempered, the chocolate can be piped or turned into cylinders, shards and curls. Always use the best quality chocolate you can find as this will affect the taste of your final dish. A higher cocoa content will result in a greater depth of flavour.

There are no strict rules about baking with chocolate, partly because its uses are so varied, from chocolate sponges to chocolate ganache and even caramelised chocolate.

Uses

The applications for chocolate are seemingly endless. Paul Heathcote’s Chocolate pots are wonderfully simple if you are strapped for time or if you would like to move on to something more adventurous have a go at Lisa Allen’s challenging Dark chocolate cylinder. Paul A Young makes wonderful chocolate truffles such as Pimms cocktail and gingerbread-spice ganache. Daniel Clifford makes a tempting Chocolate soufflé while Paul Ainsworth keeps it cool with a Chocolate sorbet. There are also chocolate mousses, brownies and cakes to be enjoyed when cooking with chocolate and don’t forget savoury chocolate recipes like Marcus Wareing's Vension with chocolate.

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