Chocolate has a long history as a glamour food, the food of the gods. The very best chocolate fetches top dollar for it’s smooth texture and pure flavour, which unfortunately means that much of the chocolate we consume is often churned into cheap confectionery and crude compound cooking blocks – sad, milk-laden versions of the good stuff. The good stuff displays it’s cocoa butter content proudly (from 33 per cent), and is a real treat to use and eat.
Store chocolate at room temperature (ideally at 20°C) in a cool, dry place, in it’s original wrapper or in foil. Dark chocolate has a shelf life of several years, while milk chocolate should be used within 12 months. Don’t store chocolate in the fridge or freezer, as it will have a greater tendency to bloom once thawed. (Bloom is the name given to the grey/white spots that appear on the surface of chocolate when the cocoa butter separates from the solids.) Why would you freeze it anyway? Eat it!
High quality chocolate is made from the cacao bean. The rarest cacao tree, whose bean is the most expensive and sought after by the world’s best chocolate makers, is the criollo (which means ‘native’), although 90 per cent of the world’s production of cacao beans comes from the forastero (translated as ‘foreigner’); trinitario (‘third’) is a hybrid of the two.
The cacao bean is fermented then dried before being roasted and ground to form cocoa liquor or chocolate liquor. Chocolate liquor is bitter and can be put aside to set to be sold as bitter chocolate. It is about 50/50 cocoa solids and cocoa butter; the solids provide the chocolatey taste in the final product and the butter provides smoothness. Next, the chocolate liquor goes through a hydraulic press that separates the cocoa butter and solids, and this is the stage when the chocolate maker applies recipes and techniques that ultimately define their brand. Commonly added are sugar, milk solids and flavours such as vanilla. The next step in the process is conching, when the chocolate liquid mass is stirred and mixed at 55-75°C to give it a smooth texture. This process causes friction between the added sugars and the cocoa, leaving a polished cocoa particle.
Invented by high quality chocolate manufacturer Rudolf Lindt, conching gets it’s name from the shell-like shape of the machine’s rollers. Lower-quality chocolates may not have been through this conching stage, resulting in a grainy, average-tasting chocolate. Others are conched for hours, even days, for a more luxurious texture. Valrhona, one of the best chocolate makers in the world, conches it’s chocolate for 5 days. The final stage in making chocolate is tempering: the chocolate is slowly heated then slowly cooled. Tempering allows the chocolate to harden properly and prevents the cocoa butter from separating. Adding flavours, conching and tempering are fine arts with idiosyncratic results. The two things to look for when you’re choosing chocolate are the percentage of cocoa liquor compared to other additives, and the percentage of cocoa butter to cocoa solids (the latter is often hard to determine from the label).
TIPS FOR MELTING CHOCOLATE
There are two methods for melting chocolate effectively:
- In the microwave: melt at 50 per cent power for 20-30 second intervals, stirring each time. Don’t omit the step of stirring, as warmed chocolate keeps it’s shape, and may look like it needs more time when in fact it has begun to melt.
- In the double boiler: bring the water to the boil in the lower saucepan, then turn off the heat. Place the chocolate in the upper saucepan or in a heatproof bowl over the boiled water and let the residual heat from the water slowly melt the chocolate. Rush this process and you run the risk of scorching the chocolate, making it stiff, lumpy and grainy.
- To add liquid to melted chocolate: heat the liquid first. If you add cold liquid, the chocolate will solidify or seize. Even the moisture from a wet spoon is enough to tamper with melting chocolate. Alternatively, you can add liquid before you start melting the chocolate and heat them both together.
- Seized? Once chocolate has seized, it is unlikely to remelt (although you can try adding a spoonful of vegetable oil which can soften the chocolate enough to continue). The best use for it then is to make chocolate sauce or ganache.
- Bloomed? Blooming often occurs when chocolate is chilled and then returned to room temperature. Chocolate that blooms is still edible with only the slightest difference in flavour and texture. You can melt it to regain it’s original texture.