Chocolate

Chocolate: Inside and Out

To make chocolate, multicolored egg-shaped pods are harvested by hand from cacao trees when they’re about six months old. Next, their seeds — or beans — and pulp ferment to deepen flavors and remove bitterness. They’re subsequently dried and roasted to elicit their aroma, color and rich flavor.

After that the cacao seeds are cracked open, revealing flavorful nibs; cacao nibs are finely ground to make chocolate liquor, which contrary to its name is actually a thick, non-alcoholic liquid of cocoa butter and cocoa solids. Sugar, vanilla and additional cocoa butter are added to the liquor during a process called “conching,” resulting in all kinds of mouth-watering chocolate specialties:

Cocoa

To make cocoa, the cocoa solids are removed from chocolate liquor, pressed into a cake, then pulverized into a powder. Dark, mild-flavored Dutch-process cocoa is treated with alkali to neutralize some of cocoa’s harsh acid compounds.

Unsweetened Chocolate

What kid hasn’t reached into the pantry and pulled out a hunk of baking chocolate, convinced they’re discovering chocolate nirvana? That first bite makes for a bitter lesson — literally! Also known as bitter, baking or cooking chocolate, unsweetened chocolate is about 45% cocoa solids and 55% cocoa butter.

Bitter or Bittersweet Chocolate

Chocolate in this category contains at least 35% chocolate liquor. The higher the percentage, the darker and more bitter the chocolate.

Dark or Semi-Sweet Chocolate

This general category usually contains 15% to 35% chocolate liquor. Think of it as gently bitter and mildly sweet.

Milk Chocolate

In this all-American favorite, milk and/or milk solids replace some of the chocolate liquor, generally less than 15%, making for chocolate that’s smooth, sweet and mild.

Honorable Mention: White Chocolate

While white chocolate — a creamy concoction of cocoa butter, milk solids, sugar and vanilla — resembles chocolate, it contains no chocolate liquor and therefore isn’t really chocolate at all.

No Fudging, Chocolate Is Good For You!

Chocolate lovers take heart! Recent findings reveal that dark chocolate is packed with high-quality polyphenol antioxidants that may promote overall cardiovascular health. Cocoa beans also contain flavonoids (like those found in tea and red wine), which promote healthy cholesterol levels and act as antioxidants. Great news!

Chocolate is also full of phenylethylamine, a naturally occurring substance in the body believed to help ward off the blues, as well as stearic acid, a unique saturated fat thought to help lower cholesterol. How’s that for proof positive that eating chocolate may make you happy and healthy?

A sweet side note: As if that wasn’t enough to convince you to dig in, chocolate also provides a slew of daily nutrients. A 1.4-ounce milk chocolate bar contains about 3 grams of protein, 7% of the adult daily value (DV) of riboflavin, 8% of the DV for calcium and 5% of the DV for iron.

How to Melt Chocolate

Ever wonder why chocolate “melts in your mouth?” The melting point of cocoa butter is just below 98.6°F, the body’s average temperature.

In order to melt chocolate properly, outside of your mouth that is, use gentle heat (115°F or less) to avoid scorching it. Here are two simples way to get the job done:

  • Double Boiler Method: Put chopped chocolate into a double boiler or heatproof mixing bowl set over a pot of gently simmering water and stir gently until the chocolate is completely melted and smooth. (Make sure the bowl doesn't touch the boiling water or the chocolate may burn.)

  • Microwave Method: Heat chopped chocolate in a heatproof bowl at half power, stopping to stir it gently every 30 seconds, until completely melted and smooth.

Chocolate tip: As you melt chocolate, watch for signs that it may be “seizing” or turning grainy. This happens when moisture — say a splash of water or a bit of steam — gets into the chocolate after it’s already begun to melt. (Note that some recipes call for melting chocolate along with liquid. This is OK, as long as the liquid is added at the beginning.)

Chocolate Trivia

  • Americans consumed over 3.3 billion pounds of chocolate in 2001 — almost half of the world's production. That's an average 11 pounds of chocolate per person per year. (The Swiss outdo Americans by eating an average of 22 pounds of chocolate products per year per person.)

  • Annual world consumption of cocoa beans averages about 600,000 tons; it takes about 400 of those cocoa beans to make each pound of chocolate.

  • Hawaii is the only US state that grows cacao beans to produce chocolate.

  • Cocoa beans were used as currency in the 1500s.

  • In the late 1800s, the Swiss were the first to develop processes for making solid chocolate candy and the process hasn’t changed much since then. Why mess with a good thing?

Storing Chocolate

  • Wrap chocolate tightly, preferably in its original wrapping, and store it in a dry place at about 65° F to 70°F.

  • Chocolate easily absorbs odors, so make sure to store it away from any items that might impart strong aromas.

  • When stored properly most chocolate has a shelf life of more than one year. Darker varieties will even keep a little longer.

  • Remember that improperly stored chocolate often develops white or gray "blooms" on its surface; they form when cocoa butter crystals within the chocolate bar have melted and migrated to the surface of the chocolate. This won’t spoil the taste, but expect it to impair the texture.