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Chocolate: an expert guide

Everything you need to know about chocolate. Find out what it is, the difference between varieties, and our top tips for cooking with it

Chocolate, like wine and coffee, is affected by where and how it’s grown as well as how it’s processed. Cacao trees grow in the tropics, so most beans come from South and Central America, the Ivory Coast of Africa, and Madagascar. Cocoa was originally a rainforest plant that has been well adapted to being farmed, mostly on a small scale. As with wine and coffee, the more care that has gone into growing and processing, the better the quality of the final product.

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MELTING CHOCOLATE

Melt chopped chocolate in a bowl set over a pan of simmering water, without letting any water condense and drip into the bowl. Stir it gently and once it has started to liquefy, turn the heat off and keep stirring. Or use a microwave, making sure you heat the chocolate in short bursts until it starts to melt, and then stir it.


MAKING CHOCOLATE

Cocoa pods are harvested by hand when they’re deemed ripe enough, and the pods on each tree ripen all year round. The seeds and pulp are extracted and then fermented (different varieties need a different fermentation processes to bring out their flavour) and dried. The beans are then graded by size and quality and at this point are normally shipped to manufacturers.

The beans are then cleaned and roasted before being cracked into nibs and their shells removed by winnowing. They’re then ground to make cocoa liquor which, when melted, separates into cocoa butter and cocoa mass. When solid, the mass is unsweetened chocolate.

Cocoa mass is processed to make it into a more refined product; cocoa butter can be extracted or more added, and the chocolate can be sweetened and flavoured. The texture is enhanced by conching, and when chocolate is made into shapes and bars it needs to be tempered.


COOKING WITH CHOCOLATE

Chocolate can be a tricky ingredient to cook with, particularly if it’s high quality with a high percentage of cocoa butter. Cooking chocolate may have the percentage of cocoa butter reduced, and another fat added that doesn’t need tempering, it’s also sweetened.

When you choose a chocolate to cook with you need to bear in mind what the recipe is. High-quality chocolate with little sugar will need enough sweetness in the recipe to taste good, and if you use a chocolate containing lots of sugar
in a recipe that specifies a high percentage chocolate (75% or above) then the end result may taste very sweet.


DROPS, BUTTONS, CHIPS AND PISTOLES

Chocolate made specifically for cooking is often sold in equal-sized pieces, this allows it to melt at a uniform rate, and saves you having to chop it. Chocolate chips you buy in small packs in the supermarket however are not good for melting, they are usually formulated so they won’t melt easily and will keep their shape in cakes and biscuits. They often taste a bit waxy.

Chocolate glossary

When you’re buying chocolate it’s useful to understand a few key terms. Bars of high-quality chocolate may also include information such as the name of the bean variety, the country of origin, percentage, conching and roasting time, and the date of harvest.

BLOOM
The greyish-white streaks you sometimes see on chocolate. This is the cocoa butter rising to the surface and the only way to get rid of it is to temper the chocolate again, though it won’t make it taste different and you can use it perfectly well when cooking.

CACAO
The Theobroma cacao tree produces cacao pods (fruit) that contain cacao seeds (also called cocoa beans).

COCOA NIBS
Broken pieces of fermented, dried, roasted cacao beans once they’ve had their shells removed.

CHOCOLATE LIQUOR
Milled cocoa nibs, also called cocoa mass, this can be liquid or solid and is the cocoa particles suspended in the cocoa butter.

COCOA BUTTER
Is extracted by pressing chocolate liquor. Very expensive, the higher percentage there is in chocolate or cocoa, the better the flavour.

COCOA POWDER
Once cocoa butter has been extracted from chocolate liquor, what’s left is pressed into a cake and ground to a fine cocoa powder.

PERCENTAGE
This is the percentage of chocolate liquor plus the cocoa butter and cocoa powder contained in chocolate. The higher the percentage of these ingredients the less room there is for sugar.

CONCHING
This is a process whereby the chocolate is heated to form a dough, then rolled or beatento develop flavour, lower moisture content and squeeze fat out.

TEMPERING
Chocolate is heated and cooled to exact temperatures to control the crystalisation of cocoa butter and give the finished chocolate both shine and snap. Tempering is both an art and a science.

Check out our best ever chocolate recipes for ways to chocolate cooking inspiration


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this week the team have been  travelling around the Pyrénées in search of chocolatines (and more) in this podcast addition

olive magazine podcast ep53 – sarnies with Max, beer and cheese with Big Al and the food of the Pyrénées