By Cheri Sicard
Chocolate. Could any one ingredient be more glorious? Doubtful. Chocolate inspires nearly everyone, from the youngest child to the oldest grandfather. You'll undoubtedly be using this most Fabulous Food often in your cooking. Here's what you need to know to get the most from the chocolate experience.
Chocolate comes in many forms: unsweetened, semi-sweet, bittersweet, milk chocolate and white chocolate (which technically isn't chocolate at all, but does have similarities so we'll include it here as well). Chocolate is unique among vegetables in that its fat (cocoa butter) is solid at room temperature. Since this fat melts at mouth temperature, chocolate is an excellent flavor conductor. Cocoa powder is made by separating most of the cocoa butter out of the liquor.
Similar to coffee, cacao beans are dried and roasted before being hulled. "Chocolate liquor", made from the roasted, ground cocoa bean nibs (the meat of the cacao bean) is what makes chocolate chocolate. Thus, unsweetened chocolate is pure chocolate liquor and about 50% cocoa butter. Bittersweet chocolate blends at least 35% liquor with as much as 50% with cocoa butter, sugar and vanilla. Semisweet chocolate has the same ingredients as bittersweet with the addition of more sugar. Milk chocolate, which contains about 10% chocolate liquor, takes the process a step further by adding about 12% milk solids.
White chocolate is made from cocoa butter, milk solids, sugar and vanilla. When buying white chocolate, look for a brand that contains cocoa butter. There are cheaper versions (which by law cannot be called chocolate) that don't contain any cocoa butter, but their flavor is inferior to those that do.
Store chocolate in a cool, dry place in its original wrapping or wrapped in foil. Avoid storing chocolate in the refrigerator. Milk and white chocolates will keep this way for about a year. The darker varieties will keep for several years.
Sometimes chocolate will develop white or gray "clouds" or "blooms" on its surface. This just means that the cocoa butter has separated. While it doesn't look pretty, the chocolate is still perfectly fine to use and if you plan on melting it, no one will ever know the difference.
How To Melt/Temper Chocolate
Care must be taken when melting chocolate or you can easily end up with a grainy mess. The lighter the chocolate, the higher the chances of this happening. The most important thing to remember is that chocolate melts better and faster at lower temperatures. Never let your chocolate get above 115° F.
The best method is using a double boiler (one pot that holds the chocolate that fits over another which contains about an inch of simmering water). If you don't have a double boiler, you can use a heat proof bowl which is large enough to be suspended over a pot without its bottom touching the simmering water. Simmer the water over low heat and stir the chocolate often. Remove from the heat as soon as the chocolate is melted and stir until smooth.
Be extremely careful not to get any water (not even a drop) into the chocolate. Water will turn the chocolate into a grainy, lumpy mess. If this happens, you can add a little vegetable oil in order to make it smooth again, but this will affect the flavor.
What if your recipe calls for melting chocolate along with water or some other type of liquid? That's fine, as long as the liquid is mixed with the chocolate from the beginning of the melting process, it won't get grainy on you, (but adding even a drop in mid-melting will cause this problem).
Alternatively, you can melt chocolate in a dry oven. Place grated chocolate in a metal bowl and place it in an oven set at 110° F (if your oven doesn't go that low, use the lowest temperature and keep the door ajar). Your chocolate will melt in about an hour.