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Chocolate Facts

Ah, chocolate! No other sugary confection elicits such a swooning response
as that which stems from those little cacao (or cocoa) beans that grow in Africa, Indonesia, Brazil, Ecuador, Togo, Mexico, Papua New Guinea, and a variety of Latin American and Caribbean countries. Tiny in size but big on flavor, these beans go from tree to factory and eventually wind up on our table in a variety of shapes and sizes, including bars, chips, and in powdered form. In response, we take these chocolate products and turn them into tasty desserts and other delights for our family and friends to share.

Cooking with Chocolate

Who doesn’t love a moist and rich chocolate layer cake or a chewy chocolate chip cookie? For centuries, cooks have been using chocolate in their recipes and the result is nearly always the same – a request for some more!
If you’re new to baking or cooking with chocolate, however, you may look at the chocolate shelf in your grocery store and feel a little confused about all the choices. There are lots of different kinds of chocolate and several different brands. And while some recipes are specific about what kind is needed, others may be less clear, leaving you to decipher the chocolate code.

What Kind do I Choose?

On your supermarket baking aisle, you’ll probably find packages of chocolate marked with the following monikers – milk, semisweet, bittersweet, unsweetened (or baking), and white chocolate. Some of them are similar to each other while others are really quite different.

White chocolate, for example, is really not chocolate at all because it has no cocoa solids in it, only cocoa butter. However, some people still enjoy using the chip form of white chocolate in cookies or like to melt white chocolate squares to drizzle over various desserts, like biscotti.

Semisweet and bittersweet chocolate aren’t so different from one another and it’s usually okay to use them interchangeably. Milk chocolate is what you would find in a common Hershey™ bar. It is sometimes used in baking but not as often as the semisweet and bittersweet varieties, which are generally used for such common goodies as chocolate chip cookies.

Unsweetened chocolate is another story. This is the kind of chocolate you don’t want to pop in your mouth and eat while you’re baking with it. It is exactly as it’s named – unsweetened and very bitter. It contains 100 percent cocoa solids and is used in recipes like brownies and other confections that contain plenty of sugar.
You’re also likely to encounter two kinds of cocoa powder – natural and Dutch-processed, though your grocery store may not carry the latter, which is mixed with an alkali to neutralize its acidity. If you need it, you may need to visit a specialty store. They can usually be interchanged with one another, but some recipes will say “not Dutch-processed” while others will ask for it in particular. The Dutch-processed variety is generally more expensive than a can of natural unsweetened cocoa.

Storing Chocolate

All chocolate needs to be kept in a cool, dry place to eliminate melting and “blooming”. When chocolate develops a bloom, you’ll see a white film that indicates the cocoa butter has separated from the rest of the ingredients. At this point, it’s best to throw it away.
However, if your chocolate is stored properly, it will last for quite some time – even up to a few years. If you’ve already opened the package, rewrap it tightly in some plastic wrap and tuck it into the corner of your pantry. Keep it away from any particularly pungent foods because it will take on other smells if they’re too close.

Melting Chocolate

Many recipes call for melted chocolate. It’s never a good idea to simply place it in a small sauce pan and melt it on the stove because scorching can easily occur over direct heat.
Some recipes will call for melting the chocolate in a double boiler. Many cooks don’t own one of those but, instead, you can place the chocolate in a stainless steel bowl and place it on top of a pan of lightly boiling water and simply stir until the chocolate is melted.
Microwaves are also ideal for melting chocolate. Simply put the squares in a microwave-safe bowl and nuke them at 50 percent power for about a minute, maybe longer depending on the quantity. At the end of the appointed time, stir it. It may not look melted at first but after you stir you may discover that the melting is complete.
Anytime you’re melting chocolate, cut it in small pieces first to hasten the melting process. If the recipe calls for semi-sweet, use chocolate chips, which melt quickly.