A Primer on Savory Cooking with Chocolate
The first clue is to use either non-fat cocoa powder or 100% dark chocolate in small amounts when using this tricky ingredient.
Chocolate is one of our most popular and remarkable foods.
Its culinary standing is often associated with sweets – things like cakes, cookies, sauces and many other desserts. But chocolate is only sweet because manufacturers pack it with sugar or smother cocoa’s natural tastes with milk solids and other additives. In its natural state, a cocoa bean – the raw ingredient that precedes chocolate – has a remarkably rich kaleidoscope of flavors and other elements that create exciting contrasts and develop richness in a wide range of savory dishes.
But don’t get overzealous when attempting to use chocolate to thicken a sauce or prop up that chili you might have simmering on the stovetop. Aggressive use of chocolate in savory recipes or using the wrong kind of chocolate are common mistakes most people make...and it happens effortlessly and without warning.
I’ve seen chefs on reality-based cooking shows use chocolate as if they were making a dessert and forget to consider how the extra sugar affects the overall balance of the dish. Recipe books or internet recipes rarely specify what kind of chocolate the cook should use; it’s mostly a guessing game to interpret what “add 2 ounces of chocolate” means.
It’s helpful to think of chocolate more as an ingredient –like a spice – to enhance components or add contrast to flavors rather than being the star performer. And this concept is not new.
Most people know that the ancient Aztecs used chocolate to create a sacred drink or porridge-like gruel. But they also went further. Some evidence indicates cacao was used to adorn meat, fish and corn-based food as far back as 2,500 years ago. And when chocolate finally landed on the European continent, it wasn’t all about creating drinks or sweet snacks. Chefs recognized cacao as a bean that could carry many flavors and work beautifully in cooking. Spanish cooks added a hint of cacao to intermingle with crushed garlic, almonds and bread – the base of most picadas. In the Gascon region of France, chefs dropped unsweetened chocolate into stews instead of the more traditional (and disgusting) pork blood used to thicken the liquid. Italian chefs also used chocolate creatively to enhance dishes with polenta, pasta and stews made from little birds.
These culinary uses make a lot of sense when understanding what cacao is capable of – and it’s not sugary bars of chocolate chucked into a stew because it’s the trendy thing to do.
The cacao bean journey begins with the farmer, who harvests, ferments, dries and packs the beans before selling them – usually to a large cooperative. This early phase is critical. The fermentation process accomplishes two essential tasks in developing the bean into an extraordinary ingredient. Over 600 aroma molecules are unlocked by fermenting the beans (similar to the aromas found in a grape that are released through fermentation – a critical step in making wine). These volatile compounds allow us to detect fruity and nutty notes from the bean. The fermentation process also adds acidity to the equation, eventually creating a balance in tastes and flavors. But at this point, the fermented and dried bean is not pleasant to eat – it is bitter and dry.
The next step in developing the bean’s usefulness happens at the manufacturer, where the beans are roasted – either whole or broken. This roasting process eliminates harsh flavor elements through evaporation and converts or releases other aroma molecules. This process softens the cocoa bean’s flavor and develops the chocolates’ toasted or nutty side. Once roasted, the beans are crushed to create a soft substance of about 50% cocoa solids and 50% cocoa butter. This ‘chocolate liquor’ is strained, and some or all fat is separated from the solids. Cocoa powder can be made by pressing and pulverizing the solids (up to 20% fat). If made into chocolate, the manufacturer mixes the cocoa solids with the cocoa fat (sometimes other fats are included), sugar and usually vanilla and lecithin.
Chocolate and cocoa provide flavor, richness and a capacity to build structure from their starch and protein amounts. But chocolate (think chocolate bars) and cocoa powder function differently in cooking.
Cocoa powder is the primary source of chocolate’s flavor and color – it is the most concentrated version of chocolate. It has an intense chocolate taste and a pronounced bitterness and astringency, with a good amount of acidity (“Dutched” cocoa has been treated with alkaline substances and is less acidic in nature and milder in flavor). The fat content of cocoa can range between zero and up to 25%.
In practical cooking terms, unsweetened cocoa powder can be used a bit like a gluten-free flour that contributes chocolate flavor. It can be added early in the cooking process (usually with flour or gluten-free flour) and mixed with an oil to create a sort of roux that thickens subsequent liquids.
Most finished chocolate contains a certain percentage of cocoa solids, cocoa butter, sugar and usually vanilla and a tiny amount of lecithin. The percentage of cocoa is usually 50% solids and 50% fat. So, in practical terms, a chocolate bar labeled 70% has roughly 35% cocoa solids, 35% fat and 30% sugar. If you chuck a third of a chocolate bar into your chili, you add about 1 tablespoon of fat and 1 tablespoon of sugar.
Chocolate in a finished form (like a chocolate bar) should be added toward the end of the cooking process and off the heat, like popping a chunk of butter into a sauce to create thickness and a lovely shine. It is also essential to consider the amount of sugar in the chocolate because this affects the overall balance of flavor. For this reason, high percentage chocolate should be used – something like 90-100%.
When thinking about chocolate and all of its components (the roasted bean – called cocoa nib, cocoa powder, cocoa butter, and a finished chocolate bar), it becomes simple to imagine it as an excellent vegan ingredient – one that is completely underutilized. Just don’t go over-the-top-food-geek and go manic in its use.
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