Chocolate 101: Back to Basics

By the editors of Cook's Illustrated

Learn the test kitchen's top tips for storing, chopping, and melting this sweet baking ingredient.

What is chocolate, anyway? All varieties begin as cacao beans, which are seeds found in large pods that grow on cacao trees in regions around the equator. These beans are fermented, dried, and roasted and then the inner meat (or nib) of the bean is removed from the shell and ground into a paste. This paste is called chocolate liquor (although it contains no alcohol) and consists of cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Chocolate liquor is then further processed and mixed with sugar and flavorings to make the various types of chocolate.

White chocolate is made from just the cocoa butter and doesn’t contain any cocoa solids. Sweetsemisweet, and bittersweet chocolate go through a refining process known as conching where the chocolate liquor and the other ingredients are smeared against rollers until smooth. This conching action also drives off some of the volatile compounds responsible for chocolate’s natural bitterness. Since unsweetened chocolate is rarely conched, it has a coarse texture and bitter flavor.

So now that you know more about the ingredient itself, here are three of our preferred methods for storing, chopping, and melting chocolate.

STORING CHOCOLATE

Never store chocolate in the refrigerator or freezer, as cocoa butter can easily pick up off-flavors from other foods. If chocolate is exposed to rapid changes in humidity or temperature, sugar or fat may dissolve and migrate, discoloring the surface. This condition, known as bloom, is cosmetic and not harmful—bloomed chocolate is safe to eat and cook with.

To extend the shelf life of chocolate, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and store it in a cool, dry place. Milk and white chocolates should last for six months to a year; dark chocolates will last for several years.

CHOPPING CHOCOLATE

Some chocolate is sold in large, thick bars, which can make chopping difficult. We found two techniques that help make the task easier.

WITH A KNIFE: To chop a large block of chocolate, hold a large knife at a 45-degree angle to one of the corners and bear down evenly. After cutting about an inch from the corner, repeat with the other corners.

WITH A LARGE FORK: Alternatively, use a sharp two-tined meat fork to break the chocolate into smaller pieces.

MELTING CHOCOLATE

When melting chocolate, it is best to be gentle because chocolate can easily burn or separate and become greasy. We’ve found two methods to be the best for melting chocolate: using a double boiler or microwaving it at 50 percent power.

STOVETOP: Chop the chocolate (so it melts evenly) and place it in a heatproof bowl set over a pot of barely simmering water, but be sure the bowl is not touching the water or the chocolate could scorch. Stir occasionally.

MICROWAVE: Microwave chopped chocolate at 50 percent power for 2 minutes. Stir the chocolate and continue heating until melted, stirring once every additional minute.

RECIPE FOR MEMBERS: Florentine Lace Cookies

These cookies are baked much darker than most cookies, which enhances their delicate crispiness, and a flourish of carefully melted chocolate completes the professional pastry shop effect.

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