Everyone loves chocolate. Even people who might struggle when naming the capitals of our fifty states can come up with Hershey, Godiva, Cadbury, Ghirardelli, Lindt, or See’s without batting an eye. Chocolate feeds our soul. But, just how does a simple cocoa bean become converted into a dark piece of heaven? The process differs between various types of chocolates.
All chocolate is made from cocoa beans as cocoa butter and cocoa solids are extracted from the beans. These are called “chocolate liquor.” The final chocolate is the result of mixing together the cocoa butter with sugar and cocoa solids in various proportions. It’s those proportions, or percentages, that determine how the chocolate will end up tasting.
Chocolate is a food, and there are strong regulations concerning those percentages. These regulations determine whether a chocolate can be labeled as milk, semi-sweet, bittersweet or by some other label. These regulations do not affect any additional ingredients added to the chocolate, such as nuts, fruits, caramel or nougat. Let’s take a look at the various types of chocolates and see how they stack up.
This is probably the best known and most favored type of chocolate. It has milk or milk solids added to the cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Hershey and Cadbury are examples of milk chocolate. It can, of course, also come in liquid form.
Dark chocolate has less milk than milk chocolate, or maybe no milk at all. It’s a simple mixture of sugar, fat and cocoa solids. Thirty-five percent of cocoa solids is considered dark chocolate. If the percentage of cocoa solids is higher, the classification will be different. (Those are considered bitter chocolates, and we will get to them.) Dark chocolate is less sweet than other chocolates, and for that reason, it is frequently used in baking recipes because it balances well with the sugar in those recipes.
Technically, white chocolate is an imposter. It’s not a real chocolate because it contains no cocoa powder. Instead, it is made of cocoa butter, milk solids, lecithin, and sugar. It doesn’t even taste like chocolate, which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t taste good. Just not like chocolate. It is very sweet tasting, more so than most real chocolates. When buying white chocolate, read the label. Some less than reputable brands substitute vegetable fat for the cocoa butter. That’s a big no-no.
This type is also called baking chocolate. It contains no sugar and by itself, can be quite bitter, as it is made of only fat and chocolate liquor. It is primarily used for baking, where the sugar used makes any extra sugar unnecessary.
Semisweet Chocolate or Bittersweet Chocolate. These are a specific class of dark chocolate. Semisweet chocolate must have twice as much cocoa solids as it does sugar. Bittersweet chocolate must have two-thirds more solids than sugar. These chocolates are obviously less sweet than other dark chocolates and are frequently used in baking. They are, however, also tasty enough to be enjoyed on their own.
What’s all the fuss about cocoa percentages?
As we’ve seen, the way different chocolates are manufactured doesn’t really vary that much, yet, recently, the percentages of cocoa in chocolate seems to engender a great deal of interest. It seems that the amount of sugar increases in direct proportion to the amount that cocoa decreases. Simply put: Less cocoa equals more sugar. This may affect flavor, but many people enjoy a less sweet chocolate. So, why does the cocoa percentage in dark chocolate matter?
The percentage label refers to the percent of the weight of the ingredients that are from the cocoa bean directly, i.e., the percentage that doesn’t include sugar or other additives. This label can help you determine the flavor and intensity of a particular chocolate bar. The more actual chocolate liquor a piece of chocolate contains, i.e., the higher the percentage, the more intensive its flavor will be. Milk chocolate is rated at 10 percent. Bittersweet or semisweet are rated at a minimum of 35 percent pure chocolate liquor. Or course, that percent can go much higher.
This is the reason dark chocolate with a high chocolate liquor percentage has been accepted by medical associations as actually being healthy, due to the decrease in sugar. Dark chocolate with a minimum of 72 percent chocolate liquor can have similar health benefits as vegetables or fruits. There have been various studies showing that groups eating dark chocolate have a lower cholesterol level than groups not eating dark chocolate. (There must certainly be a long line for these study groups that get to enjoy chocolate.) Just remember that dark chocolate does contain calories.
Chocolate probably doesn’t last too long in most homes. Just in case, however, don’t store chocolate in the refrigerator. They can readily absorb the odors of nearby food, and you could end up eating chocolate with strong hints of beef curry or Limburger cheese. Your favorite chocolates should be stored somewhere cool, dark and dry in an area that’s below 70 degrees in an air-tight container. Stored correctly, milk chocolate will last for a year, and dark chocolate will retain their luscious flavor for two years. White chocolate, that great imposter, has a life expectancy of only four months. If you are storing truffles, keep in mind that truffles have many other ingredients other than chocolate and will stay fresh for only a few months.
If you must refrigerate chocolate during those hot summer months, make sure it is wrapped tightly before placing it in a container.
photo credit: Wikipedia