Chocolate: Raising the Bar

by Francoise Villeneuve
Antoinette Bruno
August 2010

Chocolate is a double whammy of an ingredient. For one thing, it’s the workhorse of the pastry world and is used in one form or another in countless recipes. It plays a key role in confections from macaroons to ganaches to enrobing, and the dessert world of cakes, tarts, ice creams, sorbets, breads, cookies, and soufflés would be much poorer without it. For another, it’s the much-adored object of desire to millions; it was worshipped in pre-Colombian South America, the Toltecs believed it connected the earth and sky and our modern views aren’t so far off—whose world isn’t better off enrobed in chocolate?

Chocolate is the roasted, ground seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree. The process begins when the chocolate pods are harvested and the seeds removed from the pod and fermented. They are then dried, graded, roasted, shelled, and milled. At this point they are mixed with other ingredients; sugar, milk solids, and/or spices like vanilla or cinnamon. Soy lecithin is sometimes added to improve viscosity. The mixture is then conched, tempered, and molded.

Of course, this is a little like saying that wine is fermented grape juice—it’s a lot more complex than that. Chocolate reflects terroir like a wine, with some areas producing more citrusy product, others fruitier and bursting with raspberry and strawberry notes, and still others with a spicy flavor profile, warm with vanilla, pepper, and cinnamon.


When selecting what type of chocolate suits your needs, it’s important to note that chocolate can be labeled with variety of cacao tree, origin of the beans, and percentage of cacao. Cacao is a botanical family name or genus—there are actually three types of cacao trees. The first, criollo, is beautiful but fragile; it has a highly desirable fruit or berry-based flavor profile, but an extremely low yield during harvest, and is susceptible to disease. The second is a more robust counterpart to criollo—forastero, a disease-resistant whopper of a crop that’s earthy and a little acidic in flavor. The third, trinitario, is the result of a hot and heavy encounter between the first two, and the flavor profile varies wildly. It can be spicy, earthy, fruity, or acidic.

So you get a rough idea about chocolate’s flavor profile from its bean type, right? Wrong. Bean types are not certified on a commercial basis, so there’s no hard and fast rule to determine that the variety on the label is what you get in the bar. Long story short, select a chocolate because you like its flavor profile and it’s suitable for the culinary application, not because it’s criollo. And although it’s native to South America, it can be grown in Africa, Indonesia, and beyond.


Single origin chocolate is made from beans from one source, so for example an Ecuadorian bean might offer fruitiness, but usually would be blended with something spicier for longer finish. It’s less balanced than blended chocolate, but a good choice for rare beans that offer exceptional flavor, and gives you a general idea of the characteristics you might find in your product if you’re familiar with the beans from that area. It’s a relative newcomer to the market, only introduced on a commercial scale in the 90s.


Another thing to bear in mind when you’re picking out chocolate is the percentage marked on the label. This actually refers to cacao product within the bar, so 60% means that much of the bar by weight contains cocoa, or unsweetened chocolate, which includes cocoa solids and cocoa butter. The higher the percentage, the more cocoa and less sugar and other ingredients. If you divide the percentage on the label roughly by 2, that will give you the percentage of cocoa solids.

Chocolate liquor is just ground cocoa beans with no sugar added, and often no milk solids or cocoa butter. The most frequently used chocolate in recipes is generally semisweet, also known as bittersweet, with a minimum of 35% cacao. The best quality will have no butterfat or milk solids, but it can legally contain both. Sweet chocolate is a little lighter on the cacao at just 15-34%. Milk chocolate is lighter still, at 10-40% cacao, and is cut with milk solids and butterfat. White chocolate contains no cocoa solids, but must be 20% cocoa butter, and contains about 14% milk solids, 3.5% butterfat, and 55% sugar.

Cocoa butter is the pure processed fat from the cocoa bean and is flavor and aroma neutral, but is often used in chocolate making as its fat helps give backbone to the solid chocolate. Cocoa powder is chocolate liquor with most of the cocoa butter removed. If you buy “Dutch processed” cocoa powder, it just means the acidity has been neutralized. Couverture chocolate is a chocolatier staple, used for enrobing and any number of other applications. Sadly, there are no legal standards in US for this term, but it usually contains about a third of cocoa by weight and a third of fat. And while you may have heard that chocolate offers health benefits, hold off marking that chocolate mud pie as “healthy.” Chocolate does contain flavonoids, so it’s said to be an antioxidant, anti-inflamatory and antiviral, but to get any real benefits, you’d need to ply your diners with high percentage chocolate only – a bitter proposition.


Chocolate is a trooper, and sticks around for a long time if it’s stored in the proper conditions. It can be an expensive product, so check your chocolate regularly and follow a few simple guidelines, and you’ll end up saving money in the long run. Most dark chocolates last for up to 12 months when properly stored, but white and milk chocolate are more finicky, lasting a mere 6 months. In general it’s a good idea to store chocolate at about 65ºF. Water is chocolate’s kryptonite, so don’t even think about storing your chocolate in the refrigerator—the moisture and condensation ruins the viscosity and appearance, so take care to store it in a dry place. Chocolate can pick up other odors in the air, and oxygen causes it to start breaking down, so if you can’t vacuum seal it, and store it in airtight containers. It prefers the dark too, as it begins to degrade with light exposure. If you happen to notice a white-ish bloom on the outside of the chocolate, it’s just cocoa butter and will disappear once it’s melted or tempered. It’ll only affect the texture.

Culinary Applications

Most chocolate is tempered before use to set that snap and gloss, especially for coating or enrobing. But it has so many uses beyond that point, from the nostalgic to the frivolous and outlandish and everywhere in between.

Pastry Chef Rick Billings solidifies his status as a leading pastry chef with The Rock. He shapes a frozen chocolate “rock” by combining sweetened malted milk and chocolate and thickening it with gianduja, milk chocolate, kuzu starch, and cream. The mixture is then cooled and aerated using a siphon before being frozen. The shattered pieces form bubbly “rocks.”

Pastry Chef Jacques Torres, aka “Mr. Chocolate,” lives up to his name; chocolate plays an elegant but comforting role in his classic Chocolate Fondant, warm and aromatic from the oven, and drizzled with decadent chocolate sauce. And Pastry Chef Dana Cree’s bittersweet chocolate terrine gets a savory kick courtesy of salty sesame, but warm spices from her gingerbread pudding tie it all together at Seattle’s Poppy.

At the 2010 Flemish Primitives in Belgium, Chocolatier Dominique Persoone crafted chocolate into flights of fancy with mint-infused smoke and air propelling his whimsical UFO chocolates into the air. If you want to the magic in person, catch Persoone at the fifth annual International Chefs Congress!

The Bottom Line:

Right after alcohol, dessert is one of the biggest income earners for the restaurant owner, as its raw ingredients—milk, sugar, eggs—are typically less expensive than those of savory dishes. And even as the country recovers from the recession and lusts after novelty items like Italian bomboloni, the top 4 profit winners are alive and kicking; chocolate, caramel, coffee and fruit desserts have always been top sellers on every dessert menu, from chain restaurants to the white tablecloth culinary elite, no matter what exotic spice is the trend du jour.

Chocolate straddles the luxury and comfort food markets nicely, and as such is a smart choice for every pastry chef—the affordable high. If you’ve been following the news, you’ll notice that some key chocolate industry players are stockpiling the harvest each year to allegedly drive prices up and monopolize the market. But as cocoa itself only accounts for about 10 % of the total food cost per chocolate bar, according to a recent New York Times article, rising cocoa costs recently reported might not have much long-term effect on profit margins for chocolate desserts. Instead of skimping on chocolate quality and ordering multiple types, it’s best to order larger quantities of an all-rounder, like bittersweet or semisweet chocolate. Lower quality chocolate won’t go through the same refining processes in manufacturing and may not contain enough cocoa butter for the viscous and versatile ingredient.