How do you know which chocolate will be right for your culinary adventures? Chocolate used for cooking can be separated into two main categories, baking chocolate and cocoa powder.
Baking chocolate comes in many forms, from solid bars to chocolate chips. Many chocolate purists will not purchase a chocolate bar unless the label states it contains at least 70 percent cacao, meaning that 70 percent is pure chocolate and the rest is made up of cocoa butter, sugar and other ingredients. Cacao generally refers to the seeds of the cacao tree, which are pounded and roasted to form a paste. Baking chocolate can be used in sweet recipes, like cookies, or savory ones, like Mexico’s famed mole sauce.
Cocoa powder is made from ground and roasted cocoa beans that have been pressed to remove most of the cocoa butter and fat. Two types are widely available: natural cocoa powder and alkalized. Natural cocoa powder is simply that—no other ingredients have been added. Alkalized (aka Dutch-process) cocoa powder goes through a process which raises its pH, resulting in a smoother, less astringent taste. Natural cocoa powder is best when a recipe calls for baking soda, and alkalized cocoa powder works better for recipes with baking powder. The reason for this is that baking soda needs an acid to react properly, and alkalized cocoa powder has much less acid than natural cocoa powder.
When baking chocolate recipes like brownies and cake, you most likely want a strong, rich chocolate flavor. Look for baking chocolate with at least 60 percent cacao. With general interest in food and cooking at an all-time high, many delicious baking chocolates can now be found at your regular grocery store. Currently my favorite brands are Scharffen Berger and Ghirardelli.
As far as cocoa goes, I stock my pantry with regular Hershey’s Natural Cocoa Powder as well as a box of 70 percent Valrhona Cocoa Powder (a high quality French cocoa powder available at specialty stores like Surfas or online at Valrhona). The Valrhona can be very strong (and pricey) so what I normally do is mix the two types together.
Lower quality baking chocolate can be much more obvious to the palate than cocoa powder. The best way to find your favorite is to whip up a couple of batches of brownies, using a different brand of chocolate for each. I’ve found that while I dislike the taste of Hershey’s baking chocolate, their cocoa powder is quite acceptable.
Baking is a science and an art. With a little preparation you will be able to play and experiment just as easily as a regular chef does. For example, recently I had all the ingredients for my favorite brownie recipe ready to go—except for baking chocolate! I did have some cocoa powder, however, and was able to substitute the cocoa (plus a little added butter) with stellar results. Chocolate is an extremely versatile food, and I will be exploring the many ways you can use it in the coming months.
– Kate Steffens
Kate Steffens is a pastry chef, writer, DJ, artist, designer and all-around Renaissance woman. She is a graduate of the California Culinary Academy and the University of Texas at Austin. She runs the rock-and-roll chocolate company, Straight Outta Chocolate. When she's not elbow deep in chocolate, you can find her reading, gardening, working on art projects and listening to old records.