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Learn all about this sweet confectionery, including how chocolate is made, where it comes from, how to choose the very best and what to cook with it.
Chocolate as we know it is relatively new, having been invented by Joseph Fry of Bristol in 1847.
Until then, chocolate was only available as a thick, fatty, often gritty drink that required constant stirring to keep it emulsified.
This original drinking chocolate was simply ground cacao beans. These were sometimes made into pastilles to be added to hot water or milk with sugar and spices. Fry separated the beans and fat, known as cocoa butter, and the cocoa solids.
Chocolate bars are made by adding a proportion of cocoa butter back into a greater or lesser proportion of cocoa solids in a complicated process that requires careful milling and exact changes of temperature. This creates a smooth texture. The mixture is then tempered to encourage it to crystallise and set in a way that gives both snap and shine.
Like coffee and tea plants, the tree that produces cocoa beans can be influenced by the soil and climate in which it grows, so it can create thousands of flavours.
There are three basic types of cacao trees, and many manufacturers will tell you which of these was been chosen and where it was grown:
Criollo: a tree that is known for producing beans with refined aromatics and flavours.
Forastero: this tree produces beans with robust, deep flavours.
Trinitario: a naturally occurring hybrid of the above.
As interest in chocolate grows, manufacturers are discovering exciting new varieties and variations. Today, even forastero-based chocolates can be very sophisticated and stylish, despite its sometimes wild flavours.
Want to expand your dessert repertoire? Check out our favourite chocolate recipes for fabulous cupcakes, cheesecakes, cookies and cakes.
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Purists will say chocolate should only contain cocoa solids, cocoa butter, sugar and sometimes vanilla. Some also insist on lecithin, a thickener that lengthens shelf life and improves texture. It’s common for vanilla to be replaced by vanillin, an artificial substitute that reduces cost.
Whatever the flavour, there are two tests that prove the quality of chocolate. First, it should have a noticeable shine, which is a result of tempering. Second, it should have a definite snap when broken. Filled chocolates should also have a high shine, and while it’s harder to see the shine of milk or white chocolate, these shouldn't look 'dull'.
The higher the cocoa solid content of a chocolate bar, the deeper and more bitter it will taste. However, a high cocoa solid content does not mean it's low in sugar – more may be added as the cocoa solid content increases. Check the label for more information.
Milk chocolate is traditionally sweeter than dark, with a lower cocoa solid content. However, milk chocolates have appeared recently that have a much higher cocoa solid content.
White chocolate should not really be considered chocolate, because it's largely made using cocoa butter and contains no cocoa solids.
Chocolate doesn't need to be refrigerated, but if it's hot outside, you may prefer to chill it slightly. Long-term cold storage will make the chocolate look cloudy – this 'blooming' is harmless and is unlikely to change its flavour, but can look unappetising. Kept at a cool, constant temperature, chocolate can keep for up to several months.
The expression ‘cooking chocolate’ is meaningless, as all chocolate can be used for cooking. This was once used to indicate a higher cocoa solid content with less sweetness, but as 70% chocolates are now widely available on supermarket shelves, you can choose what you like according to your preference. If the chocolate you choose does not give a deep enough colour or flavour, add a bit of cocoa powder until it's to your desired colour and taste.
Melting chocolate in a microwave is quicker than doing so over a pan of simmering water. However, do this carefully – the chocolate will be molten even though it may still hold its shape, so microwave in short bursts and stir often to avoid burning.
Watch our video on how to melt chocolate: