The Healing Powers of Dark Chocolate

Learn how this nutritional superfood ramps up the flavor of savory dishes.

beauty shot of chocolate in various dishes

If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Except in the case of dark chocolate.

Sure, chocolate’s exquisitely decadent. But its primary ingredient, cocoa, has triple the antioxidants of green tea, helps reduce cholesterol and blood pressure, and improves insulin sensitivity.

Dark-chocolate bars — whether plain or spiked with ingredients like sea salt, bacon, nuts, and cherries — are now widely available. But as chef Jason French recently told Bon Appétit, “If you let go of what your preconception of chocolate is — which for 99.9 percent of the people is a candy bar — it becomes another culinary weapon [like cumin or butter] in your larder.”

Alice Medrich, who is credited with bringing the chocolate truffle to the United States in the 1970s, says that when you taste chocolate without all the sugar, you become aware of its deep, earthy, nutty, and fruity flavors. She compares chocolate to wine and says that, like grapes, chocolate has a terroir that reflects the taste of the soil and climate where it’s grown.

“Sometimes you’ll get some tropical fruit flavors or citrus flavors or cherry or even little hints of orange or coconut,” says Medrich, author of the cookbook Seriously Bitter Sweet. “There are hundreds of flavor components in chocolate, and they can go to the sweet or the savory really easily.”

In savory dishes, she says, the taste of chocolate is nuanced. She recommends adding chocolate to meaty sauces, like chili and spaghetti bolognese: “A tiny bit of dark chocolate melted into the sauce, or a little bit of cocoa, adds an undertone of flavor, something that people might not even identify as chocolate when eating the dish.”

Medrich also loves roasted cacao nibs — broken pieces of cacao seeds — and adds them to salads for a crunchy element. “It not only goes with some of the more bitter greens, but also with fennel, olives, and Parmesan,” she says.

With a little knowledge about how to shop for good chocolate, you can include it in your meals without guilt.

Quick & Easy

  • Chocolate Smoothie
    Chocolate Smoothie

    Add 1 to 2 tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder to your favorite smoothie recipe. (You may need to add a bit more liquid, since the cocoa thickens up the smoothie a bit.) More chocolate recipes.

  • Spice Rub With Cocoa Powder
    Spice Rub With Cocoa Powder

    Add unsweetened cocoa powder to your favorite spice-rub recipe. Don’t have one? Try this:
    1 tbs. smoked Spanish paprika
    1 tsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
    1 tsp. oregano
    1 tsp. marjoram
    1 tsp. brown sugar
    1 tsp. salt.

  • Salad With Cacao Nibs
    Salad With Cacao Nibs

    For a nutty crunch, toss cacao nibs into a salad and dress with balsamic or red-wine vinaigrette. More chocolate recipes.

  • Dried Fruit Dipped in Chocolate
    Dried Fruit Dipped in Chocolate

    Dip strawberries, pineapple, orange segments, or dried apricots in melted dark chocolate. Sprinkle with chopped pistachios or grated coconut, if desired. (To melt chocolate, put in a double boiler over barely simmering water and stir gently.) More chocolate recipes.

  • Chévre in Unsweetened Cocoa
    Chévre in Unsweetened Cocoa

    Roll balls of chèvre in unsweetened cocoa powder, and serve with berries and nuts. More chocolate recipes.

Chocolate Choices

Unlike money, chocolate actually grows on trees. The seeds found in the pods of the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) are processed in different ways to create a variety of foods:

Cacao nibs — Cacao nibs, which taste somewhat like coffee beans, are the broken pieces of cacao seeds left after the outer shells are cracked and removed. Available raw or roasted, nibs are the least-processed edible form of chocolate.








Cocoa — Cocoa is created by grinding the nibs into a mash called “chocolate liquor.” Cocoa butter and unsweetened cocoa powder are products of the liquor.








Unsweetened baking chocolate (bitter chocolate) — Made nearly entirely of cocoa butter and cocoa solids, unsweetened baking chocolate is chocolate liquor in its solid form.








Sweet chocolate — Most of the chocolate we eat falls into this category. It always contains cocoa solids (usually in the form of cocoa powder). High-quality chocolate uses cocoa butter as the fat, while low-quality chocolate uses substitute oils. Sweet chocolate contains varying amounts of sugar, but in general, the higher the quantity or percent of chocolate, the lower the sugar. The FDA states that in order for chocolate to be called dark (or even bittersweet or semisweet), it must contain at least 35 percent cacao and less than 12 percent milk solids. Milk chocolate usually has about 10 percent cacao but can have up to 40 percent, depending on the maker. Most nutrition experts agree that chocolate with 60 percent cacao or higher has the most health benefits.








White chocolate — Contains at least 20 percent cocoa butter, as well as sugar and milk, but no cocoa powder. Because it doesn’t contain any cocoa solids, white chocolate doesn’t offer the same nutritional benefits as dark chocolate.








Roasted Butternut Squash With Cocoa-Bean Peppercorn Cream

Cocoa-infused cream pairs nicely with warming spices such as black pepper, cumin, and cinnamon, and it complements a variety of veggies, including carrots, sweet potatoes, and even green beans.

Roasted butternut squash with cocoa-bean peppercorn cream

Makes four to six servings

  • 6 cups cubed butternut squash
  • 1 tbs. coconut oil, extra-virgin olive oil, or ghee
  • 1 tsp. whole cumin seeds
  • 1 cup heavy cream or coconut milk
  • 1 tsp. black peppercorns
  • 1 tbs. cacao nibs
  • Salt to taste

Heat oven to 400 degrees F. Toss the cubed squash with the oil and cumin seeds, and roast in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes, until caramelized. While the squash is roasting, prepare the cream by bringing it to a low simmer in a small saucepan. Crush the peppercorns and cacao nibs with a heavy skillet and add to the cream. Allow the cream to barely simmer over low heat for 10 more minutes. When you are ready to serve, strain the cream and pour it over the squash. Sprinkle with salt to taste.

Black Bean Chili With Chipotle and Dark Chocolate

Spicy and smoky chipotle pepper pairs well with dark chocolate.

Black bean chili with chipotle and dark chocolate

Makes six to eight servings

  • 1 tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup diced yellow onion
  • 1 cup diced carrots
  • 1 cup diced red bell pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1 tbs. ground coriander
  • 1 can (14.5 oz.) fire-roasted crushed tomatoes
  • 3 cups vegetable broth
  • 4 cups cooked black beans (or two 15-oz. cans, drained and rinsed)
  • 1 to 2 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, diced
  • 2 ounces dark chocolate (80 to 85 percent cacao content), coarsely chopped

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat, and sauté the onions, carrots, and bell peppers until softened. Add the spices, and continue to cook until the vegetables are caramelized. Add the tomatoes with their juice to deglaze the pan. Then add the broth, beans, and chipotle peppers and bring the chili to a simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in the chocolate until melted. Serve the chili with a drizzle of Mexican crema, sour cream, or Greek yogurt.

Chicken Mole

Mole is a traditional Mexican sauce that has many variations and usually takes hours to cook. This adaptation is quicker but still silky and flavorful.

Chicken mole

Makes four to six servings

  • 1 tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 chicken, cut up into pieces (about 3 to 4 pounds)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 1 cup diced onion
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1/4 cup sesame seeds
  • 3 tbs. ground ancho chilies or paprika
  • 1 tbs. ground coriander
  • 2 tbs. almond butter
  • Zest and juice of one orange
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 21/2 ounces Mexican chocolate (60 to 70 percent cacao content), coarsely chopped
  • 1/4 cup toasted pumpkin seeds, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Season the chicken with salt and pepper, and sear for three to four minutes on each side. Transfer to a baking pan (reserving the oil and drippings), cover with foil, and roast for 15 minutes. For the sauce, add the garlic and onion to the drippings in the large skillet, and sauté until they begin to soften. Add the cinnamon stick, sesame seeds, and spices, and sauté until fragrant. Add the almond butter, orange zest and juice, and chicken broth, and bring to a simmer, stirring frequently. Cook until slightly thickened, about five to eight minutes. Stir in the chocolate. Lower the heat in the oven to 275 degrees F, and roast the chicken in the sauce for 10 minutes or until the chicken is done. Garnish with the pumpkin seeds, and serve over brown rice, quinoa, or millet.


BBQ Sauce With Cocoa and Molasses

Commercial BBQ sauces are often high in sugar, usually in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. This recipe balances the sweetness of caramelized onions, tomatoes, honey, and molasses with the earthiness of cocoa powder. This sauce is best made a day in advance to allow the flavors to meld.

BBQ sauce with cocoa and molasses

Makes 5 cups

  • 1 tbs. olive oil
  • 1 cup diced onion
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 tbs. minced ginger
  • 1 jalapeño, minced
  • 1 can (15 oz.) tomato sauce
  • 1/4 cup tamari
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1/2 cup molasses
  • 1/4 cup rice-wine vinegar
  • 4 tbs. unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 tbs. smoked Spanish paprika

Heat the olive oil in a small saucepan over medium heat, and add the onions and the salt. Caramelize the onions until golden brown, then add the ginger and jalapeño, and cook until tender. Add the remaining ingredients and simmer until flavors are well blended, about 20 minutes.

Coconut Chocolate Truffles

Chocolate truffles are traditionally made with cream, butter, and egg yolks, but this simple version uses coconut milk and coconut oil. Try different flavorings such as orange or lemon zest, cinnamon, cardamom, or even a pinch of cayenne pepper. 

Coconut chocolate truffles

Makes 18 to 24 truffles

  • 5 oz. coconut milk
  • 1 tbs. coconut oil
  • 1-inch piece of vanilla bean, split
  • 5 1/2 ounces dark chocolate (70 to 80 percent cacao content), broken into small pieces
  • Cocoa powder, shredded coconut, or chopped pistachios, for decorating

Simmer the coconut milk in a small saucepan with the coconut oil and vanilla bean for five minutes. Allow to cool for three to five minutes to allow the vanilla to flavor the milk. Strain the milk. Place the chocolate in a mixing bowl, and pour in the warm coconut milk. Stir constantly with a rubber spatula to melt and incorporate the chocolate evenly as it melts. When the chocolate mixture is smooth, chill the mixture in the refrigerator until set, about two hours. Scoop the chocolate into small balls, roll in cocoa powder, shredded coconut, or chopped pistachios, and store in the refrigerator until ready to serve.

Chocolate and Cacao Nib Gelato

Cacao nibs add crunch while a dash of cayenne adds some subtle heat.

Chocolate and cacao nib gelato

Makes about 1 quart

  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 3 1/2 ounces dark chocolate (85 percent cacao content), broken into small pieces
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 1/3 cup raw cacao nibs

Heat the milk just until it begins to boil and turn off the heat. Place a small bowl over the warmed milk and use it as a double boiler to melt the chocolate, stirring gently but constantly as it melts. In a separate bowl, beat the honey and the egg yolks together until they are light yellow and creamy. Slowly stir in the warm milk, melted chocolate, cocoa powder, and cayenne. Chill the mixture for at least six hours, and freeze in an ice-cream maker according to the manufacturer’s directions. When the ice cream is almost set, fold in the cacao nibs. Transfer the gelato to a container and freeze for about an hour before serving.

Vegan Dark-Chocolate Pudding

This pudding is rich, satisfying, and dairy-free. Experiment by adding a bit of grated orange zest, a little vanilla or almond extract, or a tablespoon of peanut butter or almond butter.

Vegan dark-chocolate pudding

Makes four servings

  • 1 can (13.66 oz.) coconut milk
  • 1 1/2 tbs. potato starch
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 3.5 oz dark chocolate (70 to 80 percent cacao content), coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup chilled coconut milk, for garnish

Gently heat the coconut milk, potato starch, sugar, and salt in a heavy saucepan. When the milk is warmed and beginning to thicken, gently stir in the chocolate until melted. Divide into individual serving dishes and chill for about an hour. Meanwhile, whip the chilled coconut milk with an electric mixer, and spoon on top of the chilled puddings.

Food photography by Terry Brennan
Food styling by Betsy Nelson

Karen Olson is a Minneapolis-based writer and a frequent contributor to Experience Life. All recipes were created by Betsy Nelson (a.k.a. “That Food Girl”), a Minneapolis-based food stylist and recipe developer.

Photography by Terry Brennan

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