Sure, chocolate can be exquisitely decadent. But it can also be so much more than a delicious confection. As chef Jason French 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 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 and fillers included in most candy bars, you become aware of its deep, earthy, nutty, and fruity flavors. She compares chocolate to wine and explains 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 coconut,” says Medrich, author of 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 dishes, 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 raw cacao seeds, which are processed to make cocoa and chocolate — 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.
Cacao nibs, unsweetened cocoa powder, and high-percentage dark chocolate also have some health benefits. Cacao has antioxidant properties thanks to its flavonoids, phytochemicals that are also found in tea and red wine. It’s also associated with improved mood because it boosts serotonin levels.
Still, we prefer to think of dark chocolate as an occasional treat and useful culinary tool, not necessarily a superfood. (For more info on the funding for chocolate research, go to “Is Dark Chocolate Actually Good for Us?”.)
With a little knowledge about choosing the healthiest chocolate, you can use it to add an extra dimension of flavor to some of your meals. Below, you’ll find recipes for savory dishes and a trio of tasty desserts.
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.
Makes 5 cups
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.
Makes 18 to 24 truffles
Cacao nibs add crunch while a dash of cayenne adds some subtle heat.
Makes about 1 quart
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.
Makes four servings
Food styling by Betsy Nelson
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.