For many, it is the ultimate indulgence of choice. Never mind Champagne and caviar; bring on the rich, elegant Belgian chocolate or, in a pinch, the mass-produced chocolate bar.
We all know how wonderful it is, but defining chocolate is elusive. Chocolate is an ingredient, a flavor, a candy. It begins with cocoa beans, originally harvested in Central America but now cultivated in equatorial regions around the world. The beans are fermented, roasted, shelled and crushed into bits called nibs. The nibs, which are more than 50% cocoa butter, the fat of chocolate, are ground and compressed into a mass called chocolate liquor—which with only a little further refining becomes unsweetened chocolate. Or, depending on the amount of sugar added, the chocolate liquor becomes bittersweet, semisweet or sweet chocolate, all called dark chocolate. The addition of milk solids results in milk chocolate. When about three-fourths of the cocoa butter is removed and the remaining chocolate liquor is pulverized into powder, it becomes cocoa powder.
Much like coffee, chocolate manufacturing starts with beans or blends of beans. The end product depends on how the beans are harvested and fermented, how they are roasted, and then how the chocolate liquor is processed and how much extra cocoa butter is added (for smoothness and richness). This explains why some chocolates are quite inexpensive, while others are remarkably pricey.
From unsweetened to the finest bittersweet, all chocolate has culinary uses. Because sugar and fat content vary from one variety to another, it is unadvisable to substitute one type of chocolate for another in a recipe. Take the time to find the right chocolate to suit your needs.
Buy chocolate from a store with good turnover. The packaging should be clean and neat. Avoid any that looks old, shopworn or dusty. Acceptable baking and cooking chocolate is sold in supermarkets, while specialty shops sell better, more expensive, often imported brands. Better chocolate often produces a better baked good or candy. But for many chocolate aficionados, "better" is a matter of personal taste and experimentation. Most of all, buy the kind you like. Just make sure it's the right type of chocolate (unsweetened, bittersweet, cocoa powder and so on).
Wrap chocolate well in aluminum foil and plastic wrap and store at cool room temperature. Do not keep chocolate, especially milk and white chocolates, near foods with strong odors or flavors. If you refrigerate or freeze chocolate, wrap it very carefully in a double layer of freezer-weight plastic wrap and allow it to come to room temperature before unwrapping it. When properly stored, dark chocolate keeps for up to 1 year; milk and white chocolates keep for up to 8 months.
Chocolate is nearly always melted for cooking and baking purposes. While this can be done over direct heat, you'll risk burning the chocolate. It's better to melt chocolate in a double boiler or a microwave. To speed the melting process, first chop the chocolate coarsely. Do this carefully on a cutting board using a large knife.
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Companion (Time-Life Books, 2000)