How to Choose Chocolate for Baking
When we reach for a piece of chocolate just to eat, it can be as easy as grabbing what’s around, or simply purchasing what we feel like eating at the moment – very dark bittersweet, a velvety milk chocolate or what have you. When we incorporate chocolate into a recipe, however, we need to think about how that chocolate harmonizes with the other ingredients, both in terms of flavor and texture. This wasn’t always the case. When I was growing up we typically had semisweet chocolate morsels in the pantry as well as some squares of unsweetened chocolate, both purchased at the supermarket. There was never a choice of brands; I would venture a guess that many of you know what the brands were and probably had them in your household too, if your formative baking years were the 1960’s and 1970’s. They worked; our chocolate chip cookies were fine as were our batches of fudge brownies. Well, the world has changed – big time! The choice of chocolate has never been greater and this is a boon to the baker as we can pick and choose chocolates best suited to the recipe at hand. But how do we choose?
High-end brands, as well as easily found commercial brands, have begun to give us cacao mass percentages right on the label. These will be represented by something that says “50%” or “65% cocoa” or “55% cacao ”; we can now find numerous bittersweet and semisweet chocolate choices in the very same supermarkets that used to offer a very limited selection. That’s a start. But the flavor profile of each individual chocolate is unique and also carries with it certain textural components. An understanding of all of these factors should be taken into account when choosing a chocolate to incorporate into a recipe.
If you are making a recipe with fruity, acidic flavors, perhaps one that includes berries or citrus, you should consider using a chocolate with the same assertive flavor notes, perhaps Valrhona Manjari or Scharffen Berger Bittersweet (readily found in Whole Foods stores). On the other hand, if you are making a recipe where the chocolate is meant to be soft and round and full on the palate, without any readily discernable flavors other than “chocolate”, then Valrhona Equitoriale or Callebaut Semisweet (sold in bulk in many supermarkets) would be better choices. The recipes will be greatly affected by your choice.
This was most dramatically revealed to me when I was making a chocolate peanut butter tart, years ago. At the time I was quite fond of Valrhona Manjari and I used it for the recipe; the results were not worth repeating! The very sharp, acidic flavors in this chocolate clashed horribly with the creamy, nutty peanut butter flavors. Particularly since we are so used to that flavor combo in classic peanut butter cup candies, my combination was especially jarring. I re-made the recipe using Callebaut semisweet and it was like night and day; this was the correct chocolate choice. Now the chocolate was harmonizing with the peanut butter, the flavors blending beautifully making a dessert that was more than a sum of its parts. One the other hand, if I am combining dark chocolate with raspberries or citrus, I reach for the Manjari every time, to great effect, and for this application, it is the perfect chocolate.
The best-case scenario is to taste chocolates and take notes. That way, when you are ready to approach a recipe, you will have an idea which chocolate would work best. This can be a work-in-progress; a chocolate notebook for your own reference points. If you want to substitute a different chocolate for one that is suggested, try to stay close to the percentage of cacao mass of the chocolate listed as possible and follow your flavor notations.
Another aspect to consider is texture. All of the chocolates I suggest are delectable to eat on their own and also work as chunks or pieces incorporated into recipes. However, when melted and blended into a recipe, chocolates “act” in very different ways. Some seem to be drier and thicker, others are fluid and smooth. In a recipe such as a ganache, where you have only one other ingredient (cream) this can be especially important.
The long story short is I urge you to use the specific chocolates suggested, where they are notated in any recipes of mine or from other sources. The recipe developers that take the time to make specific recommendations do so for very good reasons. Using different chocolates will give you variable results, and probably not positive ones.