There’s an art to chocolate: knowing how to cook with it, even taste it. It was a tough job, but we simply had to learn…
The history of chocolate
Way back in around 500AD, the ancient Mayans believed chocolate held mystical powers and used it in rituals, religious ceremonies and healings. The later Aztecs also valued chocolate so highly that it became a form of currency, along with gold dust. We didn’t really get to enjoy the magic until Britain’s first chocolate house opened in London in 1657. No surprise, it quickly became the place for the elite to see and be seen in. Since then it’s been over 350 years of pure indulgence, with Queen Victoria making John Cadbury her official chocolate manufacturer in 1824.
Chocolate goes on a long journey before it becomes the confection as we know it. It starts life as a fruit on a cacao tree in the tropics such as Brazil, Mexico, The Ivory Coast and Indonesia. The beans inside the fruit are harvested and fermented before being roasted in large, rotating ovens, at around 100-145°C. This heat brings out that familiar chocolatey flavour and aroma, and dries and darkens the beans, which are then ground down into a thick, bitter paste. Next, ingredients such as sugar, cocoa butter, vanilla and milk are added to sweeten it up to please our palettes. Finally, the chocolate is then tempered by stirring it, letting it cool and heating it back up again slowly. This process is repeated several times to give the chocolate a beautiful glossy look.
Know your cocoa
This has a high content of cocoa solids and no (or very little) milk. As it has the highest cocoa mass of all chocolate, it’s less fatty and so best for baking.
Great with: caramel, mint, cherries, chilli and Parmesan.
Made by mixing cocoa solids with a high content of milk solids. The milk dilutes the cocoa, giving a lighter, creamier taste.
Great with: dessert wines, hazelnuts and soft cheeses such as ricotta and Brie.
The key ingredient in white chocolate is cocoa butter – the fat found in cocoa beans – rather than the usual cocoa solids.
Great with: sherry, Prosecco and fruits such as strawberries, lemons and peaches.
How to taste chocolate
- Store chocolate in a cool, dry place, away from other foods as it will absorb strong aromas. You can keep it in the fridge but, if you do, keep it covered to prevent moisture getting in and hampering the flavour.
- Before tasting, bring the chocolate to room temperature; too warm and it will go soft. Too cold and its ability to melt and release flavour will be affected.
- Break it up. Good chocolate is flavoursome enough to experience in little pieces.
- If you’re tasting a variety of chocolate (lucky you), start with the lightest in colour and work up to darker ones, to set your tastebuds up to experience more intense, complex flavours.
- Pay attention to the aroma (roasted? floral? caramel?) and its texture (velvety? grainy? creamy? waxy?), and the order in which you experience the flavours – each chocolate will have its own unique beginning, middle and end. Note any flavours that linger behind.
- To taste chocolate properly, hold it on your tongue at the roof of your mouth and just let it melt. Mmmmm.
How to temper chocolate
‘Put simply, tempering is a way of melting chocolate that controls the crystallisation of the cocoa butter, resulting in a smooth, shiny chocolate that has great flavour and a pleasing “snap”,’ says M Kitchen chef and master chocolatier Graham Mairs. ‘Once you’ve mastered the art of tempering, you’ll be on your way to making your own truffles, moulds, ganaches, pralines and unique desserts. Chocolate that’s not been tempered correctly will be grainy and discoloured. Rule number one: don’t overcook the chocolate – it will ruin the taste and texture.’ Here’s how to melt chocolate like a pro.
- Chop the chocolate evenly – one of the most important rules in tempering chocolate, because this will ensure it heats evenly, too. Then put two-thirds of the chocolate in a clean heatproof bowl.
- Heat around two inches of water in a pan then place the bowl of chocolate on top, so it sits just above the water. Turn off the heat and stir the chocolate gently.
- Now for the scientific part: you need to check the temperature of the chocolate with a cook’s thermometer. The optimum melting point you’re looking for is 38-40°C for white and milk chocolate and 40-42°C for dark.
- Once it’s reached the desired temperature, remove the bowl from the pan (ensuring no water gets into the bowl) and ‘seed’ it slowly by adding the remaining chopped chocolate. Pop a thermometer in and keep stirring the chocolate until it reaches 28-30°C for white and milk chocolate and 30-32°C for dark. If the temperature drops below the desired point, simply place the bowl back on top of the pan and slowly reheat until the temperature rises. It’s now ready to use.
Create impressive desserts and cakes with this chocolate decorating masterclass from Graham Mairs.
Did you know…?
…chocolate can have as many different, complex flavours as a wine or coffee? Check out this tasting wheel, for a beginner’s guide on what to watch out for.
Meet our expert
M Kitchen head chef Graham Mairs is a master chocolatier. So as Britain really is a nation of chocolate lovers, munching through a whopping 660,900 tonnes of it each year, he was the perfect person to teach us how to really appreciate the sweet stuff.