The best ingredients: Chocolate
When I was about 11 or 12 I remember watching Delia Smith making a cake on TV. I can't remember what type of cake she was making, but I do remember her saying "Put good things in and you'll get good things out".
This is a motto I live by in the kitchen and all of my ingredient selections are based on this basic principle.
So, chocolate. I use a fair amount of chocolate in the kitchen so using the right stuff is key. If you've ever tasted good quality chocolate and cheap chocolate one after the other you'll know there is a big difference in flavour. To understand where this difference comes from, it helps to understand how chocolate is made.
Chocolate begins with the harvest of cacao pods. The pods are harvested by hand and are split open to reveal the cocoa beans, which is surrounded by a fruity pulp. The beans and pulp are scraped from the pods and left in baskets to ferment for two to eight days. This is crucial as the fermentation process mellows the flavor of the beans and imparts the fruity undertones of the pulp. Without fermentation, the beans would be too bitter to enjoy. Many high-quality chocolates have a long fermentation process, which can be tasted in the floral, fruity notes of the final product. If a manufacturer wants to save time and money, it'll be a shorter fermentation, so from here on in, they're working with sub standard cocoa.
After fermentation, the beans are spread in a single layer and left to dry completely before being packaged and shipped to chocolate manufacturers around the world.
After the beans arrive with the chocolate maker, they are roasted to bring out the chocolate flavours. After roasting, the beans are transferred to a winnower that removes the shells and leaves the “nibs”, which are full of cocoa solids and cocoa butter.
The nibs are ground to a thick, rich paste called chocolate liquor, which is the foundation for all chocolate products, and it begins to look and smell like chocolate as we know it. The liquor is pressed to remove the cocoa butter, which leaves a powdery disc known as “cocoa presscake.” Presscake, when pulverized, becomes cocoa powder.
And next up is the key stage. The process varies depending on the recipe and formulation of each manufacturer. If the chocolate is low quality, the pulverized presscake will be mixed with vegetable fats, sugar, and flavorings to become substandard chocolate. If the chocolate is going to be higher quality, cocoa butter will be re-added to the chocolate liquor, along with other ingredients like sugar, vanilla, and milk. And you can really taste the difference.
My chocolate choices
In my kitchen, I use Callebaut Belgian chocolate. Firstly, because they use great ingredients to maintain the quality of their chocolate. They use cocoa butter and milk to make their milk and white chocolate. They don't use vegetable fats, as cheaper brands do. And you can absolutely taste the difference. They also have a growing range of organic chocolate, which is fantastic.
Secondly, because they are part of the Cocoa Horizons Foundation. Not only does the foundation support the conventional principles of fair trade or paying farmers a decent wage and educating them on how to grow a better harvest sustainably, the foundation also supports education, keeping kids in schools, women's rights, child protection and health in their farming communities.
Finally, because I can buy in bulk, the chocolate comes in comparably small amounts of packaging, and I'm always keen to reduce the amount of plastic waste we create.
Choosing your own chocolate
So, how can you find the right chocolate to eat or use in your cooking? Well, you need to read the packaging.
For all 3 varieties of chocolate, the higher the percentage of cocoa solids, the better. For brands you'll find in your supermarket, Green and Blacks do this better than anyone else. However, in dark chocolate you can buy 85% cocoa solids. That may be too bitter for you. I tend to use dark chocolate around the 70-75% mark.
To get a bit more spedific, here's what I avoid:
Any brand that lists the sugar as the first ingredient. This usually means it is the largest ingredient by percentage and dark chocolate shouldn't have much, if any, sugar in it. It certainly shouldn't be the biggest ingredient.
Vegetable fats, especially palm oil. Good chocolate is made with cocoa butter. Poor quality chocolate uses vegetable fats instead to bulk it out, and that will affect the flavour and texture.
'Flavouring'. Unless you're specifically buying a flavoured bar (like mint or orange) dark chocolate should not contain flavourings.
If in doubt buy Green and blacks organic dark chocolate of Tesco 74% Ivory coast dark chocolate (a steal at £1 for 100g!)
Sugar as the first ingredient. In milk chocolate there will be more sugar, but it still shouldn't be the largest percentage. Too much sugar really alters the texture of the chocolate, as you'll know if you've ever tried American chocolate!
Vegetable fats again, especially palm oil. This is even more common in milk chocolate and really does affect the taste and texture. Look for cocoa butter.
Skim Milk powder. The good brands will list milk or milk powder. If a brand is listing skim milk powder, it's going to affect the quality of the chocolate. If you taste whole milk and skim milk, you can taste a big difference and you'll taste that in your chocolate too.
If in doubt buy Green and Blacks organic milk chocolate or Waitrose 1 intense milk chocolate.
Low cocoa solids. Anything less than 25%, don't bother. Its not chocolate.
Vegetable fats listed ahead of cocoa butter. That means there is more vegetable fat in your chocolate than chocolate.
Skim Milk powder. As with milk chocolate, you'll taste the difference, but this will be even more obvious in white chocolate.
Artificial vanilla or vanilla flavouring. Try to find a bar with vanilla extract or vanilla pod listed as the ingredient.
If in doubt buy Green and Blacks organic white chocolate or Willie's Cacao White Chocolate for eating and Menier white chocolate patissier or Tesco finest cooking white chocolate with vanilla for cooking.
I am a firm believer that treats should be rewarding, satisfying and maybe even exhilarating, and you're not going to get that from rubbish chocolate full of vegetable oil.