When a chef names her restaurant HotChocolate, you’d expect her to know a thing or two about the fruit of the cacao tree. Fortunately, JBF Award–winning pastry chef Mindy Segal is a cocoa connoisseur, and is more than happy to expound on the virtues of dark, milk, unsweetened, and all that’s in between. If you find yourself overwhelmed by the plethora of percentages in the chocolate aisle, take heart: this excerpt from Segal’s cookbook Cookie Love details her strategies for stocking her chocolate pantry, from bars to nibs and beyond.
Also called cacao nibs, these crunchy bits come from the kernels of roasted and crushed cacao beans. They are not sweet but rather bitter and toasty. I use smoked cocoa nibs in my smoked chocolate sables, and I also make cocoa nib sugar by pulverizing a tablespoon of cocoa nibs with 1 cup of sugar in a food processor or spice grinder.
At its most basic, cocoa powder is pure chocolate stripped of cocoa butter. I use three types: natural, Dutch-processed, and black. Instant hot cocoa is not a substitute for any of them. If the cocoa powder looks lumpy, sift it before using.
- Natural cocoa is the lightest in color and carries a high level of acidity. I use it from time to time when I want a bright chocolate taste. It is traditionally called for in recipes that include baking soda, which neutralizes its acidity (baking soda needs an acid to activate).
- Dutch-processed cocoa is what I use most frequently. It is alkalized to neutralize acidity and reduce bitterness. Any time you see fancy cocoa sprinkled on top of tiramisu, it is Dutch-processed. This cocoa has a beautiful dark brown color and rich flavor. It can be used with baking powder, which doesn’t need an acid for activation.
- Black cocoa is Dutch-processed cocoa taken to the extreme. It is pitch black and very fine, and its toasty chocolate edginess is the stuff of Oreo cookie dreams.
The FDA requires that dark chocolate contain at least 35 percent cacao, and it doesn’t distinguish between semisweet and bittersweet. (I am not a fan of any chocolate labeled “semisweet.”) Yet when people talk about dark chocolate these days, they most likely mean chocolate with a cacao level between 50 and 70 percent, and higher. Fortunately, since it is vogue to do so, the percentage is on the label.
Milk chocolate has the addition of milk solids or powder. The biggest breakthrough in milk chocolate is the emergence of dark milks—milk chocolates with percentages of cacao much higher than the FDA minimum of 10 percent. If you haven’t had milk chocolate in a while, seek out a few dark milks to taste what you’ve been missing. For dipping cookies, you can make your own dark milk chocolate by filling a bowl with three-quarters milk chocolate and one-quarter bittersweet chocolate and melting them together.
Basically a block of pure, ground cocoa beans with no sugar, unsweetened chocolate is an essential building block chocolate in many of my oldest recipes. I use it to make foolproof hot fudge and equally foolproof Brownie Krinkles.
Made with cocoa butter mixed with sugar, white chocolate gets a bad rap for not being “real” chocolate. But its neutral flavor profile and rich texture make it incredibly useful. I use it to enhance other flavors or improve texture, often melting it and blending it into frostings for sandwich cookies.
Alternatives to Chocolate Chips
There are many ways to add chocolate to cookies. One way is to buy a bag of chocolate chips and dump them into the batter. But chocolate chips don’t give you the variety or depth of flavor that real chocolate will give you, and because they have additives to help them hold their shape, they don’t melt the right way. A better—but just as convenient—form of chocolate is a bag of chocolate discs, which are also called pistols, wafers, callets, coins, or fèves, depending on the brand. You can find white, milk, dark milk, and bittersweet chocolate in this form. Measuring an inch or so in diameter, these wafers are easy to use when melting chocolate, but I also like their texture when left whole and used in cookies. Chocolate chunks are also good for baking and melting or using in place of chocolate chips.
There is another way to get around using chocolate chips. I spread melted chocolate onto an inverted sheet pan lined with parchment paper and freeze it. Once frozen, I break the chocolate into shards. Then I either fold the shards of frozen chocolate into cookie dough or layer them on top of bar cookies.