How to Write Chocolate Recipes that Work: (Hint: The Secret is in the Cacao Percentage)
First published October 2014
All of us who create recipes for publication know that the job doesn’t end when we pull something out of the oven that is just too delicious for words. We are not done until we do have words: a written recipe that enables a cook to make the dish successfully in his/her own kitchen.
To that end we are as specific as possible in listing ingredients and describing every aspect of the preparation. We need enough details to increase the odds of success, but not enough to scare the cook. We don’t leave pan sizes and oven temperatures to chance. In baking we call for cake flour, or all-purpose flour, or another specific flour because the type of flour we use can make or break a cake. We don’t simply call for “cheese,” leaving the reader to wonder whether we mean ricotta or cheddar. We would never ever simply call for “8 ounces of beef”—because the reader needs to know whether to buy brisket, short ribs, or filet.
Chocolate seems to be an entirely different story. Chocolate is a more complex ingredient than it used to be and recipe developers, editors, and publishers have not kept up.
How cacao percentage affects recipes
The higher the cacao percentage, the less sugar and more dry cocoa is in the chocolate. For the sake of simplicity, we can ignore the fat (cocoa butter) in the chocolate because it’s the dry cocoa and sugar that cause most problems in desserts and baked goods. When you nibble plain chocolate bars, those with higher cacao percentages will simply taste less sweet and more intensely chocolate. But when any chocolate is melted and incorporated into a recipe, the sugar and dry cocoa in the chocolate interact with the other ingredients; any change of cacao percentage affects that interaction.
We know that in addition to being a sweetener, sugar retains moisture and softness in baked goods and desserts. Cocoa tends to be drying—because it absorbs available moisture—and bitter. If we change the quantities of sugar and cocoa in a recipe—and this is exactly what happens when we switch from one chocolate to another with different cacao percentages—we affect the texture as well as the sweetness and flavor of the result.
Example: The Perfect Mousse
Let’s say you create a perfect chocolate mousse in the test kitchen, working with a bittersweet 60% cacao chocolate (such as Ghirardelli). But, when you publish the recipe, the ingredients list calls for “8 ounces bittersweet chocolate.” What will happen if a reader uses a bittersweet 70% chocolate, such as Guittard or Scharffenberger? From your experience nibbling and comparing chocolate bars, you might assume that the reader’s mousse will just be a bit less sweet and more chocolaty, but still delicious. You would be mistaken.
The differences in sugar and cocoa between 70% and 60% bittersweet are significant enough to destroy your mousse. Using 8 ounces of 70% chocolate will have an effect similar to subtracting about 2 tablespoons of sugar from the recipe and adding 3 to 4 tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa. In other words, it would be like decreasing the sweet moisture-giving ingredient in the recipe while increasing the bitter and drying ingredient! Your fabulous well-tested mousse will be dry and grainy and bitter. If it were ganache or a sauce instead of mousse, the result would be curdled. A cake or torte would be overly dry, a pudding would be gummy.
If chocolate dessert recipes are to work consistently for more readers more of the time, it’s important for ingredients lists to be specific. Terms like “bittersweet” and “semisweet” and “dark” chocolate do not convey enough information.