How to Write Chocolate Recipes that Work (Hint: The Secret is in the Cacao Percentage)

by Alice Medrich
iStock

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.

For decades there were only one or two brands of chocolate in the baking aisle. Unsweetened was most common, and semisweet and bittersweet chocolates were similar enough to each other to be interchangeable in recipes. Food writers could (and I usually did) call for “semisweet or bittersweet chocolate” because recipes worked well with either. Today the chocolate choices are as dazzling as Disneyland and the bittersweet chocolates alone are too diverse to be interchangeable with one another. This bonanza of choice is thrilling for the nibbler, but a minefield for the cook.

When writing recipes, calling for “8 ounces of bittersweet chocolate” with no mention of cacao percentage is now like calling for “8 ounces of beef” without specifying the cut. Yet food writers do this all the time—and as a result, readers are getting recipes for desserts that may have been swoon-worthy in the test kitchen but are not reliable elsewhere.

Let’s focus on bittersweet chocolate. In a better supermarket, one can find bittersweet chocolate with 70%, 60%, or sometimes just 55% (or even less) cacao. Just as a piece of brisket will not perform like filet, a 70% chocolate and, say, a 60% chocolate are entirely different ingredients—even if both are labeled “bittersweet.” The difference between them can wreck a dessert.

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 problem

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.

Recommendations

Always include the cacao percentage when you call for chocolate as an ingredient. Do this even if you continue to use terms like “semisweet” and “bittersweet.” I try to avoid the terms because they are not used consistently among brands: some semisweet chocolates have higher cacao percentages than some bittersweets. Confusing, right? Cacao percentage is a better way to describe chocolate used in recipes, and — until the industry redefines its terms — cacao percentage is what recipe developers and cooks should pay attention to when they are creating or following a recipe.

Here are four scenarios:

1. Just say what you used. This is the simplest solution. People might cheat by a couple of points above or below in order to use a brand that they particularly like (including an artisanal chocolate), but a couple of percentage points won’t hurt.

For example:
8 ounces 60% chocolate

2. Give a range. I do this when I know from testing that both ends work beautifully.

For example:
8 ounces 60% to 70% chocolate

3. Give an upper limit. I do this when I know from testing that texture problems start at a certain percentage.

For example:
8 ounces dark, semisweet, or bittersweet chocolate (not to exceed 62% cacao)

4. Say “any percentage you like” or give a very wide range. I do this when chocolate is used in chunks (as inclusions), rather than melted and blended with the other ingredients. I might add a note to remind the cook that super-high percentage chunks are considerably more intense. I might tell them what I particularly like and why. My level of detail depends on my audience, whether it’s my own book, a magazine, or a product recipe.

No matter how you choose to do it, if you call for a chocolate in a way that includes cacao percentage, your readers will have a higher percentage (!) of success with your recipes, a higher percentage of the time. Isn’t that the point?