Everything you want to know about chocolate
On more than one occasion, I've been chastised for using obscure ingredients that only Brooklyn hipsters can buy, an accusation that never fails to crack me up—I live in rural Kentucky. Aside from the Dutch cocoa and instant yeast that I order online, virtually all of my grocery shopping happens at a tiny Kroger that anchors the local strip mall.
But you won't find me shopping for chocolate in the baking aisle, which is stocked with some truly abysmal stuff. No, I'll be a few aisles over, where chocolate bars are lined up next to other fancy snacks. If you can sift through the flavored options loaded with blueberries or mint, you'll find a decent array of plain chocolate bars that happen to be excellent for baking.
Of course, the exact selection will vary depending on the buying practices of any given grocery manager, but it takes a national distribution network to get these chocolates to Kentucky, which means there's a reasonable chance you'll find them nearby as well. And if that's not the case, all of these brands are just one click away, and a huge upgrade from baking with chocolate chips.
Theo is a Seattle-based, fair-trade, bean-to-bar chocolate company that sources most of its cocoa (and vanilla!) from the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. According to Theo, the 70% bar is kosher, gluten-free, and suitable for vegans.
Theo 70% is a sweet and fruity but versatile chocolate. Try it as part of a blend for chocolate chip cookies, or incorporate it into sauces and ganache to pair with lighter desserts, like strawberry cake or even an orange twist on this Meyer lemon ice cream.
Green & Black's
Green & Black's is another fair-trade chocolate that's easy to find in most supermarkets and bodegas. Its organic line is sourced primarily from Trinitario beans grown in Belize and the Dominican Republic.
Green & Black's 70% is smooth, rich, and none too sweet, with just a hint of fruitiness to round things out. It's a chameleon that works well in just about any recipe that calls for dark chocolate, whether it's chocolate popcorn or chocolate cream pie.
Equal Exchange is a worker-owned, fair-trade chocolate company based in Massachusetts, though its bars are manufactured in Switzerland. According to its website, its dark chocolate is kosher and vegan.
Equal Exchange 71% is rich and cocoa-forward, with a mellow bitterness and earthy flavor that feels super classic—my perfect chocolate bar for s'mores. Its straightforward profile suits a range of recipes, from brownies to devil's food cake, but its simple cocoa flavor makes Equal Exchange perfect for slicking across the back of a digestive biscuit or graham cracker, too. It also makes a balanced counterpoint to the sweetness of a homemade Pudding Pop.
Chocolove is a fair-trade chocolate company based in Boulder, Colorado. The name and cute packaging certainly suggest chocolate bars meant for snacking, and, to that end, these bars are indeed freakishly smooth and creamy. But to me, their true value is in the kitchen, where their consistency is an asset to just about any baking project.
Chocolove 65%, on the lighter end of the spectrum, is sweet but complex—the sort of thing you'd toss into a batch of double-chocolate cookies or melt into a ganache to drizzle over a chocolate cherry layer cake. If you've got my cookbook, try it as the topping for my homemade Hostess-style cupcakes.
Chocolove 70% has a tawny, dare I say tobacco-like quality that gives it an alluring depth. It's great for dairy-centric applications, like pots de crème, ganache, and chocolate buttercream, where fruitier chocolates can make the finished product seem weirdly tangy or sharp.
Chocolove 77% is bold and bright, but a little astringent; while not my favorite for snacking, it's a great chocolate for sweeter desserts that could use its acidity for balance. It works especially well in baked goods, whether melted into cake or brownie batter or chopped into chunks for cookies and quick breads, where it'll maintain its creaminess as well as any commercial "morsel."
Endangered Species is a fair-trade chocolate company that sources its chocolate from West Africa; the bars I use are certified vegan, kosher, and gluten-free. Its range of chocolate includes many flavored bars, each with its own animal mascot, but my favorite is the chimp—Endangered Species 72%. It's my go-to supermarket chocolate, with an archetypal chocolate flavor: rich and strong, bitter but not aggressively so, with a toasty finish. It's awesome in malted chocolate chip cookies, but, to be honest, I use it in just about everything.
Unsweetened chocolates tend to be unbalanced or one-dimensional, so Endangered Species 88% is about the darkest chocolate I ever reach for. The panther is an all-too-fitting mascot for this chocolate, which is powerful, elegant, and smooth, with an almost floral aftertaste. It's my favorite for high-sugar recipes like nougat and fudge, or as a last-minute addition, like chocolate shavings over tiramisu. Thanks to its sweet aroma, this chocolate is a nice match for cocoa butter cookies as well.
Though technically not as dark as Endangered Species 88%, Alter Eco's 85% packs a far stronger punch. What it lacks in nuance it makes up for in bitterness, with an intensity that could cut through even the most sugary block of fudge. Used sparingly, it can bring balance to your favorite candies, or simply offset the sweetness of a skillet cookie.
The real point is to get to know the types of chocolate your grocery store has to offer, and find out for yourself what works best for your baking routine (and your budget). So play the field, experiment with some different chocolates, and remember that their flavor will evolve in the recipe. You may not gravitate to the same types of chocolates that I do, but taking the time to buy a good-quality bar instead of chips will make even the simplest desserts a lot better.