When it comes to baking, chocolate is my favorite flavor. A well-executed chocolate cake, frosting, cookie, bar, or pie is sublime. But, when it comes to execution, without fail, baking with chocolate is tricky, costly, and sometimes very fussy.
Today, I want to share with you some very basic tips and tricks for baking with chocolate that I have learned over the years. This is not going to be a science class. This is going to be a summary of my real-life lessons, learned in the classroom of first-hand experience. Let’s dive in!
In baking, there are basically only three delivery mechanisms to get chocolate into your final product. Unsweetened cocoa powder, solid chocolate pieces (usually sold in bar or disk form), and chocolate chips or chunks (which are different than the solid chocolate pieces).
Unsweetened Cocoa Powder.
When it comes to delivering a powerful chocolate punch to whatever your are baking, unsweetened cocoa powder is the leader of the pack. This is pure, unadulterated chocolate in its most primal form, without any other ingredients to dilute or weigh it down.
Unsweetened cocoa powder is the ready to use as is, without melting, but it does not dissolve well in water. It requires fat to fully incorporate into a mixture, so oil or milk or butter is the gateway to getting cocoa powder into your batter.
Hopefully this is obvious, but unsweetened cocoa powder is not sweet. It is made from pure ground cocoa beans, and it does not have anything added to sweeten it. In recipes that call for unsweetened cocoa powder, do not be shocked by the amount of sugar called for to sweeten up the mix. Alternatively, if you find a recipe you like that uses unsweetened cocoa powder, but find it too sweet, you can reduce the sugar (within reason) and have a less-sweet end result.
When it comes to unsweetened cocoa powder, brand matters. You will definitely get what you pay for with unsweetened cocoa powder. My favorite brand is Vahlrona, and we pay a pretty penny for it at Hurley House to make our chocolate cake and cookies the best they can be. It is super dark and rich, and I can tell a difference in the end results. For home baking, unless you are on a quest for supreme chocolate flavor, anything you find on the grocery store shelf will be fine. Don’t fret if Hershey or Ghirahdelli are your only options. Carry on and bake. But, if you want to try the good stuff, you can order Vahlrona on Amazon or find it in the bulk section of Central Market.
Lastly, I know there is a whole complicated conversation centered around Dutch-processed cocoa powder vs. not Dutch-processed, and in all transparency, I have never really worried about it. Dutch-processed cocoa powder has a different chemical make up that will affect the leavening agents you use, and now we are talking about science, and I promised you we wouldn’t.
Unless a recipe specifically calls for Dutch-processed cocoa powder, I stick with the non-Dutch version. If you would like to learn more about this subcategory of cocoa powder, there are a lot of articles out there that can help. In my chocolate world, I have never had an issue using “regular” unsweetened cocoa powder.
Chocolate Baking Bars.
Chocolate Baking Bars look like giant Wonka bars, and are usually sold in 4-ounce portions. They come in a variety of levels of sweetness including unsweetened (no sugar, all chocolate), bittersweet (some sugar, mostly all chocolate), semi-sweet (more sugar, less chocolate), and milk chocolate (very sweet). They are a great source of chocolate that is more processed than unsweetened cocoa powder, but not as processed as chips or chunks.
Alternatively, in some grocery stores (or online) you can find this same product sold in disks. It’s the same idea, just in a different form. I find it much easier to store the bars, and because they come in perfect 4-ounce portions, I can easily figure out how many ounces I need for a recipe. The only advantage of the disks is that they are already in small pieces, which will facilitate faster melting.
Speaking of melting, chocolate bars (or disks) need to be melted before being added to your batter. And here’s where things get a little bit tricky. Solid chocolate cannot be melted over direct heat because it will scald and burn. Chocolate is very temperamental, requiring all kinds of high-maintenance attention, such as being melted only by indirect heat. The easiest way to do this is in a heat-proof bowl set over a pot of simmering water. The heat from the water heats the bowl which heats the chocolate. Typically, in most recipes, the butter is melted along with the chocolate during this step. You can also do this in the microwave, but I prefer the double-boiler method.
Once the chocolate is melted, oftentimes it has to cool slightly before adding it to whatever you are making. For example, some chocolate frosting recipes whip melted chocolate into a butter mixture. If you were to put freshly-melted chocolate into butter, it would melt the butter. So you have to wait. And this is why I do not make chocolate frosting using this method.
As a final note, in some cookies or bars that call for chocolate chunks, instead of buying chunks, you can purchase solid chocolate bars and chop them up hand for a more rustic, melty chocolate chunk experience.
Chocolate chips (or chunks) is processed chocolate that has a lot of added ingredients that allow the chip (or chunk) to maintain its shape during the baking process. They will definitely melt, but not as readily. Chips and chunks are most widely sold in the semi-sweet variety, but you can also find bittersweet and milk chocolate versions.
Chocolate chips have their place, particularly as the key ingredient in the best cookie ever. But they are not a suitable substitution for baking bars. They are not the same thing, and they will behave differently and really not work as a one-to-one substitution. There are some recipes for ganache or chocolate covered strawberries that specifically begin with chocolate chips, and in these cases, follow the directions! Those stabilizers come in handy from time to time in certain settings. But, if you are making brownies and don’t have baking bars, chocolate chips will not work.
White chocolate is not chocolate. Not even a little bit. But it is sold in the chocolate aisle, next to the real chocolate, and so, I will mention it here. It comes in bar form or chip form, both of which have different applications depending on what you are baking. Personally, I cannot stand white chocolate as it is so sweet I want to gag. It also reminds me of the early 1990’s when everything everywhere was speckled with white chocolate and considered fancy. No thank you. Anyway, if you choose to bake with white chocolate, the same rules for melting apply.
Obviously not chocolate, but very crucial to the chocolate-baking process, and a relative of cocoa, coffee needs to be mentioned here. Coffee is a magic ingredient that will wake up the flavor of chocolate and make whatever you are baking taste more chocolatey. Adding coffee to your chocolate baking is a secret tip that will serve you well. When done well, you will not taste the coffee at all.
There are two ways to sneak coffee into your baking. The first is instant espresso powder, which can be added at any point in the baking process (just make sure you combine it well). The second is to use cooled brewed coffee in place of water, if your recipe calls for water. I have two chocolate cake recipes that both call for water, and when I use cooled coffee instead, the flavor is much improved.
There you have it! A home-cook primer on baking with chocolate. I hope this information serves you well, and mostly, I hope you choose to bake something delicious with chocolate for someone you love.