Chocolate is made from the podded fruit of the theobroma cacao tree, which is native to Central and South America. Each cacao pod contains 20-60 fatty cocoa beans, which are roasted and ground into a pulpy liquid called the chocolate mass. Most of the fat (the cocoa butter) is removed, and what remains (the cocoa solids) is processed to make chocolate.
To make eating chocolate, sugar is usually mixed into the cocoa solids and some cocoa butter is also added back into the mixture. Milk solids are blended in to make milk chocolate. This mixture is then heated and pressed through rollers before being conched (rapidly agitated) to make it smooth and bring out the taste. This can take anywhere between a few hours and several days depending on the quality of the chocolate. The chocolate is then tempered (heated, cooled then warmed slightly) so that it can be moulded.
This is made from cocoa solids, cocoa butter and usually a little sugar and lecithin (a vegetable based emulsifier which will bind it). The very best dark chocolate contains 70% or more cocoa solids and little or no sugar.
This combines 30-40% cocoa solids with dried milk solids, more sugar than dark chocolate, vegetable fats, an emulsifier and a relatively small amount of cocoa butter.
This contains no cocoa solids at all. It is made from cocoa butter, sugar, dried milk solids and an emulsifier. Avoid white chocolate made with vegetable oil instead of cocoa butter.
IN THE KITCHEN
To get the richest chocolate flavour in cooking, you should use a dark chocolate containing at least 70% cocoa solids. Store it in a cool, dry place - not in the fridge as this will cause the cocoa butter to separate from the solids, leaving a white bloom on the surface.
Chocolate will scorch if exposed to a high heat and seize if it comes into contact with cold liquids once melted. To prevent this happening, it is usually melted in a bowl set over (not touching) a pan of simmering water.
White chocolate is even more temperamental than dark chocolate and scorches easily. It is best to set the bowl over simmering water, then take it off the heat before adding the white chocolate and allowing it to melt slowly in the residual heat.
DID YOU KNOW?
Cocoa beans were used as a form of currency in the Aztec civilisations of South America. They were made into a bitter, chilli-spiked hot chocolate drink, and chocolate is still used in savoury cooking in Mexico.
The Spanish conquistadors brought cocoa beans back to Spain and sweetened the chocolate drink with sugar and vanilla. The craze spread around Europe, and it was the English who created the first chocolate bar. This was later refined by the Swiss who invented milk chocolate and developed the conching technique.
Cocoa butter melts at body temperature, so chocolate will melt slowly in your mouth, remaining somewhere between liquid and solid. This, together with the feel-good chemicals it contains is what makes it so irresistible to chocolate lovers.