If you’re like many people, chocolate is not a luxury; it’s a necessity. Often considered the fifth food group, chocolate has inspired one of the most widespread and passionate of people’s love affairs with food. While the taste is nothing short of amazing, our fascination with chocolate since its discovery over 2000 years ago has included other benefits as well. Chocolate has been considered an aphrodisiac, a natural cure for the blues, part of cardiovascular health (more recently), and even a form of currency. With its rich history and particular health and social importance, we at Recipe4Living thought it only right to include a guide to chocolate. Satisfy your curiosity about chocolate’s past, how it’s made, and how you can select, store, and prepare chocolate in your own home.
A Brief History of Chocolate
Our chocolate obsession actually began many, many centuries ago with the Mayan civilization of Mexico and Central America (250-900 A.D.). But, the Mayan form of chocolate bore hardly any resemblance to what we enjoy today. Most Mayans grew the cacao tree, the source of chocolate, in their backyards, and harvested the seeds, which they then fermented, roasted, and ground. Combined with water and hot chili spices, the ground paste became an unsweetened frothy beverage regularly enjoyed as part of Mayan life.
Aztec and the Sacred Brew
The Aztecs adapted this bitter drink and even considered it the food of the gods. The word chocolate comes from the Aztec word “xocoatl,” meaning bitter drink. While most Mayans could enjoy the drink, chocolate was reserved for royalty, priests, and other members of the highest social class in Aztec culture. Chocolate was such an important part of Aztec society that cacao seeds became a form of currency.
Journey to Europe
When the Spanish, led by Hernando Cortez, conquered Mexico in 1521, they quickly picked up on the importance of chocolate to the Aztecs and started shipping it home. The Spanish added cinnamon, sugar, and other spices to the very expensive import, and kept their chocolate drink a secret enjoyed only by the Spanish nobility for almost 300 years. When Spanish royalty began marrying other Europeans, the word spread quickly and it was soon popular all over Europe, but only for the wealthy. Not until the 18th and 19th century, when sea trade expanded and chocolate began to be mass produced, could most of the middle class afford chocolate. By the late 18th century, chocolate houses were as popular as coffee houses throughout England.
Unlike many crops, the pods of the delicate cacao tree must be picked by hand, making the process of creating chocolate a laborious affair. The pods are opened one by one, and the pulp-covered seeds extracted. To reduce bitterness, cacao seeds are fermented for several days (like wine grapes), and then dried. At this point, farmers sell sacks of cacao seeds to corporate buyers, where industrial machines take over. On the factory floor, large machines roast the seeds to release the taste and aroma. The roasted seeds are cracked open to reach the nib or heart, which is then ground into chocolate liquor (not liqueur). This thick liquid, made of cocoa butter and cocoa solids, is manipulated to create the different kinds of chocolate.
Cocoa- This powdered form of chocolate, often used in baking, is made from pulverized cocoa solids with the cocoa butter removed.
Unsweetened Chocolate (Bitter/Baking Chocolate)- This is pure, unaltered chocolate liquor, made of 45% cocoa solids and 55% cocoa butter.
Bittersweet Chocolate (Semi-Sweet)- Sugar, cocoa butter, lecithin, and vanilla are added to chocolate liquor to make this kind of chocolate, which contains at least 35% chocolate liquor. Bittersweet chocolate and sweeter semi-sweet chocolate are used interchangeably in baking.
Couverture- This term is given to bittersweet and semi-sweet chocolate varieties of the highest quality. Couverture chocolates contain a higher percentage of chocolate liquor (even 70%).