Chocolate. It’s everywhere. We know how to enjoy it, but not all of us know how best to work with it in the kitchen.

Chocolate is actually an emulsion, or a suspension of cocoa solids in fat, and that’s one of the main reasons cooking with it can be tricky. So you have to take a little care, especially when it comes to heat.

I spoke with Matt Dixon, co-owner and head chocolate-maker at Washington-based chocolate company Harper Macaw, who shared a few tips on how to get comfortable working with chocolate.

Here’s a primer on how you can get the best out of this wonderful ingredient.

Understanding percentages. The percentages you see on labels indicate how much of the chocolate came from the cacao bean. The rest can come from milk, sugar or other ingredients. That’s why dark chocolates have a higher percentage and milk chocolates have a lower one. Many factors can contribute to the flavor of the chocolate, and that can even vary among chocolates of the same percentage. Still, generally speaking, you can expect chocolate to be less sweet as the percentage goes up (which is why unsweetened is close or at 100 percent and not usually what you want to eat on its own).


(Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post; food styling by Bonnie S. Benwick/The Washington Post)

Melt with care. Gentle heat is the way to go. “The cocoa solids are really sensitive to heat,” Dixon says. They’re not well protected by the fat and other ingredients in chocolate, leaving them particularly vulnerable to scorching. “There’s very little space between something that’s delicious and something that’s totally trash.” The absolute safest method is to use a double boiler. You don’t need anything fancy, merely a heatproof bowl you can set over a saucepan with a few inches of not-yet-boiling water. Make sure the water doesn’t touch the bottom of the bowl, work over low heat and stir occasionally until the chocolate is fluid.

The microwave is another option. Depending on how much chocolate you’re melting, start by microwaving on high for anywhere from 30 to 60 seconds. Stir, scrape down the bowl and continue microwaving in 15- to 20-second bursts, stirring in between. You don’t have to wait until the chocolate has completely melted in the microwave. If it looks almost done and you can stir down the rest in the residual heat, you’re set.

Seizing. This is a risk you run when using a double boiler to melt chocolate, which occurs when liquid is introduced to melted chocolate. (Of course, there is always going to be water, and therefore the potential for seizing, in the kitchen, but don’t let that deter you.) As Cook’s Illustrated explains it: “When chocolate is melted, its ingredients — mainly cocoa powder, sugar, and cocoa butter — disperse evenly, creating a fluid mass. But if even a tiny amount of moisture is introduced, the liquid and the sugar will form a syrup to which the cocoa particles will cling, thereby creating grainy clumps.” You can prevent seizing by not letting liquid get into your melted chocolate, or by melting chocolate from the start with any liquid-containing ingredients a recipe calls for. If it does seize, the solution is counterintuitive: Cook’s recommends adding 1 teaspoon of boiling water at a time, stirring vigorously, until it’s smooth and fluid. The watered-down chocolate can be used in hot chocolate or chocolate sauce.

Don’t assume you can substitute chocolate chips for chopped chocolate. Chocolate chips are formulated to help them keep their shape and prevent them from separating when heated. That’s great in, say, a chocolate chip cookie. Dixon says you can get away with using chips in baked goods (or something like this fudge) where there are a lot of other things going on. But if you’re making a ganache or candy or any other dish where the melted chocolate is a starring ingredient that needs to behave exactly as melted bar chocolate should, skip the chips.

Chop efficiently. Don’t ask me why, but my default for chopping chocolate is a standard crosshatch pattern, breaking up large bars into pieces and then making my way through them by cutting them one way and then rotating my knife 90 degrees. Food editor Joe Yonan advocates working diagonally through the bar, gradually chipping away at the corner. This automatically gives you smaller pieces, almost shards, that take less effort to form and will melt more easily. I typically use a chef’s knife, but you’ll find plenty of proponents of serrated knives for this task.


(Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

Easy decorating. If you’re a fan of “The Great British Baking Show,” you’ve probably seen the triumphs and tragedies of trying to decorate with chocolate. The results often hinge on tempering chocolate, which involves melting and cooling chocolate in a specific way so the fat crystals form themselves into the right kind of pattern. Properly tempered chocolate is smooth, shiny and snappy. If you’re up for a challenge, go ahead and try it. (There are also methods that are designed to mimic tempering but employ added fat, such as vegetable oil, to help the chocolate set.) But it’s just not something most of us home cooks are interesting in doing.

That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun decorating with chocolate. Simply melting chocolate and then drizzling it adds immediate pizzazz to a wide array of desserts. Dixon suggests grating, too, which gives you an elegant dust that can be lightly sprinkled or heaped in a pile. I’ve had pretty good success just using the small holes on a box grater, but Dixon also endorses a hand grater, some of which are marketed for chocolate specifically. (Microplane lists 21 on its site as suitable for chocolate.)

Chocolate curls are another possibility. Professionals often form them after tempering chocolate, though you can do a more rustic version at home. It can take a little practice, so be sure you have enough chocolate on hand. In the Food Lab, we microwaved chocolate in very short (15 seconds or less) bursts. You don’t want to melt the chocolate but soften it ever so slightly so you can form a curl that doesn’t break. After each burst, we used a Y-shaped vegetable peeler to form the curls. If they cracked, we gave the chocolate more time in the microwave. We found that a thicker chunk of chocolate (Cook’s says it should be at least an inch thick) worked better than thinner bars.

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