A winning combination

by Donna Berry
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Chocolate, in its many variations, has long been a favorite ingredient in desserts and various sweetened applications ranging from milk to breakfast cereal. With an increasing number of culinary professionals willing to explore new uses for old favorites, chocolate ingredients are making their way into savory applications — in every­thing from appetizers to condiments to center-of-plate proteins.

A few years ago, the National Confectioners Association (NCA)’s Chocolate Council, Washington, DC, surveyed a range of food industry experts who confirmed a growing interest in using chocolate ingredients in main courses such as salmon, chicken and steak. That interest is now showing up on menus across the country.

It’s no wonder, according to Susan Whiteside, vice-president of communications at NCA. “There are so many chocolate ingredients to choose from,” she said. “And the basic flavor of chocolate is very versatile in cooking. It provides for some surprising flavor combinations — especially when chocolate is infused with spices, salts, herbs and floral flavors.”
Understanding chocolate

The category of chocolate ingredients includes many different products, all derived from cocoa beans. The least refined is the cocoa nib, which is the center (meat) of the bean. Additional processing of cocoa beans results in the production of chocolate liquor, cocoa butter and cocoa powder, all of which may be recombined, with or without other ingredients, and further processing, to yield a range of chocolate ingredients that vary in color, flavor and even potential health benefits.

The health benefits are associated with the naturally occurring polyphenol antioxidants found in the cocoa bean. These antioxidants remain relatively concentrated in some chocolate ingredients, primarily cocoa powders and dark chocolates, both of which are complementary to savory applications.

“Chefs tend to associate chocolate with sweet desserts,” said Harold Plein, a food industry consultant based in Des Plaines, Ill. “After all, milk fat, sugar, vanilla and cocoa liquor are a hard combo to beat. But if Europeans had not sweetened cocoa long ago, we would still be using it as more of a spice or seasoning, like it is often used in many of the regions where it is grown.”

Jenna Derhammer, applications and innovation scientist, Blommer Chocolate, East Greenville, Pa., added, “People think of cocoa and chocolate as being sweet, when in fact, cocoa and chocolate liquor, which are the ground beans, can be bitter, sour, nutty, fruity, and even smoky or cheesy, depending on the region where the beans are grown. These are the flavors that work well in a savory dish, as cocoa adds complexity without overwhelming other flavors. It is normally a flavor that people cannot quite put their finger on since it’s not typically associated with savory recipes but it works very well as a background flavor.”

Indeed, cocoa adds complexity to food systems because it is one of the most intricate flavors in the food supply. “Chocolate contains more than 1,500 flavor compounds,” explained Jim Reynolds, research chef, Charlie Baggs Inc., Chicago. “If one were to isolate and sniff the different compounds on their own, one would pick up aromas of substances that smelled like potato chips, peaches, cooked cabbage, tallow, honey and even human sweat. This is why it is so difficult for flavor chemists to emulate the flavor. But it also allows chefs to pair chocolate with food, any food.”
Getting creative

Finding new non-sweet ways to incorporate natural cocoa and dark chocolate into the diet may be beneficial to health, according to the Hershey Center for Health & Nutrition, Hershey, Pa. The chocolate authority promotes the fact that more than 250 studies show that incorporating moderate amounts of natural cocoa and dark chocolate as part of a healthy, balanced diet may reduce inflammation and improve arterial function and blood flow. By using chocolate ingredients in meals and snacks, it is possible to increase polyphenol intake without the added fat and sugar calories associated with desserts.

The company’s culinary specialists have developed recipes using chocolate and cocoa in all types of savory applications, including sauces, glazes and entrées. For example, chicken enchiladas with chocolate sauce feature Hershey’s Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips. A taco recipe includes Hershey’s Cocoa, cumin, red pepper flakes, cayenne powder and chili powder. Chicken wing glaze gets an extra layer of flavor when cocoa is combined with ketchup, onions, Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, mustard and hot pepper sauce.

“Chocolate can add dimension to savory dishes by providing a unique richness that you cannot get from any other ingredient. The goal to keeping it savory is to not get it too sweet,” said April Seale, an independent chef based in Houston. “At the same time, chocolate contributes to a smooth texture and deep, robust color. It also can help balance other ingredients without being overpowering. For example, when you dip bacon-wrapped jalapeño peppers in chocolate, the heat of the pepper mellows slightly, allowing for the smoke and salt from the bacon to be better tasted. The chocolate flavor is secondary.”

Adding 2 to 3 tablespoons of natural cocoa powder to 3 quarts of chili adds fullness and balance, according to Ms. Derhammer. “Some people even add milk chocolate to chili,” she added. “Cocoa powder is also very good in a spicy jerk sauce, as it cuts the sharpness of hot peppers and ginger and adds a subtle sour and bitterness.”

Mr. Plein echoed this sentiment. “The natural sweetness found in some varieties of chili peppers will counter, especially when roasted, some of the bitterness of the cocoa bean,” he said. “It’s that same bitterness that makes unsweetened chocolate appealing to use in savory applications.”

Chocolate ingredients also pair well with meats. “The bitterness of chocolate pairs well with the rich, fattiness of beef,” Mr. Reynolds said. “For instance, beef short ribs braised with a small percentage of cocoa results in an accentuation of flavor of the beef while bringing complexity to the dish to help overcome the richness of the meat.”

Ms. Seale agreed that chocolate and red meat is a natural pairing, and even better when red wine enters the picture. “Red wine goes very well with chocolate,” she said. “I make a finishing sauce for grilled beef ribs that combines red wine with grated, bittersweet chocolate and cocoa powder. It is seasoned with smoky paprika, thyme, black and cayenne peppers, and pink peppercorns.”

Some coq au vin recipes use chocolate as an undertone, bringing a level of sophistication to the dish, Mr. Reynolds said.

Ingredient selection

Chocolate and cocoa ingredients come in many industrial forms, but this is not to say that the retail canister of cocoa powder or the vending machine chocolate bar doesn’t work magic. Depending upon the application and the operation, culinary professionals need to experiment to determine their best option.

“Natural cocoa powder works best in savory applications because it is easy to incorporate and just a little bit has a lot of flavor impact,” Ms. Derhammer explained. “When chocolate is used, the viscosity of the finished product must be considered, as some melted chocolate ingredients could make the mouthfeel of the finished product too thick and heavy. This also impacts mouth coating and flavor release.”

Research Chef Shane Zimmerman at Charlie Baggs added, “Depending on the type of chocolate or cocoa used, certain attributes can be exploited to achieve a desired result. For example, white chocolate, with its high fat content, can be used as a finishing fat. It’s similar to the culinary term of monter au beurre, but in this case it would be ‘monter au chocolat.’ White chocolate can also add a creamy texture to sauces or purees.”

Chocolate ingredient suppliers offer a number of specialty products, too. For example, culinary specialists who want to formulate sweeter foods with chocolate but prefer to keep calories low may want to explore the relatively new stevia-sweetened dark chocolate from Barry Callebaut, Chicago. In developing the ingredient, the company replaced sugar with an all-natural sweetener solution composed of dietary fibers, the natural sugar alcohol erythritol and a stevia-based sweetener, which alone offers zero calories per serving.

Another recent development that may assist with minimizing the addition of sugar to recipes is a new line of Dutch dark cocoa powders from Cargill, Minneapolis. The Dutch dark range of powders uniquely combines an intense dark color with a smooth, chocolaty taste, which means it is not necessary to add sugar to mask the bitterness that may be associated with dark powders. The powders come in a variety of high- and low-fat formulations, allowing for the opportunity to innovate and develop new recipes in all food categories, according to the company.

And if delivering polyphenols is your objective, both Barry Callebaut and Mars Botanical, Rockville, Md., offer chocolate ingredients with standardized high levels of the beneficial antioxidants.

With so many chocolate ingredient options, Mr. Zimmerman said he believes the popularity of chocolate in savory applications will continue to grow. “As the high-end, fine-dining trends trickle down to the mass public audience, savory applications for chocolate will see an upswing in popularity,” he said. “The key for chocolate’s savory success is to start with familiar and safe foods to incorporate chocolate. Things such as spice rubs and mainstream sauces such as barbecue or moles are great ways to introduce chocolate’s savory side to the general public.”

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