Okay, time for some real talk about chocolate. Not chocolate for eating out of hand, I’m talking about baking chocolate. Because we are all baking more than ever before, and chocolate is always the number one flavor to focus on, whether it is mastering the perfect chocolate chip cookie, indulging in an awesome brownie, or going fancy with towering cakes, indulgent buttercreams, or even homemade confectionary.
So, here is the question: If you, like so many stuck-at-home bakers this year, have traded up to super premium butter and gorgeous fresh-milled artisanal flour, isn’t it time to level up your baking chocolate? Are you ready for premium chocolate?
Because friends, premium chocolate is ready for you.
First, what is premium baking chocolate?
Premium baking chocolates used to be available only to restaurants and pastry chefs for commercial use, and only in large volumes like 10-pound bars or bags! But some of the best companies are now making their products available at smaller scale for grocery stores, on their own websites, and on platforms like Amazon. And more and more cookbooks are calling for specific styles or brands of premium chocolates in their recipes. Recently James Beard Best Pastry Chef winner Kelly Fields of Willa Jean in New Orleans launched her new cookbook, The Good Book of Southern Baking, and in it she includes her nationally famous chocolate chip cookies that require three different flavors of premium French Valrhona chocolates. (Valrhona is even selling a “Willa Jean” three-pack of bars of the specified chocolates on its website.) Which is to say that there's no better time to load up your pantry for fall and winter baking with premium chocolate.
Why bake with premium chocolate?
Most of us have grown up using bags of chips and squares of unsweetened baking chocolate for our baking projects. And to be clear, there is nothing wrong with those! This is not an either/or debate, this is a yes/and expansion of your baking arsenal. Commercial chips and baking squares have a terrific nostalgic taste but are limited in their flavor profiles and can have a waxy texture (chips particularly can be problematic when melted).
Premium chocolates have a wide range of flavors, from spicy to fruity to floral, in a full range of cocoa solid levels from milky 32% to extra dark 70% to unsweetened 100%. This gives the baker amazing flexibility to craft the flavor and intensity of the finished product. They also have specialty items that are not available in most commercial brands, like caramelized chocolates, Gianduja chocolates that are blended with hazelnuts, and even some non-chocolate fun flavors like almond and passionfruit! But more importantly, with few ingredients and no additives, premium chocolates' silky texture and beautiful melting point make them a dream to work with. Plus, the added benefit of being able to chop to the size you want for any application gives you the most control of any baking ingredient. (Most of these companies also sell cocoa powder, which will be the same improvement over your usual store-brand.)
Here are some things to know about premium chocolates for baking:
Yes, they are more expensive.
Just like the aforementioned butter and flour, there is a significant upcharge associated with specialty chocolates. Think about the difference between a candy bar at the gas station, and the hand-dipped chocolates at your local high-end confectioners. These are not the chocolates to choose for the cookies your kids eat mindlessly while playing Minecraft, or the brownies for the bake sale. These are the chocolates you use for baking for more sophisticated palates, special occasions, or as an indulgence. Again, they aren’t a replacement for your everyday baking chocolates, but an addition to your chocolate pantry! They are definitely something to consider especially for your holiday baking when you do want to have everything be the best.
What to know about buying premium chocolate
Sizes and styles: Premium chocolates come in many formats—smaller baking bars, large chunks, traditional chips, and pieces that are sometimes referred to as feves, a term for a wafer or disk shape—so it’s good to know which format will serve your needs best. Baking bars are easy to break apart, whereas chunks need to be chopped by hand. Chips, wafers, or disks can usually be used anywhere a traditional chip would go. A feve is larger than you would want as a chip, but can be easily chopped by hand or in a food processor. It's also great for when you need to melt the chocolate for your recipe, since the smaller pieces will melt faster than the larger broken up bars.
Flavors: Look for flavors that inspire you, or levels of intensity that you cannot find in the regular baking aisle. Many companies sell tasting size bars more like candy bars, so before you invest in larger baking amounts, do a tasting to see what you like best! And while you will get the best value in larger formats, if you aren’t going to use a giant bag, think about splitting one with a baking pal or two.
How to store premium chocolate properly
Once you invest in a pro-level baking chocolate, keep it at its best! If you intend to use within the month, store in a dark place at a cool room temperature, preferably in an airtight container. Chocolate can pick up flavors from food items stored nearby, so keeping them in a container can prevent that. If you want to store longer, wrap well and store in the freezer.
Best premium chocolate brands to buy
Valrhona is one of the top names in premium baking chocolates, and for great reason. In business since 1922, they are one of the brands preferred by pastry chefs around the world. Their baking bars come in 6 different levels of chocolate intensity, as well as five unique flavors of “inspiration” chocolates: almond, yuzu, raspberry, strawberry, and passionfruit. Their products come in chips, feves, and bars, and can be found in select grocery stores like Whole Foods, on the Valrhona website, or on Amazon. I especially love the Dulcey, which is a mild milk chocolate, the Caramélia, a caramelized chocolate, and the deep Guanaja, and all the flavors of inspirations!
Buy it here: Valrhona Dulcey 32% Baking Bar ($12.99), amazon.com
Callebaut is a premium Belgian chocolate that is most often found in large one-pound bricks or in bags of callets or disks. They also have a wonderful range of chocolates, including a very special ruby chocolate that is naturally pink, fruity (but not fruit-flavored), and a truly special product to work with. I love their rich creamy white chocolate as well. My local Whole Foods carries the bricks, and you can source an online retailer on the Callebaut website or on Amazon.
Buy it here: Callebaut Ruby Chocolate Callets (5.5-pound bag, $87.99), amazon.com
Guittard is a chocolate company based in San Francisco, making American chocolate with French roots. They began as a local confectionary and have expanded to a national treasure. In terms of price, Guittard is that perfect mid range between traditional grocery store chocolate and super premium, and is a good place to start as you explore your new chocolate world. Available at most grocery stores, they have six different levels of chocolate chip, two flavored chips, three styles of baking wafers, and three different baking bars. I keep a good stash of these for my own baking, especially the baking wafers, which provide deliciously thin layers of chocolate for cookies. The unsweetened baking bars have become my go-to for brownies. If your local grocer doesn’t carry them, you can also source online at Amazon.
Buy it here: Guittard Organic 66% Chocolate Baking Wafers (12 ounces, $13.77), amazon.com