by Donna Marie Zotter
Chocolate. A new tool in your repast repertoire.
Gastronomically speaking, chocolate is typically thought of as the centerpiece for our classically rich and decadent desserts. But recently, and with great success, popular chefs have started using chocolate as the key ingredient to elevate flavors and transform many savory dishes. Because it is added in relatively small quantities, and is of a finer quality than say, your standard candy bar, chocolate provides a silkiness rather than a sweetness to food.
When you consider chocolate’s properties — cocoa solids and cocoa butter, and that gentle bitter acidity — it’s easy to understand why chocolate performs so beautifully when added to food, especially savory plates and sauces. Cocoa solids, typically in the form of cocoa powder, thicken sauces with starch-like properties. Used in chili or stew, the cocoa powder acts as a thickening agent, and deepens sauces to an earthy reddish brown.
Perhaps this is most clearly apparent in the Mexican sauce mole (MOH-lay). Mole is a rich, thick sauce with a dark reddish-brown color. Typically used as a sauce for poultry, it is also served with pork and other meats. As varied as its uses, so too are the recipes. They are all long, and complex, but they have several common denominators — chilies, tomatoes, seeds, and spices — and chocolate. Only a small amount of chocolate is used, but it adds a unique, lush silkiness to the sauce.
When preparing finishing sauces from pan juices or marinade reductions, the bitter flavor of an even smaller quantity of dark chocolate (with at least 70% cocoa solids) acts a platform in the sauce, elevating the subtle flavors that the caramelized bits of meat, vegetables and other ingredients used to deglaze the pan create. Balance is key, and the quality of chocolate used is critical. The finest available is recommended, but the depth and complexity it creates is unmatched.
You are most likely to encounter chocolate as an ingredient in your main courses in savory dishes that typically involve game — venison, boar or rabbit. There the dark meat, with its distinctive flavor, marries well with the dark, rich complexity that the chocolate delivers. Even still, chefs are starting to add it to sauces — in small quantities — to bring out the savory flavors in roasting sauces.
Keep a couple of ounces of the good stuff (yes, it must be the finest quality dark chocolate) on hand, and when you are cooking a savory dish, try a bit of it with your sauce and experience for yourself what some of the most creative chefs are discovering about the properties of chocolate.
Donna Zotter is the founder and executive chef of There’s A Chef in My Kitchen, a portable culinary school in Harrisburg, PA.