Upscale fine-dining restaurants enjoy traveling along the cutting edge; they actually thrive on it. As we know, that is where most trends begin, because chefs like to push the envelope with ingredient flavor, texture and application—and so do diners.
That is why we are now seeing more savory items featuring chocolate pop up at some of the best restaurants from coast to coast. Chocolate is no longer reserved for decadent desserts; it has become a key ingredient for bringing out flavors in savory dishes. When developing a savory dish with chocolate, just like when working with any other ingredient, a chef or product developer needs to consider the overall balance of the food, including aspects related to bitterness, acidity, salt, intended flavor and texture, color, and sweetness.
Chocolate can do an amazing job of helping deliver balance because of its base ingredient properties. Since chocolate is made from cocoa solids and cocoa butter, it is an incredible texture-builder. It is smooth and silky, and can add texture in a number of ways. It can bring sauces together or it can replace butter, such as in a “monté au chocolat” step in place of the classic monté au buerre (whisking in some butter to finish a sauce, giving it a beautiful sheen and smoothness). The cocoa solids provided by cocoa powder can thicken sauces. Cocoa can also add a deep color, either brown or red depending on the product, which adds eye appeal to the classic Mexican mole, and often to chilies and stews. The slightly acidic bitterness of darker chocolates also helps bring out other flavors, and can really balance a dish.
Savory origins—and evolution
Chocolate, as we tend to think of it, is the rich, dark, seductive ending to a great meal. But that is not how it started out.
Over 2,000 years ago, the cacao tree was discovered in the Americas. Its seeds are now processed into cocoa powder and chocolate. But back then, the ancient Mayans and Aztecs ground the seeds with spices to make a special drink, xocoatl, for royalty and their gods. This bitter, savory beverage was spicy and not at all sweet. So, using chocolate in savory applications is not as far-out as it might sound.
Mexican cultures still embrace cacao in one of their noted sauces, mole, which has many variations. It started off as mole poblano de pollo, possibly created by nuns from a blend of over a 100 spices—as well as chocolate, chiles and nuts, among other ingredients—to create this rich savory sauce. Mole is often served over poultry, like chicken or turkey, most notably in mole de guajolote for the latter. These days, mole isn’t always quite as complex, but still often has a laundry list of ingredients. Many types of mole may be known for their use of chocolate, but it does not dominate the sauce. Staying under the point of saturation is instrumental when using chocolate as a flavor building block.
These days, savory chocolate dishes have found a new home in fine-dining restaurants. We’ve also seen an upswing in the use of chocolate and cocoa as the special finishing touch to savory dishes like chili and stew. Chocolate enhances slow-cooked foods, bridging flavors with sweetness and bitterness paired with acidity. The challenge is to balance the sweet and bitter notes and adjust the salt and acidic taste to create the intended flavor. The chocolate properties also smooth out spicy notes.
European-style recipes for wild game, like boar, rabbit and venison, sometimes feature chocolate. These game meats lend themselves to the dark, rich, complex flavors of fine dark chocolate, and the chocolate reduces the perception of gamy flavors that may not appeal to all diners. Chocolate’s rich tones and fat also add color and shine to the sauces.
Melted chocolate can be used in various commercial products and have the same impact as in fine-dining. Cocoa powder can also be used when mixed thoroughly into liquid fractions or dry spice blends. A small amount of chocolate, from 2% to 5% in a barbecue sauce, marinade, glaze or rub, is all it takes. At this level, chocolate flavors complement savory nuances by adding depth of flavor. You will notice an acidic punch. The trick is to balance the bitterness with the sweetness to create a craveable product. Dialing in the right amounts is accomplished by trial and error.
As we hear so often, more consumers are reading labels and ingredient statements. Chocolate is a friendly, but unusual, ingredient in savory. When used in these applications, it might draw interest from daring, adventurous consumers. The chocolate can either be added as a building block or a primary flavor component.
There are over 20 varieties of chocolate, but three primary varieties are commonly used:
Forastero.By far the most common of the varieties, Forastero is believed to be indigenous to the northern Amazon River basin of Brazil. As a result of its disease resistance and high productivity, it represents close to 90% of the world’s crop. It tends to have earthy, robust, relatively simple flavors with moderate acidity and is known as “bulk” cacao.
Criollo.The predominant cacao of Central and northern South America has traditionally been Criollo. But, because of its low productivity and susceptibility to disease, it now constitutes, as a recognizable variety, on the order of 0.1% of the world’s crop. It has a fragrant, floral aroma and mild, subtle flavor.
Trinitario.A spontaneous hybrid of Forastero and Criollo that appeared in Trinidad in the mid-1700s, Trinitario may be the most difficult to define in terms of flavor, due to widely varying ratios of Forastero and Criollo. Flavor notes range from spicy to earthy to fruity to highly acidic.
When choosing a chocolate, the flavor and percent chocolate liquor is critical. This is measured universally by cacao percentages. The percentages reflect the amount of cacao ingredients in the chocolate. The remainder might consist of sugar and a small amount of vanilla and soy lecithin. For example, a 70% cacao bittersweet has more cacao and less sugar than a 62% cacao semisweet chocolate. A 99% cacao unsweetened adds no sugar at all. It is bitter and astringent; a small amount goes a long way to add desired flavor.
Companies like Felchlin, Scharffen Berger, Hershey, Valrhona and Barry Callebaut sell specialty chocolates ranging from single-origin to grand cru chocolates, and from milk chocolate to the bitter 99% unsweetened. Choosing the correct flavor profile and percentage of cacao impacts both flavor and texture. Using a cocoa powder and nibs (the cleaned, roasted and slightly crushed cacao bean) brings an entirely different flavor and texture profile. Cocoa will add color, texture and flavor. The bitter, crunchy nibs add a distinctive bittersweet cacao flavor.
Products and menus
Experimenting with various chocolate forms is the best way to develop new savory applications for chocolate. Whether in a sauce, marinade or rub, or even as a finishing touch, each form of chocolate has its own way to enhance everyday dishes. Tasting equal amounts of different chocolates in warm milk can help you pick the variety and amount of cacao. Milk softens some of the chocolates that are quite bitter and can be offensive to a tender palate.
Barbecue rubs are always popular, and adding unsweetened cocoa powder really enhances the flavor, especially for lamb, pork and beef. Diva Chocolates, Clackamas, OR, has a line of grilling rubs and spice blends that all incorporate chocolate. Mocha Java Steak, Orange Chocolate Chicken, and Spicy Cocoa Rib Rub are just a few of the offerings available.
Savory chocolate sauces are also becoming very popular. Ocean States Chocolates & Confections, North Kingstown, RI, released a line of savory culinary sauces, spice relishes, salsas and jellies using quality dark chocolates with a “healthy” promotion. The company’s Savoring Chocolate line includes Port Wine Chocolate Barbecue Sauce, Chocolate Teriyaki Sauce, White Chocolate Trinity Ale Honey Mustard Sauce, Black Cocoa Red Spice Wing Sauce, Chocolate Figgy Port Relish, Cocoa Cranberry Jalapeño Salsa, Rhode Island Red Wine Hot Pepper Cocoa Jelly, and White Chocolate Honey Champagne Jelly. Its Black Balsamic Jelly includes aged Italian balsamic vinegar of Modena, pomegranate juice and black cocoa.
Chefs have also begun to use more chocolate in savory cooking. While executive chef at the Wheatleigh hotel, Lenox, MA, J. Bryce Whittlesey introduced the savory side of chocolate to diners with a sixcourse, all-chocolate tasting menu that included a lobster stock and milk chocolate emulsion served with lobster injected with butter and roasted in its shell. In other dishes, he uses the nibs and cocoa powder to demonstrate chocolate’s flavor differences and versatility. Also, Paul Kahn of Blackbird in Chicago has menued sautéed striped bass with fennel brandade, brussels sprouts, amaranth and cocoa nibs.
From fine dining to the supermarket shelves, chocolate is finding its way into more savory dishes. The next time you buy your favorite packet of taco seasoning, check the back, because you might just find cocoa among the ingredients. And, if you can’t decide how to season your steaks for your next barbecue, try a commercial rub or make a new chocolate marinade of your own. Have fun and experiment, but don’t leave chocolate for just the end of your meal.