Category Archives: All About Chocolate

10 Tips for Keeping Chocolate Fresh

HOW TO STORE FINE CHOCOLATE

We finished with Valentine’s not long ago and although most of you have polished off the last bits of your bounty by now, I know there are few of you out there that want to savor your chocolate over weeks or even months.  Or maybe you are building yourself a fine chocolate collection in the way that some people collect wine.  Either way, you’re in luck because chocolate bars can last several years when stored properly.  Years?  I know, I know, chocolate doesn’t last but a couple of days in your home, but keep in mind that chocolate can become a mess in a matter  of days if kept poorly.

So what do you need to know to preserve the best flavor and texture of your bars?  There are three main enemies of chocolate:

  • Heat
  • Humidity
  • Strong odors

You could add sunlight, but this is rarely an issue.  If you want to defeat the enemies of chocolate, just follow these ten tips:

Melted chocolate bars

Some completely abused and bloomed bars. My wife bought these on a summer road trip as a surprise for me and accidently left them in the hot car. Although these bars were beyond edible (I tried), your chocolate won’t even come close to this disaster state if you follow a few simple rules.

1.  Store your chocolate bars between about 60 and 65°F (about 16 – 18ºC).  Heat will slowly drive away aroma and then flavor.  In the extreme, you’ll get melting which can wreck the texture besides disturbing any art that’s molded into the bar.  A fat bloom can also develop as a whitish haze on the surface of the bar that, while unpleasant looking, won’t hurt you at all.  Bloomed chocolate may have poor texture, but more importantly, bloom is an indicator of poor storage.  What to do with a hazy bloomed bar?  Just taste it and see.  Rarely will you want to throw it away.  If it seems sub-par, but still edible, it can be used for baking, put into your oatmeal or crumbled on dessert.

Storing chocolate under too cold conditions may disturb the crystalline structure of the chocolate and affect texture, cause bloom, or both.  Chocolate makers take great care to create a bar where the cocoa butter and cocoa solids are intimately mixed.  Extremes of temperature can undo this hard work.  Still, I would worry less about cold than heat.

Now these are ideal conditions.  Your chocolate is not going to suddenly turn to junk at 66ºF, so don’t stress out.  Choose one of the storage methods in Tips 7 – 10 and your chocolate will stay smooth and potent.

2.   Store chocolate in a dry place.   Ideally, the relative humidity should be below 50%.  Excess moisture can condense on the bar and draw out the sugar onto the surface.  A sugar bloom, like a fat bloom, won’t hurt you and simply disturbs the texture.  Again, give it a taste to decide its fate – eat it, mix it or toss it.

3.   Keep chocolate out of direct sunlight.  Not only will it heat up the chocolate, but sunlight will also degrade flavors.

4.  Avoid strong odors.  Thou shalt not keep chocolate in your refrigerator next to the garlic and kimchee.  Chocolate absorbs strong odors like sponge.  Also keep flavored bars such as mint, coffee or Theo’s Chai Tea chocolate in a separate box away from your plain chocolate and everything will taste as it should.

5.  Have no fear of the “best by” date.  Here’s a confusing little secret of the chocolate industry:  they put “best by” dates on the bars because packaging laws say they have to, but the dates are somewhat arbitrary.  Some chocolate makers are at a loss as to what date to use, so they basically copy the other guy.  Food needs moisture to grow bacteria and go bad.  Chocolate contains very little moisture and most of the moisture it has is bound up with sugar.  So, chocolate doesn’t really go “bad” in the sense that it can make you sick when it gets old.  Does the sugar in your sugar bowl ever go bad? No.  What does happen is that the fats in the cocoa butter break down under the influence of heat, light and oxygen causing off flavors to develop [3].

With properly stored chocolate bars, nothing much happens except some flavor and aroma slowly, very slowly, go away.  Even milk chocolate bars are very stable since they contain milk solids with very low moisture [1].  Yes, the fresher, the better, but if you discover something that’s out of date, your tongue will tell you if it’s worth eating or not.  Give it a taste test.

6.  Keep chocolate out of reach of dogs.  For some dogs, chocolate acts as a powerful stimulant and they can have a heart attack.  The reaction will depend upon the dog and how much they eat.  If your Chocolate Lab eats a chocolate bar, call your vet and ask what to do next.  Don’t panic.  They may be just fine – it depends upon the dog.

Old Theo Jane Dark in Good Condition

I discovered this Theo dark chocolate bar hiding in my stash. Although it’s now 18 months out of date, with proper storage, it’s in good condition with no bloom. The flavor, while not the same as a new bar, is still enjoyable with floral notes and honey. I’ll be keeping these.

7.  Store your chocolate in tightly sealed bags in a cooler in a dry basement.  This is how I keep most of my personal chocolate stash. Put the bars into good quality freezer bags and squeeze the air out before sealing.  Then put it all into a clean cooler or insulated box.  You should put mint and other strongly favored chocolates in their own sealed box or a separate cooler altogether.  Make sure there are no odors in the cooler or buy a new cooler for the purpose.   The basement should be reasonably dry – use a dehumidifier if needed and keep the chocolate well sealed.   No basement?  The bottom of a closet is the next best option as long as it doesn’t get too hot.  Your closet is too hot? Consider Tips 8 – 10 below.

8.  Invest in a wine cooler – This is a more expensive option, but allows you to control temperature best.  Most wine coolers  will have a temperature adjustment, so you can get it up into the 60-65°F range.  You can store wine and chocolate together, but be  sure the unit is clean and dry [2].  Wrap the bars as in Tip 7.

9.  Invest in a mini fridge and dedicate it to chocolate –  You know, the kind you find in dorm rooms.  Set it on the warmest temperature (you can check with a refrigerator thermometer).  Keep it clean and wrap the bars as in Tip 7.

10.  Wrap it up well for the fridge.  If you’ve come this far and you really must insist on putting chocolate in your refrigerator along with the rest of your food, I’m going to say OK, with a few conditions.  Put the bars into freezer bags, include a paper towel and squeeze out all the air.  Put the bags into tightly sealed food storage bins (A.K.A. “tupperware”).  As before, separate the strongly flavored bars such as mint with their own bin.  When it’s time to eat some chocolate, take out only the bag you need and allow it to warm up for 1 hour or more before opening the bag. This will prevent moisture from condensing on the chocolate [2].

ENJOYING WELL-KEPT CHOCOLATE

No matter how you store the chocolate, give it about 1 hour to warm up to room temperature before opening the bag and serving.  This will bring the flavors to life.  If you just can’t bear to wait that long, then take a square of chocolate and press it against the roof of your mouth with your tongue until it starts to melt.  Enjoy the release of flavors that ensues.  Repeat until satisfied.

Should you have any questions on keeping your chocolate well, just leave a comment.

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Notes and References:

[1] We’re talking about solid bars here – not truffles or bars filled with some fruit or dairy product.  Depending upon the filling, truffles can go bad quite quickly and are capable of growing mold and all sorts of maladies.    We’ll discuss storing truffles in another post.

[2] Credit goes to Clay Gordon for the wine cooler idea.  See C. Gordon, Discover Chocolate:  The Ultimate Guide to Buying, Tasting, and Enjoying Fine Chocolate.  Gotham, 2007.

[3] Greweling, Peter ., CMB, Chocolates and Confections, Formula, Theory, and Technique for the Artisan Confectioner, 2007, Wiley.

Who on Earth Cares about Organic Chocolate?

Dark chocolate with nibs made from organically grown cacao

Dark chocolate with nibs made from organically grown cacao

Organic Chocolate Explained

Chocolate is sort of an indulgence after all and not eaten in pounds per week like apples or tomatoes, so do I really need to worry about which chocolate I put into my body?  In fact, the average American eats more than 11 lbs of chocolate a year, but probably has no idea where it comes from.  Well, chocolate grows on trees, the Theobroma Cacao tree to be exact which translates into “food of the gods.”  Cacao pods (a.k.a. cocoa pods) grow on trees found almost exclusively in the “cocoa belt,” a band 20 degrees north and south of the equator.   From these pods come beans that are fermented, dried, roasted, and transformed into that smooth, luscious solid we all know and love.

No one wants harmful pesticides in their food, but the benefits of organic chocolate go well beyond the obvious.  Cacao trees are usually found in lush rain forest environments that are homes to monkeys, sloths, wild birds and other unique creatures.  The use of pesticides endangers the rich biodiversity of these eco-systems.  If that’s not bad enough, some companies will clear cut the jungle first in order to plant cacao trees in neat rows – a procedure that is completely unnecessary to grow cacao.  The canopy trees that would normally form a natural habit for jungle animals is destroyed.

Not only are rain forest animals at risk from chemical exposure, but also humans – the plantation workers.    In some cocoa growing regions such as West Africa, where most mass-market cocoa is grown, there are fewer controls on the safety of farm workers.   When companies seek the lowest cost beans from the global commodity market, they are blind to the social issues connected to their chocolate [2].

So how can you be sure you’re getting the organic stuff?  It’s easy to pick out an organic chocolate bar from the crowd:  just look for an organic seal on the label.  You’re all familiar with the USDA certified organic seal by now, but don’t forget that chocolate is an international product.  Beans grown in the cocoa belt are transformed into wonderful chocolate in countries all over the world.  With so much excellent chocolate coming from Europe, you may also see organic seals from France:  Agriculture Biologique (AB)  or EU Organic, for instance.  You can be confident that any of these seals is credible evidence that basic organic practices are followed.

USDA Organic Seal

The familiar USDA Organic Seal

Agriculture Biologique

France's organic certification seal

EU Organic

The new organic seal of the European Union

Some have criticized organic labeling as a marketing ploy that only larger companies can afford since the certification and associated inspections cost money.  I look at it more like UL certification for electrical appliances.  Most of us are not electric engineers and are not inclined to study circuit diagrams. We just need to know that when we touch our new TV, we’re not going to get shocked.  Organic certification leaves the details to the experts and hands us the answer in an easy to understand format.  That can’t be bad.  Besides, there are numerous examples of artisan, small-batch chocolate makers with organic certification such as Taza ChocolatePacari Chocolate and others.

If you wander down to the local truffle shop, things may not be as simple.  If you’re lucky enough to find an artisan making organic truffles, there’s a good chance that only some of the ingredients, say the chocolate shell, are organic.  Have a conversation with the proprietor and understand where their chocolate comes from.  Is it organic? Is it fair trade?  If you can find such a shop, you’ve got a gem since bulk organic chocolate used for making confections is in short supply in the USA.  You may have better luck finding a website that specializes in organic and fair trade.

Does organic chocolate taste as good as “conventional” chocolate?

I’ve tasted a lot of chocolate and I can tell you yes, of course it does!  The flavor of the chocolate has to do with the variety of cacao, the diligence of the farmer and the skill of the chocolate maker.    Cacao farmers using pesticides and other chemicals can get more pods from their trees and improve profit, but this won’t help the flavor of the chocolate one bit.  In fact, organic chocolates are less likely to contain ingredients that have no place in high quality chocolate such as chemical additives or vegetable oils.  These ingredients only distract from the true flavor of the bean and help the producer lower costs.

Assuming the bar is not flavored with fruits or nuts, you should see at most four ingredients in a chocolate bar:  cocoa mass (or cocoa liqueur or cocoa solids), sugar, vanilla and soy lecithin.  That’s it.  So keep it simple – look for a simple ingredients list, look for organic certification and develop a relationship with a trustworthy proprietor and you’ll do some good for yourself and the planet.

Notes:

[1]  A version of this article was originally published as an invited guest post on Ecobold.com

[2] Fair trade is an equally important and complex topic in the chocolate world.  Due to space constraints, we’ll deal with this one another time.