Chocolate: It’s not just for desserts anymore.
Using it as a sweet is a relatively new association, says Richard Tango-Lowy, master chocolatier and owner of Dancing Lion Chocolate in Manchester. In South and Central America, the traditional way of using chocolate was to grind it up and use it in soups or sauces or on top of wild turkey or fish.
“Chocolates from those regions are typically more complex and savory than we’re used to, so it’s beautiful with food,” he said.
Before moving to Warner last year, Sarah Kenney, food and travel blogger for thymefoodblog.com, spent four years in Houston, Texas, and encountered many dishes with South American and Mexican influences that incorporated chocolate into braised meats, chilis and stews.
“What I’ve had before pairs more bitter chocolate with hardly any sweetness,” she said.
Chocolate’s umami (the taste in food that’s not sweet, sour or bitter) pairs well with savory dishes, Tango-Lowy said. Its full and almost meaty flavor puts it on par with fish, mushrooms, meat and soy sauce.
“You can do some really neat things with chocolate in a savory dish,” he said.
Check your notions at the kitchen door
One thing limiting many people from playing with chocolate in appetizers, sides and entrees is the idea that it’s just for dessert.
“Most of what we taste is perception, not taste and flavor,” Tango-Lowy said. “If you get that out of your brain and taste it as an ingredient, that will lead you to where and how you want to use it.”
In desserts, chocolate is often the dominate flavor, but it doesn’t have to always be the prominent taste in a dish.
“Chocolate is used in chilis, in stews, not necessarily for taste but for texture,” Kenney said. “[Chocolate] gives it more creaminess and color, gives it depth of color and that wonderful brown look.”
Tango-Lowy agrees. When he makes a cream soup, there will almost always be white chocolate in it to “take that creaminess to an entirely new level.”
“Bring a little melted chocolate into your sauce or a cream soup,” he said. “[But] if you can taste it, it’s too much.”
His biggest piece of advice for cooks looking to expand their chocolatey horizons is not to be afraid to try something new.
“[Don’t] let your preconceived notions get the best of you,” he said.
Flavor and format
The first consideration when cooking with chocolate is selecting the right kind, which Tango-Lowy said should be the best chocolate you can get your hands on.
“I’ll say in a tomato sauce I want a Ghana with a big fudginess in it. If I’m playing with a light fish I may want more aromatic and light body,” he said.
But since most people won’t be able to take it to that level, he suggests simply trying the chocolate and then deciding what to do with it.
“It’s the art of selecting the right chocolate for the dish,” he said. “If I want a caramel note, [I choose] a milk chocolate. Something edgier, a really traditional Ecuador chocolate that’s light and bright.”
Once you’ve made your selection, the next step is determining what form to use the chocolate in.
Remember, chocolate burns easily so don’t put it directly against heat; you need something else to buffer it.
If adding to a soup, chop a bar of chocolate and add it in small portions, tasting as you go. Maybe opt for cacao nibs or shaved chocolate if you have a dish (like Tango-Lowy’s traditional biscuits) where you want to feel some of the texture the chocolate lends.
Kenney has seen cocoa nibs on a number of dishes since she moved to New Hampshire, crushed and sprinkled on braised lamb and soups.
“I did see a few recipes that were using the cocoa nibs or just powdered cocoa in roasted vegetable dishes,” she said. “My guess is they’re using it like a pepper.”
She said using it as a last addition helps seal the flavor profile.
“Almost as just a last finishing little spice to put on top of a dish,” she said.
Where to begin
If you ask Tango-Lowy, you can add chocolate to almost any dish. He’s done chocolate sushi and lobster bisque with white chocolate and is working on a collaborative dinner all about pairing chocolate with mushrooms. But you don’t have to go to extremes to make savory chocolate dishes. For example, try his simple tomato sauce with dark chocolate.
“[It] brings some body underneath so you won’t notice it’s there, but it entirely changes the body and the feel and how it behaves in your mouth,” he said. “Almost any kind of sauce … I can use chocolate as a way of controlling the sweetness.”
Or toss a handful of cacao nibs in with seared or sauteed asparagus or broccoli.
“You get a deep earthiness, plays beautifully with clean flavors, green vegetables,” he said.
As a result of her research, Kenney came across a recipe that uses chocolate as a braising component for French beef stew that uses brandy and other liquors instead of spices. But perhaps the most interesting use of chocolate in a savory dish she’s come across is a Japanese recipe: a salty miso with very dark chocolate in it and a marinated, coated and pan-fried fish and pork.