Alice Medrich’s 5 Essential Tips for Working with Chocolate

published Nov 20, 2013
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(Image credit: Dana Velden)

Alice Medrich is truly the queen of all things chocolate. We loved her newest book Seriously Bitter Sweet but we also love many of her other award-winning chocolate and dessert books (Pure Dessert) and her helpful tips, like how to peel hazelnuts. With the winter holidays arriving and the many sweet kitchen projects that they bring, we thought this would be a perfect time to talk with Alice about her five essentials for working with chocolate at home.

(Image credit: Dana Velden)

Alice’s first chocolate awakening happened when she was a college student, living in Paris in 1973. Her landlady Mme. Lestelle gave her a chocolate truffle. Raised on the typical American milk chocolate, this rich, complex, bittersweet bite completely changed her world. Back in Berkeley, she ignored her master’s thesis and focused on making truffles and growing a chocolate business out of her home kitchen.

By 1976 she had opened her first chocolate shop, Cocolat. In the years since, she has sold Cocolat, written thousands of recipes and authored eight cookbooks. She is just finishing her ninth, a book in which she explores baking with the complicated but very interesting world of gluten-free flours.

Alice Medrich’s 5 Essential Tips for Working with Chocolate

1. Taste around.
“We’re in a very exciting time for chocolate right now,” says Alice. “Chocolate is reinventing itself. The new chocolates are more diverse and personal. They very much reflect the maker, just like a winemaker has a signature. We’re seeing chocolates that we’ve never seen before with a wide range of flavors and intensities.

“In light of all this diversity, you should taste as much chocolate as you can. Taste around, taste everything. There are now tiny bean-to-bar chocolate operations in every state in this country. This didn’t exist 15 years ago!”

2. Understand percentages.
“The percentages listed on a bar of chocolate are basically telling you how much chocolate versus sugar is in each bar — it’s a little more complicated than that, but that’s the basics. Things get problematic around names like bittersweet or semisweet because they’re not standardized. You can find a bar that is called bittersweet that has 55% chocolate but you can also find a bar that is labeled bittersweet that has 70% or 72% chocolate.

This isn’t a problem for nibbling but it is a problem when it comes to baking because the different percentages behave differently. Higher percentage chocolates can add dryness since they don’t have enough sugar and sugar adds moisture. It can create a dry, crumbly textures or a mousse that is grainy or sauces that break. So it’s not just about flavor. It’s about the composition of the bar. Don’t always assume that the higher percentage chocolate is the best chocolate to use in a recipe!

“So my mission is to get everyone — all the cookbook authors and all the magazine publishers — to get on board with the percentages. I mean, no one would publish a recipe that starts with 1 pound of beef. You need to know: is it a brisket, skirt steak, a tenderloin? The exact same thing is true here.”

3. Use the 60% rule.
So what do you do if you have a recipe that doesn’t specify the percentage of chocolate? “Many of our favorite older recipe don’t specify percentage. They probably just say bittersweet or semisweet. In that case, your safest bet is to use 60% chocolate. This is true of any recipe that doesn’t state the percentage: stick with the 60%. There’s no problem if it calls for unsweetened — just go for that 99% or 100%. and of course, if the recipe calls for a percentage be sure to follow it!

“In my recipes I will sometimes list a range of percentages or sometimes I say not to exceed a percentage. Because I want people to really have fun and explore new chocolates and different percentages, many of the recipes in Seriously Bitter Sweet have sidebars with instructions on how to change the recipes to do that.” In other words, Alice did all the work (a lot of work!) for us. For nerds and geeks only: there are charts in the back of the book to help you figure all this out on your own.

4. Never melt chocolate chips for a recipe. Do know how to chop and melt chocolate.
“People should never ever use chocolate chips in a recipe that doesn’t call for them. They’re not made for melting and blending in a batter. They’re usually a little too sweet and they’re formatted so they hold a shape, their viscosity is higher — they just don’t handle the same way, so don’t use them!”

When melting a chocolate bar, “Be sure to chop it up very well so there’s a lot of surface area and keep everything dry. Dry knife, dry board (or dry Cuisinart).”

5. The more distinctive the chocolate, the simpler the recipe.
“If you want to taste what’s distinctive about the nicer bars of chocolate, use a less complicated recipe. Not too much sugar, not too much fat, not too much egg. You want to highlight the chocolate. Chocolate soufflé is an excellent choice for highlighting a great chocolate.”

(Image credit: Dana Velden)

Bonus Tips from Alice Medrich

What about all these flavored bars: salt, bacon, quinoa, and pop rocks?
“I call them the new inclusions — they’re fun! I’m a minimalist, so I’m not drawn to them. But it’s a good way to attract people to the chocolate and it’s definitely what’s happening in chocolate right now. They often taste best when they’re just made and it can be tricky to get the additions and spices just right.

“If you want to introduce a flavor I’m a big fan of dusting it over the top. I like those extra flavors to come as little busts, little surprises, in the middle of tasting, where they’re more of an accessory. I like to taste the chocolate first and the chocolate last.

“I don’t necessarily want cinnamon flavor in my brownie, but I don’t mind some fresh cinnamon Microplaned over the top. Nutmeg, is good too. Once I was in the middle of grating a nutmeg and I went to taste a brownie that I just come out of the oven. The nutmeg was on my fingers and as I lifted the brownie to my mouth, my nose was flooded with the sent of the nutmeg. Oh, heaven! So dust on rather than mix in.

“There are so many ways to get flavors in with chocolate besides mixing it into the batter or infusing the cream. The same with salt. Sprinkling salt on top of some chocolate is good, if it is done with restraint. It’s not about being salty, it’s about lifting the flavor and giving a little burst of salt from time to time.”

What are you excited about these days?
“I’m really excited about working with these so-called alternative flours. I really believe that they are going to become less alternative and more a part of our diets. I think more and more of them are going to be grown here. I so love sorghum and American-grown chestnut flours. This country was once dense with chestnuts. We don’t usually associate the US with chestnuts but they’re being brought back!”

Favorite chocolate?
“I still use a lot of Scharffen Berger because I like their flavor profile. The new baking series from Guittard called the Etienne Collection is very nice. It has some of those bright fruity notes that I like so much.”

For more from Alice Medrich, visit her website.

Thank you, Alice!