If you’re like many people, chocolate is not a luxury; it’s a necessity. Often considered the fifth food group, chocolate has inspired one of the most widespread and passionate of people’s love affairs with food. While the taste is nothing short of amazing, our fascination with chocolate since its discovery over 2000 years ago has included other benefits as well. Chocolates has been considered an aphrodisiac, a natural cure for the blues, part of cardiovascular health (more recently), and even a form of currency. With its rich history and particular health and social importance, we at Recipe4Living thought it only right to include a guide to chocolate. Satisfy your curiosity about chocolate’s past, how it’s made, and how you can select, store, and prepare chocolate in your own home.

A Brief History of Chocolates

Mayan Beginnings

Our chocolate obsession actually began many, many centuries ago with the Mayan civilization of Mexico and Central America (250-900 A.D.). But, the Mayan form of chocolate bore hardly any resemblance to what we enjoy today. Most Mayans grew the cacao tree, the source of chocolate, in their backyards, and harvested the seeds, which they then fermented, roasted, and ground. Combined with water and hot chili spices, the ground paste became an unsweetened frothy beverage regularly enjoyed as part of Mayan life.

Aztec and the Sacred Brew

The Aztecs adapted this bitter drink and even considered it the food of the gods. The word chocolate comes from the Aztec word “xocoatl,” meaning bitter drink. While most Mayans could enjoy the drink, chocolate was reserved for royalty, priests, and other members of the highest social class in Aztec culture. Chocolate was such an important part of Aztec society that cacao seeds became a form of currency.

Journey to Europe

When the Spanish, led by Hernando Cortez, conquered Mexico in 1521, they quickly picked up on the importance of chocolate to the Aztecs and started shipping it home. The Spanish added cinnamon, sugar, and other spices to the very expensive import, and kept their chocolate drink a secret enjoyed only by the Spanish nobility for almost 300 years. When Spanish royalty began marrying other Europeans, the word spread quickly and it was soon popular all over Europe, but only for the wealthy. Not until the 18th and 19th century, when sea trade expanded and chocolate began to be mass produced, could most of the middle class afford chocolate. By the late 18th century, chocolate houses were as popular as coffee houses throughout England.

Making Chocolates

Unlike many crops, the pods of the delicate cacao tree must be picked by hand, making the process of creating chocolate a laborious affair. The pods are opened one by one, and the pulp-covered seeds extracted. To reduce bitterness, cacao seeds are fermented for several days (like wine grapes), and then dried. At this point, farmers sell sacks of cacao seeds to corporate buyers, where industrial machines take over. On the factory floor, large machines roast the seeds to release the taste and aroma. The roasted seeds are cracked open to reach the nib or heart, which is then ground into chocolate liquor (not liqueur). This thick liquid, made of cocoa butter and cocoa solids, is manipulated to create the different kinds of chocolate.

Cocoa- This powdered form of chocolate, often used in baking, is made from pulverized cocoa solids with the cocoa butter removed.

Unsweetened Chocolate (Bitter/Baking Chocolate)- This is pure, unaltered chocolate liquor, made of 45% cocoa solids and 55% cocoa butter.

Bittersweet Chocolate (Semi-Sweet)- Sugar, cocoa butter, lecithin, and vanilla are added to chocolate liquor to make this kind of chocolate, which contains at least 35% chocolate liquor. Bittersweet chocolate and sweeter semi-sweet chocolate are used interchangeably in baking.

Couverture- This term is given to bittersweet and semi-sweet chocolate varieties of the highest quality. Couverture chocolates contain a higher percentage of chocolate liquor (even 70%).

Dark Chocolates (Also Called Sweet Chocolate by U.S. Government)- No milk is added in this form of chocolate, which contains between 15% and 35% chocolate liquor. Dark chocolate is actually lighter in chocolate flavor than bittersweet and semi-sweet even though it is dark in color.

Milk Chocolates- This popular form of chocolate contains milk or milk solids and 10% to 25% chocolate liquor. Milk chocolate is smoother, sweeter, and less bitter than darker varieties.

White Chocolate- Since white chocolate contains no cocoa solids, it’s not really chocolate at all. White “chocolate” is made from cocoa butter, vanilla, milk, and sugar. It may not be chocolate, but it’s still delicious.

Chocolates is Good for You!……..Honestly!

* Mood Elevator- Chocolate contains phenylethylamine, which is a mild mood elevator/anti-depressant, and also happens to be the same chemical that our brain produces when we feel love or happiness. Chocolate contains other stimulants to “raise” your mood, such as caffeine, in very small amounts. In fact, one ounce of milk chocolate only has about as much caffeine as a cup of decaffeinated coffee. Because these chemicals are so mild, chocolate is not considered physically addictive (despite how many people feel about it).

o Want to make the ultimate aphrodisiac? Like chocolates, chili peppers are considered an aphrodisiac for their intensity of taste and their ability to raise the heart rate. The Mayans and Aztecs understood this great pairing, and many chocolatiers today are adding different types of chilies to their sweets. Give it a try with your significant other. Try these great recipes:

Chocolate Chili Bites

Chocolate Chili Ice Cream

Spicy Chocolate Cake

Spicy Chocolate Truffles

Mayan Hot Chocolate

One-Bowl Spicy Chocolate Cake

* Cardiovascular Health- Like red wine, tea, fruits, and vegetables, cocoa seeds contain important antioxidants called flavonoids. Antioxidants help to reduce certain damage to the body’s cells and tissues over time. In recent studies, the flavonoids in chocolate have been found to regulate certain hormones essential to cardiovascular health and may even have further immunoregulatory effects. Dark chocolate, which contains the highest concentration of cocoa liquor, is considered the best for your health. Dark chocolate contains about twice as many antioxidants as a bar of milk chocolate.

* Cholesterol- Just because it tastes good doesn’t mean it has to be bad for you. Unlike many comfort foods, eating chocolate will not raise your cholesterol. Chocolate and cocoa butter contain both saturated and unsaturated fat. But unlike many saturated fats, the stearic acid in chocolate is a neutral fat and does not raise bad cholesterol levels (LDL). The unsaturated fat in chocolate, oleic acid, is the same type of fat as in olive oil, which may actually help raise good cholesterol (HDL).

Chocolates Care

* Storage- Chocolate should be stored in a cool, dry place at approximately 65-70 degrees F. It should not be stored in the refrigerator, because moisture will alter the chocolate’s texture and appearance. High temperatures will cause a “bloom” or “cloud” on the surface of the chocolate. This bloom does not affect the taste or freshness of the chocolate, only the appearance. It is caused when the cocoa butter crystals melt and migrate to the surface of the chocolate.

* Isolation- Chocolates has a tendency to absorb the odors of any food around it, which is another reason not to store chocolate in the fridge. Don’t store chocolate in the same cabinet as onions, for example, because it will affect the taste of the chocolate. Be careful that the storage container and all preparation utensils are clean and odorless.

* Shelf Life- Most chocolate will keep for about a year if stored properly, and the darker varieties last longer. Filled chocolates should only keep for about one month.

* Moisture- Do not add water to chocolate unless your recipe specifically calls for it. Water will harden the texture and consistency of chocolate. Keep this principle in mind when melting chocolate. Do not cover melting chocolate with a lid because steam will collect on the lid and fall into the chocolate. You can use a light cloth cover if need.

* Melting Chocolates- Because chocolate is very delicate to heat, you have to melt chocolate slowly, well removed from heat. Always heat chocolate over low heat or it will quickly become an unappetizing mass. Use a double boiler, or place the saucepan with chocolate on top another saucepan with boiling water on the stovetop. Keep in mind that chocolate will continue to melt even after removing it from a heat source, so be careful not to overcook.

– Unsweetened chocolate will easily liquefy when melted, but sweetened chocolate must be continually stirred.

– Chocolates flavored coating contains cocoa and vegetable oil, rather than cocoa butter. Coatings are popular because they are easier to use for things like dipping, but the taste and quality are nowhere near real chocolate.

* Cooking with Chocolates- Try to avoid thinning chocolate with butter. Instead, look for chocolate with a higher percentage of cocoa butter to maintain the quality of your product. When blending different kinds of chocolate, such as milk and bittersweet, use the same brand. Ingredients and preparation can vary greatly between companies, making particular tastes that may not blend together smoothly.