Herbs & Spices
Season for Cocoa Available Year Round
It's the stuff of chocolate. The cacao tree creates cacao beans that are manufactured in such a way as to create a plethora of byproducts known as cocoa, and we reap the benefits in all manner of chocolatey delicious recipes. The bean is processed, from which cacao solids and some of its cacao butter are extracted. And what's left is ground into either natural or Dutched cocoa powder, the latter made alkaline by treatment with potassium carbonate. This gives it a darker color and a stronger flavor. When it comes to flavor of cacao beans, it can be dependent on the variety, the soil, temperature, sunshine and rainfall. Just like wine, you can buy chocolates made with cacao beans from one single region and thus compare the aromas. Commercial cocoa powders are generally made with a cheap blend.
How to Buy and Store Cocoa
From cacao comes many a form; liquid, hard and powder products. When choosing your cacao offshoot, beware of products labeled artificial chocolate or chocolate-flavored, for they are just that - fake - and you can taste the difference (and probably feel it!). Cocoa powder is sold plain or mixed with other ingredients such as milk powder and sugar, forming an instant cocoa mix. Read Hot Cocoa, Be Careful to avoid those with trans fats. Make sure not to use cocoa mixes in place of cocoa powder in recipes. Store your cocoa powder airtight in a cool, dark place for up to 2 years.
Hard chocolate should be stored, tightly wrapped, in a cool, dry place, as the color will warp at warm temperatures (but you can still use it). Under ideal conditions, dark chocolate will last for 10 years, but owning to the milk solids in both milk chocolate and white chocolate, they shouldn't be stored for longer than 9 months.
How to Cook Cocoa
Because all chocolate scorches easily - which completely ruins the flavor - it should be melted slowly over low heat. One method is to place the chocolate in the top of a double boiler over simmering water. Remove the top of the pan from the heat when the chocolate is a little more than halfway melted and stir until completely smooth (you can see how it's done in this chocolate fondue video). Alternatively, in many cases, you can use cocoa powder instead which bypasses the melting step. Cacao products of all kinds can be used in baking and desserts - and are indeed a favorite the worldwide over - but are also prized in some cultures for what they add to savory dishes, such as the Mesoamerican mole sauce.
Health Benefits of Cocoa
The darker your chocolate, the better - healthwise. Its flavonoid content rises too, carrying a host of health benefits with them, most notably cardiovascular. A couple squares of dark chocolate with a dollop of your favorite nut butter smoothed over the top (I like cashew!) will help your body process the sugar, and you'll be left oh-so-satisfied without the slump. For a couple suggestions, check out Laura Klein's review of five different organic chocolates.
If you're striving for greatness - seeking the most nourishing chocolate there is - cacao, or raw chocolate, is the crème de la crème. It's bursting with magnesium and polyphenols, contains no sugar, and can also suppress your appetite. All the processing that even dark chocolate undergoes strips it of many of its health benefits, but raw cacao is purely delicious. Cocoa is also known as an aphrodisiac. If you're looking for a daily snack to boost your sex drive, try our Raw Cocoa Coconut Fudge Recipe.
Why Buy Natural and Organic Cocoa
Not all chocolate is created equal. Get smart about what kind of gooey goodness is good enough for your body and avoid high sugar, over processed "candy bars." Conventional candy is loaded with unhealthy additives that, well, aren't chocolate and are drained of nutritional value. Satisfying your craving with a Kit Kat will feel great while you're munching and pretty good as your sugar spikes, but as it quickly drops off, you'll be left void of energy, lethargic and perhaps even a little guilty. Plus, purchasing organically-grown cocoa products means you won't be ingesting harmful pesticides or supporting farms that use them.
Looking for a quick breakfast? Try these delicious whole rolled oats that cook up in just a few minutes. Or make this recipe in large batches on the weekend so you have for the week.