So let’s talk chocolate.

Reader Peter T. wrote in overnight with the observation that most of the Sacher torte recipes he’s seen call for couverture chocolate, but the one I put up doesn’t. What’s the deal with that? he asks. It’s a good question, and he is quite correct, most of the better Sacher torte formulas do indeed call for couverture chocolate. But what is “couverture” chocolate and why would it make a difference?

Couverture, also called “confectioner’s chocolate”, is a special chocolate formulation made specifically for coating things (in fact couverture means “covering” in French). It’s very high quality and expensive stuff, and can run you $25 a pound or more for the really god stuff. There are three things that I can think of that have historically made couverture different from standard eating chocolate. First, it’s usually made from the very best cacao beans. Second, the chocolate solids from those beans are ground much finer than normal. Third, those solids are blended with more cocoa butter in the final formulation. Up to 40% of a bar of couverture chocolate is cocoa butter.

Add all that up and what you have is a chocolate that melts quicker, spreads easier, coats more thoroughly and lays on thinner. All those fat crystals also create a glossier sheen, especially when the chocolate is tempered properly. From an eating perspective a couverture chocolate is creamier (because of all the extra fat), smoother (because of the finer grind) and less sweet (because all the extra fat leaves less room in the formulation for sugar). When tempered, it also has a more brittle “snap.”

So why not use it in the Sacher torte recipe? First, because couverture isn’t easy to find. You can usually only find it at candy making supply stores or restaurant supply companies. Second, because it’s expensive. Third — and this is just my opinion — I don’t think couverture is the singular, essential product that it once was. Even a decade ago, there was far less choice when it came to buying chocolate in stores. Now even people living in smaller cities have no problem finding many kinds of very high quality chocolates, many of which make excellent coatings. A nice semi-sweet Valrhona, Callebaut or El Rey will usually do the job handily.

Will it create the precise same effect as a bonafide couverture? Maybe not, but as I’ve often argued before, obsession with details is the enemy of a pleasurable home baking experience. For us non-professionals, the idea is to have fun. So your torte isn’t exactly what they serve at the Sacher Hotel — so what? It’s not like the Sacher Hotel pastry chef is coming to your house for dinner. At least I don’t think he is. If he is, you’re screwed.

UPDATE: Jenni over at Pastry Methods and Techniques adds:

I just read your piece about couverture, and I have to agree with you. Unless the chocolate needs to be tempered, there’s no reason to spend the big bucks for couverture. In all of his recipes for home use, Marcel Desaulniers (whom I love) recommends Baker’s squares! Go, Marcel:)

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