Pearlash

If you or someone you know is into old (actually very old) recipes, odds are you’ve seen this listed as an ingredient here and there. Pearlash is refined potassium carbonate, an alkaline salt found in wood ashes that also goes by the name potash. Potash was used for a lot of things back in the 1700s and 1800s, especially glassmaking. These days we mostly know it as a fertilizer, but once upon a time it was used to leaven things like corn cakes since it makes bubbles when it gets wet. Given that potash was made from wood ash, its effect on the flavor of corn cakes was as you might expect, but hey, at least the texture was lighter.

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Cocoa Powder

When chocolate liquor, the paste you get when you grind roasted cacao nibs, is placed in a hydraulic press and squeezed, two products result: cocoa butter and cocoa powder. However it’s important to note that the process doesn’t entirely separate the two. Some cocoa butter remains in the cocoa powder, which is designated as either low, medium or high fat, the fattiest being 24% cocoa butter and the leanest being 10% cocoa butter. The rest is all cocoa solids.

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Cocoa Butter

Cocoa butter is a very unusual fat. Granted, in its refined form it doesn’t look like much. It’s white, flavorless, odorless and soap-like in its firmness. However it doesn’t take too much fiddling with it to understand how unique it is. First there’s the low melt point. Cocoa butter is comprised of 21 different fats, all of which melt between 55 and 114 degrees Fahrenheit. The average melting temperature of those fats is 87 degrees Fahrenheit. Which means that cocoa butter melts easily in the mouth — even on the skin, which is why cocoa butter is in such high demand in the cosmetic industry.

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Couverture

Couverture (fine “covering” chocolate) is at once rare and pervasive. Home bakers seldom see chocolate that’s actually labeled “couverture” and so have trouble finding it when they want to glaze a torte or batch of truffles. On the other hand many of the more expensive chocolate bars in specialty shops are technically couvertures, which means the stuff is in reality not very hard to get.

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White Chocolate

Chocolate purists like Mrs. Pastry will protest the presence of this substance in the chocolate section as it really isn’t a chocolate at all. The only reason it’s called “white chocolate” is because it contains cocoa butter — and you can tell if the white chocolate is reasonably high quality as it delivers that inimitable unctuous cocoa butter mouthfeel. White chocolate is among the sweetest of the chocolate confections at 55% sugar (though that’s a maximum by law in America). The rest is made up of cocoa butter (up to 30%), milk solids (15%) plus lecithin as an emulsifier. Lower quality white chocolates make use of cocoa butter equivalents (CBE’s) like palm oil, and as with low quality milk chocolates you can really taste the difference.

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Confectionery Coating Chocolate

This is not “couverture” chocolate (which means “coating” or “covering” in French), I’ll create a separate post on that subject. This is sort of couverture’s opposite, at least from a quality standpoint. Many people wouldn’t actually call this particular product “chocolate” since it has no cocoa butter in it. Rather it contains one or more so-called “cocoa butter equivalents” (CBE’s), fats like palm oil which perform similarly to cocoa butter but really aren’t the same. They don’t have cocoa butter’s silky and subtle mouthfeel, but on the other hand don’t have its rigidity (nor high price tag). CBE’s aside, these chocolates are almost identical to milk chocolate: high in sugar, low in chocolate liquor, and contain about 15% milk solids.

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Milk Chocolate

Milk chocolate is the lightest and smoothest of all the major chocolate varieties, containing only about 10-20% chocolate liquor. It is the only type of chocolate that contains milk (or cream) solids, those take up roughly 15% of its volume. Milk chocolate is usually 50% sugar and the very smoothest varieties — you know, those very expensive Swiss bars — can be up to 30% cocoa butter. It all makes for a silky and delightful eating experience, if a decidedly less “chocolate-y” one. It’s for that reason that you don’t find terribly much milk chocolate in the pastry kitchen, as that small amount of chocolate liquor is easily lost when it’s used as a glaze or

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Semi-Sweet Chocolate

Semi-sweet chocolate also goes by the name of “dark” chocolate, at least when it’s in candy bar form, though interestingly it contains more sugar than even most milk chocolate. Semi-sweet chocolate is about 60% sugar by weight. The rest of its volume is made up of cocoa solids (about 15%) and cocoa butter (27-32%). Like bittersweet and unsweetened chocolate it has no milk solids in it, which I suppose is what makes it “dark” by some standards. Semi-sweet has fewer uses than bittersweet in my opinion, which I think is why you don’t see terribly much of it except as an inclusion in chocolate chip cookies, muffins, ice cream, that sort of thing. A lot of people just like to eat it, and really, who can blame them?

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Bittersweet Chocolate

Bittersweet (often simply called “dark”) chocolate is probably the most useful type of chocolate in the pastry kitchen, which is why I always have a little on-hand in one form or another. It’s also the most variable in its composition. Chocolates in the bittersweet family can contain as little as 35% cocoa solids or as much as 70%. Similarly, cocoa butter content can be anywhere from 25-38%, sugar content 30-50%. Bittersweet chocolates contain a small amount of lecithin and no milk solids.

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Unsweetened Chocolate

Unsweetened chocolate is nothing more than tempered chocolate liquor. Not too pleasant to taste for all but the most die-hard chocaholics, it is little more than ground cocoa bean, though the degree of grinding and processing varies from maker to maker. Most unsweetened chocolate weighs in at about 47% chocolate solids and 52% cocoa butter (which means it melts very nicely), the final 1% is usually a stabilizer like lecithin which keeps the chocolate emulsion from breaking.

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