Sugar-free chocolate: why it doesn’t work (yet)

Stevia plant
Stevia plant

I’m interrupting your regularly scheduled gianduja blog series to bring you this important public service announcement.

Apparently a UK firm has developed a way to eliminate the bitter aftertaste of chocolate sweetened with stevia. This is very cool news for chocolate lovers who can’t (or won’t) consume sugar.

To date, sugar-avoiders have had very few options when it came to chocolate. Most of the sugar-free chocolate on the market relies on sugar alcohols (erythritol, xylitol, mannitol, etc.) for its sweetness. Sugar alcohols are notorious for causing GI distress in some people, making chocolates sweetened with them not worth the discomfort for those affected. But stevia, an all-natural calorie free sweetener, doesn’t cause GI issues and doesn’t affect blood glucose levels the way some artificial sweeteners are purported to do.

That said, stevia tastes terrible in chocolate. I’ve tried adding it to unsweetened chocolate several times, and on a good day the results taste like aluminum.

Which is unfortunate, because I really WANTED to like stevia-sweetened chocolate. Not because I worry about my sugar intake, but because I grew up eating a lot of stevia (health-obsessed family + diabetic parent = lots of weird food in the house) and have grown to appreciate its gentler, lingering sweetness in foods like oatmeal or plain yogurt. It’s the perfect sweetener for coffee. So why not chocolate?

It turns out, the answer to that question is complicated. One of the interesting things I’ve learned while working for a local small-batch chocolate maker is that sugar does more for chocolate than just sweeten it. It also affects chocolate’s viscosity, texture and flavor intensity.

Sugar’s effect on chocolate’s viscosity:

Adding sugar to chocolate reduces the chocolate’s relative cocoa butter content, which means adding sugar will thicken your chocolate. Cocoa nibs are about 50% cocoa butter, and most chocolate makers add additional cocoa butter to facilitate molding and enhance texture. But add 30% sugar to that chocolate and your total cocoa butter percentage will fall significantly. This leads to thicker chocolate that many chocolatiers may find unsuitable for enrobing confections.

Sugar’s effect on chocolate’s texture:

Conching machine or melangeur
Photo credit: Mark Chamberlain via Rochester City Newspaper

Also, part of the art of making chocolate is figuring out the right time to add the sugar. The cocoa beans are ground by granite rollers in a melangeur for several days, and sugar is added at some point along the way. Added too late, and — depending on the chocolate maker’s refining equipment — large sugar particles may result in a gritty texture (interestingly, Taza Chocolate leaves large sugar particles in its chocolate on purpose, and the texture of their chocolate is quite unique).

Side note: one thing I’m still trying to figure out is what happens if sugar is added too EARLY in the grinding/refining process? Why don’t chocolate makers just add sugar at the very beginning, as soon as the nibs have liquefied in the melangeur? Is it possible for sugar particles to become TOO small?

Sugar’s effect on the intensity of chocolate’s flavor:

Generally, in dark chocolate anyway, the lower the percentage of sugar, the higher the percentage of cocoa mass. At least theoretically. The thing is that most chocolate makers also add additional cocoa butter to their chocolate, and the “cocoa solids” percentage stated on chocolate bar wrappers includes the combined weight of the cocoa mass AND the added cocoa butter. So a 70% dark chocolate could be 30% sugar and 70% cocoa mass (known in the industry as “two-ingredient chocolate”). Or it could be 30% sugar, 20% cocoa butter, and only 50% cocoa mass. Suddenly that chocolate isn’t sounding so dark, is it?

Earlier in this post you learned that sugar makes chocolate thicker by reducing its relative cocoa butter percentage, and chocolate makers often add extra cocoa butter in order to thin it out again (and sometimes to improve its texture). Given that cocoa butter has very little actual chocolate flavor, the more additional cocoa butter in a chocolate, the less intense its flavor.

Enrobed chocolate bonbon“Couverture” chocolate — the chocolate used by chocolatiers to make bonbon shells and enrobe truffles —  by definition must contain over 31% added cocoa butter. So that means that a 65% dark couverture chocolate is likely made from 35% sugar, at least 31% added cocoa butter and, at the very most, only 34% cocoa mass (most likely less because most cocoa makers also add soy lecithin). 34% cocoa mass does not an intense chocolate make.

So as you can see, sugar interacts with other ingredients in chocolate in complex ways by displacing cocoa butter and affecting texture. Chocolate makers have been trying to tweak processes and recipes for hundreds of years. Replacing sugar with a sweetener that has a completely different chemical composition is complicated, requiring multiple adjustments along the way, and a lot of trial and error.

It will take a lot of thought, time and experimentation before chocolate makers figure out how to make great chocolate sweetened only with stevia, but I’m guessing it can be done. I’m curious which chocolate maker will be the first to make that leap.

Gianduja part II: chocolate hazelnut spreads

http://ivoryhut.com/2010/12/nutella-chip-cookies-with-homemade-nutella-chips/
Homemade Nutella
Photo credit: Maggie Muggins

Last week I wrote about the history of the awesome Italian chocolate-hazelnut confection called gianduja. In the following series of posts I’ll cover how gianduja is made (and how to make it at home), where to buy it, and what to do with it. I’m also really excited to share a couple of great gianduja recipes I’ve been working on.

We’ve already covered how traditional gianduja was made by combining chocolate and hazelnut paste to form solid, single-serving confections. However, in the 1940’s, 30 years after gianduja’s introduction to the world, soft gianduja spreads (called paste gianduja) started becoming popular in northern Italy as well. While you may not have heard of its firmer, foil-wrapped cousin, I’m betting most of you are probably quite familiar with Nutella.

Wait, so solid bars of gianduja and soft chocolate hazelnut spreads are actually the same thing?

Yes. The consistency of giandjua is the direct result of its ratio of chocolate to ground hazelnuts. Since cocoa butter is solid at room temperature but nut butters are quite soft, a firmer gianduja will have relatively more chocolate, where as a soft gianduja will be heavier on the hazelnut paste. So, for example, a solid bar of gianduja might have a 70:30 chocolate-to-hazelnut ratio, where as a creamy, spreadable paste will be closer to 50:50, or even 40:60.

http://ivoryhut.com/2010/12/nutella-chip-cookies-with-homemade-nutella-chips/
Photo Credit: Erika Pineda-Ghanny © 2016

Yum. Can I make spreadable gianduja at home?

Making fantastic gianduja spreads at home is simple and will spoil you forever — you’ll never buy that nasty imitation stuff again (I’m talking to you, Nutella). I have a fantastic recipe for homemade gianduja spread that I’m excited to share with you next week. All you need are roasted hazelnuts, melted chocolate and a food processor.

If homemade gianduja is just nuts and dark chocolate, does that mean it’s… HEALTHY?

My opinion? Yes, homemade gianduja spread is healthy (yeah I know… as if you needed another reason to eat more of it). It’s full of antioxidants, healthy fats, protein, fiber, vitamin B6, iron, magnesium, theobromine…. you get the picture.

http://yukitchen.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/nutella_jar_ingredients-660x495.jpg
Do you really want to eat this?                      Photo credit: Yukitchen © 2015

What’s especially cool about making gianduja at home is that you can make a wildly potent, intensely flavored chocolate hazelnut spread with about 70% less sugar than most store-bought spreads. Nutella contains a shocking 57% processed sugar by weight (yikes), where as my recipe for homemade gianduja spread contains less than 16% sugar. Even better, my recipe doesn’t contain processed palm oil or any of the other cheap bulking agents found in most industrially produced chocolate hazelnut spreads.

How long will my homemade chocolate hazelnut spread last before it goes bad?

More good news. Due to the antimicrobial properties of chocolate and the long shelf life of nut butters generally, you can make a big batch of gianduja spread and store it in the fridge for six months or longer.

Hint: are you the type that likes to get holiday gift shopping out of the way early? Fill 6 oz. mason jars with homemade gianduja months before the holidays… but good luck trying to resist eating it all before December!

What else can I do with homemade gianduja besides, you know, eat it with a spoon?

So here’s a little teaser… homemade gianduja also makes for a fantastic truffle filling, and gianduja truffles have a much longer shelf life than ganache-filled truffles (always a bonus for chocolatiers). Keep an eye out for my recipe for these insanely addictive homemade Baci, coming soon.

Yes, these chocolates are every bit as dangerous as they look.

Gianduja Hazelnut Crunch Truffles
Photo credit: Amber Latner

You’re welcome.


Intro to Gianduja

Hazelnuts
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/b9/Gianduiotti.jpg/1280px-Gianduiotti.jpg
Photo credit: Clop

Before Nutella was a household name, and way before Perugina’s Baci were widely available in the U.S., Italians had gianduja.

I had my first bite of gianduja (“jon-doo-yah”) seventeen years ago, and to this day almost nothing makes me happier than this creamy chocolate-hazelnut confection.

Gianduja ranks right up there with pesto as one of the many mind-blowingly delicious culinary inventions gifted to the world by Italy. And like pesto, gianduja is pretty easy to make. It’s really just chocolate and hazelnuts. But something transformative happens when these two ingredients are ground together, something almost alchemical.

I was thinking about this recently… Who was the original gianduja alchemist? Who woke up one morning and thought, “Today would be a good day to toss a bucket of hazelnuts into the grinder with my cocoa nibs — YOLO.”

So, chocolate nerd that I am, I decided to find out. My research led me all the way back to the Napoleonic era, to the Great Cocoa Bean Shortage of 1840 (I’m making that up. But there really was a cocoa bean shortage, and it did happen in the early 1800’s, and it could have had a scary name).

A predecessor to gianduja was invented in the Piedmont region of northern Italy. During Napoleon’s occupation of that area, a British naval blockade obstructed cocoa bean imports from reaching coastal towns in northern Italy, so the price of cocoa beans skyrocketed. To maximize their limited supply, Piedmontese chocolate makers began diluting their cocoa beans with ground hazelnuts, which grew locally and were much cheaper. The new combo product turned out to be a big hit.

But it still didn’t have name.

Turin Municipality
Turin Municipality

Then in 1865, Turinese chocolate manufacturer Caffarel came out with Gianduiotto, a creamy chocolate-hazelnut confection that the company still makes today. Gianduiotto got its name from its shape — it’s supposed to resemble the hat of a Turin Carnival marionette named Gianduja. Gianduiotto was very popular with the locals, and the name stuck.

To this day, traditional Piedmontese chocolate makers like Venchi and Novi consider gianduja to be one of the four classic styles of chocolate (the other three being dark, milk and white).

Novi Italian chocolate bars in gianduja (hazelnut), fondente (dark) and latte (milk)

 

 

 

 

Intro to Ganache: getting started

Dark chocolate ganache

Last night I made these chocolate chip peanut butter bars from Chocolate Covered Katie for my stepson. Then I thought, why not also whip up some chocolate ganache to spread over the top, like frosting? Because, chocolate.

I used the ganache recipe I’ve always known and loved: equal parts heavy cream and chopped-up 70% dark chocolate (I used half a cup of each). Heat the cream until it starts to steam, pour over the chopped-up chocolate, DON’T STIR, cover and wait for 5 minutes. Then uncover, whisk up a storm, and voila — beautiful chocolate sauce that will set up to a super-thick frosting consistency after 30 minutes in the fridge.

Spoonful of chocolate ganache

Let’s just say my stepson was very, very psyched about dessert last night.

Enrobed chocolate bonbon

I love ganache. I’ve been making it a lot recently. It’s a great way to use up the leftover chocolate I bought for my tempering experiments. Mostly I end up stirring all this ganache into whipped cream (I have a half-pint whipped cream dispenser, which changed my life) to make lazy-woman’s chocolate mousse. But lately I’ve been thinking about using ganache as the filling for my first attempt at dipped chocolate truffles.

I know the ganache used to fill truffles is thicker than the stuff I make for frosting desserts (truffles are typically filled with a 2:1 chocolate-to-cream ratio ganache). But I’m really confused about one thing. Even a thick ganache still has a good amount of cream in it. Cream needs to be refrigerated. Why don’t truffles filled with ganache need to be refrigerated too?

I did a little digging and found some very helpful information on the Paul Bradford Sugarcraft School website, which I’ve summarized below. But please check out the school’s website for a more thorough explanation.

Why does ganache spoil?

Ganache goes bad because moisture in the cream promotes microbial growth. A typical ganache lasts about two weeks in the fridge, or two days on the counter. However, while all ganaches contain some water from the cream, most of that water is chemically unavailable because it’s bound up with other ingredients.  It’s the amount of unbound water in a ganache (also known as its water activity or available water) that has the biggest effect on the rate of microbial growth. Measuring water activity is how scientists predict the expected shelf life of food products.

As a side note, cocoa mass is actually ANTI-microbial, so pure chocolate (even without preservatives) has a long shelf life — most of the bars I’ve bought recently have an expiration date 1.5 years from their production date.

How can I make my ganache last longer?

First, for obvious reasons, your ganache will stay fresh longer if you scald the cream before pouring it over the chocolate, since the heat will kill a lot of microbes. Scalding cream repeatedly also helps condense the cream somewhat by evaporating a small amount of the water. Less water = lower water activity = less microbial growth.

I’ve never been lucky enough to make ganache in the UK, but they have something there called double cream, which contains 48% dairy fat — it must do wonders for the shelf life of British ganache. In the US, the heavy cream I find at most supermarkets only contains about 36% dairy fat, so evaporating some of that extra water by repeatedly scalding the cream would likely produce longer-lasting ganache. Though, I wonder if scalding the cream affects its taste? If anyone knows, please share.

All that aside, it’s actually the type of sugar that has the biggest impact on the shelf life of ganache-filled truffles. When professional chocolatiers make ganache, they typically add invert sugar (or even honey, a natural invert sugar) to hot cream at a ratio of 5-8 grams of invert sugar to 100 grams of cream. Invert sugar binds with water, dramatically reducing water activity.

Long story short: a ganache-filled chocolate truffle made with invert sugar should be shelf-stable at room temperature for 6-8 weeks — which is why, to go back to my original question, professionally made ganache-filled chocolate truffles can sit out on the counter for weeks without going bad.

What if I don’t like the idea of cooking with an ingredient my grandma wouldn’t recognize?

I hear you. I’m kind of bummed about the idea of putting chemically altered sugar in my truffles too. It just sounds so…. processed. But when all is said and done, invert sugar really isn’t so bad. You can actually make your own by adding cream of tartar or citric acid to sugar and water and reducing them into a simple syrup.

Plus, your grandma probably ate plenty of invert sugar in her time. It’s ubiquitous in candy.

Plate of chocolate bonbons

In any event, I’m ordering some invert sugar on Amazon this week for use in my continuing ganache experiments. I’ll keep you posted.