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A Chocolate Tip Sheet

To make this sweetest of all holidays even more delicious, here are some tips on choosing, storing, melting and mixing chocolate.

Types of Chocolate

The basic types of chocolate are unsweetened, white, milk, semisweet and bittersweet. Feel free to use the semi- and bittersweet dark chocolates interchangeably, but stick to type if a recipe specifies any of the others.

Warning: Don't grab that bar of unsweetened chocolate for a snack! Unsweetened chocolate is so bitter it will make you grimace, shiver and wonder why you loved chocolate in the first place.

Choosing Chocolate

Chocolate is as personal as perfume. Everyone has his or her favorite, so I always suggest that when you're looking for a chocolate to bake with, choose a chocolate that you can't stop eating straight from the bar. This is especially true when you're looking for semisweet and bittersweet chocolates, since most recipes using these dark chocolates are created to showcase their deep, rich flavors.

Again, remember that recipes calling for unsweetened, white or milk chocolate mean what they say — you can't use any other kind of chocolate — but you've got room to fudge when the recipe uses dark chocolate.

Storing Chocolate

Keep chocolate in a dark, cool, dry place, never in the refrigerator or freezer where it might meet up with its No. 1 enemy: moisture. Properly stored, dark chocolates will keep for years; milk and white chocolates for about 12 months. Don't be concerned if your chocolate develops a cloudy, gray "bloom": It means that the cocoa butter has separated from the solids. It's not very pretty, but it's not very serious either. When you melt the chocolate, all will be fine.

Melting Chocolate

Slow and gentle are the bywords for melting chocolate. The safest way to melt chocolate is either in a double boiler or the microwave oven.

Melting in a double boiler: If you don't have a double boiler, make one. Put a metal mixing bowl over a saucepan containing just an inch or so of simmering, not boiling, water; the water shouldn't touch the bottom of the bowl. Melt the chocolate very slowly, stirring gently with a rubber spatula, so that it melts evenly.

Melting in the microwave: Put the chocolate in a microwave-safe container or a heatproof glass measuring cup and set the oven to medium or low power. Heat the chocolate in short spurts and stir it often. Don't walk away and don't forget to stir because chocolate behaves oddly in the microwave: It often holds its shape even though it is melted, so it's easy to think the job isn't done and then scorch or seriously overheat the chocolate. Check the chocolate early and often.

No matter which method you use, you should chop the chocolate before melting it; chopped chocolate melts faster and more evenly.

Warning: Make sure that the bowl you're melting the chocolate in and the spatula you're using to stir it are dry, and don't let any liquid come in contact with the chocolate as it's melting. It's OK if a recipe instructs you to begin melting the chocolate with a liquid. But if rogue drops of liquid hit your chocolate mid-melt, the chocolate will clump and seize and, sadly, there'll be nothing you can do but weep, then toss the chocolate out and start over.

Mixing Chocolate into Batters

You have babied the chocolate up to this point and there is no reason to stop now. Unless the recipe says to beat the chocolate at high speed, it is always best to be gentle, mixing or folding the chocolate into the batter rather than beating it. Working gently means you don't incorporate air into the chocolate and don't lighten its color.

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Dorie Greenspan