Do you like chocolate? Yes? Do you like chocolate with cream? Or ice cream? Do you like chocolate with caramel? Or chocolate with nuts? How about chocolate with cherries? Or raspberries? Mint? Cream cheese? How about chocolate with rosemary? Thyme? Lavender? Or cayenne? Do you like chocolate with mustard?

If the last few options made you feel a little apprehensive, read on.

Chocolate is no less suited for cooking with savory than butter or fruit. But allow me to rewind here a moment, to explain that, in professional kitchens in the U.S., two major categories exist – pastry, i.e. pastries, desserts and sweets; and savory. i.e. everything else. And, for some chefs, never the twain shall meet, while some other chefs enjoy crossing over, dabbling and experimenting, seeing what works (and what doesn’t) by trial and error. As it turns out, there are many ingredients that help make successful dishes on both sides of the paradigm. And chocolate is irrefutably one of them.

Cooking with chocolate ought not be a cause for pause. After all, chocolate’s friends in the bakeshop – butter, sugar, flour, cinnamon, vanilla honey, etc. all cross over into the savory kitchen quite nicely, don’t they? What chocolate brings to savory dishes is complexity and depth. The cocoa butter brings texture and mouthfeel, and the cocoa solids bring color and richness. A cook can choose a chocolate for his dish much in the same way he chooses a wine to cook/pair with his food. And there are just about as many options.

It may be noted that a little bit of chocolate goes a long way, although there are some daring chefs who deliberately push the envelope when marrying chocolate with savory dishes. It should also be pointed out that cooking with chocolate doesn’t necessarily mean sweetness on your plate. Although cooking with sweet components, chocolate included, is often desirable, good bittersweet chocolate is actually not very sweet at all and won’t generally make your dish taste any sweeter.

Question: So what does chocolate actually bring to a savory dish? Short answer: depth and complexity. Long answer: Chocolate consists of two very potent components, the cocoa solids (i.e. cocoa powder) and the cocoa butter (i.e. white chocolate). The solids are bitter and dark brown, and act like a starch, absorbing moisture and thickening liquids. The cocoa butter adds silkiness, lushness and mouthfeel. In fact, because chocolate has such a low melting point, it can give the sensation of cooling your mouth because it uses the heat energy of the tongue. Very cool indeed. (On a related note, chocolate also has a very low smoke point, meaning it burns easy, and once you burn chocolate, or most anything else for that matter, you can’t really get rid of the burnt flavor. Word to the wise.) Despite chocolate’s richness and complexity, however, you may be surprised at how mellow it makes food taste. It goes well with nearly anything, and yet possesses none of the qualities of the food it goes so well with – sourness, saltiness, pungency, sweetness. Almost like good bread.

Most people already know that chocolate is a psychoactive material, because of the caffeine (stimulant), theobromine (cousin to caffeine), tryptophan (antecedent to serotonin), and phenethylamine (natural amphetamine). Cooking with chocolate is comparable to cooking with wine, beer or spirits – not only are there noteworthy effects on the flavor and texture of the food, but the food itself has more of an effect upon the person eating it. Chefs, avid restaurant goers and foodies all around understand that great food has only so much to do with nourishing the body. It’s about enjoying life as much as possible. And cooking with chocolate can leave one feeling very high on life.

Mole poblano is probably the best-known chocolate dish (most sauces called moles actually don’t feature chocolate at all), and is traditionally served over chicken, but can be served over pork, beef, venison, even fish. And here chocolate is reunited with one of its oldest friends: the chile. Native South American tribes, including the Olmecs, the Incas, the Aztecs and the Mayans, used chocolate, usually as a beverage, with chiles, vegetables, meats and other savory elements long before Europeans began utilizing chocolate. Fact is, chocolate was not originally defined as a dessert ingredient until much later. Only as the distinction between desserts and the world of savory, nonsweet foods became more and more defined over time did chocolate eventually join the ranks of such foods as sugar, honey, and many fruits as fundamentally dessert-oriented. (Interesting side note? Cacao beans were also used as currency by Mayans as late as 400 AD in Guatemala – 3 cacao beans could buy you an avocado, and for 100 beans you could buy a turkey.)

Tips for introducing chocolate to your dinner:

  • If a recipe you are using calls for flour, substitute up to 25% of that flour with cocoa powder.
  • Put a small piece of bittersweet chocolate at the bottom of a bowl of hot soup or chili. As it slowly melts, you can experiment with how much chocolate you like with each slice of your spoon.
  • Add a tablespoon or two of melted chocolate (or cacao nibs in lieu of nuts, if your recipe calls for them) to a buttery sauté, or cacao nibs on a salad.
  • Try using rosemary, thyme, lavender, cayenne, olive oil, or some other ingredient normally associated with savory cooking, to your favorite chocolate dessert.
  • Be aware, water can make chocolate seize (stiffen and lump suddenly), but you can usually unseize it if you stir it vigorously enough.
  • Use good chocolate. It’s worth the extra cost.