Ask the Alchemist #39

Do I have to use lecithin, vanilla and preservatives in my chocolate? How and when do I add them?

First and foremost, you don’t have to add anything more than sugar to make chocolate (assuming we are not talking “baker’s chocolate”). And you absolutely don’t have to add any nebulous preservatives. Chocolate does not go bad.

As for lecithin and vanilla, they are both optional additives and very simple to add.

Lecithin is often described as an emulsifier. In chocolate, that is not really why it is used, but that property is used. What I mean by that is technically an emulsifier is used to bind somewhat equal parts of water and oil together. Like in a Caesar salad dressing. The egg is the emulsifier, and allows the oil and vinegar to bind together into an emulsion. In chocolate, as we all know by now, you don’t use water as it causes the chocolate to seize. But sometimes, either due to a lighter side roast, humidity or because certain ingredients (some sugars and milk powder) can be easily absorb water, water does make it into the chocolate. The addition of a small amount of lecithin keeps the water from causing problems such as seizing or thickening the chocolate. But to repeat, it is an optional ingredient. I’m a big fan of ‘don’t fix what is not broken’. If your chocolate is not showing symptoms of moisture problems, and you like the chocolate, leave it be.

The other reason you may wish to use lecithin is actually for its emulsification properties. When baking, or cooking with homemade chocolate, more than once I found the recipe trying to separate, but the recipe was just fine with commercial chocolate. A little investigation led to the difference being a small amount of lecithin in the chocolate. The lecithin gives you just a little edge and leeway in having everything incorporate smoothly and evenly.

How much is a ‘small amount’? The rule of thumb I use currently is 0.1% of the recipe, or roughly a teaspoon in a 6 lb batch. Will more lecithin hurt? No, I’ve used up to 5% in a test batch, and although the texture and viscosity because a little odd, it by no means ruined the chocolate.

Vanilla – what a controversial subject…..which mostly I fail to participate in. As I said, it is optional. Many chocolates contain it. Many people are used to the flavor and expect in chocolate. Some people think it complements the flavor of the chocolate. Some people think it competes with the flavor. If you do wish to add it, I find 1-2 vanilla beans per 6 lb batch is a good starting point. If you don’t want it, don’t add it.

How do you add either of these ingredients? In nearly all of my recipes I have at least a small amount of cocoa butter. I melt the cocoa butter, and then add the lecithin, stirring to incorporate. You can add it directly to your chocolate in your Melanger, but I find it seems to behave better this way. Likewise, for vanilla, I take a vanilla bean, split it down the middle, scrap the seeds, and toss it all into the cocoa butter to steep for 1/2 – 1 hour. Longer is fine, shorter if you wish. Scrap the vanilla bean again, and use the vanilla infused cocoa butter, seeds and all. And if you don’t use cocoa butter? My suggestion is just to use some if you are going to add either of these ingredients.

Preservatives. To my mind, they have no place at all in chocolate. None. They are not needed. It’s really that simple. Chocolate, being effectively water free, is it’s own natural preservative. For something to spoil, you have to have bacteria thriving, and bacteria (or any life that I am aware of) will not thrive in a water free environment. This is not to say you can’t have dormant bacteria in your chocolate if you are not careful in your processing. E.coli, salmonella, etc. But they won’t cause the chocolate to spoil – they will simply make you sick after you ingest them and give them water.

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