To Store Chocolate or Not to Store?

"The best place to store chocolate is in your mouth."

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Phinney Chocolate "inclusion" bars, here with curry.

Consider this fact for a moment: more than 90 percent of Americans consume chocolate in some form every day.

Americans are obviously fascinated by chocolate. The retail chocolate business in the United States is more than $15 billion annually. That makes the United States the largest market for chocolate in the world. While it is true that Americans might not eat as much chocolate per capita as other countries, the fact that there are over 300 million chocolate eaters in the US compared with only 7.5 million in Switzerland, the country with the highest per capita consumption, lets the United States take the overall crown by a wide margin.

I have been writing about chocolate and giving chocolate appreciation classes for a decade now. One question that Americans obsess about when it comes to chocolate also happens to be one of the major differences that separates Americans from the rest of the world when it comes to appreciating fine chocolate: "What's the best way to store chocolate?" The answer I now invariably give is, "The best place to store chocolate is in your mouth."

20080508redfridge_200x254.jpgIn chocolate-loving Europe, the storage question almost never gets asked as the approach to food in general—and gourmet foods such as chocolate in particular—is very different from ours here in the United States. On my trips to France, Italy, and Switzerland for example, I noticed that fewer people had large refrigerators, pantries, or lots of cupboard space. So, there's a tendency to buy food in relatively small quantities and to buy it regularly, often daily. If chocolate is a part of the menu, people add the chocolate shop to the list of neighborhood stores they stop by on their way home, picking up only what is needed for a day or two.

Here in the United States, on the other hand, the tendency is to buy far more of everything than can reasonably be eaten in a short time. So Americans are often faced with the challenge of how to store what can't be consumed right away. They have happily bought into the delusion that they can just pop that three-pound box they bought in Belgium into the fridge and "savor" rationing themselves to one piece a day over the course of three months. They would be horrified to discover just how different (bad) the last piece in the box tastes from the first.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with treating chocolate that way (chocolatiers routinely refrigerate or freeze their chocolates as an alternative to adding preservatives), for the person at home, refrigerating or freezing chocolate should be considered a last resort and not a first choice because there is a direct correlation between freshness and quality with chocolate.

Ideally, you want to eat a chocolate within a day or two of its being made for maximum enjoyment. That means that the best place to buy chocolate is not a big box store, a drug store, or even the local supermarket. Because of the way the food distribution system works, chocolates that you find in those locations are often six to nine months old before they even make it to the shelf. When you want the best wine you go to a store that specializes in wine. When you want the best cheese you want to go to a store that specializes in cheese. The same is true for chocolate. What you really want to strive for is to establish the same relationship with your chocolatier that your grandmother wanted to have with her butcher.

20080508chocolatedisplay_200x150.jpgBut, like it or not, even the most fastidious lover of chocolate is sometimes faced with having more chocolate than prudence (or a doctor) suggests can reasonably eaten in a short period of time and is faced with having to store the chocolate so it won't go bad. If you find yourself in this situation (What? Too Much Chocolate? Whoever Heard of Such a Thing?), here's what you need to know.

Threats to Chocolate

The triple-threats to chocolate are heat, humidity, and odor. Too warm is bad (the chocolate softens or melts) as is too cold (moisture can condense on the chocolate as it warms up). The cocoa butter in chocolate sucks up odors faster than a dry sponge sucks up water.

Unopened bars of chocolate without dairy fillings do not need to be wrapped and can be kept at room temperature: 68–72° F. Kept away from rapid changes in temperature or humidity, dark chocolate bars will easily last a year and milk chocolate bars six months or more. There should be no need for special storage for bars until the temperature where they are stored climbs above 80° F. Opened bars can be stored in a heavy plastic bag or container or wrapped tightly with the new sticky cling-wrap product, but stay away from normal plastic wrap and aluminum foil.

Anything with dairy in a filling (e.g., a ganache) that is not going to be eaten within a week of being purchased should be stored much colder to keep the dairy from turning sour and, if there are air pockets in the piece, growing mold. The ideal place to store these chocolates is a wine refrigerator or wine cellar set for red wine. The temperature range of 57–60° F for red wine with a relative humidity of 55 percent is perfect for storing chocolates of all kinds.

When faced with the prospect of having to put chocolate under any form of refrigeration (including a wine cellar if the ambient temperature is above 80° F and the humidity is high—) it is important not to rush the process of either cooling the chocolate down or warming it up. Not to do so runs the risk of either or both: moisture condensing on the surface and forming a layer of sugar crystals (called sugar bloom) on the chocolate that permanently ruins the chocolate's texture; or cocoa butter bloom which is an unattractive whitish layer on the chocolate formed when the cocoa butter comes out of suspension.

Five Simple Steps

Following are the five simple steps you can take to ensure—should the need ever arise to refrigerate or freeze chocolate—that you'll be able to maintain the highest possible quality:

  1. Divide the chocolate into serving-sized portions.
  2. Wrap each portion in a separate small freezer-weight plastic bag and loosely cover the chocolate with an unbleached paper towel. Remove as much air as possible from the bag without squishing the chocolate and seal.
  3. Put the individually wrapped portions into the fridge.
  4. After 15 minutes or so check the bag to see if any moisture has condensed on the inside of the bag. If yes, replace the paper towel with a new one and return to the fridge.
  5. After an hour in the fridge, remove the paper towel (to avoid the chocolate picking up its odor) and place the small individual bags into larger freezer-weight bags and return them to the fridge or put them in the freezer.

At this point you can keep the chocolate safely in the fridge for at least six months and in the freezer for a year. To warm the chocolate prior to eating it you'll need to think ahead or face the possibility chipping a tooth and helping your dentist put his or her kids through college. Remove only as many servings as you need from the freezer and place them in the fridge for at least eight to twelve hours or preferably overnight. From the refrigerator, place the bags in a cool dark place and let them warm to room temperature, one to two hours.

Enjoy!

About the author: Clay Gordon has been writing about chocolate since 2001 and is considered a pioneer of the genre of serious criticism about chocolate. His thoughts on chocolate have appeared in the pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Business Week, among many others. He has appeared on Oprah, on programs aired on Food Network and History Channel, and has been a regular guest on Martha Stewart Living Radio on Sirius satellite radio. Clay's first book on chocolate, Discover Chocolate was published in 2007 and was selected as a finalist in the International Association of Culinary Professionals' 2008 Cookbook of the Year Awards. A serious chocolate educator, Clay has created and moderates an online community for chocophiles and aspiring chocophiles, The Chocolate Life.

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