It took two months for Claudia Martínez, the executive pastry chef at Miller Union in Atlanta, to perfect her salted chocolate-chip cookie recipe. For the morsels, she ended up using a high-end chocolate — Lactée Barry Equilibre from the French chocolate company Cacao Barry — and was happy with her results. But when she tried some cookies that her regulars had made for her as gifts, she thought they tasted “way better” than her own.
They were baked with Toll House chocolate chips.
“As pastry chefs, we’re always trying to use the fanciest chocolates,” said Ms. Martínez, 29. “Sometimes, people just want that flavor they can recognize.” Including her. Toll House morsels were in her mother’s cookies and in treats made by her childhood babysitter long before she attended culinary school.
Nostalgia is only one reason to love chocolate chips. Aside from their obvious convenience — no messy chopping — they hold their shape better in the oven when stirred into doughs and batters, and deliver more flavor in baked goods than some expensive bar chocolates. And it’s all because they’re relatively low in cocoa butter and high in cacao solids.
Donald Wressell, an executive chef of the Guittard Chocolate Company, said, “At face value, sure, the most expensive chocolate is the best,” but he emphasized that how you plan to use the chocolate should determine what you use. “What is the right chocolate for what you’re trying to do?”
If it’s baking, the right choice is probably chocolate chips.
Chocolate varies widely, but most is a blend of sugar and cocoa mass, which is made up of ground cacao solids and cocoa butter, the fat from cacao beans. Fat carries flavor, so more cocoa butter means more of the cacao solids’ flavor coats your tongue when you’re eating chocolate on its own. Cocoa butter also helps temper the bitterness inherent in chocolate and smooths both the texture and taste. So if you take a bite of a pricey bar and then try a chocolate chip, the bar probably will taste better.
But a higher proportion of cocoa butter also makes chocolate more fluid when it’s melted. That’s ideal for coating confections — think shiny, snappy shells enrobing truffles and caramel — but it isn’t necessary or even useful for baking, said Jacques Dahan, the president of the chocolate company Michel Cluizel USA. In fact, he said, “you want less cocoa butter for chocolate that you bake with.”
That’s in large part because cocoa butter is very expensive for chocolate manufacturers, and the extra cost, which is then passed onto consumers, isn’t worth it for many baked goods. Cocoa butter adds fat, but you can’t really taste it once it’s baked with other ingredients. And most baked goods include added fat like dairy butter anyway, so the cocoa butter isn’t necessary.
Since chocolate chips have less cocoa butter, they have more cacao solids instead. Some chocolate chips, such as those from Michel Cluizel, Guittard and Valrhona, keep the amount of cocoa butter low for all the benefits of a baking chocolate, but are higher-end options with fewer, if any, additives. In all baking morsels, the higher proportion of cacao solids yields a lot more flavor in baked goods because “solids are where the flavor’s at,” Mr. Wressell said. And you need stronger flavor when chocolate is blended with other ingredients, as it is in brownies. In a flourless chocolate cake, melted chips shine through the creaminess of butter and the richness of eggs. They also help bind the ingredients in the absence of flour for a fudgy yet tender texture.
When chocolate chips are simply stirred whole into dough or batter, they showcase their most distinctive property: their ability to hold their perky shape in a hot oven. Because chips have more cacao solids and the solids themselves don’t melt, the chips stay intact enough to give structure and height to chunky cookies and banana bread, like throw cushions in a pillow fort.
Since Nestlé began manufacturing the morsels in the 1940s — thanks to Ruth Wakefield’s invention of the chocolate chip cookie in the 1930s — many companies have inundated the American market with options, especially over the last few decades. Among all the products, there is no one best chocolate chip, only your preferred choice for any given dessert. To find what you like, Mr. Wressell recommends not only tasting different chocolate chips, but also baking with them.
That’s what Jacqueline Eng, the head baker and co-owner of Partybus Bakeshop in New York City, does. Because she thinks of herself as a bread baker first, she feels like she’s experimenting when she works with sweets. “Approaching chocolate is intimidating because you can deep dive into sourcing beans from different countries,” she said. “Instead of being intimidated, I decided to just make what I thought tasted good, just by trial and error.”
After mixing different products into her cookies, Ms. Eng landed on using Callebaut 54-percent cacao callets. But, for a stretch of the pandemic, supply chain issues made it difficult for her to find them, so she substituted chocolate chips from the grocery store.
Even though she didn’t prefer them, she heard positive reviews from new customers and personally understood why. She said, “You can’t really hand me a cookie that I’m not going to like.”
Recipe: Flourless Chocolate Cake