The principle ingredient to hand-crafted artisan chocolates is, yes, chocolate. But not just any chocolate. Look for couverture, which is a high quality chocolate sold in blocks (which you must break up before melting) or discs. I like the discs, they are easy to measure, easy to work with, and not nearly as messy as breaking up a five pound block of chocolate. But the blocks are usually cheaper, so I use them more frequently these days. They make special forks for breaking up blocks of chocolate, but I just use a large chef’s knife and it works quite well.
Couverture has a very high cocoa butter content (up to 35%), making it high in fat content. But don’t let that scare you — it not only produces the best chocolates, but the greater the cocao butter content, the lower the sugar.
Chocolate is classified according to the percentage of cocoa solids it contains. The more cocoa solids, the less sugar and the more dark. Unsweetened chocolate contains no sugar, while dark chocolate contains some sugar.
The United States does not regulate the percentage of cocoa solids needed for classifying chocolate, but Europe does. The U.S. requires at least 15% cocoa liquor for a chocolate to be classified as “dark chocolate,” whereas Europe requires at least 35% cocoa solids. (Cocoa liquor is not something found at your local liquor shop — it is the unsweetened paste made from grinding cocoa nibs [which are made from dried and fermented cocoa beans.])
Bittersweet and semi-sweet chocolate contain added sugar and cocoa liquor; bittersweet has more cocoa liquor than semi-sweet. This is a broad and vague category for chocolate that contains at least 35% cocoa liquor, though most are more around the 50% range and they can go up to 70%.
Milk chocolate contains the highest percentage of sugar, as well as the addition of at least 12% milk solids.
White chocolate is not a true chocolate because it does not contain any cocoa solids. It is made of cocoa butter (at least 20% in the U.S.) milk solids, sugar and milk fat. Many products solds as “white chocolate” contain minimal cocoa butter, and “white chips” contain palm oil and no cocoa butter at all, so be sure to spring for a high quality true white “chocolate.”
Always be sure you use an excellent brand. There are a number of very excellent single-origin chocolates available on-line, and even Amazon has many excellent chocolates available in bulk. But if you are just starting out, you don’t want to spend all your drinking money on chocolate. What you save in chocolate can go toward an excellent red wine to serve with your chocolates or some exquisite teas.
Couverture is increasingly available in ordinary supermarkets, but it may not be stocked with the chocolate chips. Look for it in the baking supplies, often on a very high shelf, or among the pricey chocolate bars in the section for people with too much money.
Guittard has some wonderful chocolate couverture available in one pound boxes. They carry a very respectable white, as well as a 38% milk chocolate, 61% bittersweet, and a 72% dark. It runs about $12 a pound if bought directly from their site, $8-10 a pound on Amazon, and I’ve been buying it at my local QFC for about $8.00 a pound.
For hand rolled truffles or ganache, high quality chocolate chips work just fine. I buy Guittard (or other good quality chip) on sale by the bag at the local grocery store, or in bulk at the local food co-op (which sells Guittard in bulk).