Rich, dark, and intense, cocoa is most commonly tempered with sugar and used in dessert recipes. But cocoa’s acidic, slightly bitter quality makes it a great addition to savory dishes, as well. Just think of it as a spice, and the possibilities begin to unfold. Like coffee, cocoa starts out as a bean. Unsweetened cocoa powder, which is made by grinding roasted cacao (or cocoa) beans and stripping them of their cocoa butter, happens to be a concentrated source of flavonoids, the heart-healthy plant compounds also found in red wine and green tea. These potent antioxidants may help lower blood pressure and prevent heart disease by neutralizing harmful free radicals.
Since there are many cocoa powders on the market, sample a few to find one that you love. Variations in growing and processing will yield different flavors in the finished product. As with spices, it’s best to store cocoa powder in an airtight container in a cool dark location. Stored properly, cocoa powder will stay fresh for up to two years.
Cocoa’s savory uses abound: Chocolate is a vital ingredient in Mexican mole, a classic sauce with many variations (the best-known is mole poblano). A blend of chiles, chocolate, and many other ingredients, this dark sauce is most commonly served over chicken or turkey. In small doses, cocoa powder’s acidity also balances out savory stews, like boeuf bourgignon, as well as spicy chiles. Chocolate also works well in sauces served with wild game like rabbit, venison, and boar. Keep it on hand during grilling season, as well: Cocoa powder adds deep flavor to barbecue sauces, marinades, glazes and rubs. For a simple rub that’s perfect for pork, mix together 1/3 cup of unsweetened cocoa powder, 1/3 cup of finely-ground coffee or instant espresso powder, a teaspoon of dried chile powder, and if desired, a dash of cinnamon, and season with salt and pepper. Brush pork chops or tenderloin with olive oil and then apply the rub to the meat before grilling. This mixture creates a deliciously dark crust and also works wonders with beef tenderloin.