Chocoholics, Unite! How to Use Chocolate in Savory Dishes

Now you can enjoy a classic sweet treat in your favorite savory dishes. With inventive uses in meat rubs and sauces or tomato-y bowls of chili, local chef Daniel Ernce shares how to incorporate chocolate into your cooking routine.

By Ettie Berneking

May 2018

Varieties of chocolate
Photo courtesy Shutterstock

Next time you head to the grocery store, pick up a few extra chocolate bars. This sweet treat can hide a complex flavor profile. Chocolate can be bitter; it can be rich; it can be savory; and it can be creatively and deliciously worked into several of your favorite savory dishes. 

One of the best-known uses for chocolate is in an ultra-rich mole sauce. Melted chocolate gives this spicy staple extra body and a luscious creaminess that balances out the heat from the peppers and spices. It’s sweet and savory all at once, and it tastes great slathered on your favorite Mexican cuisine. But a spicy mole offers a mere peek inside Pandora’s recipe box. Thanks to its complex flavor, chocolate works great when ground into a meat rub. It pairs wonderfully in a meat-heavy chili already seasoned with cinnamon and nutmeg. Its rich body can balance the acidity of a citrus salad or complement fatty meats including lamb and goat. You can stir it into your coveted barbecue sauce recipe or incorporate it into a savory granola or spiced-nut mixture. You just have to get creative and change the way you think of chocolate. 

One chef who’s really stretching the limits of the good stuff is Daniel Ernce, co-creator of the popular pop-up restaurant Progress. At a recent dinner, Ernce redefined dessert entirely and served his guests roasted seaweed ice cream topped with a soy caramel sauce for a dash of that coveted umami flavor. Served on the side was a dark chocolate ganache. It was unexpected to say the least. How often are you served seaweed for dessert? Then again, how often do you pair seaweed with chocolate?

As unusual as it sounds, the flavors made perfect sense in Ernce’s culinary mind. “People always associate chocolate with being sweet,” he says. “But it’s only sweet because we add sugar to it. People forget that. In its raw form, chocolate is bitter and is one of the most savory ingredients.” But before you head to the grocery store to start the great chocolate experiment of 2018, Ernce has some recommendations on flavors and ingredients that pair well with nature’s original sweet treat.

For starters, those creamy Hershey’s bars you have in the pantry won’t work well in savory dishes. Ernce recommends buying chocolate bars with 72 percent cocoa. “Working with a higher percentage of cocoa lends itself more towards savory applications,” he says. The higher the percentage, the more bitter the flavor. But cooking is also about balance, which means you need something fatty to cut through the bitterness of chocolate. 

This is when red meats like goat, lamb, beef, venison and duck come in. “These meats have really strong flavor that can stand up to the boldness of the chocolate, and they typically have enough fat and richness to balance out the tannic dark chocolate,” Ernce says. If you’re looking for other flavors to add to the mix, Ernce suggests experimenting with bold players such as cherries and oranges for a bright pop of citrus or a more savory flare with rosemary and fennel. Just stay away from most vegetables, fish and white meats, which are all easily overpowered by chocolate.

But find the perfect combination—like Ernce’s seaweed, caramel, salt and dark chocolate—and you’ll have a whole new appreciation for this ingredient. For a savory recipe rich in chocolate, we turned to The Queen City’s reigning chocolatier: Askinosie Chocolate.