20 Things You Never Knew About Chocolate

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Happy National Chocolate Day! In celebration of this most delicious holiday, let’s brush up on our chocolate knowledge.

1. THERE ARE MULTIPLE CELEBRATIONS OF CHOCOLATE EACH YEAR.

Holiday makers are constantly on the hunt for a reason to munch on chocolate, so the calendar offers plenty of excuses to buy a bar. July 7 is also Chocolate Day, a nod to the historical tradition that the day marks when chocolate was first brought to Europe on July 7, 1550, though a number of sources argue that it might have hit the continent’s shores as far back as 1504, thanks to Christopher Columbus. Official day or not, we do know that chocolate first arrived in Europe some time in the 16th century. There's also National Milk Chocolate Day on July 28, International Chocolate Day on September 13, and, of course, National Bittersweet Chocolate With Almonds Day on November 7.

2. CHOCOLATE IS ACTUALLY A VEGETABLE—KIND OF.

Milk and dark chocolate come from the cacao bean, which grows on the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao), an evergreen from the family Malvaceae (other members of the family include okra and cotton). This makes the most important part of the sweet treat a vegetable.

3. WHITE CHOCOLATE IS NOT CHOCOLATE.

Because it doesn't contain cocoa solids or chocolate liquor, white chocolate isn't chocolate in the strict sense. But it does contain parts of the cacao bean—mainly cocoa butter.

4. THE CACAO BEAN IS NATIVE TO MEXICO AND BOTH CENTRAL AND SOUTH AMERICA.

It’s believed that inhabitants of these areas first started cultivating the bean as far back as 1250 BCE, and perhaps even earlier.

5. HOT CHOCOLATE WAS THE FIRST CHOCOLATE TREAT.

Cacao was brewed in both Mexican and Aztec culture, though the result was nothing like today’s hot chocolate—it was a typically bitter concoction that was often used for ceremonial occasions like weddings.

6. MARIE ANTOINETTE LOVED HOT CHOCOLATE (THE MODERN KIND).

Marie didn’t just love cake, she also loved chocolate, and hot chocolate was frequently served at the Palace of Versailles. It wasn’t just the taste everyone loved—it was also believed that the drink was an aphrodisiac.

7. CACAO WAS ONCE USED AS CURRENCY.

The Aztecs loved and valued the cacao bean so highly that they used it as currency during the height of their civilization.

8. SPANISH FRIARS HELPED SPREAD THE LOVE.

After cacao and chocolate were introduced to Europe, traveling Spanish friars took it to various monasteries, handily spreading it around the continent.

9. A PAIR OF BRITISH CONFECTIONERS INVENTED SOLID CHOCOLATE.

The Fry and Sons shop concocted what they called “eating chocolate” in 1847 by combining cocoa butter, sugar, and chocolate liquor. This was a grainy, solid form of the treat.

10. COCOA AND CACAO ARE THE SAME THING.

The words are interchangeable! It’s all one bean.

11. NAPOLEON LOVED CHOCOLATE.

The French leader demanded that wine and chocolate be made available to him and his senior advisers even during intense military campaigns.

12. BAKER'S CHOCOLATE ISN’T JUST FOR BAKING.

Dr. James Baker and John Hannon founded their chocolate company—later called Walter Baker Chocolate—in 1765. That’s where the term “Baker's Chocolate” comes from, not to denote chocolate that’s just meant for cooking.

13. MILTON HERSHEY REALLY WAS A CANDY KING.

The Pennsylvania native may be best known for starting The Hershey Chocolate Company in good old Hershey, PA, but he got his start in candy long before hooking up with chocolate. He founded his first company, The Lancaster Caramel Company, when he was 30 years old.

14. MILK CHOCOLATE WAS INVENTED IN SWITZERLAND.

Daniel Peter created the tasty treat in 1875—after eight years of trying to make his recipe work. Condensed milk ended up being the key ingredient.

15. MAKING CHOCOLATE IS HARD WORK.

Despite its regal background and revered status, the cacao bean doesn’t just magically turn into chocolate—it takes about 400 beans to make a single pound of the good stuff.

16. THE FIRST CHOCOLATE BAR WAS MADE IN ENGLAND.

Way back in 1842, the Cadbury company made the very first chocolate bar. The company is still in existence, and is perhaps most famous for their delightful Easter-themed treats.

17. MOST CACAO IS NOW GROWN IN AFRICA.

Despite its Amazonian roots, most cacao—nearly 70 percent of the world’s supply—comes from Africa. The Ivory Coast is the largest single producer, providing about 30 percent of all the world’s cacao.

18. CACAO TREES CAN LIVE TO BE 200 YEARS OLD.

That may sound impressive, but the tropical beauties only make viable cacao beans for just 25 years of their lifespan.

19. THERE ARE TWO KINDS OF CACAO.

Most modern chocolate comes from forastero beans, which are considered easy to grow—though the crillo bean is believed to make much tastier chocolate.

20. CHOCOLATE HAS A SPECIAL MELTING POINT.

Chocolate is the only edible substance to melt around 93° F, just below the human body temperature. That’s why chocolate melts so easily on your tongue.

The Science Behind Brining Your Thanksgiving Turkey

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iStock.com/LazingBee

At many Thanksgiving tables, the annual roast turkey is just a vehicle for buttery mash and creamy gravy. But for those who prefer their bird be a main course that can stand on its own without accoutrements, brining is an essential prep step—despite the fact that it requires finding enough room in the fridges to immerse a 20-pound animal in gallons of salt water for days on end. To legions of brining believers, the resulting moist bird is worth the trouble.

How, exactly, does a salty soak yield juicy meat? And what about all the claims from a contingency of dry brine enthusiasts: Will merely rubbing your bird with salt give better results than a wet plunge? For a look at the science behind each process, we tracked down a couple of experts.

First, it's helpful to know why a cooked turkey might turn out dry to begin with. As David Yanisko, a culinary arts professor at the State University of New York at Cobleskill, tells Mental Floss, "Meat is basically made of bundles of muscle fibers wrapped in more muscle fibers. As they cook, they squeeze together and force moisture out," as if you were wringing a wet sock. Hence the incredibly simple equation: less moisture means more dryness. And since the converse is also true, this is where brining comes in.

Your basic brine consists of salt dissolved in water. How much salt doesn't much matter for the moistening process; its quantity only makes your meat and drippings more or less salty. When you immerse your turkey in brine—Ryan Cox, an animal science professor at the University of Minnesota, quaintly calls it a "pickling cover"—you start a process called diffusion. In diffusion, salt moves from the place of its highest concentration to the place where it's less concentrated: from the brine into the turkey.

Salt is an ionic compound—its sodium molecules have a positive charge and its chloride molecules have a negative charge, but they stick together anyway. As the brine penetrates the bird, those salt molecules meet both positively and negatively charged protein molecules in the meat, causing the meat proteins to scatter. Their rearrangement "makes more space between the muscle fibers," Cox tells Mental Floss. "That gives us a broader, more open sponge for water to move into."

The salt also dissolves some of the proteins, which, according to the book Cook's Science by the editors of Cook's Illustrated, creates "a gel that can hold onto even more water." Juiciness, here we come!

There's a catch, though. Brined turkey may be moist, but it can also taste bland—infusing it with salt water is still introducing, well, water, which is a serious flavor diluter. This is where we cue the dry briners. They claim that using salt without water both adds moisture and enhances flavor: win-win.

Turkey being prepared to cook.
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In dry brining, you rub the surface of the turkey with salt and let it sit in a cold place for a few days. Some salt penetrates the meat as it sits—with both dry and wet brining, Cox says this happens at a rate of about 1 inch per week. But in this process, the salt is effective mostly because of osmosis, and that magic occurs in the oven.

"As the turkey cooks, the [contracting] proteins force the liquid out—what would normally be your pan drippings," Yanisko says. The liquid mixes with the salt, both get absorbed or reabsorbed into the turkey and, just as with wet brining, the salt disperses the proteins to make more room for the liquid. Only this time the liquid is meat juices instead of water. Moistness and flavor ensue.

Still, Yanisko admits that he personally sticks with wet brining—"It’s tradition!" His recommended ratio of 1-1/2 cups of kosher salt (which has no added iodine to gunk up the taste) to 1 gallon of water gives off pan drippings too salty for gravy, though, so he makes that separately. Cox also prefers wet brining, but he supplements it with the advanced, expert's addition of injecting some of the solution right into the turkey for what he calls "good dispersal." He likes to use 1-1/2 percent of salt per weight of the bird (the ratio of salt to water doesn't matter), which he says won't overpower the delicate turkey flavor.

Both pros also say tossing some sugar into your brine can help balance flavors—but don't bother with other spices. "Salt and sugar are water soluble," Cox says. "Things like pepper are fat soluble so they won't dissolve in water," meaning their taste will be lost.

But no matter which bird or what method you choose, make sure you don't roast past an internal temperature of 165˚F. Because no brine can save an overcooked turkey.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

5 Holiday Foods That Are Dangerous to Pets

iStock/svetikd
iStock/svetikd

One of the best parts of the holiday season is the menu of indulgent food and drinks that comes along with it. But while you enjoy that cup of spiked hot cocoa, you’ve got to be careful your dog or cat doesn’t nab a lick. Here are five holiday treats that are dangerous for your pets, according to Vetstreet.

1. COFFEE

Any coffee lover will agree that there’s nothing quite like an after-dinner cup of joe on a cold night. But pups, kitties, and other pets will have to sit this tradition out. Caffeine can prompt seizures and abnormal heart rhythms in pets, and can sometimes be fatal. Other caffeinated drinks, such as soda or tea, should also be kept away from your four-legged family members.

2. BREAD DOUGH

We know the threat that bread dough poses to the appearance of our thighs, but it’s much more dangerous to our furry little friends. Holiday bakers have to be careful of unbaked bread dough as it can expand in animal stomachs if ingested. In some dogs, the stomach can twist and cut off the blood supply, in which case the pup would need emergency surgery.

3. CHOCOLATE

Cat and dog in Santa hats chowing down on plates of food
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A little chocolate never hurt anybody, right? Wrong. The sweet treat can cause seizures and even be fatal to our pets. Darker chocolate, such as the baker’s chocolate we love to put in our holiday cookies, is more toxic to our pets than milk or white chocolate. The toxic ingredients include caffeine and theobromine, a chemical found in the cacao plant.

4. MACADAMIA NUTS

Macadamia nuts, which are a common ingredient in holiday cookies and often put out to munch on as an appetizer, can be toxic to dogs. While poisoning might not always be easy to detect in a pet, clinical warning signs include depression, weakness, vomiting, tremors, joint stiffness, and lack of coordination.

5. ALCOHOL

Think back to when you first started drinking and how much less alcohol it took to get you tipsy, because you likely weighed less than you do now. Well, your pet probably weighs a lot less than you did, even back then, meaning it takes much less alcohol to make them dangerously sick. Keep those wine glasses far out of reach of your pets in order to avoid any issues. Well, maybe not any issue: We can’t promise that this will stop you from getting embarrassingly drunk at a holiday party this year.

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