That’s an excellent starting-out question, reader Dan, I’m glad you asked it. Because there’s a lot of confusion out there on the subject. It’s not simply a “high quality” chocolate as many people think, however a good couverture is (by definition I suppose) high quality chocolate. Roughly translated, the French word “couverture” means “covering” or “coating” in English. Thus couverture chocolate is a kind of chocolate most commonly used to cover things. Candies and truffles especially, but also tortes and other types of pastries.
I know what you’re thinking: can’t any kind of bar chocolate be melted and used to cover those sorts of things? Indeed so, however couverture chocolate has special properties that make the job easier and deliver a better end product. One key ingredient is responsible for most of them: cocoa butter. Cocoa butter is a fat, but a fat unlike any other on Earth. It’s solid at room temperature — when tempered even brittle — but put it in your mouth and it changes from hard to creamy in an instant. That silky, unctuous mouth feel that fine chocolates have? Cocoa butter is how you get it. Even the finest, rarest “grand cru” cocoa bean solids would be nothing without it.
Couverture chocolate has more cocoa butter in it than any other type of chocolate. Up to 40%. That means couverture chocolate melts and pours more readily than other types of chocolate. It also means it spreads more easily and coats more evenly (and thinly). And, provided it’s tempered properly, when it firms up it has a more brittle snap and a glossier sheen. Add it all up and it’s easy to why it’s so desirable as a coating for bonbons.
So is that all there is to couverture chocolate? Mmm…not quite. As I mentioned before, couverture chocolate is almost always made with very high quality cocoa solids, and those solids are generally ground to a finer consistency than those that go in to normal eating chocolate.
Which brings me to my last point: couverture chocolate is often sold in bar form for casual eating. Many of the high-end Valrhone, Callebaut and Guittard bars are actually couvertures. However I tend not to buy those off-the-shelf bars for pastry purposes. First because it’s expensive (couverture already costs a lot…in those tiny, individually-packaged quantities it costs even more). Second, because unless it actually says “couverture” on the label I don’t know how much cocoa butter it actually contains. If you want to work with couverture chocolate, the best strategy is to order some and keep it in your basement pantry. And try, try, TRY not to eat it before you use it.