There are so many types of chocolate, in a wide variety of forms, on the market today. From bite sized chocolates covered in sweet hard candy shells, to bars and fancy elaborately decorated truffles you spy in shop windows. How do you know what to select? How do you know which chocolate is going to be “good” or even “great” to eat? The obvious answer that may pop into your head is “I select ones I have had before and liked.” Ok, yes, we all have our favorites and “go-tos” but how do you choose when you are looking for something new or different or maybe you want to select something a bit fancier to give as a gift?
Before we dive into what makes chocolate good or not – think back on the last time you ate a piece of chocolate. How did it taste? How did it feel in your mouth? Odds are good you already know when you are eating good quality chocolate over lower quality chocolate. The taste, texture, and aroma truly give away the quality of the chocolate. How? Let’s take a look.
How is chocolate made?
Let’s start with a quick overview of how chocolate is made since each step of the chocolate manufacturing process has a significant impact on the end product.
Chocolate begins life as a simple cocoa bean, grown on a cacao tree, in a tropical climate (places such as Western Africa, Columbia, Costa Rica, and Mexico). The beans grow in clusters inside of a large fruit that the tree produces. Once the fruit is harvested from the tree, the beans are fermented to develop the bean’s chocolate flavor and then dried to lock that flavor in. At this point the beans are bagged and shipped all over the world for processing into candy, sauces, baked goods, beauty products, and much more by a variety of manufacturers.
Once in the hands of the manufacturer, the beans are cleaned and then roasted to add complexity and depth to the flavor. The roasting process varies from manufacturer to manufacturer based on their specific candy requirements. Once roasted, the outer shell of the bean comes off to reveal the “nibs” inside. A chocolate nib consists of about 50% cocoa butter and is ground down into cocoa liquor, known as cocoa mass. This liquor or mass is then pressed to separate the cocoa butter from the cocoa solids (or cocoa cake). The cake is ground to create cocoa powder.
The cocoa butter is used, along with the powder and sugar (and potentially other ingredients as well as emulsifiers/stabilizers), to create both milk and dark chocolate. White chocolate has cocoa butter but no cocoa powder. Once the ingredients are brought together they are then put through a process called conching where the ingredients are mixed and kneaded together (this can go on for hours or days). Once that is complete the chocolate is tempered (gently heated and then cooled to crystallize the cocoa butter) and poured into molds to harden into blocks of chocolate.
What else is added? Does it affect the quality?
Ok, so that is the basics of how a cocoa bean becomes a block of delicious edible chocolate. So does that mean we are done? Is that everything that goes into making chocolate candy? Not quite. There are quite a few ingredients that are added to the chocolate – all of which depend heavily on how the chocolate will be used and the specific recipe used by the candy maker. The chocolate candies you eat contain quite a bit more than just cocoa liquor, cocoa butter, and cocoa powder – they also contain ingredients such as stabilizers, milk, sugar, vanilla, natural and artificial flavors, nuts, fruit, and more. A lot of lower-cost, mass produced, chocolates also contain fillers to bulk up the natural chocolate in order to save money – ingredients such as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (like palm, soybean, and cottonseed oils).
The rule for ingredients in chocolate remains the same as with any food – the shorter the ingredient list, the better the product. Also, make sure the cocoa solids or butter is close to the top of the ingredient list.
Is chocolate graded by the amount of cocoa in it? How much cocoa should be present?
When looking at chocolate the higher the percentage of cocoa, the richer and more intense the chocolate will taste. The sweetness, however, will decrease since there will be less sugar present. Think about how bitter dark chocolate tends to be – dark chocolate is higher in cocoa and lower in sugar. A quality dark chocolate will contain between 60% and 80% cocoa. You can get chocolate that contains over 80% cocoa but that chocolate will be extremely bitter and it typically used for baking rather than eating plain.
What about its physical appearance? Can you tell a good chocolate from what it looks like?
Actually the physical appearance of the chocolate can give you quite a few clues to the quality of the candy. Good quality chocolate typically appears very shiny and glossy with no bubbles or other blemishes (meaning it is free of things like discoloration, cloudy spots, or grey areas).
The only exception to this rule is something called “chocolate bloom.” Chocolate bloom appears as white or grey spots on the finished candy and is the result of improper handling or exposure to extreme temperature fluctuations. Chocolate bloom can happen to even the highest quality chocolate if handled improperly. Chocolates that contain liquid fillings (such as caramel) are more susceptible to chocolate bloom due to the filling changing the temperature or consistency of the chocolate.
What about the smell? Can you sniff out a high quality chocolate?
Much like appearance, surprisingly you can tell a lot about the quality of chocolate by the way it smells. A high quality chocolate will smell strongly of chocolate. Chocolate will absorb scents from other items, so other scents coming from the candy can indicate improper storage.
To test the smell of the candy, gently touch it to release the aroma. This also gives you the opportunity to test the texture (it should be silky and not sticky to the touch). Typically, the stronger and more rich the scent of chocolate that you get from the candy, the higher the quality of the product.
Ok, but can you tell by sound? Will your chocolate sing?
Well, not really. However, chocolate is a multi-sensory indulgence and as such you can indeed gauge the quality of chocolate by the sound… if you break it. Good quality chocolate will have a clean, crisp, sharp snap when broken. Though keep in mind that the higher levels of sugar and milk in both white and milk chocolate varieties tend to cause them to bend a bit when breaking them. Low quality chocolate not only bends it also has a dull sound when broken or will simply crumble apart.
I have chocolate that passed the look, smell, and sound tests… what about flavor and texture?
Taste is, of course, the best way to gauge the quality of your chocolate. As we touched on earlier, the quality of the beans as well as the manufacturing process have a significant impact on the final flavor of the chocolate. However, flavor is not the only component to taste… the texture and how the chocolate melts in your mouth (also known as “mouth feel”) is also extremely important.
The mouth feel of chocolate can be difficult to describe but is easily recognizable. As a general rule, high quality chocolate will be silky in texture and melt quickly at or just below body temperature. A gritty or waxy texture indicates lower quality.
When tasting chocolate, place a small piece on your tongue and let it melt. Don’t rush it, experience the full depth of flavor and texture. The taste of a high quality chocolate will stick around a bit too… the flavor will linger in the mouth for a minute or two after you have finished the chocolate.
What about white chocolate?
White chocolate does not contain cocoa solids. During manufacturing the dark-colored solids of the cocoa bean are separated, as they are with any other variety of chocolate, and not added back. Cocoa butter is the only cocoa ingredient present in white chocolate. U.S. FDA mandates that white chocolate must contain at least 20% cocoa butter, 14% milk solids, and 3.5% milk fat, and a maximum of 55% sweetener. Most white chocolates contain mostly milk, oil, and sugar. When looking for a high quality white chocolate – check the percentage of cocoa butter. The higher the better.
Understanding what to look for when buying chocolate will help you make some very delicious choices just a bit easier.
What are your favorite chocolates? Do you like dark, milk, or white best? Plain or filled?
Let us know in the comments!