5 things to know about chocolate
Or trying to convert regular people into chocolate snobs, one person at a time.
Hello, fellow chocolate lover! You’re among friends and have reached the right place — where we extol the virtues of chocolate! Just to be clear, I’m a bean-to-bar chocolate nerd. Wait, don’t go! Grab a square of dark chocolate and get comfy.
Conducting chocolate tastings is my party trick — if we were in the same room together, I’d hand you little pieces of chocolate while I gave you this spiel. For now, text is going to have to suffice. So here are five things you need to know to start your chocolate journey.
Why you deserve better chocolate
Cacao, the plant from which cocoa and chocolate is derived, takes on flavors based on the terroir. This can mean the climate, the farming practices, the soil. If this sounds familiar, wine and coffee are similar.
These flavors can be spectacular when the cacao beans are treated with love and respect. Or they can taste really bad when they aren’t cultivated or fermented correctly or when they’re abused, like over roasting.
That bitter flavor that you might associate with dark chocolate is often the result of scorching poor quality beans because a maker is:
- burning off weird, funky, unpleasant flavors.
- Inexperienced and hideously mistreating those poor beans.
- trying to make the beans more homogenous. Death to outlier flavors and all that.
When you make chocolate primarily from cacao beans that are all from one location (sometimes called bean-to-bar or craft or single origin chocolate), you amplify the unique tasting notes. It’s magical.
I love dark chocolate because it is so focused on these unique flavors — there is less sugar and no milk to distract. Most of my favorite bars are 70% cacao — the cacao mass and cocoa butter make up 70% of the bar — but I find that 60% to 80% is my sweet spot. I may like bars that have a higher or lower percentage, but it’s less likely that they’ll really be my jam.
Bon Appétit has a great couple of videos that show the farming and fermenting process and what happens after a chocolate maker gets the beans. Most of the chocolate makers we'll be talking about in this newsletter aren't as big as the showcased company, Guittard (who makes my mom's favorite milk chocolate chip), but the process is roughly the same.
What’s in bean-to-bar chocolate?
Fine chocolate bars generally have five or fewer ingredients.
These ingredients are:
- Cacao mass
- Cocoa butter
- Soy lecithin (an emulsifier)
Inclusion bars are ones with additional ingredients — like chocolate bars with almonds or cookie pieces or spices or fish flakes (yes, it’s a real thing).
Is there a special way to taste the chocolate?
Start by smelling or breaking your piece in two, then taking a bite. I like to start by chewing a small piece once or twice. Do your best to savor it — it’ll melt in your mouth if you have the patience for it.
Pay attention to your senses:
- What does it look like? Is the color dark? Light? Is the mold design appealing? Are there any bubbles or imperfections?
- What does it sound like? Is there a snap when you break it in two?
- What does it smell like? (This is the hardest one for me because my sense of smell is admittedly bad.)
- What is the texture like? Is it smooth? Gritty?
- What does it taste like? What are the tasting notes?
OK, so what are these ‘tasting notes’ or ‘unique flavors’ that you keep mentioning?
Tasting notes can range from “this one tastes more chocolate-y” to “floral” to “barnyard-y, in a good way.” (An actual description I have heard.) It can take some time to pick out particular flavors, so don’t be shy to focus on things that you know. “Roasty” or “bready” or “fruity” are all great places to start — then move on, does it taste like a saltine or a graham cracker? Are we talking berries or stone fruit or bananas if it tastes fruity?
Where can I buy single origin chocolate?
I’m a lucky duck — I live in Utah and we have so many options. (Sorry, I have to brag about it just a little.) But, whenever I travel somewhere, I try to find a local bean-to-bar brand. Chances are there’s something magnificent near you!
Just check the ingredients (pay attention to the ingredients we talked about and the percentage!) and see if you can find an origin country somewhere on the packaging. I’ve found some options at local grocery stores (usually near the cheese counter) and larger chains like Whole Foods.
Some online retailers:
Most makers also do online sales, so be sure to check out their websites!
As a jumping off point, here are five brands I’m loving right now (in alphabetical order. Let’s pretend like I don’t have favorites):
- Fruition Chocolate Works (New York)
- Marou, Faiseurs de Chocolat (Vietnam)
- Original Beans (Switzerland)
- Pump Street Chocolate (England)
- Solstice (Utah)
You may notice that bean-to-bar chocolate is more expensive than the chocolate you see at the grocery stand. You’re paying for quality and fair business/labor practices here. I promise you it is worth it for a dozen reasons, including the ones we talked about above. Plus this kind of chocolate does satiate your chocolate craving better than a bag full of Dove chocolates — you can ask my mom to confirm this one.
Are there health benefits to eating dark chocolate?
I’m sure you’ve seen the many, many, many articles about how chocolate is a health food. Honestly, food science is not my area of expertise, and that’s not why I eat chocolate. Dark chocolate has less sugar, so that’s something, but I’m in it for the tastiness. And to shake off those lingering effects of dementors.
Chocolate bar of the week
This past weekend, my husband, Matt, and I took a couple Solstice bars over to a friend’s house for a game night. The couple is still pretty new to bean-to-bar chocolate, but I led a small Amano tasting at a birthday party at their house last month, so they had heard the drill. (Like I said, it’s a party trick.)
They were blown away by the Solstice Bén Tre Vietnam bar. Vietnamese chocolate often tastes like Christmas to me, and this bar is no exception! I love the warm spices that I taste — usually cinnamon and maybe a little clove. Solstice bars are also so consistently smooth — the texture is really outstanding.
Thanks for joining me in my chocolate passion!
I’d love to hear your feedback! Please let me know what you thought and what you’d like to hear about next! (I’m thinking about talking about incredibly fancy candy bars in honor of Halloween next!)