Do you know that the first step to tasting dark chocolate is to listen to it? No, it’s not to hear the chocolate call your name. It’s to determine whether the processed cacao you’re tasting is of high-quality. Seriously.
When you break apart a piece of chocolate close to your ear and you hear a crisp snap, you know that chocolate is fresh and high-quality. (The same isn’t true for milk or white chocolate, which contain higher concentrations of cocoa butter and milk).
So what does “high quality” mean in regards to chocolate?
According to the international Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA), these five components determine whether the chocolate you’re eating deserves to be paired with a glass of Bordeaux or eaten on a graham cracker with marshmallows:
Origins and processing
Cacao beans, which are those that aren’t processed yet, grow in colorful pods on the Theobroma tree within 20 latitudinal degrees of the equator. Of three primary types of beans, the Criollo is the most richly flavorful and prized among fine chocolatiers.
But cultivating quality chocolate requires far more than a good bean. As the FCIA states, “Chocolate processing starts at the plantation.”
Cacao farming requires skill and precision. Farmers must know when pods are ripe and ready to be chopped from the tree. Then they carefully extract each bean (also called “seeds”) from its protective shell and introduce the specific fermentation process that will allow each particular strain to reveal its fullest flavor.
Even the process of drying the seeds takes on its own urgency – to do it wrong is to threaten the integrity of the fermentation as the beans travel (often overseas) to the chocolate factory.
To illustrate the variation in quality and flavor between different global regions, Ed Seguine, an international cacao consultant with 45 years in the chocolate industry, describes the typically complex and masterfully engineered chocolate from Australia this way: “It’s moderate in chocolate intensity, but it will be the subject of conversations.”
Once the dried beans arrive at a factory, they’re sometimes blended with others before the roasting phase to create the taste the manufacturer seeks. After roasting, workers separate the seeds – called “nibs” once fermented, dried, roasted and crushed from the shells – then melt them and combine them with sweeteners, emulsifiers and milk products.
If a talented blender or roaster uses only high-grade ingredients, chances are you’ll end up with a top-notch chocolate.
The next step is to conche the mixture, which involves kneading and smoothing it for an average of two to three days for a mid-grade product. The longer the conching, the smoother, and often more expensive, the chocolate.
After conching, the chocolate gets cooled to stabilize the added sugar crystals in a process called tempering. A good chocolate maker knows how to control the temperature so the product doesn’t harden and remelt, giving it an unpleasant greyish film.
Non-chocolate ingredient quality
Chocolatiers consider only fresh, natural ingredients to be acceptable additions to fine chocolates. Chemical additives, artificial flavors and vegetable and animal fats are a no-no. They frown on anything other than pure flavoring ingredients like sugar and vanilla, and soy lecithin is the only appropriate stabilizer.
Milk solids and cocoa butter are the only acceptable additives to make fine milk chocolate. And if chocolatiers add fruit, nuts, spices or herbs, cream or butter into their concoctions, they should be as fresh and natural as possible. So read the label. See anything you can’t pronounce? It’s probably bulk, or inferior, chocolate.
According to Elyissia Chinchilla, owner of 2 Chicks with Chocolate in East Brunswick, N.J., a skilled chocolatier makes all the difference in the world to the appearance, quality and consistency of the final product.
“It’s definitely crucial,” she says. “You can’t have one bon bon taste like one thing and then go to another one of our stores and have the same flavor taste like something else. It has to be exactly the same.”
So what makes a skilled chocolatier? They can be evaluated by questions like: Are the ingredients well-selected? How well has the chocolate been blended? Does the finished product smell pleasant? And does the chocolate deliver what it promised?
Artistry and presentation
Finally, is the chocolate pretty? Chinchilla says appearance, not taste, is a consumer’s initial concern.
“People buy with their eyes, not with their mouths,” she says.
So are the confections nicely wrapped, evenly shaped or beautifully decorated? Were they hand-painted in a mold? Or are they intentionally rustic? Either way, if someone took time, patience and energy to hand-craft it, chocolate can be as exquisite as a piece of edible art.