Published January 1, 2008. From Cook's Illustrated.
Does spending more for "gourmet" chocolate buy richer, more complex flavor and yield better baking results?
Just a few years ago, selecting dark chocolate for your dessert recipe seemed pretty simple: You went to the supermarket and bought a bar of baking chocolate. These days, there are dozens of choices, and you can spend hours poring over the cacao percentages and exotic provenances on the labels. You can pay a lot more, too. But does any of it really matter? Does spending more get you better chocolate flavor? And can your choice of chocolate change your baking results?
First, we looked into the definition of "dark chocolate" and discovered it's a pretty loose term. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn't distinguish between bittersweet and semisweet chocolate-it simply requires that products by either name contain at least 35 percent cacao (the cocoa solids and cocoa butter from the cacao bean).
Companies use the names cacao and cocoa interchangeably, but in general, when there is more cacao in the chocolate, there is less sugar, and bittersweet chocolate tends to be less sweet and have more cacao than semisweet. Even darker chocolates, with higher cacao percentages, will be correspondingly less sweet (100 percent cacao chocolate is completely unsweetened). Any number of variables-the type of bean, where it's grown, and when it's harvested; the length and conditions of fermentation; the roasting and grinding methods; and the quality and quantity of any additives (such as vanilla)—can contribute to differences in flavor and texture. Chocolate makers claim that every detail is critical-and are loath to share too many specifics.
We'd heard a lot about the type of cacao bean being extremely important. There are only three types. The most prized (and expensive) bean, the criollo, grown mainly in the Caribbean and Central America, makes up less than 2 percent of the world's cacao. Most chocolate is made from forastero beans, generally from Africa. These beans are harvested from hardier trees, which makes them cheaper. The third, trinitario, is a hybrid of the other two beans and comprises about 5 percent of the total harvest.
To choose chocolate for our testing lineup, we ignored "bittersweet" or "semisweet" nomenclature and concerned ourselves with chocolate containing roughly 60 percent cacao-the type that most recipes calling for dark chocolate have been developed to use. (Even darker chocolates, with 70 percent or more cacao, usually require recipe adjustments to get good results; see "Understanding Cacao Percentages," below). Not confining ourselves to baking chocolate, we included chocolate from the candy aisle in selecting 12 widely available brands.
Prices varied wildly: We spent from 44 cents per ounce to nearly four times as much. Seeking a chocolate that would perform well in various applications, we held three blind tastings: first eating the bars plain, then melting them into chocolate pots de cräme, and finally baking them into brownies. In each tasting, we rated the chocolate on sweetness, intensity of flavor, texture, and overall appeal. And since many chocolate makers are secretive about their proprietary methods and formulas, we sent samples of each to an independent laboratory to confirm levels of cocoa solids, cocoa butter, and sugar.
So which chocolates won favor with our tasters? The results were surprising. The chocolate with the fanciest pedigree in our lineup, El Rey, made exclusively from Venezuelan criollo beans, wound up in the lower half of the rankings. The other single-origin sample, produced by Lindt from criollo and trinitario beans grown in Madagascar, came in last. Our two top-rated chocolates, Callebaut and Ghirardelli, came from blends relying primarily on the inexpensive forastero bean. Both were purchased at the supermarket, and they cost just 53 cents and 75 cents per ounce, respectively.
Our second discovery also defied expectations. We assumed that if one brand of chocolate is 60 percent cacao, it would be pretty similar in sweetness, chocolate intensity, and creaminess to another brand's 60 percent cacao chocolate. Not so. When chocolate makers grind shelled cacao beans, known as nibs, to create the thick paste called chocolate liquor, this paste contains both cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Most manufacturers then add even more cocoa butter, in varying amounts, to help create the texture of the final chocolate. A few, like our winner, also add extra cocoa solids to intensify the chocolate flavor.
Ultimately, however, the cacao percentage on the label of a chocolate bar is a total that includes both cocoa solids and cocoa butter—meaning that different chocolates can have different proportions of each and still share the 60 percent cacao designation. As our lab tests showed, the cocoa solids in our lineup ranged from about 17 percent of a bar's total weight to more than 30 percent, while fat ranged from a third of the weight to nearly half of it. Sugar levels varied by nearly 20 percent as well.
So would the chocolate with the most cocoa butter make the biggest splash, bringing richer, extra-creamy flavor to your desserts? No. In fact, our lab results revealed that the chocolate with the lowest fat won the day, while the one with the most fat came in dead last. And would having the most cocoa solids make a chocolate superior? Again, no. Our tasters preferred chocolates with only a moderate amount. Sweetness wasn't the explanation, either: Chocolates in the middle range of sugar levels were preferred over those with the most sugar, though overall the top half of the rankings had more sugar than the bottom half.
In the end, we preferred dark chocolate that achieved the best balance of all three major components-cocoa butter, cocoa solids, and sugar. Callebaut Intense Dark Chocolate L-60-40NV was favored for its rich chocolate flavor, moderate sugar and cocoa solids, and comparatively low fat. Tasters appreciated its "intensely chocolaty," "rich," "espresso" flavor and "caramel aftertaste." It excelled in every application. San Francisco-based Ghirardelli's Bittersweet Chocolate Baking Bar came in a close second, with praise for its "smoky," "fruity" notes. It also demonstrated that balanced chocolate flavor derived from moderate levels of sugar, cocoa solids, and cocoa butter.
In a recipe specifying a bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, can you substitute a chocolate with a higher cacao percentage than the 60 percent generally used for cooking, making no other adjustments? Not if you expect identical results. We tasted brownies and pots de crème made with our two top-ranked dark chocolates, by Callebaut and Ghirardelli, which have 60 percent cacao, alongside ones made with the same brands' 70 percent cacao offerings. While all four versions were acceptable, tasters strongly preferred the 60 percent cacao chocolates in these recipes, complaining of the 70 percent versions' dryness and lack of sweetness (and in the case of the pots de crème, a thicker, stiffer consistency), although some tasters noted their "deeper" chocolate flavor. When chocolate manufacturers increase cacao content, they correspondingly decrease the amount of sugar and usually add less cocoa butter. With less sugar and fat, it's no wonder the results were distinctly different.