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Dark Chocolate Chips

Published January 2018

How we tested

Chocolate chip cookies are America’s favorites, according to The Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Book (2013) by Carolyn Wyman. Invented in the 1930s, the recipe called for semisweet chocolate. Today, chocolate chip choices abound, and dark chocolate—which includes “semisweet” and “bittersweet” since there’s no legal distinction—has come a long way. Even Nestlé, which in 1940 launched chocolate morsels, now sells four styles of dark chocolate chips (plus quirky varieties including peanut butter, mint, and pumpkin spice). We bought 14 products labeled dark, special dark, bittersweet, or semisweet and sold as chips, oversize “super” chips, morsels, or chunks. In blind tastings, we sampled them plain and in our Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies (May/June 2009).

Changing Chips

A few years ago, when dark chocolate bars got fancy with cacao percentages and exotic origin stories, chips were left behind. They were also made more cheaply: To scrimp on costly cocoa butter and retard melting, manufacturers made them with less fat, resulting in firmer and grittier chips. Today, most chocolate chips we sampled were just as creamy and rich as bar chocolate, called themselves “premium” or “artisan,” and touted cacao percentages. Prices rose, too: When we tasted dark chocolate chips in 2009, prices ranged from $0.19 to $0.30 per ounce, but this time around they cost from $0.27 to $0.74 per ounce.

While we wondered if this premium trend was mere hype, the truth was in our results: Tasters recommended all 14 products, with reservations about three. The top two even earned our highest recommendation.

We had surprising preferences. Since the cookie recipe was invented using so-called semisweet chocolate, we’d worried that darker, more bitter chips might seem out of place—but our tasters actually preferred them. “This is the perfect chocolate chip cookie,” a happy taster wrote about the cookie featuring our winning chip.

Why were darker chips more successful? The ratio of sugar to chocolate. A chocolate’s cacao percentage tells you how much of the candy comes from the cacao bean. Cacao beans are fermented, dried, roasted, cracked, and winnowed to produce nibs, which are ground into a paste called chocolate liquor. This contains cocoa butter and cocoa solids. In chocolate chips, once you account for the cacao, the rest is primarily sugar. The United States Food and Drug Administration only mandates that dark, bittersweet, or semisweet chocolate have at least 35 percent cacao; beyond that, manufacturers are free to tweak processes, recipes, and nomenclature. So one company’s “semisweet” offering can actually have a higher cacao percentage than another company’s “bittersweet.” Our lineup had a huge range, from 40 percent to 70 percent cacao. While none tasted bad—they’re chocolate, after all—when compared side by side, the lower-cacao chips seemed too sweet. All but two of these products contained more sugar than any other ingredient. About our favorite “darker” chip, a taster wrote, “the bitterness of the chocolate complements the cookie dough.”

Our top two chocolate chips contain 60 percent and 63 percent cacao; most lower-ranked chips were in the 40 to 50 percent range. The third-place product, which we estimated at 47 percent cacao (its manufacturer withheld details), listed a unique ingredient: Dutch-processed cocoa powder, which is alkali-treated to neutralize acidity. This addition boosted its chocolate flavor.

Fat was also a factor. The total cacao percentage doesn’t reveal how much fat comes from cocoa butter and how much from cocoa solids. Two 60-percent‑cacao chocolates can have very different ratios of fat to solids, as long as they total 60 percent. Our winning 60-percent-cacao chip contained about 40 percent fat, the highest of the lineup. Lower-ranked chips dipped as low as 25 percent fat. In our top chip, that extra creaminess won tasters’ highest praise. Only one other chip contained this much fat—but it suffered from other woes: its proportions. In addition to fat and cacao percentages, we discovered that shape was integral to chips’ success in cookies. When chips were too angular, they didn’t disperse evenly in cookie dough. This resulted in some virtually chip-free cookies, while others contained so many chips that, without enough dough to protect them, the chocolate scorched in the oven and looked unappealing. Traditional dewdrop-shaped chips or chunks with curved edges distributed more evenly.

Better Chips

While fresh, homemade chocolate chip cookies really can’t fail, our winning chips will give yours an advantage. Their high cacao percentage helps guarantee deep, rich chocolaty flavor; their bittersweet profile, with more cacao than sugar, ensures a milder sweetness that balances the sugary cookie; and a generous amount of cocoa butter (plus milk fat for smoother melting) gives them a creamy texture. Our winner, Ghirardelli 60% Premium Baking Chips ($4.39 for 10 ounces), hits all the right notes, and the slightly oversize chips provide just a little more chocolate in every bite. Made with the same ingredients as our favorite dark chocolate bar, also from Ghirardelli, these chips won’t let you down.

Methodology

We purchased 14 chocolate chip products, including those labeled bittersweet, semisweet, dark, extra dark, and special dark, in the shape of chips, oversize “super” chips, morsels, and chunks. We sampled them in two blind tastings, plain and in our recipe for Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies. Most products are nationally available in supermarkets; a few were ordered online. Prices shown are what we paid, minus any shipping charges. If the manufacturer printed or otherwise disclosed to us the product’s total cacao percentage (the total amount of cocoa butter plus cocoa solids from the cacao bean), we included it. If not, we used package nutritional information to calculate an estimated cacao percentage. Fat and sugar amounts shown are for a standardized 15-gram serving. Test results were averaged, and products appear in order of preference.

Ingredients: As listed on the nutrition label, shown in descending order of volume contained in the product.

(Estimated) Total Cacao: If the manufacturer printed or otherwise disclosed to us the product’s total cacao percentage (the total amount of cocoa butter plus cocoa solids from the cacao bean), we included it; if not, we used package nutritional information to calculate an estimated total cacao percentage. Note: These estimates are an approximation to help us compare products.

Estimated Cocoa Solids: We estimated the percentage of cocoa solids for each chocolate chip product, based on the nutrition label.

Fat: We converted the total fat grams per serving listed on the nutrition labels into an estimated percentage in a standardized 15-gram serving. This number includes both cocoa butter and fat from milk products, if milk fat is indicated in the ingredient list.

Sugar: We calculated grams per serving and percentage of sugar in a standardized 15-gram serving from information listed on the nutrition labels.

Average Chip Weight: Because many products had minor size variations within the package, we weighed six chips from each and divided to determine the average weight of a single chip.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*