Dark Chocolate Chips

Published May 2009

How we tested

In the 1930s, Ruth Wakefield, owner of the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Mass., famously cut up a bar of Nestlé semisweet chocolate and mixed it into her batter for Butter Drop Do cookies. Soon newspapers around New England were printing her recipe for chocolate chip cookies, and sales of Nestlé semisweet chocolate bars soared. Nestlé made a deal with Wakefield: In exchange for permission to print what became known as the Toll House recipe on its candy bar wrappers, she would receive a lifetime supply of chocolate. By 1939, Nestlé had begun selling packages of small pieces of chocolate, named “Toll House morsels” after the inn where they were invented.

Decades later, Toll House morsels are synonymous with chocolate chips. But with other familiar chocolate names like Hershey’s and Baker’s in the chip game—along with upscale brands claiming to offer richer flavor and better texture—does Nestlé still deserve to be the nation’s best-selling morsel? In a recent tasting of dark chocolate bars, we found the complex flavor of gourmet brands trounced ordinary supermarket chocolate. To see if the same might hold true for chips, we rounded up eight high-end and middle-market brands (including two from Nestlé, the original morsels and semisweet chunks), all of which are widely available at supermarkets. We then sampled them plain and in cookies.

True Grit

Chip or bar, chocolate has just three basic ingredients: cocoa butter, cocoa solids, and sugar. The “cacao percentage” you hear so much about in bar chocolate refers to the total amount of cocoa butter and cocoa solids contributed by ground-up cacao beans. Sugar accounts for the rest of the content, along with minute amounts (typically less than 2 percent) of emulsifiers, vanilla flavoring, salt, and sometimes milk fat.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that dark chocolate, whether labeled bittersweet, semisweet, or dark, must be at least 35 percent cacao. As a general rule, the higher the cacao percentage, the darker and more intense the chocolate. Since many chocolate makers are secretive about their proprietary methods and formulas, we sent the chips to an independent lab to analyze their cacao percentages. While bars of dark chocolate typically boast cacao amounts starting at about 60 percent, most of the chips we tasted contained far less, 42 to 47 percent.

Why are chips and bars so different? Less cacao means less cocoa butter, which means the chocolate will be less fluid when melted, making it easier for chips to hold that classic teardrop shape on the production line. More significantly, because cocoa butter is expensive, using less of it makes chips cheaper to produce than the average bar (ounce for ounce, the chips in our lineup cost about half as much as bar chocolate from the same brand).

The absence of cocoa butter was immediately clear when we tasted chips right out of the bag. With just one exception, tasters found the chips gritty and grainy instead of creamy and smooth like bar chocolate. The brand that stood apart distinguished itself further when we baked the chips in cookies. Unlike the other chips, which retained their morsel shape during baking, this chip melted into thin layers that spread throughout the cookie, ensuring gooey chocolate in every bite. Furthermore, when we examined its ingredient list, we found that this chip had the highest percentage of cacao in the lineup—60 percent, comparable to bar chocolate—and the most cocoa butter by far (44 percent, minus a tiny amount of milk fat). It was also wider and flatter than a standard chip, which enhanced its ability to melt into thin strata throughout the cookie.

Going Dutch

Sugar was another consideration—and more wasn’t better. Our favorite chip had the least sugar in the lineup. By contrast, the chip with the most sugar was panned for tasting like “cheap Halloween candy.” But a relatively high sugar content wasn’t a deal-breaker, as we learned from our second-favorite contender.

This chip had us stumped. Even with a hefty 53 percent sugar (and just 45 percent cacao), its chocolate flavor was unexpectedly potent. The label revealed that this chip contained Dutch-processed cocoa powder (cocoa solids treated with an alkali to neutralize acidity). Chocolate makers grind shelled cacao beans, known as nibs, to create the thick paste called chocolate liquor, which contains both cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Manufacturers frequently bump up chocolate flavor by adding cocoa powder (often made from cheaper, poorly fermented cacao beans, which tend to be very acidic). In these chips, Dutch processing tamed the cocoa’s acidity, deepening its chocolate punch.

Quality Bean, Quality Chip

Still, good chocolate is not just about a high cacao percentage and plenty of cocoa butter. For complex flavor, a manufacturer must start with good-quality beans that have been grown and harvested under optimal conditions. The beans must then be properly fermented and roasted to bring out traces of flavors such as smoke, caramel, and fruit. Upscale chocolate makers claim that every detail is critical—and are loath to reveal their methods. Other manufacturers cut costs by using poorly fermented beans and then over-roasting and over-conching (a process of beating and turning the chocolate for 24 to 72 hours) to mask bitterness and off-flavors. The result may be acceptable but, as we found in many of the lower-ranking chips, the flavor is one-dimensional.

Only our winner delivered the intense, complex flavors we expect from superior chocolate (in fact, we found ourselves sneaking handfuls straight from the bag). This premium chip, it turns out, has the same cacao percentage as the brand’s dark chocolate bar, the runner-up in our dark chocolate tasting. It also has the same smoky, fruity, and winelike flavors. A company spokesperson confirmed that the chocolate is identical in the bar and the chips—the beans undergo the same harvesting, fermenting, and roasting processes for each. The only difference is in how they’re manufactured: The bar is tempered to deliver a smooth finish and crisp snap. Curious how the chip would fare against the significantly more expensive chopped-up bar in cookies, we held a side-by-side tasting. Tasters preferred the silkier texture of the bar, but were divided on which form of chocolate tasted better. Given that the bar costs 75 cents an ounce, and the chips cost just 30 cents an ounce (and need no chopping), we’ll stick with the chips for cookies—and maybe even for eating out of hand.

As for America’s favorite chip, Nestlé Toll House Real Semi-Sweet Chocolate Morsels? They landed in second-to-last place, alongside the brand’s semisweet chocolate chunks. With a low cacao percentage and the highest sugar level, these were the very same chips tasters likened to “cheap Halloween candy,” and they belong at the bottom of our lineup.

The Results

Highly Recommended

Ghirardelli 60% Cacao Bittersweet Chocolate Chips

Distinct “wine,” “fruit,” and “smoke” flavors made this “adult chocolate” a clear winner. Low sugar content allowed the chocolate flavor to shine. In cookies, a wider, flatter shape and high percentage of fat helped the chips melt into thin layers for a pleasing balance of cookie and chocolate in every bite.

More Details
$3.50 for an 11.5-ounce bag (30 cents per ounce)*

Hershey's Special Dark Mildly Sweet Chocolate Chips

Tasters liked the “simple yet strong cocoa flavor,” which stood up to the sweetness of cookies. This chip was the only one that contained Dutch-processed cocoa powder, resulting in a “bold” though “not complex” chocolate flavor. A higher fat percentage gave it a creamier texture in cookies.

More Details
$2.39 for a 12-ounce bag (20 cents per ounce)*

Guittard Real Semisweet Chocolate Chips

A “smoky,” “complex” chip with cinnamon and caramel undertones. Some tasters felt it needed a bolder chocolate presence to stand up to other flavors when baked in cookies. This lack of chocolate flavor also made its sweetness more pronounced.

More Details
$3.29 for a 12-ounce bag (27 cents per ounce)*

Hershey's Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips

Though praised for “good cocoa” flavor in cookies, this “too sweet” chip didn’t have enough chocolate flavor to balance out the high sugar content. This chip also had a distinct “milky” flavor that tasters found more similar to milk chocolate than semisweet chocolate.

More Details
$2.29 for a 12-ounce bag (19 cents per ounce)*

Ghirardelli Semi-Sweet Chips

The unique "tangy, fruity" chocolate flavor of this chip rated well when baked in cookies. But tasters commented that it was "a bit too sweet," lacking the "strong chocolate flavor" of its 60 percent cacao sister chip.

More Details
$3.50 for a 12-ounce bag (29 cents per ounce)*
Recommended with Reservations

Baker's Real Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chunks

Tasters detected “pleasant coffee and cinnamon tones” in this chip but also an “off, coconut-like” flavor. Overall, tasters noticed “more sweetness than chocolate flavor.”

More Details
$2.69 for a 12-ounce bag (22 cents per ounce)*
Not Recommended

Nestlé Toll House Real Semi-Sweet Chocolate Morsels

With the highest sugar content in the lineup, tasters agreed this best-selling chip was "unpleasantly sweet" and compared its "fleeting" chocolate flavor to "cheap Halloween candy." Tasters noted a strong "fake" taste, which could be attributed to artificial vanilla.

More Details
$2.50 for a 12-ounce bag (20 cents per ounce)*

Nestlé Toll House Real Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chunk Morsels

Tasters panned this chip’s “odd, woodlike” flavor, also variously described as “grassy,” “like dirt,” “vegetal,” and “oily.” Others noticed that the chunks, which are heavier than the classic morsels, didn’t melt enough.

More Details
$2.50 for an 11.5-ounce bag (22 cents per ounce)*