So you just read my last entry on how I found my way into the world of fine chocolate. Maybe you got a little bit inspired, and now you want to try out some fine chocolate for yourself but you don't really know where to start. Traveling to Belgium just to sample chocolates might be tempting, but due to cost or other concerns I expect that most people would like to start off a little closer to home, like at for instance their local grocery-store or a nearby deli. Picking out the right chocolates in such locations can be a challenge however, so here I'll provide a few pointers on how to put quality into your chocolate enjoyment.
First things first: The wrapping. This is usually the only thing you have to go on when picking out chocolates at a regular store, so its naturally one of the things you must pay close attention to. It is well known that the branding and presentation of foods can have a great deal of influence on your perception of taste. This means that chocolates from a brand that is exquisitely wrapped or advertised to be a product of quality and luxury will often be a good buy, if only because the presentation will make you think it tastes better than the other brands.
Also you will rarely find high-quality products in a lousy packaging, so by going for the pretty boxes you have at least reduced the chance of making a bad choice. Note however that many manufacturers tend to wrap poor products in quality packaging to sell more or to fetch a better price, so only going by the quality of packaging is far from a sure thing.
This is why the next step is to read through the ingredients list for the chocolate. One of the first things you will notice there is the minimum cocoa-content of the chocolate. For milk-chocolates this is usually between 30-50%, while dark chocolate commonly land in the 50-85% range. It is generally agreed that the best dark chocolates has a cocoa-content of about 70%, something that marketers have eagerly caught on to. While a high cocoa-content can be perceived as a good thing as it leaves less room for additives, it says nothing of the quality of the chocolate. The cocoa-content should therefore not sway your decision one way or the other, unlike much of the rest of the ingredients list.
In general, a fine chocolate should only contain these ingredients:
- Sugar (Preferably raw sugar)
- Cocoa liquor / cocoa solids (Not used in white chocolate)
- Cocoa butter (Avoid if partially replaced with vegetable fat!)
- Soy-lecithin (Optional but common emulsifier. Used to give a smoother mouth feel.)
- Vanilla (Optional but common flavoring. Avoid if replaced with artificial vanillin)
- Milk fat & solids (Optional: Should only be found in milk-chocolate)
- Natural flavorings (Optional: For instance fruits, berries, nuts, salt or spices)
- Fillings (Optional: Anything from liquors and to nuts and berries )
- Vanillin instead of vanilla or other artificial flavourings (Artificial flavourings give a metallic after-taste)
- Vegetable fat replacing some or all of the cocoa butter (Very unhealthy!)
- Artificial sweeteners instead of sugar (Unhealthy and has a different taste and texture)
Now on to the final thing you are in a position to consider about your chocolate, namely the storage conditions. They are often the cause of the gray-white coating that you have probably come across on your chocolates from time to time. Most often this is caused by too warm storage making the fat in the cocoa butter dissolve, or by humid storage that dissolves the sugar crystals in the chocolate. Both effects leaves the dissolved fat or sugar as gray-white deposits on the surface of the chocolate. This is known as 'bloom'. Bloom is not dangerous, and does not usually affect the taste or texture of the chocolate much, but it does make the chocolate look less appetizing. To avoid this chocolate is therefore best stored in a cool semi-dry environment, preferably at around 12-16°C and at less than 50% humidity. Also note that the cocoa-butter in the chocolate readily absorb strong flavours from nearby food, especially cheese and spices, so the distance to such items is an important consideration. If the conditions in the shelf-area of the store are outside these values, either due to the outdoor climate or because of bad positioning, you might want to find another store to get your chocolate from. Of course in many places it might be difficult to avoid such high temperatures during the summertime, so as always it is a matter of consideration.
While we are on the topic of storage I should also mention that the usual shelf-life of dark chocolate is about 12-18 months at the most, and for white and milk chocolate it is only around 6 months due to the milk-contents. Both types can be kept in a freezer for an additional 6-12 months, but then beware of the moisture when thawing! If a chocolate is stored any longer than mentioned above it will generally start to bloom regardless of conditions, and also the cocoa-butter might be getting rancid and start affecting the taste, but that all depends on both the quality of the chocolate and the storage conditions.
Then over to the awaited tasting part. You should always bring the chocolate out of storage early and leave it to temperate until it reaches about 22°C, or common room temperature. This will give you the most taste sensations from the chocolate as it will more readily melt in your mouth and release stronger flavours. Some people claim to prefer eating refrigerated chocolate due to its increased hardness and different mouth feel. This is usually caused by much common chocolate being badly tempered or containing much milk and vegetable fats, which allows the chocolate to readily melt at room temperature. Quality fine chocolate on the other hand is usually plenty hard even at room temperature, and only melts at 34°C.
Finally I would just like you to remember that taste is a very subjective matter. Purist connoisseurs even argue whether lecithin and vanilla is acceptable in fine chocolate, and some claim that 100% cocoa-content chocolate is very tasty (I disagree). The best advice I can give is therefore to trust your own tastes to tell you what is really good. If you enjoy your bloomed chocolate with artificial flavourings and vegetable fat, then by all means indulge yourself! It might not be "fine chocolate", but it can still be heavenly good from time to time.
And that concludes Part 1 of this basic introduction to fine chocolate. Continue to Part 2 for more about different cocoa-beans, production methods, brands and fillings and how those affect the taste, as well as information on where to buy true quality chocolate.