Chocolate is a pleasure I indulge in daily. It’s a lusty, spicy, nibble of dark magic. It’s important for me that my experience is both indulgent and guilt-free. I eat my chocolate at least 70% dark, Fair or Direct Trade, as untouched and unprocessed as possible, two little squares broken directly from the bar.
I’ve had a love for pretty much every product on the market that includes chocolate at one time or another. When I turned over to vegetarianism 13 years ago, and then 5 years later added back some fish and seafood, I would crave sugar, which is fairly common for vegetarians not receiving enough protein. At the end of the day I would have something with chocolate in it. My chocolate tastes evolved from covered items, to white chocolate, to infused bars, to the pairing of chocolate and hazelnuts, to herb and salt-studded, to cacao beans, and then on to semisweet and bittersweet. Then I began reading about nutrition, cooking more, eating more healthfully, and I stopped craving it for a while. Now in the revival stage, wiser, more educated, and with a much more discerning palette when it comes to cacao, I wanted to share my thoughts.
It’s no secret that chocolate makes you happy. Lustful, even. The cacahuaquchtl, meaning simply “tree”, was the cacao tree of the Mayan gods. Both Mayans and Aztecs made a frothy drink by crushing the beans from the tree and mixing it with spices (tchacahoua to the Mayans, and tchocoatl to the Aztecs), and Moctezuma was said to drink it 50 times a day. After killing off the natives, the Spaniards brought the beans back home, and the recipes and beans spread quickly through Europe.
Today’s process of making chocolate involves harvesting the fruit, extracting the beans, and fermenting them. From there they travel from the farm to the factory, being roasted, sorted, winnowed (removing the shell from the nib), and ground to form the viscous chocolate liquor, the base for everything chocolate.
From the location of the cacao tree all the way down to the packaging, there are important choices to make when selecting chocolate. Here’s my take:
Fair Trade & Organic
Unless you want blood, sweat, and tears, in your beans, buy Fair Trade. Fair Trade promotes decent prices to farmers, social, and environmental standards. 70% of the world’s cacao beans are grown in small farms in a handful of West African countries, where slavery is still a critical issue. The Big Chocolate exporters (Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Barry Callebaut and Saf-Cacao) buy most of their beans from these countries. Until these companies are willing to pay more, slavery will continue. While there’s room for improvement with Fair Trade, that’s still no excuse.
For a decent Organic, Fair Trade dark chocolate bar, you shouldn’t expect to spend any less than $6. Buying online is much cheaper than getting from Whole Foods or Organic markets.
Dark vs. milk or chocolate products
Dark chocolate is produced by adding fat and sugar to cacao, while milk chocolate has still more sugar and also the addition of milk. Dark chocolate contains more antioxidants (from cacao plant phenols) than even tea or red wine, while the milk in milk chocolate interferes with the process and doesn’t allow for antioxidant absorption. Antioxidants help to reduce oxidative damage caused by free radicals. There’s really no contest when determining taste either. 70% chocolate and up is where it’s at, everything else is just a chocolate “product.”
Additionally, almost all processed chocolates have milk in them. Purchasing from Big Chocolate leads to eventual contamination and spreading panic, as is happening with milk products in China. It’s not worth your health. If the bar comes from a big brand, has more than a few ingredients, or includes anything artificial, just put it back. Even Scharffen Berger’s isn’t totally safe anymore, now that it’s owned by Hershey’s.
As for organic, yes, while you’re being good to yourself with the wealth of antioxidants, why not give your body a break and steer clear of all the toxins? Otherwise you’re nullifying the good you just did.
Taste, Texture, and Processing
Even once you’ve picked a company, there are still options. How long the beans are roasted, what percent chocolate you purchase, how it’s processed. My absolute favorite right now, is the 80% Organic Stone Ground bar made by Taza.
The percentage indicates the amount of liquor in the bar, before the introduction of sugar and fat. Anything lower than 70% isn’t really dark chocolate. If you’re baking with it, you’ll want baker’s chocolate (100%, unsweetened, etc). I usually eat between 70-80%, any higher and I find it becomes chalky. Once you’re this hard and dark, you generally won’t find that much is done with the chocolate, in terms of filling, mixing it with fruit or nuts, etc. You’re just talking delicious, spicy dark chocolate. When I’m eating chocolate, I want to taste it, cacao beans and all. And I want to feel it in my mouth. Heavy processing and different flavors just get in the way.
Flavors also differ greatly depending on the source of the beans and how they’re processed. Taza uses beans from South America, and this bar specifically is all from the Dominican Republic, producing a flavor that is a bit spicy, earthy, and with a slightly sweet cherry and vanilla finish. Taza use a light roast which brings out the natural flavor of the cacao, but without any of the bitterness of the bean. They grind the beans with a molino, the tradition Mexican mill, leaving the chocolate bar almost fluffy, a little gritty, and thick and molten in your mouth like hot chocolate. They also skip the conching step, which basically removes the texture and mellows out the flavor.
Good chocolate should be smooth and even textured. When you break it, it should snap cleanly. The snap is determined by tempering, which is the process of heating and cooling the chocolate at the right temperature to give it consistency.
Packaging & Storing
Regardless of outside packaging, it should always be wrapped in tin foil, as chocolate is susceptible to the textures and flavors of the materials around it, and is also sensitive to light. It should be stored in a cool, dry, place, outside of the sun at 60-70 degrees. If stored improperly you will be able to tell by a gray coating covering the bar.
For more information on flavor profiles, the history of chocolate, and how to taste, I found Allchocolate.com to be useful.
I really am enjoying the chocolate recipes from Bittersweet by Alice Medrich.
I am in search of a better baking chocolate, as we still use Scharffen Berger. Any thoughts?