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What to Know When Tasting Chocolate and How to Purchase Fine Quality Chocolate Confections

Need to know the difference between a truffle and a bonbon? A chocolate maker and a chocolatier? Cacao and cocoa?

What to Know When Tasting Chocolate and How to Purchase Fine Quality Chocolate Confections

© Photo by Sherri Tilley

Question: How do you define the quality of a cocoa bean?
Answer: How much do you like it?
Art Pollard, Amano Artisan Chocolate

What's the difference between a truffle and a bonbon? A chocolate maker and a chocolatier? Cacao and cocoa? Here are answers to some common questions about chocolate:


What is chocolate?


Very basically, chocolate is a mixture of cocoa, sugar, and typically vanilla. Milk (for milk chocolate) or other ingredients can also be added for additional flavor.


Where does cocoa come from?


Cacao (kuh-KOW) seeds grow in pods on the sides of branches and from the trunks of cacao trees that grow in tropical areas near the Equator. These pods are cut carefully from the tree (rather than picked) so as not to disrupt their flower stem base. Beans are removed from the pod and put into a box to ferment, then later spread out to dry at a controlled rate. Drying too quickly causes beans to hold too much acidity, whereas drying to slowly may cause beans to mold. Shipments are then made to warehouses where beans are made into chocolate.


What is the difference between cacao and cocoa?


Generally cacao refers to the tree and its fruit, whereas cocoa refers to the bean after the fermentation and drying process.


How is chocolate made?


Cocoa beans are cleaned and roasted. They are then 'winnowed' (separated from husk) and ground slowly into nibs (small pieces) to gently release flavors. As friction and heat are generated, the fat in the bean particles melts creating a paste referred to as cocoa liquor which is then refined into a powder as it is fed through a series of rollers. During this time, sugar and vanilla are added. The cocoa is then conched (stirred in a large, heated mixer) for hours or sometimes days in order to meld and harmonize good flavors and expel bad flavors through oxygen output. The chocolate is then cast into blocks, given a chance to rest, and then remelted and tempered. Proper tempering causes the chocolate molecules to 'line up'. thus creating that 'snap' sound upon breaking.


What does it mean when someone says a chocolate bar is 65%, 70%, or 85% cocoa?


The percentage refers to the portion of the chocolate that is actually made from cocoa (cocoa solids plus cocoa butter). The higher the percentage, generally the less sweet the chocolate.


What is the difference between a chocolate maker and a chocolatier?


A chocolate maker manufactures chocolate from 'bean to bar' as explained above, whereas a chocolatier purchases the processed chocolate and then crafts decorative confections.


How do I taste chocolate?


Look, smell, listen, smell (again), taste.


Look


Chocolate candy should be pleasant to look at, have a satiny sheen or glossy finish, be uniform in color, and be free of air bubbles. A white, moldy-looking coating known as 'chocolate bloom' does not necessarily spoil the chocolate; but may be an indication of improper storage, poor tempering, or an incorrect cooling process.


Smell


For the first clues of flavor, rub the chocolate to release its aroma. Scents may be fruity, flowery, smoky, nutty, spicy, etc.


Listen


Good chocolate with a high cocoa content will 'snap' when you break it because well-tempered dark chocolate is like steel in that its molecules line up. A brittle sound, however, usually indicates old chocolate or improper storage.


Smell (again)


Smell the intensity of the newly-exposed edge and reexamine the simplicity or complexity of its scent.


Taste


When tasting several types of chocolate in one sitting, a good rule of thumb (like that of tasting wine or sushi) is to progress from light to dark. In the case of chocolate, taste from lowest percentage of cocoa to highest.


Put the chocolate in your mouth, but only chew 2 - 5 times, if at all. Detect the flavors that pop into your head initially. Hold the chocolate against the roof of your mouth, run your tongue over it, and notice the mouthfeel (texture). It should be velvety smooth and creamy, not waxy or grainy. Breathe in to use your sense of smell to aid your sense of taste. Discern flavors again and whether they are the same as or different from what you smelled initially. After swallowing, look for a 'long finish', as rich, complex flavors linger in your mouth.


What is the difference between a truffle and a bonbon?


Bon is the French word for good, and often refers to candy in general. Bonbons may be made of cream, caramel, nuts, fruits, etc. and may or may not be covered with chocolate. Truffles always contain ganache at their centers (a rich, silky mixture of chocolate and cream). Hand-rolled truffles typically consist of ganache which is rolled in cocoa powder or other coatings such as coconut or nuts, whereas 'enrobed' truffles are made up of ganache which is dipped in couverture (chocolate with extra cocoa butter which allows it to form a thinner coating shell).


What is sipping chocolate?


Sipping chocolate is not hot chocolate, but rather liquid chocolate that is made of pure chocolate morsels added to piping hot water.


How should chocolate be stored?


In a dark, dry, cool place (preferably 60-70 degrees) with low humidity and away from items with strong odors.


What should I look for in a chocolate shop?


Question: How do you educate people on what makes good chocolate?
Answer: Eat. It's just as simple as that.
Katherine Clapner, owner of Dude, Sweet Chocolate

According to Chocolatier Dorian Isenberg, a good product should have a shiny finish, snap when you bite it, and not be grainy. He also suggests looking at how well the bottom of a confection is finished in order to get an indication of how much the crafter cares about his work. Most chocolatiers that we spoke with also suggest that you move on from any chocolate shop that attempts to charge you for samples since it's extremely beneficial to explore different types of chocolates in order to broaden your taste spectrum as well as your knowledgebase.


For more information about the wonderfully sweet world of chocolate, we strongly recommend the book Discovering Chocolate: The Ultimate Guide to Buying, Tasting, and Enjoying Fine Chocolate, by Clay Gordon, publisher of The Chocolate Life.

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