Top | Dinner Guest Blog

No magic numbers

(article, Clay Gordon)

For as many years as I can remember, 70 percent has been a mystical number when it comes to "good" chocolate, but in fact it tells people virtually nothing that is really useful about the chocolate they are buying.

Buying chocolate based solely on cocoa percentage is sort of like buying alcoholic beverages based solely on alcohol content. An 86-proof vodka is not better than an 80-proof vodka simply because it has 3 percent more alcohol (unless, of course, your sole mission is to get drunk faster). The number 86 tells you nothing about any of the sensory characteristics of the vodka that help you make an informed buying decision.

The same thing is true with chocolate. The cocoa content is not a useful guide in telling you anything other than the amount of cocoa-derived ingredients there are in the chocolate. For the record, cocoa content refers to the percentage, by weight, of the chocolate that comes from cocoa beans in the form of chocolate liquor (ground cocoa beans) and any cocoa butter that is added to improve the consistency and mouthfeel of the chocolate. That's all.

Total cocoa content doesn't tell you the relative percentage of nonfat cocoa solids (the powder) to cocoa butter or how much cocoa butter was in the chocolate liquor and how much was added. Both of these numbers can have a huge effect on the texture of the chocolate.

[%image "promo-image" width=320 float=left caption="Total cocoa content doesn't tell you the whole story."]

Total cocoa content also doesn't tell you how well the beans used to make the chocolate were fermented, dried, roasted, ground, refined, or conched — all of which have an effect on the final flavor and texture of the chocolate. Bitterness in chocolate comes from two primary sources: (a) bitter compounds (including antioxidants) left in under-fermented cocoa beans; and (b) over-roasting, which burns beans and creates bitter tastes.

Higher cocoa percentages don't automatically translate into increased bitterness. A case in point is chocolate made from the rare and prized variety of Criollo bean known as Porcelana. The name Porcelana comes from the Spanish word for porcelain and the bean gets its name from the fact that when the seed is cut open after harvesting it's a very pale purple color inside. Porcelana beans are white because they contain very low levels of bitter antioxidant compounds and require less fermentation and roasting than their more robust aunts and uncles, the Forasteros.

One of the misperceptions that many people have about fine chocolate is that "better" chocolate has more intense, robust chocolate flavors. The reality is quite different. The most highly prized beans are used to make the most delicately flavored, most nuanced chocolate. Very pale beans must be roasted more carefully and delicately than darker beans, which means that chocolate made from them, at any given percentage, will be less bitter and more delicate than chocolate made from beans that start out with higher concentrations of antioxidants in them.

If you are rigid about sticking with 70 percent as the minimum cocoa content level you will deign to eat, then you are automatically missing out on lots of superior chocolates. 

Two that I would throw into the superior category are from the Swiss chocolate manufacturer Felchlin, which celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2008. Felchlin makes both industrial and artisanal chocolate (industrial chocolate is produced using continuous-process equipment, artisanal chocolate is produced using small-batch equipment). Their Cru Sauvage is, in my professional opinion, one of the best and most interesting chocolates currently being made anywhere in the world. But it's "only" 68 percent. 

Cru Sauvage starts out innocently in the mouth and then explodes with bright aromas with citrusy overtones that are high in the mouth and nose and a texture that can be said to dissolve, not melt, in the mouth. Felchlin's 65 percent Maracaibo Clasificado was awarded "Best Couverture in the World" by a prestigious Italian tasting panel in 2004. Couverture chocolates like the Maracaibo Clasificado, used by professional chocolatiers because of their relatively high cocoa-butter contents, often make great eating chocolates because of their high cocoa-butter-to-cocoa-solids ratios.

In the end, what's important is not the cocoa percentage, it's whether or not you like the taste of a chocolate. Arbitrarily choosing a cocoa percentage as the minimum you will eat only cuts you off from a broad range of excellent dark — and milk — chocolates. Please add a comment and let us know your favorite chocolates under 70 percent.

p(blue). Editor's note: Chocolate lovers, head over to the chocolate contest currently on Culinate. If you win and attend the chocolate show, Clay will present you with a signed copy of his book, Discover Chocolate, while you're there. And if you win the "consolation prize" — an Edible Chocolate Box of Charles Chocolates (yes, you read that right) — we'll mail you a signed copy.

promo-image, l

feed-image, l

reference-image, l