Over the past decade, we chocolate eaters seem to have evolved rapidly from average joes with bowls of Hershey’s kisses on our coffee tables, to snobs that nibble at 80% bean-to-bar chocolate sold in the finest of paper. We buy sichuan peppercorn-studded chocolate, chocolate made with goat’s milk, chocolate mixed with bacon or gold leaf, or whatever we can
find snort. Some restaurants are even serving out chocolate boards and tastings the way so many of their peers serve cheese. Artisan ice-cream makers advertise their use of fair trade-certified cocoa. Chocolate, it would seem, has officially entered the hallowed space of fancy food.
This transformation is something to be proud of: Taste has improved, and flavor profiles have diversified. Customers are better educated, and they care more about the provenance of their chocolate. And perhaps most importantly, more farmers are getting a fair price for their beans.
On the flip side, this evolution also means we’re spending $15 for a single bar of chocolate, sometimes without being certain whether that price point is a direct result of skilled craftsmanship and smart sourcing, or just high marketing budgets. The Mast Brothers scandal of 2015 brought all of these questions into the forefront of our food-related conversations: Are chocolate-makers just bullshitting us, or are we really paying for high quality?
While labeling can still be confusing—phrases like “bean to bar” are not regulated, and organic certification is prohibitively expensive for some makers—there are a lot of signs to look for when you’re searching for a good bar. Today, we’re debunking some of the most common myths that stand between you and great chocolate, with help from some experts:
Michael Laiskonis, creative director of the Institute for Culinary Education and former James Beard Award-winning pastry chef at Le Bernardin.
Susanna Yoon, owner of Manhattan’s Stick with Me Sweets and former chocolatier at Per Se.
Myth: A higher cocoa percentage means better chocolate.
The facts: What the percentage on a bar of chocolate tells us can be misleading. It really measures, by weight, how much of the bar (or chips, or powder) comes from cocoa beans. But that 70 or 80% could be all chocolate liquor—the ground up paste made from cocoa beans—or a combination of chocolate liquor and cocoa butter, which is the flavorless fat extracted from cocoa beans. (Photo: Facebook/Ghiradelli)
Yoon says: “Percentage is never an indicator of quality; it’s more of an indicator of the sweetness of the chocolate. When something says 80% chocolate, that means 20% of the chocolate is sugar. But that 80% could mean that it’s 40% cocoa butter, and 40% chocolate liquor. The intensity would be very different if you took out the cocoa butter and it was 80% liquor, which is made up of cocoa solids. Cocoa butter itself doesn’t have any flavor, so if you’re adding it to the product, it helps with mouthfeel, but it doesn’t intensify the taste.”
Myth: White chocolate is chocolate.
The facts: White chocolate is made from cocoa butter—the fat that comes from a cocoa bean—but doesn’t include any chocolate solids or chocolate liquor. That cocoa butter gets mixed with sugar and milk powder to make white chocolate, or “white chocolate confection,” as you’ll often see it labeled. (Photo: gorgechocolates.com)
Laiskonis says: “By the legal standard, no. It doesn’t contain any of the flavor-giving cocoa solids. In the U.S. and the EU, the powers that regulate those things say it’s not technically chocolate, because it doesn’t contain what we would refer to as the cocoa powder—the brown stuff.”
Yoon says: “Maybe it’s not considered chocolate to most, but to me, it’s chocolate, and you still need cocoa butter to make it. I love white chocolate. It’s also much cleaner to work with—especially if you’re wearing a white chef’s coat.”
Myth: Milk chocolate is inferior to its darker alternatives.
The facts: Milk chocolate gets a bad rap because most of what we know of it is commercially made white chocolate that is low grade. But milk chocolate—which adds milk powder to cocoa liquor, cocoa butter, and sugar—can still be made with care from the highest quality of cocoa beans, and many bean-to-bar chocolate makers are now making milk chocolate (and dark milk chocolate!) alongside their super-intense 80% bars. Most milk chocolate contains between 30-35% of cocoa solids, but the commercial stuff that we grew up with has more like 10-15%; the rest is sugar and milk powder. (Photo: Flickr/Arnold Gatilao)
Laiskonis says: “We’ve certainly created a new kind of connoisseurship of chocolate, and with that comes people who will say things like, ‘Oh, I never taste anything under 70%.’ I understand where they’re coming from, but at the same time they’re missing out on a lot of great chocolate. I think that milk chocolate is overlooked, and when it’s good, it’s really good. And there is an increasing number of milk chocolates that are in the 40-50% range now, which represent the best of both worlds: you get a little bit more intense cocoa flavor, but then you also get some of those comforting, nostalgic, creamy qualities of your run-of-the-mill milk chocolate.”
Myth: “Bean-to-bar” is the most important mark of quality you can find on a chocolate label.
The facts: Bean-to-bar chocolate is chocolate that’s been made step-by-step—from roasting beans to tempering—under the care of one chocolate maker. It’s not an objective mark of superior quality; someone could buy cocoa beans and make terrible chocolate out of them. But sourcing is an important part of the chocolate-making process, and if you’re buying bean-to-bar, you know the chocolate-maker had control over the entire process: where the beans came from, how they were chosen, and how they were roasted. (Photo: Facebook/Mast Brothers)
Laiskonis says: “Things I look for on a label that indicate a certain level of care and attention are cocoa percentage, and any sort of hint at the origin. If there is any clue as to where the beans come from, I am going to assume that there is more care taken in the making of that product, and it’s going to be better. Anything reflecting Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, organic—they’re not always regulated, they’re not always standardized, but those things are good cues. But there’s a lot of great chocolate that’s being made that isn’t fully bean-to-bar.”
Yoon says: “You really never know what you’re going to get unless you buy from a company with a great reputation, or a brand you know. You can also look to chocolate professionals: What do they like? Everyone’s taste is different, but it’s a great indicator: why does Per Se or Eleven Madison Park use a certain type of chocolate? At Stick With Me Sweets, we use Valhrona products.”
Myth: Remelting is always bad, and people who remelt chocolate are frauds.
The facts: While the Mast Brothers recently came under fire for previously remelting chocolate and repackaging it as their own bean-to-bar creation, remelting is a common practice among chocolatiers, and it has no significant effect on flavor. (Photo: Flickr/Alexi Ueltzen)
Laiskonis says: “If you’re starting from the whole bean, you have control over the roasting process, and that’s a huge thing. If you’re not starting from the bean you could be getting nibs, or already processed liquor, which is basically just the cocoa beans that have been roasted and ground to a paste. Even then, there’s a lot you can do to personalize the end product. If you’re melting down a quality chocolate like Valhrona, it’s going to be great.”
Yoon says: “I wouldn’t take Valhrona and say, ‘This is my chocolate that I make from bean to bar,’ but remelting chocolate is something that is so common. Because there’s a huge difference between a chocolate-maker and a chocolatier. Most chocolatiers, like me, are using [pre-made] chocolate to make chocolates,” like bon bons, candies, or other molded chocolates.”
Myth: Raw cacao is a magical superfood that will definitely make you live forever.
The facts: Yes, raw food contains more active enzymes than cooked food. But the idea of raw chocolate is already a contentious one, as the fermentation, sun-drying, and grinding of cocoa beans can often exceed 120°, which is generally considered to be the highest temperature food can reach and still be considered “raw.” Roasting deepens and develops the flavors in a cocoa bean, and can also kill off dangerous bacteria. It’s rare—Liaskonis says it happens every 10-15 years—but salmonella and E. coli can infect cocoa beans fermenting and drying in the open air of the tropics, and in these cases, roasting can keep those bacteria from hurting us. (Photo: Flickr/Jan David Hanrath)
Laiskonis says: “If you like the taste of chocolate that’s not roasted, that’s great, but I think it’s not achieving its full potential. At the end of the day, it’s all about flavor for me. Roasting is the only reliable ‘kill step’ in rendering these beans safe to consume [if they’ve been infected by bacteria]. So if you’re telling me you’re not roasting your beans, I don’t know if I want to eat your chocolate, honestly.”
Myth: You shouldn’t eat chocolate that contains lecithin.
The facts: Lecithin is an emulsifier that’s often used to improve the smoothness and mouthfeel of chocolate. It’s especially helpful if you’re making molded chocolate and want your chocolate to have good “flow.” Some buyers are wary of lecithin because they’re not familiar with it as an ingredient—it can look like some sort of additive on a label—and it is traditionally made with soy, which most often contains GMOs. It’s most commonly found in commercial products, and less common in bean-to-bar chocolate. Recently, there has been a move away from soy lecithin and towards sunflower lecithin, for the sake of avoiding GMOs. (Photo: ultimatechocolateblog.blogspot.com)
Laiskonis says: “Lecithin is found naturally in a lot of plants; it’s a very safe ingredient, but a lot of people don’t understand what it does or why it’s there.”