IF I WAS BEING SHIPPED OFF TO SPACE AND COULD ONLY BRING THREE THINGS THEY’D BE AS FOLLOWS: MY PARTNER (IN LIFE AND BUSINESS), TACOS AND THE HOLY GRAIL OF FOOD — CHOCOLATE.
I don’t just love eating chocolate, I admire it in all is glorious forms. I put cocoa nibs in my yogurt in the morning, always have a 100% dark bar at my desk at work and spend my nights and weekends roasting, grinding, winnowing and tempering cacao. You could go as far as to say chocolate consumes my life. I’m ok with that.
But I’m not done. I have strong opinions about chocolate, how to taste chocolate and the chocolate community. Chocolate tasters, curators, experts, whatever they want to call themselves, have a tendency to be pretentious. And you know what? I’m just not down with that. It’s chocolate, you put chocolate it in your mouth, enjoy it and it comes out looking similar to how it did going in. It’s the food of the gods, little children and grown adults alike, so why can’t it be accessible and appreciated by all, minus the attitude? Well, you know what? It can.
So I make a plea with all chocolate makers, chocolatiers and “experts”, lay down your fancy wooden tongs and let the masses enjoy. Now excuse me while I step down from my soapbox and preach some chocolate knowledge.
THE ONLY BAD OPINION IS NOT HAVING ONE
Just as tasting wine is more of an art than a science, so too is tasting chocolate. Because of preferences, dislikes and what our taste buds are accustomed to, how people interpret smells and tastes can create unique experiences for different people tasting the same chocolate. In short, there is NO wrong answer for what you taste. The only bad opinion you can have when it comes to chocolate is not expressing one.
Since everyone already knows how to enjoy chocolate, consider this guide as a tool to heightening what you already know. I want to take you from biting into a square of chocolate and saying: “That’s really good.” to “Oh! That’s f*cking amazing!”
Taking the time to learn how to savor the look, texture, smell and above all taste, can forever heighten your experience of this incredible food.
GETTING TO KNOW SOME BEANS
Depending on where beans are grown in the world cause certain chocolate to taste a certain way or exhibit specific “notes” — whether that is fruity, floral or smoky. Learning how to recognize these characteristics can take time and practice, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Because chocolate, right? To get a better sense of what your taste buds will encounter depending on certain regions, check out one of my favorite chocolate graphs. Yes, chocolate graphs are a thing...
THE CHOCOLATE YOU’LL NEED
To start off with we recommend you choose three or four bars with no more than three ingredients. These ingredients will be cacao beans, sugar and sometimes cocoa butter. We’ll explain a little later the difference between bars with and without cocoa butter, its purpose and why some chocolate makers choose to add additional cocoa butter to their chocolate. You’ll also need a Hershey’s bar for your first tasting or a candy bar as we like to call them.
SO MANY CHOCOLATY CHOICES: HOW TO CHOOSE YOUR BARS
If you’re not sure where to go to buy bean-to-bar chocolate, your local health food store is always the safest bet. For simplicity’s sake, we’re going to stick to dark chocolate — that mean chocolate without any milk and typically a higher cacao-sugar ratio. Choose a few bars that are at least 70% or higher and aim for bars with different origins for their beans. You’ll find bean-to-bar chocolate from across the globe. A few of my favorite bars are from the Dominican Republic and Madagascar. But remember, this is just my preference. I’m a fruity, floral type of gal, but you might be a nutty or earthy type. That’s cool.
One final note on choosing your bars. As much as I love bars with added ingredients (the chocolate world calls them additions), for tasting purposes let’s leave the salt, bacon and caramel in the cupboard for now.
CHOOSING A CHOCOLATE-FRIENDLY LOCATION
Though I’ve been known to bust open a new bar on the subway or in a movie theater, the best place to truly be able to taste, savor and appreciate chocolate is in a quiet location with minimal distractions and offending smells. So yes, the NYC subway probably isn’t the best choice. My go-to place? It just happens to my living room. But in all honestly, it’s often hard to get a new bar home without a little nibble.
One last thing before you bite in — people! Enjoying chocolate with another person — whether a partner or a friend — is the way to do it. Not only do people love eating and tasting chocolate, but once a palate is primed, you’d be surprised at how many opinions even an amateur chocolate taster tends to have. So grab your boo, bae, whatever, and settle in.
Now let's get started with some chocolate.
WHAT YOU’LL SEE AND HEAR
Unwrap you bar and lay it front of you. Besides some bar having beautiful and unique molds, you should also see a bar with a uniform color with a simply sheen. What you don’t want to see is a bar with a whitish coating or white blotches. If you see these white blotches, it means the chocolate has bloomed (meaning the cocoa butter and cocoa have separated). And though it might sound like a pretty thing, blooming isn’t good for chocolate. It won’t necessarily affect the taste, but can affect the texture which will ultimately affect your experience of the bar.
When a bar blooms, it means the batch of chocolate it was poured from wasn’t properly tempered. This means that 1) its shelf life has been compromised, 2) it’s not as nice to look at, and 3) it won’t feel smooth on your tongue. Good tempering prevents blooming. Done right, tempering allows the crystal of the cocoa butter to strongly bond or “dance” nicely with the each other.
Tempering is a simple enough concept to grasp but executing it can be difficult. So if you don’t plan on makingyour own chocolate, don’t stress about it.
Just know that a well-tempered bar should be shiny and have a good snap. Hold it up and listen to your chocolate. Do you hear a “snap like” noise when you break it? Or does it fold like a poker player with a measly hand? This, my friends, is why that quiet chocolate-friendly location comes in handy. You want to hear the solid snap.
STOPPING TO SMELL THE CACAO
It's pretty common knowledge that smell plays an integral part in what you taste. That’s why stopping to smell your chocolate before you take a bite is a big part of the experience.
To get the most out of your sniff, you’ll want to make sure you haven’t just rubbed anything scented on your hands or eaten chicken wings or french fries with your fingers. You want to be able to smell just the chocolate and nothing else. Just like a quiet room is essential to “hearing” your chocolate, so too is a location with minimal external smells. So like I mentioned earlier, pass on tasting chocolate in the subway, McDonalds or even your own kitchen if you’ve just been cooking.
Now place your piece of chocolate in your hand, close your eyes and inhale deeply. What do you smell? Where does it take you? Does it smell fruity? Nutty? Perhaps there is a hint of coffee? Take note of what you experience. Just don’t tell me it smells like chocolate.
THE MOMENT OF TASTE
Now gobble up that chocolate! No, just kidding. Take one bite and swirl that piece around your mouth. With your eyes still closed, what do you taste, what do you feel? Is it consistent with what you smelled? Is there a residual flavor? How long does it linger on your tongue? Again take note of what you taste. Jot it down so you can compare your opinion and the tastes of different bars later on.
Make sure to take note of the texture. If the bar you have tasted has bloomed, the texture might feel off. This is also the time to look and see if the bar you are enjoying (or not) contains added cocoa butter. If the texture has a smoother finish, it’s possible that your bar contains added cocoa butter. This isn’t a bad thing, but more of a preference for both makers and tasters. Many, if not most European bean-to-bar chocolate makers add additional cocoa butter. In the United States, some craft chocolate makers do, others don’t. That’s where the preference comes in.
The debate on whether to add additional cocoa butter or not, is ongoing. But that’s a whole other blog post. I’ll let you know where I stand at a later date. For now, it’s important to come to your own conclusion.
CLEANSE AND REPEAT
Now that you’ve tasted your first bar, it’s time for another go. The great thing about chocolate tasting is that you’re not beholden to your first love. Nibble, taste and enjoy numerous bars. Cleansing your palate in between tastes of different chocolate, however, is important. So have a glass of water nearby, a hunk of bread or for my fellow gluten-free lovelies, even some polenta.
Learning how to taste chocolate is something that can be mastered and enjoyed no matter your culinary background or knowledge. Once you’ve determined what cacao makes your world turn, if you want to learn more about the origins of chocolate, the different strains of cacao and the process of crafting a superior bar, go at it. But if you don’t want to, that’s fine too. But don’t ever let an “expert” make you feel bad about your knowledge or preference. Remember, the only bad opinion is not having one at all. Now go forth and nibble!
Hugs and chocolate,
Kelechi + Sara