I step into the candy aisle and prepare myself for overwhelm. Although I have been reporting about chocolate for years - and devouring it for even longer - I am always dazzled by the growing number of companies that are making chocolate and now sourcing it from an even broader swath of countries within the equatorial band where cocoa is grown: from Hawaii to Haiti, Ecuador to India, and Vietnam to Vanuatu.
While most of us tend to think of chocolate as a single flavor, cocoa has more than 600 aroma compounds that reflect the plant's genetic makeup and where it was grown, fermented and dried. These diverse aromas and tastes are usually highlighted in more specialized chocolates, but they can also be mixed and muted to achieve the consistent flavors we expect in mass-produced confections.
Chocolate lovers now have a cornucopia of choices that celebrate flavor and offer more opportunities than ever before to support the people behind the bars, but it can be easy to get lost in a sea of high prices, shiny wrappers and certification jargon. Here's what you need to know to find and savor your ultimate bar - or bars.
- What chocolate is made of: The foundational ingredient are cocoa beans, the processed seeds of Theobroma cacao - the name translates from the Greek as "food of the gods" - a tree with heavy, colorful pods that each holds 30 to 40 seeds, surrounded by a thin layer of creamy white pulp. Cocoa production is a labor-intensive, hands-on process at every juncture. Once cocoa pods are harvested and cracked open, the seeds are extracted, piled in boxes or under plantain or banana leaves, and fermented for up to five days. After fermentation, the beans are dried and stored, ready for the next step of their journey.
- The transformation from bean to bar: A cocoa bean is made up of fat (cocoa butter) and chocolatey nibs. Some cocoa is processed directly into cocoa butter and powder, while other lots are destined for makers and manufacturers. The latter will sort, roast, crack, shell, refine, temper and mold their bars, adding ingredients along the way. Almost all chocolate bars contain sugar; some also incorporate an emulsifier, such as lecithin, or extra cocoa butter to enhance texture, plus such ingredients as vanilla, salt, nuts and dried fruit. Milk chocolate is made with milk powder or a plant-based alternative, and white chocolate (yes, it's really chocolate) contains only cocoa fat (no nibs), plus sugar and any other ingredients.
- What to look for: When approaching the chocolate aisle, ask yourself what kind of experience you want to have and what you want that experience to support. Many people speak of allegiance to particular percentages, but that number tells a partial story - and can limit you in terms of flavor. A 70 percent bar is made of 70 percent cocoa, with other ingredients (sugar, cocoa fat, inclusions, etc.) making up the remaining 30 percent. (Chocolates that don't list percentages - such as candy bars chock-full of nougat and caramel - aren't trying to emphasize the amount, or quality, of cocoa.)
Jael Rattigan, co-founder of French Broad Chocolates and curator of the company's online shop and Chocolate Bar Library in Asheville, North Carolina, says that when she shops for chocolate, she "gravitates in two seemingly opposite directions: old favorites and new experiences." One way to embrace both is to try different companies' takes on 70 percent bars or explore different origins. For example, even though Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago are neighbors, the former is known for cocoa varieties that hold delicate notes of honey and caramel, while the latter's chocolate displays deeper dried fruit aromas.
Certifications also communicate the stories behind the bar. Rattigan reaches for chocolate "that support people and place, meaning chocolate that's built upon fair relationships with cacao farmers and producers, and sustainable growing practices." Fair Trade is the most established economic protocol and assures a baseline price to farmer cooperatives (not individual producers). Rainforest Alliance and UTZ are merging and, collectively, focus on environmental protection, health and safety, and labor practices. USDA Organic certification is strictly focused on inputs, indicating whether any ingredients were grown with synthetic chemicals.
While these protocols confer some benefits, none solve the problems of poverty or environmental degradation. It's why craft companies such as Rattigan's practice direct trade, buying cocoa directly from farms or specialty cocoa bean brokers, with a focus on exceptional flavor. Rattigan emphasizes the relationships: "As we grow, we can buy more cacao from them at prices that far exceed the commodity price."
- How to savor it: First, know your motivation, says Terese Weiss, an instructor at the International Institute of Chocolate and Cacao Tasting and judge at the International Chocolate Awards. "If what you need is creamy texture and a rush of sweetness, there isn't much point in worrying about approach," she says. "It's a destination, not a journey." If you're consuming a higher-priced craft bar, however, slow down and assess the way the bar impacts your senses.
Weiss recommends exploring how the chocolate smells, and gauging its intensity ("gentle, medium or bold?"), texture ("fine, rough or sandy?") and flavor ("sweet, floral, fruity, woody, roasted, chocolatey?"). The goal isn't to become a choco-snob but to better understand and describe what you like - so you can spend your money wisely and more easily find what you want.
- How to store it: If you happen to have any chocolate left, store it in a cool, dry, dark place, away from any strong smells. Don't be alarmed by any whitish discoloration you find on your bar; it's simply the cocoa fat separating from the nib. It will melt together in your mouth. Chocolate companies are required to include an expiration date, but bars that don't contain milk powder will usually last well past any listed time. Use your judgment before throwing away something so precious.