Luxury living: A guide to gourmet chocolates
Learn how to select the fienst gourmet chocolates. This guide explains the basics of fine chocolate and tips on evaluating and selecting chocolates.
Crèmes, nuts and fruits? Dark, white or milk? Swiss, Belgian or Italian? The variety of gourmet chocolates available can be overwhelming. But when it comes to choosing the finest, there are some basic guidelines to help make the choice a little easier.
Chocolate comes in three main varieties: milk, dark (encompasses both semi-sweet and bittersweet) and white. Milk chocolate is pure chocolate with added coca butter, sugar and milk solids. This is a mild type of chocolate.
The dark chocolates include semi-sweet, which is pure chocolate with added cocoa butter and sugar. Semi-sweet is the most versatile chocolate available and is available in many forms. Another dark chocolate is bittersweet. Bittersweet chocolate is usually darker and less sweet than semi-sweet. Most commonly used for baking, bittersweet chocolate can also be labeled simply as dark chocolate in Europe.
White chocolate is not a true chocolate. While it contains cocoa butter, white chocolate does not have chocolate liquor, a requirement to be designated as real chocolate.
The easiest way to separate high quality chocolates from more mass-produced varieties begins with reading the label. The finest chocolates will have a short ingredient list as quality chocolate does not have a lot of additives.
Look for chocolate that contains cocoa butter, chocolate liquor and real – not imitation – vanilla bean, which can create a chemical taste. Also avoid chocolates that have high sugar content or added vegetable fats.
Some better chocolates also list cocoa content on their labels. A high percentage of cocoa can be a good indicator of quality chocolate. As a general guideline, milk chocolate typically contains 30 to 40 percent cocoa, semi-sweet has 55 to 60 percent and bittersweet ranges from 65 to 80 percent cocoa.
Some finer chocolates also list the blend of cocoa beans used. The best beans to look for include:
Criollo Beans – These beans produce the most prized (and expensive) chocolate in the world. Grown in the humid regions of Central and South America, Criollo makes up only 10 percent of cocoa beans grown.
Forastero Beans – In contrast, the Forastero accounts for nearly 90 percent of the world’s chocolate production, including a majority of all commercial chocolate.
Trinitairo Beans – A good cross between the Criollo and Forastero beans, the Trinitario is a sturdy, flavorful bean.
The most anticipated, and vital step, in identifying quality gourmet chocolate is to sample. Just as a wine connoisseur evaluates the appearance, aroma and taste o a chardonnay, so should you select chocolate to ensure you’re getting the purest, finest variety.
Chocolate should first be evaluated based on appearance. The surface should be shiny and smooth with consistent color. There should not be any air bubbles, white streaks or dots, cracks or fog. If chocolate has been mishandled or improperly stored, it may reveal “bloom”, a slight grayish cast indicative of temperature fluctuations. Bloom doesn’t usually impact flavor.
After evaluating appearance, experience the aroma of the chocolate. Good chocolate will have a rich, chocolate scent that is not overly perfumed or sugar smelling. There should be no scent of chemicals or additives. Any flavorings such as fruits or nuts can impact the aroma but should not overpower the chocolate itself.
Next, test the break or “snap” of the chocolate. If the chocolate is at the proper temperature and is of good quality, it will make a snap sound when broken. The break will be clean with no crumbling or splintering.
The final test is taste. Put the chocolate on your tongue for 20 seconds, pushing it against the roof of your mouth. The texture should be creamy, smooth and velvety. The taste should initially be a nutty chocolate flavor followed by sweetness. Good chocolate will have a longer finish and a pleasant aftertaste.
Other things to consider when choosing gourmet chocolates are the origin. Typically, a designation such as Belgian, French or Italian chocolate is nothing more than the country where it is produced. However, there are some exceptions since there are more than 10,000 ways to make chocolate. One of the most well-known processes is Swiss chocolate, which is a milk chocolate made with condensed milk for a creamier texture and taste.
Finally, there is brand. Godiva and Ghirardelli are two of the best-known names in gourmet chocolate. However, with the increasingly popular “art” of chocolate, chocolatiers and artisans are taking the sweet to a new level. Using unique bean variations, companies touting “prestige” chocolates include Dean and DeLuca, Scharffen Berger, Michael Cluizel, Vosges Haut, Chuao Chocolatier and Callebaut. The most expensive chocolate bar available comes from Italian chocolatier Amedei Porcelana where a single bar is $9.
You don’t have to be an expert to purchase the finest gourmet chocolates. Just know what to look for on the label and don’t hesitate to ask for a sample.