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Silky. Bitter. Sweet. Fruity. Caramelized. Nutty. Milky. Like wine, the words used to describe chocolate are as complex as, well, the chocolate itself. So what attributes define good chocolate? It starts with the quality of the cocoa beans. "Good beans going in will mean good chocolate coming out," says Rick Schwartz, Technical Manager, Peter's® Chocolate.
Among premium chocolates, though, there is wide flavor variation based on the origin of the beans and how they are grown, dried and processed. There's no one rule about what good chocolate should taste like. "It all boils down to what you prefer," says featured baker, Michelle Clasen, but here are the key attributes tasting experts note when testing different chocolates:
The cocoa impact – sometimes referred to as the bite – describes the pure, unsweetened chocolate character you experience when you taste a piece of chocolate. The higher the cocoa content, the higher the cocoa impact. A product with about 80% cocoa, for example, will have nothing sweet about it. It leaves a sharp, bitter sensation on the back of the tongue.
"For straight eating, I prefer dark chocolate in the 60% range," says Clasen. "You get enough of a sweetness balancing the cocoa and just a touch of the bitterness at the back of the tongue to give it that taste of a high-quality chocolate."
Like the grapes used to make wine, the beans used to make chocolate have their own distinctive flavors, shaped by the soil, climate and location where the varietals are grown. Chocolate makers play with the cocoa beans to nurture and develop nuanced flavors during processing. You might note a dark roasted flavor typical of very strong coffee in a product processed at a high temperature. Other chocolates might accentuate the nutty notes or highlight the aromatic fruity flavor of the beans.
Conching is a specific processing technique used to develop the cocoa flavor. It combines heat and agitation to drive off any unwanted acidic or astringent tastes while developing pleasant notes like caramel. You might detect unappealing moldy, woody or hammy flavors in lesser quality chocolate, usually a result of poor-quality beans or inferior processing.
Melt describes the feeling of a piece of chocolate when you press it against the roof of your mouth. A lesser chocolate may leave a thick, waxy coating or have a grainy texture. The cocoa solids in premium chocolate are ground more finely to reduce the particle size, so the tongue can't detect individual sugar crystals. That's what creates the silky, smooth melt of a high quality product.
Linger is the lasting effect of the chocolate in your mouth after you swallow it. Ideally, the beautiful chocolate flavor you start with should have the same flavor you end with. High quality chocolate has one, nice uniform bouquet from start to finish – without off notes or any harsh, sugary sweetness at the end.
Your ability to differentiate subtle flavor variations in chocolate depends both on your taste buds and experience. The more chocolate you taste, the more notes you'll be able to pick up. Do you need a better excuse to eat more chocolate?