Let's do this together, step-by-step.
Are you ready to truly unlock all the flavors hidden within that luscious piece of heaven we call chocolate? For years I gobbled down any chocolate I came across and the best offering I could give by way as a verdict on taste was “ok,” “good,” or “great.” Chocolate never got bad marks from me, but without a refined pallet and a little education the experience was rudimentary. I couldn’t tell you WHY one piece was better than another.
Like many, my primary determination of quality was how the packaging grabbed my attention and the price tag. We’ve all had this experience in finding wine, beer, and spirits. Sometimes fashion, computers, cars and so on. Without knowing how to differentiate one from another, price was our first clue to quality. However, I’m not in college anymore with a yellow fizzy suitcase of cheap beer and no longer satisfied with a Hershey bar.
Don’t get me wrong. Each has its place but, with a few easy techniques, you can broaden your pallet to truly appreciate a magnificently crafted confection and leave the Hershey’s for the fireside s’mores at the next camp out.
A word of caution! There is no going back. Once you take the Red Pill, Neo, there’s no unlearning this. So, get ready to turn your nose at the $2.30 heart shaped assortments at Valentine’s Day.
Cocoa has more than 400 distinct flavor attributes! Much like a coffee bean or the grapes that go into making wine, the cacao bean has different varieties with flavors that develop differently at every stage of production. From the soil and environment in which it is grown to harvesting, roasting, and production, the flavors evolve. So, before you scarf down that next piece of chocolate, slow down and make it worth your time.
Whether by yourself or in the company of other chocolate lovers, you’ll want a quiet place free of distractions and strong odors that will interfere. It would be a good idea to have some room temperature still water and even some plain bread to cleanse the pallet between multiple tastings. This is a good time to mention that your chocolate should also be room temperature. Don’t refrigerate or freeze your chocolates. There are a few reasons for this but, for now, keep in mind that more flavors reveal themselves at warmer temperatures. There is no right or wrong time of the day to taste chocolate, but it should be conducted with a moderate appetite. I recommend mid-day or evening a few hours after a light meal.
Selecting the right chocolate:
Frankly, there are very few wrong answers, but some are more right than others. First, skip the baking morsels altogether unless you want a control subject for comparison. Also leave out white, milk, and candy bars loaded with other stuff that will distract from the real star of the show. Your grocery or drug stores often have a decent selection of quality chocolate bars, but specialty chocolate, grocery, and candy stores in your town or online often provide more variety.
Next, check the front AND back for ingredients. What you’re looking for is 65% cocoa or greater. More on that in my blog post What the Chocolate Percentage Really Means. The percentage is usually right on the front, but you also want to check the ingredients list in back to ensure that cocoa is listed first.
Why so dark? All your chocolate flavor comes from here. Milk solids, sugar, cocoa butter, and other ingredients may enhance the overall experience and flavor, but also mask all the rich and complex notes we are trying to discover.
Chocolate doesn’t really go bad but it will lose flavor over time. Right after opening the wrapper or packaging, get a good whiff. So much of our taste comes from smell. Our olfactory senses are often overlooked in the flavor experience. It is amazing what new notes you will pick up from drawing in a deep breath of what is unleashed from under the wrapper.
Quality chocolate will look uniform in texture and have a glossy surface from the tempering process. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing if there is a haze on the surface. There’s nothing wrong with it. However, it may mean that your chocolatier didn’t take care in the tempering stage and may have cut corners elsewhere. Depending on cacao variety and how it was roasted, the chocolate may have a hint of pink, red, orange, or purple.
Now, break off a piece . A crisp, audible snap is another sign of care taken in the tempering process and a chocolate maker that knows his or her stuff.
Now, what we’ve been waiting for!
Place the piece of chocolate on your tongue and let it begin to melt. Cocoa butter begins to melt around 80°F or so and should begin even in your fingers. This will vary according to percent of cocoa powder and other ingredients to cocoa butter in your particular chocolate.
Don’t chew! Biting some to speed up the melting process is ok, but take your time to let it spread to all the flavor receptors around your tongue.
As it melts take note of the texture. Is it grainy or smooth? The longer the chocolate is processed during the conching stage the smoother it will appear and feel on the tongue.
The longer your chocolate is on your tongue the more the flavor notes will reveal themselves. Use your detective skills.
- Does your chocolate taste the same as it smells?
- Does it change flavor as it lingers on the tongue?
- What flavors are stronger than others?
- Does it taste earthy and spicy or floral and sweet?
As you explore the different flavors you may find notes of berries, lavender, banana, cinnamon, or citrus. Many may not show themselves until the very end, the finish, and linger after your chocolate is down the hatch.
Chocolatiers take great pride in the complexities and subtle hints locked away in their chocolates. The key to unlocking them is to take your time. Go slowly and enjoy! You wouldn’t run through a museum! Why would you rush culinary art?!?
Write down your thoughts and impressions of each fine chocolate you try. This practice will both enhance the tasting process and, I think, the fun as well as help you pair your favorite selections with food and drinks later. You can share this awakening experience with your friends by Hosting a Chocolate Tasting Party. Soon, you all will be discovering your childhood favorite for the first time! ...Again!
Go a step further by Pairing Chocolate and Wine or Pairing Chocolate and Whisky or other spirits.
Let us know how your chocolate tasting experience went in the comments below.
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