We spent 15 hours researching the mammoth subject of chocolate, speaking with chocolatiers, chocolate retailers, and a 15-year veteran of the business. Over the years, we have considered more than 75 bars to bring in and blind taste test. If you’re looking for a great chocolate bar to give friends and family, we recommend Michel Cluizel Noir de Cacao 72%.
This year we made Michel Cluizel Noir de Cacao 72% our top choice. Made in France, this thin bar melts effortlessly on the tongue, delivering a rounded sensory experience. It’s well-balanced with a pleasant bitter finish and rounded fruit flavors. It’s consistent, to boot. This is the third year in a row we’ve tasted this chocolate, and it’s reliably excellent year after year.
Guittard came out with a new line of chocolate bars this year, and we think the Epique 70% is a decent runner-up. The flavors are slightly muted compared with our top pick, and it’s more sweet than bitter, but that might be good for some people. One thing this chocolate bar really has going for it is mouthfeel; it’s super smooth and silky, just like our top pick. You can pick this up at your local Whole Foods, gourmet market, or at our favorite online chocolate retailer, Chocosphere.
And if you’re looking for a baking and cooking chocolate that’s a cut above the offerings of supermarket brands, go for Valrhona. A favorite of professional chefs and serious home cooks, it also makes a tasty snacking chocolate. It has a deep flavor and smooth mouthfeel, but also tastes a bit more sugary and less delicate than our main pick and runner-up. The thicker tablet (roughly 1½-inch thick) is for baking and cooking purposes only.
For this year’s update, we looked at more than 20 new offerings, brought in 13 chocolate bars and had 10 fellow Sweethome editors and writers participate in a blind taste test. Tasters were asked to note their favorite and least favorite samples. There were many different tastes and opinions, but these picks were well-liked by the panel.
I’ve been making my living in the world of food for about 18 years. I was a self-taught baker before attending the California Culinary Academy to beef up my skills on the savory side of things. I continued to work in restaurant kitchens in San Francisco, Austin, and New York City. When I got tired of that, I became a food editor for Martha Stewart Living and Everyday Food. During this time, I’ve come across a lot of chocolate for cooking, eating, and candy-making. I can pick out a high-quality chocolate quite easily, but there’s always room for more learning.
When we first tackled this guide, figuring out which chocolate to bring in seemed like a daunting task. There is so much chocolate out there! To get a better idea of what makes great chocolate though, I set out to talk to experts like Hannah Sullivan at Alma Chocolate, Joanne Kryszek at Chocosphere, Christopher Elbow at Christopher Elbow Artisanal Chocolate, Eric Case at Valrhona, and Suzie Hodon at Choco Q. They told me that to understand good chocolate is to understand how it’s made from bean to bar.
Let me just say this right off the bat: Chocolate is personal. We don’t want to tell people that the chocolate they’ve been enjoying for years is bad and that they should stop buying it right now. If that’s what you like, go for it! Hannah Sullivan at Alma Chocolate put it very well: “It should be delicious to the person tasting it. I try to never judge what someone thinks is ‘yuck’ or ‘yum’—although the more someone tastes, the more sensitive they become to what they think is good.” We are just trying to shed some light on an otherwise mysterious subject and provide some tools for self-education and exploration.
There’s a whole world and story behind this that you can read in What makes great chocolate?, but basically, good chocolate comes from good beans that are processed with care. And that means the company that makes the bar should have good relations with farmers and a reputation for consistently high quality and flavor.
After being initially overwhelmed by the amount of seemingly high-quality chocolatiers (everyone has a favorite), we decided to set some parameters. Chocolate bars with extra flavors and mix-ins were immediately out—that meant no nuts, chiles, fruit, milk, or salted anything. A good chocolate should speak for itself. If a company doesn’t make a plain bar, chances are it’s trying to mask the quality of the chocolate itself. Next, we decided to exclude otherwise excellent producers that make only single-plantation bean-to-bar chocolate (like Dandelion in San Francisco or Woodblock in Portland, Oregon). The reason for that was, well, which one of the many single-origin offerings would be the right contender to bring in? It was impossible to tell—we would have to taste every offering from a single producer. Compound that by the multitude of brands selling chocolate this way, and it would have been way too much to make it objective. Last, we stuck with dark chocolate with cocoa percentages ranging from 61 percent to 85 percent because that represents a good blend of flavor and sweetness that’s pleasing to most palates.
In the interest of accessibility, we wanted to be able to recommend a bar that could be purchased easily at a store or through a reputable Internet source. We also pitted cheaper grocery store brands against high-quality boutique chocolate to gauge what, exactly, the difference is between them. I really didn’t understand the difference between the same percentages of different brands until I actually tasted for myself. The differences are staggering. You really can taste the difference between a whole bean dark chocolate bar and one that has had a bunch of extra cocoa butter mixed into it. Since cocoa butter has no flavor (it’s just fat), the sugar becomes much more pronounced. Plus, the quality of the cocoa beans used to make the chocolate has so much to do with the flavor. Cheap bars of chocolate come from cheap cocoa beans.
For the third year in a row, the Michel Cluizel Noir de Cacao 72% tested well with our tasters. It has a perfect balance of sweetness to bitterness, holds a complex arsenal of flavors, and has a buttery-smooth texture. The bar itself is thin (4 millimeters), which allows it to melt relatively quickly in your mouth. This also allows you to experience the flavors and texture to their fullest. Also, for the past three years, it’s been consistently called out as one of the best in blind tastings, and that might be the most important characteristic of all. Our previous two picks, Guittard Quetzalcoatl and Hachez Cocoa D’Arriba, changed dramatically in flavor and texture from one year to the next. This made us very appreciative of a chocolate bar that continues to deliver.
Michel Cluizel 72% is good for most people because it’s balanced without being boring. It’s not too bitter nor too sweet, unlike our former pick, the Hachez Cocoa D’Arriba, which tasted very bitter and flat this time around. As the Cluizel bar melts on the tongue, the flavors unfold, starting with hot cocoa, and moving through dried fruit and mellowing out with nuttiness on the back end. The result is a high-end bar that isn’t too sour or flat, and just the right amount of sweetness.
The texture of the chocolate is incredibly smooth, like butter. This is a common characteristic of European chocolate. While the Guittard chocolate we tasted this year was comparably smooth, the Trader Joe’s 65% Ecuador bar was gritty and crude, and didn’t even make it into the second round of tasting. The relatively thin (4-millimeter) bar doesn’t take long to melt on your tongue, allowing you to slowly savor the flavors as the unfold. The thickest bar we tested, the Venchi 81% at 1 centimeter, was so thick that we just ended up chewing it, which made it not as enjoyable.
Finally, Michel Cluizel 72% has consistently been selected as one of our favorite chocolate bars for the past three years. That means it’s consistent and reliable. Our previous two picks changed quite dramatically from one year to the next. Our first and second year picks, Guittard Quezalcoatl and Hachez Cocoa D’Arriba, respectively, didn’t hold up after a year. It’s not easy to make consistent chocolate year after year, through different harvests, but Michel Cluizel does it well.
Joanne Kryszek at Chocosphere called this out in her list of favorite makers. Sweethome editor Christine Cyr Clisset and I both buy this chocolate bar regularly. When I put it out after dinner or for a snack, people always comment on how delicious it is.
We think the new Guittard 70% Epique is a pretty decent bar of chocolate. Like our top pick, it has a smooth-as-silk mouthfeel, but that’s where the similarities end. The Epique bar is more sweet than bitter, and the fruit is reminiscent of raisins or prunes. I personally like chocolate that isn’t bright-fruit heavy, so this one agrees with me.
Overall, though, this chocolate is much more muted in every way compared with the Michel Cluizel. This bar is easy to eat, for sure, but doesn’t fill you with the complex sensory experience of our top pick. This might be a good choice for the person who is dipping his or her toe in the world of gourmet chocolate. You can find Guittard at the company’s website, Chocosphere.com, or supermarkets nationwide.
When you want a great-quality chocolate for baking or other cooking projects, we love Valrhona. A favorite with professional chefs and advanced home cooks alike, you can purchase it in easy-to-measure feves or look for it in hand-wrapped blocks broken from a large tablet in the bulk section of your local Whole Foods or other high-end gourmet markets.
I speak from personal experience when I say that Valrhona is one of the best chocolates to work with, and Sweethome senior editor Ganda Suthivarakom agrees, saying, “I also always choose Valrhona for cooking because it tastes chocolate-ier to me.”
Just to be perfectly clear, we did not test these chocolates in cooking applications—we just called out this one for this purpose based on personal experience. Also, I really enjoy this chocolate for eating. It has superb mouthfeel and the flavor is intense. But it is slightly sweeter than our main picks and not quite as complex, flavor-wise.
We also think that the 1½-inch thickness of this block of chocolate isn’t quite as appetizing for serving after a big meal. You could cut up chunks and serve them on a dessert platter, but they won’t melt on the tongue as nicely as the thin Hachez or Michel Cluizel bars. Valrhona makes blended bars in various percentages, so play around and find the one that complements your palate and baking style.
Amano Chuao was going to be our step-up pick, but we were concerned about availability when our trusty online chocolate retailer, Chocosphere, stopped carrying it and it became harder to find at other retailers. That said, this is a delicious bar with strong notes of coffee and an overall nutty flavor profile. The texture was super smooth with a pleasing balance of sweet and bitter. If you come across this bar in your travels, pick it up and give it a try. At about $10 for 2 ounces, it’s truly a luxury.
Hachez Cocoa D’Arriba was our pick last year but was disappointing this year. This time around, the chocolate was very bitter and its texture was more waxy than buttery. It’s common for chocolate to change from year to year with the harvests or simply a change in producer.
Trader Joe’s Organic Belgian Dark 72% was the “best” of the Trader Joe’s bars that we tasted this year. It was smooth and had a palatable balance between sweet and bitter. It didn’t hold a candle to our top pick or runner-up, though.
Trader Joe’s Organic 73% Super Dark was incredibly sour, and then flattened out to nothing. It tasted like it had turned.
Trader Joe’s Ecuador 65% had the worst texture of any bar in our tasting this year, very gritty. The flavor was also quite muted, with no standout profiles.
Maison Du Chocolat Cuana wasn’t very complex for such a luxury bar. Tasting notes included “hard,” “chalky,” “burnt,” and “bitter.” Some appreciated its smoothness and nuttiness.
The Grenada Chocolate Company was very fruity and sour, with a bit of funk in the nose. The finish is minerally with a slightly rustic texture.
Guittard 64% L’harmonie had an excellent smooth mouthfeel, but was a tad too sweet with overwhelming notes of vanilla and coconut.
Guittard 85% Clair de Lune is a higher cacao content bar from the same company as our top pick. Most of our tasting panel was put off by its burnt taste. The descriptor “robust” was often used when describing this bar.
Valrhona Le Noir Amer was waxy and had no complexity. I would use this for baking only.
Venchi Cuor Di Cacao was bold and robust with a smooth mouthfeel. The flavor was sometimes described as “burnt.” This bar is a little too thick, and it doesn’t really melt on the tongue like a thinner bar would.
Guittard Quetzalcoatl was our first pick for this guide. Sadly, it didn’t impress the second year we tried it. The flavor was heavy on the vanilla, and those coconut notes that we loved so much last year were undetectable. It’s more sweet than bitter this time around, but it still has a very smooth texture. Like wine, fine chocolate depends on the quality of the harvest, no matter how much the chocolatier tries to put controls in place.
Christopher Elbow is a very easy bar to eat. It has an incredibly smooth texture, and it’s more sweet than bitter. For dark chocolate newbies, this is like a really nice bike with training wheels.
Amadei Toscano Black 70% was very sweet with bright fruit notes, which came off as being acidic. The beautiful packaging of this Italian-made bar made us think it would make a great gift, but the high price and lackluster flavor didn’t impress.
Cote d’Or Noir Intense has a unique smoky flavor, reminiscent of Spanish smoked paprika. It’s a very grown-up chocolate but may not be for everyone. If you like things a little freaky, this may be your bar.
Café-Tasse was pretty chalky and bitter. I liked this at first, but when it made it to the second round, we both couldn’t understand why we liked it the first time. It was pretty uninteresting.
Valrhona Noir Andoa, an organic fair trade bar from Valrhona, is very fruity and acidic.
Newman’s Own has good texture, but is also very sweet and doesn’t have a lot going on. It’s something I’d use in a pinch for baking.
Dolfin is more sweet than bitter and the flavor was very one-note. Not worth the money.
Ghirardelli Intense Dark Twilight Delight was not that great in the first tasting, but we felt that we needed a supermarket brand to advance to the blind tasting. IAt last year’s tasting, it got a vote for second place and two votes for third place. The most common descriptive for this brand was “waxy.” Other tasters found it had a “dry, powdery feel,” and “bitter finish,” but was “rich in chocolate flavor.”
El Rey Apamante Dark Chocolate 73.5% is still one of my favorites, but it didn’t get the love from the blind tasting group. All El Rey chocolate comes from Venezuela, and it is truly something to experience if you want to try 100 percent Venezuelan chocolate. It has a toastiness that is almost like a marshmallow straight off a campfire.
Green & Black’s 70% is a fine chocolate that’s pretty easy to find at higher-end grocery stores. It’s heavy on the red fruit and is almost overwhelmingly sour, like a mouth full of dark red cherries.
Divine 70% Dark Chocolate was a hit at the first tasting, but the blind tasters felt that it was bland, with no rich flavor and even a mild “off” chocolate flavor.
Chocolove 70% Dark was waxy, crumbly, and had zero complexity. Actually, it had almost no flavor.
Domori Il Blend 70% is crazy intense chocolate. I loved this one so much, but I was out-voted by the other two first-round tasters. While I found its intense bitterness matched with its perfectly velvety mouthfeel to be most pleasing, my tasting companions found it to be “tannic bitter” and “too rich, a little over the top.” It’s also really expensive at $6 for a 1-ounce bar.
Ritter Sport Fine Dark Chocolate 73% comes from a brand that I love purely for their whimsical fillings, but the plain dark chocolate couldn’t stand up to the more refined contenders.
Dove Dark is so mild, it tastes purely like vanilla candy coating. It was more like Magic Shell than a bar of chocolate.
Jacques Torres Dark Chocolate 60% turned out to be pretty chalky and brittle. The flavor was a little flat in the beginning, then moved into slight nuttiness. It’s a nice bar, but not great.
Godiva Extra Dark 85% was very waxy and tasted like coffee that had been sitting on the hot plate for half the day.
Lindt 70% had an unmistakable plasticky taste and feel. They list extra cocoa butter in the ingredients, so there must be a lot of the stuff in there. The sweetness borders on cloying. One commenter called it “good Easter bunny chocolate.”
Of the two Scharffens in the mix, the Scharffen Berger 62% was more balanced. It was a bit subtler in the fruit, but it still was lacking in complexity.
The Scharffen Berger 70% was so heavy in sour fruit overtones, it was all you could taste. I found this imbalance off-putting.
Making chocolate is a process, that’s for sure. Each step plays an important role in the end result. While understanding how chocolate is made doesn’t help you much while standing in front of a huge display of bars trying to decide what to buy, it’s a cool thing to know if you’re really into chocolate.
The cacao bean is the most important part of chocolate. Great chocolate cannot be made from a substandard bean. There are three major varieties of cocoa used for chocolate production: Criollo, Forastero, and Trinitario. Criollo is highly prized for its complexity. This variety is also the rarest, as the tree is susceptible to disease. About 1 percent of the world’s chocolate comes from Criollo, and it grows mainly in Central America.
Forastero is a heartier bean originating in Brazil. It can withstand harsher growing conditions and is farmed in South America as well as West Africa. Depending on who you ask, Forastero makes up 80 to 90 percent of the world’s cocoa production. This is the bean of the cheap chocolate bar—think supermarkets, gas stations, and Fun Size. There are exceptions, of course. I was told that there are some good chocolates coming from Forastero beans, but no one could give me any examples. (Damn you, secretive chocolate industry!)
Trinitario is a hybrid of Criollo and Forastero. As its name suggests, this variety started in Trinidad 300 years ago and is responsible for roughly 5 percent of the world’s cocoa production. Higher-end chocolates come from this bean as it has some of the complexity of the Criollo and the heartiness of a Forastero.
But cacao variety is not the only important thing. Eric Case, key accounts manager at Valrhona and a 15-year veteran in the business, said, “The most important thing about chocolate is where the beans come from, how the beans are grown, and water.” He also added, “Water is food for cocoa, it’s the placenta … It actually creates the placenta which is the [white pulp] around the beans that sustains them while it grows. How the beans are grown is super important. Are they shade-grown or sun-beaten? If out in the sun, all the water will evaporate.” Basically, the more water, the better the bean.
Generally speaking, beans that come from Venezuela and Madagascar are considered the best. But, and here’s that exception to the rule again, great beans are being grown in parts of the Caribbean, West Africa, and other parts of Central and South America.
Joanne Kryszek, an owner at Chocosphere, said, “Just as it takes a master winemaker to make great wine from good grapes, the same goes for chocolate. The skill and technique of the maker is almost as important as the quality of the cacao. Great makers know how to process the beans to bring out the best qualities of the bean’s genetics and geographical origin.”
After the cocoa bean is harvested, the beans are removed from the pod, and put through a fermentation process. This removes many of the tannins and astringency from the beans. This is a very important step in the final flavor of the chocolate. While further steps down the line in the chocolate-making process contribute to smoothing out the flavor, the more care taken in the fermentation process, the better the bar will be. To quote Eric Case, “Fermentation is where flavor begins.”
After the beans have been fermenting for several days, they are dried, usually in the sun on large concrete slabs. When the beans are dry, they are ready to be shipped. Some say these two processes are two of the most important in the chocolate-making process when it comes to flavor development; they’re done by the farmer, not the chocolate maker. This is why the better chocolate makers have developed relationships with their growers to make sure standards are put into place and processes are done the same way every time.
Roasting comes next in the process. This is done by the chocolate maker. Although there isn’t much detail about it, roasting is where a lot of chemical reactions happen that are important to the overall flavor. This is one of those trade secret things, and chocolate makers are very tight-lipped about their procedures. The roasting step is also very important for the next step, winnowing, as roasting helps separate the germ and the shell from the the actual nib. After the beans are cooled, they are put in a winnowing machine that removes the germ and shell from the nib. After winnowing, the nib can be Dutched, or alkalized. This darkens the color and mellows the flavor. Dutching is not necessary, as there are many delicious natural chocolates out in the world. To Dutch or not to Dutch is the question for the chocolate maker.
The nibs are then ground, which makes cocoa liquor, or cocoa mass. For blended chocolate (beans from different origins) this is the point in the process where the nibs will be combined. In some cases, cocoa liquor is then pressed to extract cocoa butter, the cocoa butter is then used to add to other cocoa liquor to make chocolate. The cocoa solids left behind, or the “presscake,” is ground into cocoa powder. Extra cocoa butter is added is commonly added to chocolate. Couverture—this is what chocolatiers and pastry chefs generally use—is a high-quality chocolate with a higher percentage of cocoa butter. Not all chocolate has extra cocoa butter added to it. There are many producers that make “bean-to-bar” chocolates without added fat. One is not necessarily better than the other. Christopher Elbow, owner of Christopher Elbow Chocolates, told me that while he enjoys a nice whole-bean chocolate bar for eating, he can’t work with it.
The cocoa liquor with or or without added cocoa butter is then mixed with sugar, emulsifier, and sometimes vanilla (or other flavoring). It then goes through a refining process, which requires the mixture to go through a series of rollers until the gritty mixture turns smooth.
The mixture then goes through another process called conching. The conche rolls and kneads the chocolate mixture constantly, breaking down the particles ever smaller, to create the smooth mouthfeel that chocolate is prized for. Conching can occur from anywhere between 6 to 72 hours; the longer the chocolate is conched, the better.
The final step is tempering. Tempering is crucial to the final product when talking about texture. Fine Cooking has a great explainer on this process, saying, “Tempering is a process that encourages the cocoa butter in the chocolate to harden into a specific crystalline pattern, which maintains the sheen and texture for a long time.” Properly tempered chocolate is glossy and when you break it, there’s an audible “snap”. Poorly tempered chocolate can have white streaks, blotchy fat “blooms”, or even have a spongy interior. It would be such a shame to lose all of that hard work to a bad temper (pun intended).
So, let’s say you’re holding a bar of chocolate in your hand. What’s a good checklist of quality? Well, first look at it. A good sheen and that audible “snap” when breaking it are great indicators of proper tempering. The flavor should be complex and evolve as it melts on the tongue. You shouldn’t be able to detect any particles, such as sugar crystals or cocoa solids. A smooth chocolate means better refining and longer conching.
Christopher Elbow said that when he’s tasting chocolate, he looks at flavor, first and foremost. Then he looks for a nice balance and acidity, and, of course mouthfeel. Smoothness is very important with chocolate. When talking about minimally processed, or old world style chocolate, he said, “it doesn’t unfold on your tongue very pleasantly. If you can physically detect the particles of sugar and some of the cacao fiber on your tongue, I don’t think it’s a very good attribute of a bar. I prefer it to be very smooth, to melt homogeneously on the tongue.”
Each chocolate has its own set of flavor profiles. When talking about fruit, it’s common to identify red fruit like berries or cherries or yellow fruit like mangoes, passionfruit, or even bananas. Citrus fruit and dried fruit are also common flavor notes. Nuttiness is another common flavor profile found in chocolate. Bitter walnut, hazelnut, and almond are characteristic of the Forastero bean. When we say earthy, we’re talking about aromas of soil (in a good way), musk, or even mushrooms. You might get a bouquet of flowers in your nose when tasting some chocolates, violets and orange blossoms have their place in this world. There’s spice, not only the vanilla that some producers put into their bars, but cinnamon, black pepper, and anise can naturally occur. All of that along with more esoteric flavors like grassiness and other vegetal flavors means exploration into chocolate can be really exciting stuff. But if you can’t taste any of that, don’t worry, as long as you’re enjoying yourself, that’s all that matters. Get to know what you like about chocolate. It can be quite intimidating to read about all of the flavors that can come up in a simple piece of dark chocolate, but becoming fluent in this particular language helps when reading up on different types of chocolate or identifying what agrees with you and what doesn’t.
Chocolate is best when stored in an airtight container, out of the sunlight, at temperatures between 65°F and 68°F (big window, I know). Here’s why: Chocolate has a lot of fat in it, and fat absorbs odors. Your pantry and refrigerator have a lot of errant smells going on and they will easily be soaked up by the chocolate. Also, humidity is the devil for chocolate, excess humidity will make chocolate “bloom” (fat solids rise to the top and create blotchy white spots). In these ideal conditions, dark chocolate can keep for a year and milk chocolate for 6 months (solid bars, not filled bonbons).
It’s best to store chocolate at climate-controlled room temperature, but not all of us have that luxury, so here is how to refrigerate: Wrap your chocolate very tightly in cling wrap, then store in an airtight container or zip-top bag and store in the refrigerator. When you are ready to use/eat it, remove from the fridge but keep it wrapped tight until it comes to room temperature. This is for two reasons: There is a lot of humidity in a refrigerator, and we already established that humidity is the devil. Also, you want to keep it wrapped up while it comes up to temp so it doesn’t collect any condensation, which can alter the texture.
What about bars you’ve had for a while? How do you know they’re good? Look at them and make sure they’re still shiny and haven’t lost their temper. Any blooming is a sure sign of improper storage. Next is to taste is to see if they’ve adopted any of the flavors or smells around them. Also, if they taste stale, you know they’re old. Go buy yourself some fresh chocolate.
(Photos by Lesley Stockton.)
Originally published: January 7, 2016