If you’re looking for a great chocolate to give friends and family that won’t break the bank, we recommend the E. Guittard Quetzalcoatl 72% chocolate bar. Six out of six blind tasters picked it as a top-three favorite out of a lineup of seven different bars. It also delighted the discerning palates of two Sweethome writers. At $2.90 for a 2-ounce bar, this is boutique chocolate flavor at a grocery store price.
One of my favorite things to give as a hostess gift is a stack of hand-selected chocolate bars from my local gourmet market. It’s fun, whimsical and shows a little more thoughtfulness than a bottle of wine purchased en route to a dinner party. But store shelves are saturated with chocolate bar options these days. With all of the choices out there, what do you get? How do you know that $4 bar of 70% is really that good? After 15 hours of research, I spoke with chocolatiers, chocolate retailers, and a 15-year veteran of the business to try and wrap my head around this mammoth subject. We whittled down 44 considerations to 16 and then seven.
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 you know 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 education and exploration. So let’s get down to it, shall we?
What do I know about chocolate?
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 chops 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.
How we chose
At first, choosing 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, I talked 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.
After being initially overwhelmed by the amount of seemingly high-quality chocolatiers (everyone has a favorite), we decided to set some parameters. Chocolate bars that had extra flavors and mix-ins added were immediately out—that means 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 only made single-origin bars (like Dandelion in San Francisco, or Woodblock in Portland, Oregon). The reason for that: 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 there simply would have been way too many options to assess objectively. Lastly, we stuck with dark chocolate with cocoa percentages that ranged from 61% to 85% because that’s 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 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 was 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 have much to do with the flavor. Cheap bars of chocolate comes from cheap cocoa beans.
How we tested
For our first round of tasting I recruited fellow Sweethome writer Christine Cyr Clisset and her husband to taste 16 dark chocolate bars with me on a brisk New York City evening. The first tasting wasn’t blind; it was more like three friends sitting around a table, objectively tasting and discussing. We were looking for things like mouthfeel and texture—waxy or chalky, gritty or smooth. Flavor was very important, too.1 We were looking for complex and exciting flavors or even samples that hit right in the middle with quintessential chocolate flavor. We checked for “off” or “funky” flavors.
We then chose seven finalists to advance to a blind tasting round: Green and Black’s Dark 70%, Ghirardelli’s Intense Dark Twilight Delight 72%, Valrhona’s le Noir 61%, Divine’s 70% Dark Chocolate, the El Rey Apamate Dark Chocolate 73.5%, the E. Guittard Quetzalcoatl 72%, and Michel Cluizel’s Noir De Cacao 72%.
I then invited six friends over for a blind tasting. Like the hot cocoa review, I had them make notes and rate their first, second and third-place favorites, as well as the one they liked the least. In the end, there was a clear winner, one that was called out by everyone who tasted in the first and second rounds.
E. Guittard’s Quetzalcoatl 72% was the clear crowd-pleaser in the tasting line up. In the first tasting, we picked up on the coconut flavor immediately, but then noticed how well it melted on the tongue, letting the flavors unfold. There is a very nice sweetness-to-bitterness balance, probably due to the fact that they don’t add extra cocoa butter. This is a true whole bean bar and it’s delicious.
E. Guittard has been crafting in chocolate in California for 135 years, and the Burlingame-based company is still family operated, unlike better-known Bay Area chocolatiers Scharffen Berger (now owned by Hershey’s) and Ghirardelli (now owned by Lindt). Guittard still takes great pride in their chocolate, using only shade-grown beans and sourcing those beans from small farmers all over the world. Developing relationships with the farmers is the best way to ensure a consistent, quality product, as the beginning stages of making chocolate are in the farmer’s hands.
A more indulgent selection
Great for eating and baking
Just to be perfectly clear, we did not test these chocolates in cooking applications. We just called this one out for this purpose from personal experience. Also, I really enjoy this chocolate for eating. It has superb mouthfeel and the flavor is intense. Valrhona makes blended bars in various percentages, so play around and find the one that complements your palate and baking style.
What else did we look at?
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. 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,” “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% Venezuelan chocolate. It has a toastiness that is almost like a marshmallow straight off a campfire.
Green and 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 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.
Bars that didn’t make it past the first round
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, but I was out-voted by the other two first-round tasters. While I found its intense bitterness matched its perfectly velvety mouthfeel and was 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 $2.50 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.
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% has 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.”
Scharffen Berger 62% was the more balanced of the two Scharffens in the mix. It was a bit subtler in the fruit, but it still was lacking in complexity.
Scharffen Berger 70% is so heavy in sour fruit overtones, it’s all you can taste. I found this imbalance off-putting.
Freshness and storage
Chocolate is best when stored in an airtight container out of the sunlight at temperatures between 65° and 68°F (big window, I know). Here are the 2 reasons 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’s 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 2 reasons: There is a bunch 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 and have an altered texture.
What about bars you’ve had for a while? How do you know they’re good? Look at it and make sure it’s still shiny and hasn’t lost its temper. Any blooming is a sure sign of improper storage. Next is to taste is to see if it’s adopted any of the flavors or smells around it. Also, if it tastes stale, you know it’s old. Go buy yourself some fresh chocolate.
What makes great chocolate?
We’re not here to convince you that you should stop enjoying the Hershey’s you grew up on, but in order to better understand our picks and process, it helps to know what characterizes good chocolate from a culinary perspective.
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 is a great indicator of proper tempering. The flavor should be complex, evolving as it melts on the tongue. Our pick starts out with intense coconut, and then moves through caramel and finishes with spicy cinnamon undertones. 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 says 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 says, “…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.1 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 can be fruity, floral, nutty, earthy, spicy or even vegetal. Our top pick has intense coconut overtones that are unmistakable as soon as the chocolate starts melting on the tongue, while Green and Black’s 70% has a strong fruity flavor reminiscent of cherries.
Wrapping it up
You can’t beat the E. Guittard Quetzalcoatl as a great crowd pleasing chocolate bar that is perfect for gifting. The price is right, it’s very accessible and its flavor profile doesn’t require a super-taster’s palate to be appreciated. So if you need a last-minute gift for that dinner party or the person you forgot to add to your list, pick up a few of these or add one to a hand-picked assortment that is sure to please.
Choco Q, Interview,
Alma Chocolate, Interview,
Christopher Elbow Artisanal Chocolate, Interview,
Food Science: Why Temper Chocolate, Fine Cooking,
Best Chocolate in the U.S., Food & Wine
The Best Dark Chocolate: Our Taste Test Results, Huffington Post, August 31, 2012
The Super-Fresh Guide to Storing Chocolate, Huffington Post, March 29, 2013,
Taste Test: Dark Chocolate, Serious Eats, February 14, 2011,
Serious Chocolate: How to Store Chocolate, Serious Eats, August 31, 2011,
The world's top 10 chocolate bars, Fox News, October 15, 2013
The Best Chocolate Bars, Real Simple,