Chocolate percentage labeling

5 years ago I would have said that I only ate dark chocolate with a high percentage of cacao listed on the bar. Milk chocolate was for Snickers bars and gray Hershey's kisses - not for the ultimate after-dinner indulgence. I had bought into the fallacy that dark chocolate with a high percentage of cacao was for true chocolate lovers and milk chocolate (with the corresponding low percentage) was for Halloween. I was wrong.

I have recently learned - thanks to two chocolate classes courtesy of Duff at Zingermans Deli - that unctuous, toe-curling, spine tingling, mouth happy chocolate sparkles regardless of chocolate percentage or the presence of milk solids. I had always thought a higher percentage denoted a more intense chocolate flavor, which is not the case. In fact, the percentage listed on a bar of chocolate has little to do with the quality of the bar.

In order to explain what I mean, I will give a macro description of how a chocolate bar is made. Cacao trees are a short tropical tree. The small football shaped seedpods are harvested by a machete (or a lucky monkey). The delicate pulp is removed from the seeds. The seeds are covered and left to ferment. Fermentation kills the viability of the seeds and starts flavor development. The final step on the farm is the drying of the beans to prevent mold from developing during transportation. The choice to sun dry or to dry in an oven affects the final flavor of the chocolate as well.

Borden - Cocoa tree

Often at this point the beans take an ocean voyage to the factory (very few producers have chocolate factories in the country where the seeds are grown). Multiple machines turn the dry fermented beans into what we recognize as chocolate. The beans become cacao nibs when they are dehusked, roasted, and crumbled (nibs are delicious on top of yogurt or ice cream and are very popular in the food world at the moment). The nibs are crushed, milled, conched, and tempered (i.e. they are smashed and refined again and again and again to ensure a smooth, shiny, uniform final product).

Every step of this long and extensive process (both on the farm and in the factory) is an opportunity for flavor development or flavor denigration. Producers who oversee all steps of this process often have a more complex and nuanced final product.

Here is the key bit of information that blew me away - the percentage listed on the bars refers to the total amount of cacao regardless of the ration of butter to solids. The cacao nib contains about 50/50 cacao butter to cacao mass. Cacao mass (aka cocoa powder) holds the flavor and the color. Cacao butter is tasteless and melts at body temperature (i.e. the cosmetic industry loves cacao butter - making it financially attractive for a chocolatier to sell off the cacao butter and replace it with a cheaper fat).

You could taste three bars that all list advertise themselves as being 80% dark. But the 80% is misleading because each bar could have a different ratio of mass to butter, changing the flavor intensity of the bar. You may have thought you were purchasing the bite of the cacao solids and end up with a mild cacao flavor - melting beautifully because it has a high amount of cacao fat.

In other words, the race to label bars as a higher and higher percentage (as the health benefits of chocolate continue to be touted) is not an indication of a better chocolate. The key to a great bar is the care taken along every step of the extensive process from bean to bar not a label of milk or dark or 40% vs. 80%.

Fortunately, you won't know if the chocolate you choose makes you sing that until you taste it - and if it is not for you, you can share with a friend, just in time for Valentines Day.

Here is the link to the annarbor.com article!