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No, it’s not the title of the latest bestselling romance novel; it merely describes the great love that many people (writer included) feel for dark chocolate. If you’ve been living in a cave for the past twenty or so years, dark chocolate is big business. That’s partly because of dark chocolate’s so-called health benefits (for more on this subject, see my article “Chocolate: Health Food or Health Fad?”, in the archives of this column) and partly because American manufacturers and consumers have discovered that they need not cling for their entire lives to the milk chocolate on which many of us grew up.
What Makes Dark Chocolate Dark?
If you’re wondering what makes a chocolate dark, it’s mostly the cocoa content. In the US, the minimum cocoa solids percentage for a milk chocolate is 10 (that varies in other countries). The minimum amount of cocoa solids in a sweet dark chocolate is only 15% (with less than 12% milk solids). As you might guess, such a “dark” chocolate will not be particularly dark, nor will it have an intense flavor. Chocolate labeled “semisweet” must contain a minimum of 35% cocoa solids (and less than 12% milk solids), but a 35% semisweet chocolate still won’t have a robust chocolate taste. And bittersweet? That’s in the eye (or rather, the taste buds) of the beholder, as there’s no legal definition for bittersweet chocolate in the United States. To add to the confusion, sweet dark, semisweet, and bittersweet chocolates are often referred to simply as “dark” chocolate. And don’t confuse dark chocolate with the dark milk chocolate made by several manufacturers. Dark milk chocolate is milk chocolate, but it contains a far higher percentage of cocoa solids than that legally mandated. Incidentally, while a higher percentage of cocoa solids means a darker chocolate, it is never an indication of the quality of the chocolate.
If you choose a dark chocolate because you think it’s vegan, or because you don’t want to consume dairy products, make sure you look carefully at the label! Most dark chocolates are dairy-free, but, as you’ll note in the above paragraph, legally, they can contain some milk solids.
Into the Deep End?
How dark should your dark chocolate be? Much of that depends upon you and your preferences. If you’re using the chocolate for a recipe, some recipes specify a brand and a percentage. That’s for the sake of replication consistency, so it’s not altogether a negative; even different brands of the same type of chocolate (semisweet, bittersweet, etc.) can result in very different end products. But many recipes grant you some leeway. If yours indicates that you should use a semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, you’ll have a huge range from which to choose. There are some people who don’t consider a chocolate to be truly dark unless it contains at least 70% cocoa solids, but I think that’s silly. If you enjoy a darker, more intense chocolate, by all means, use it. But if you’re accustomed to milk chocolate or find that many darker chocolates overwhelm your taste buds or are too bitter, it’s fine to use chocolate that’s more on the semisweet side of the spectrum. It is true that darker chocolate will contain more antioxidants, but that doesn’t make it healthy (again, see my earlier article, “Chocolate: Health Food or Health Fad?”).
The recipe guidelines above hold true for eating chocolate by itself, but if you haven’t been a fan of dark chocolate in the past, don’t allow that to deter you. Tastes change as you age; when I was a kid, I wouldn’t have eaten dark chocolate on a wager, but I love it now! If you want to try dark chocolate on its own, begin with a dark chocolate with a lower percentage of cocoa solids, and gradually work your way up. Taste gradually, and don’t overload your taste buds at any one time---perhaps two or three different chocolates with a similar cocoa solids percentage to see if you have a preference for one brand or type over another. Sip water and wait a few minutes between trying chocolates. Continue this process next day or next week or next month; it should be casual and pleasurable. Take notes on the chocolates, so you’ll remember what you liked and what you didn’t. Was one chocolate earthy or smoky or tannic? Did you enjoy that? Was the texture of the chocolate smooth? (Occasionally, you’ll run across a producer who deliberately produces a chocolate that isn’t perfectly smooth. There are several ways to achieve this, and some people enjoy the slightly granular nature of the chocolate; you must decide if you’re among them.) It’s perfectly fine to stop wherever you feel comfortable in the cocoa content spectrum; you might “max out” at a 50% or 55% dark chocolate, where I’ve seen people munching happily on an 88% bar. Again, this should be all about what you like. There are plenty of chocolate experts and celebrity chefs who announce their chocolate preferences, and that’s fine, but none of them have your taste buds; the “best” dark chocolate is the one that works best for you.
Pairing Dark Chocolate with Alcohol
Want to try pairing dark chocolate with alcohol? Again, you’ll have some leeway. For instance, if you’re attempting to pair a classic red wine with dark chocolate, such wines have ranges of flavor and body. A bittersweet chocolate might be your preference to complement a bold Cabernet Sauvignon, while someone else might find the combination too harsh, preferring instead a semisweet with a less full-bodied Cab. You can find some helpful suggestions about pairing wine with chocolate here: http://www.thenibble.com/reviews/main/chocolate/pairing-wine2.asp (full disclosure: I also write for TheNibble.com). Believe it or not, pairing beer with chocolate has also become trendy over the past few years. As is the case with wine and dark chocolate pairings, a little experimentation to determine what you like is the way to go. Here’s a guide to pairing beer with chocolate (with an emphasis on dark chocolate): http://beer.about.com/od/beerandchocolate/a/Pairing-Beer-And-Chocolate.htm.
Unusual Blends and Chocolate Minimalism
Small-scale bean-to-bar manufacturers, who have sprouted in significant numbers in the US in recent years, clearly favor dark chocolate. Along with sometimes-unusual blends of additional ingredients (I currently have a dark chocolate bar with both tea and sea salt!), one of the big trends in dark chocolate is at the opposite end of the added-ingredients range. It’s minimalist dark chocolate, made only from cocoa beans and sugar. No added emulsifier (soy lecithin), no added vanilla. The idea behind this is that lecithin and vanilla add characteristics and flavors of their own, thus camouflaging the use of lesser-quality beans (those often used by large-scale chocolate makers who employ tons of cocoa beans in their operations). The small-scale manufacturers are meticulous in evaluating, selecting, and processing their cocoa beans, and they want the quality of the bean to come through in the chocolate; fewer ingredients guarantee that. I hope that you’ll try some of the products of these businesses, as they differ greatly in aroma, mouth feel, and taste from the relatively uniform products of the big players in the field.
Any of the products from chocolate-makers mentioned in my article “The Mavericks of American Chocolate” would be fine starting points for your own dark chocolate explorations. Jeff Shepherd, of www.lilliebellefarms.com, has jumped into bean-to-dark-chocolate-bar making, and as usual is producing some intriguing stuff. In Oregon and New York City, The Meadow (www.atthemeadow.com) is offering dark chocolate bars from a nice selection of manufacturers, including a handful with whom I am not familiar. To help round out your education, be sure to try dark chocolate made in other nations, too. And not everything needs to be single origin! Depending on your tastes, blends (what most people have been used to consuming until recently) can be fine, too; it all depends on you and what you like.
If you’d like a fine example of the unusual turns one’s life can take, you need look no further than Jael and Dan Rattigan. They were in business school and law school, respectively, but both dropped out after a vacation to Costa Rica, during which they decided to move there. Eventually, having realized that they’re not into the beach scene, they returned to the US to open French Broad Chocolates in Asheville, North Carolina (the business is named after a local river).
After a few years, they opened French Broad Chocolate Lounge. The business is thriving to this day, and it deserves to be; I like the attention to detail I see here. They have both varieties you encounter every day and those you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere, so there should be something for everyone’s taste. That’s all well and good, but it isn’t the primary reason for my recommendation.
If you stop to think about it, chocolate production uses a lot of resources and energy. Even if you pay attention only to what happens after growth, harvest, and fermentation, the beans must be dried, shipped to where the chocolate will be produced, cleaned, and roasted. After roasting, the shells are removed from the nibs, the nibs are crushed, etc., etc. Some time ago, the Rattigans started to wonder if it would be possible to save a little energy in the chocolate-making process.
Many of the steps in chocolate-making cannot be viably altered, but Dan has come up with a Parabolic Trough Solar Concentrator. Never mind about the complicated name: effectively, it’s a means of roasting cacao beans off the grid.
At present, the concentrator’s output is not large. There are a couple of reasons for that. It currently tracks the sun manually, which means the concentrator needs to be moved by hand about every ten minutes. New insulation is required, too; the concentrator was originally built with an insulating layer of polycarbonate sheeting. But when the cooling system, a thermostatically-controlled fan, was not operational, the polycarbonate sheeting melted in the concentrated sunlight! Clearly, updated materials are called for, and they’ll be installed over time. But eventually, I think this idea might just revolutionize the chocolate industry. And anything that can save energy in the coming years should be encouraged.
There are multiple other reasons to like French Broad Chocolates (and their Chocolate Lounge), as well. Try one of their collections (the Salted Caramel Collection is lovely, the Buddha Collection consists of vegan chocolates, and you can even make your own Custom Collection) or a brownie. There’s always a Holiday Collection in late fall that’s worth checking out. Dan and Jael also offer bean-to-bar creations from a short list of select manufacturers. Even the shipping practices here show thought; shipping is done in biodegradable insulated shipping coolers (with biodegradable ice packs during the warmer months).
If you can’t make it to the Chocolate Lounge, you can order French Broad Chocolates online. Surf over to http://frenchbroadchocolates.com, and you’ll find delightful variety coupled with genuine respect for ingredients.
Stephanie (HandOverTheChocolate@comcast.net) has had a strong affinity for chocolate from a very early age. Family members claim that, as a child, she was able to hear chocolate being opened in the kitchen no matter where she was in the house. Stephanie was baking by the time she was 6 and ran a short-lived baking business out of her parents’ kitchen when she was in high school. She has a Master’s Degree in Foods from Virginia Tech but no formal training in cooking or baking. Consequently, she is a home cook, not a chef. Prior to beginning this column, she had written about chocolate for some 8 years.