Understanding Chocolate Content & Chemistry
Chocolate is an emulsion of cocoa butter (the only fat in real chocolate), cocoa solids, sugar, and usually some kind of lecithin, like soy or sunflower, which aids emulsification. Most formulations also include vanilla. Sometimes additional cocoa butter is added to the formula to make the chocolate more fluid at a lower temperature. This kind of chocolate is called couverture and is ideal for molding and enrobing applications.
Milk chocolate contains dry milk powder in addition to all of the above ingredients.
White chocolate contains the same ingredients as milk chocolate, but no cocoa solids. Because white chocolate does not contain cocoa solids, which are responsible for the recognizable “chocolate” flavor in dark and milk chocolates, the amount of cocoa butter and the quality of the milk in the formula has a huge impact on the flavor of white chocolate. Too often, chocolate makers use sugar to mask the taste of inferior ingredients in white chocolate, which has given white chocolate an unfavorable reputation. Read your labels carefully and choose a white chocolate that includes only these ingredients: cocoa butter, milk powder, vanilla, and lecithin.
Important note: If your chocolate contains any fat other than cocoa butter, it is not real chocolate, will not follow the same rules as chocolate, and will not taste as good as real chocolate. Read your labels carefully, ask questions, and choose your chocolate accordingly.
Cocoa butter, the fat inherent in the cocoa bean, is the controlling factor in all chocolate confectionery. Crystallization, melting point, and setting point of chocolate is determined completely by the reaction of the cocoa butter to other ingredients and the environment you are working in.
The chocolate we use here at Ragged Coast is made with sugar and milk that is produced in the same regions where the cacao for our chocolate is grown. In fact, we've met a lot of the farmers that raise and milk the dairy cows high in the Andean Mountains specifically for our white chocolate. And we've raised a glass of aguardiente with the sugar cane growers on the Ecuadorian coastal plains who produce rich, unrefined panela from evaporated cane juice.
Now that you know what should be in a bar of real chocolate, it’s time for the fun part: choosing your chocolate! The best way to do this? Taste, taste, taste! What you like is the most important factor when deciding which chocolate to use in your confections. Below, are some simple guidelines on types of chocolate to guide your palate, and your dollar!
Dark Chocolate: There are basically two types of dark chocolate; semisweet and bittersweet. As you can probably guess, semisweet has less cocoa solids and more sugar than bittersweet. Neither contains milk.
Milk Chocolate: As we discussed earlier, milk chocolate has all the same ingredients as dark chocolate, but also contains milk powder. The milk displaces part of the cocoa mass in the chocolate, so the result tastes sweeter, creamier, and has a less robust chocolate flavor. Over the last few years, a product called “dark milk chocolate” has earned shelf space in gourmet food stores. This chocolate contains more cocoa solids than traditional milk chocolate, and appeals to people who like the robust taste of cocoa, but prefer a creamier chocolate.
White Chocolate: Because it contains no cocoa solids, white chocolates flavor and overall quality is determined by the percentage of cocoa butter and the quality of the milk in the formula. Quality brands include: El Rey, Republica del Cacao, and Valrhona. Blonde chocolate—a product made by slowly caramelizing quality white chocolate—has hit the market in recent years, and is ideal for ganache centers and baking because it has a stronger flavor than traditional white chocolate.
Couverture: For enrobing and molding, you will need to use dark and milk chocolates with added cocoa butter. This type of chocolate is called couverture. Because white chocolate by definition contains a high percentage of cocoa butter, it is already ideal for enrobing and molding applications. Quality brands like Valrhona, Callebaut, El Rey, and Guittard—the workhorses of quality confectioners—will list the best applications for their different types of chocolates on their labels or their website.
While you can use couverture for ganache centers, as with truffles, you will get more depth of flavor if you use a chocolate with less cocoa butter and more cocoa solids. Again, this doesn’t apply to white chocolate, as white chocolate contains no cocoa solids. These kinds of chocolates are described as “less fluid” or “viscous.” Confectioners often use one type of chocolate for enrobing and molding—their “workhorse”—and several different types for their centers.
The use of a number indicating cocoa percentage on chocolate labels has become a common marketing practice for chocolate producers over the last two decades. Unless otherwise specified, this number refers to the percentage of cocoa mass—both solids and butter—in the chocolate. It is a common consumer misconception that the percentage refers only to cocoa solids, and that a higher number means that the bar will have a more robust cocoa flavor, while a lower number means it will have less cocoa flavor. What it actually means, is the higher the percentage number, the less sugar will be in the chocolate.
With that in mind, the following is a general guide to percentages and suitable applications:
55-65% dark chocolates: Provided they have added cocoa butter, these percentages are most suitable for enrobing and molding. The cocoa flavor in these chocolates is appealing to varied palates, from children, to milk chocolate devotees, to self-described “chocolate snobs.”
65-75% dark chocolates: These chocolates are best for baking and ganache centers. They have a strong cocoa flavor, with pleasant bitterness and balanced acidity, and can hold their own paired with other ingredients.
75%-90% dark chocolates: Unless they are being made by a quality chocolate producer with a stable reputation, high percentage chocolates are at risk of being overly bitter, astringent, and just plain icky. Too often, these kinds of chocolates are made with inexpensive, low quality beans that have poor flavor due to inferior fermentation and drying practices. If you are a fan of robust and bitter flavors, choose your chocolates based on experimentation, rather than just the number on the label. You might be surprised by a 56% that is far more flavorful than the 80% on the next shelf over!
10%-30% milk chocolates: These milk chocolates are quite light in color, very sweet, and milky. They have minimal cocoa flavor, and no bitterness or acidity. A 10-25% milk chocolate bar might taste similar to a Hershey’s bar.
30%-38% milk chocolates: While the FDC requires milk chocolate to contain only 10% cocoa mass, most of the quality milk chocolates on the market are between 25% and 38% cocoa mass. These chocolates are universally appealing, and taste of caramelized cream, vanilla, and cocoa. If you prefer a milk chocolate chip in your cookies, this is the one to use.
38%-50% milk chocolates: These chocolates tend have a more profound cocoa flavor, can taste nutty, and are quite smooth in texture. Most high-end confectioners use a milk chocolate that falls somewhere in this range, and they are suitable for enrobing, moulding, and ganache.
50% and above milk chocolates: This is dark milk chocolate, and is geared toward the dark chocolate lover who prefers a little creaminess in their bar. These chocolates are superb for ice creams and mousses.
Percentages in white chocolates: Real white chocolate contains cocoa butter as its fat (and no other fat). If the white chocolate you're buying lists a percentage on the label (such as the one we sell), this number refers to the cocoa butter content in the chocolate. In general, the higher the cocoa butter content, the better the quality. The FDA requires cocoa butter content in white chocolate to be no less than 20%.
Sourcing Chocolate Responsibly
Now, before you go out and shop for chocolates to create with and enjoy, I just want to touch base about responsible sourcing.
Did you know that cacao grows only in parts of the world that are between zero and twenty degrees north and south of the equator? If you look at a globe, you might recognize that many of these areas are plagued with civil unrest and practice dicey human rights policies. Often, these conditions impact the conditions in which cacao is grown and harvested. The use of cheap child labor in harsh conditions is prevalent. Middle-men, often referred to as “coyotes,” are contracted to acquire cacao at cut-rate prices, taking the majority of the sale for themselves, and often leaving farmers with very little to show for their efforts. Clear-cutting and burning forests, which destroys habitat for countless plant and animal species, may be common practice in order to plant high-yielding cacao trees.
While it may seem like a daunting task to research how the chocolate on your grocery store’s shelves was sourced, chocolate producers have adopted the use of certain buzz words on their labels to help out consumers who care about these issues.
Fair trade. This is a purchased certification that is meant to assure a cacao customer that the cacao producer pays fair wages, and doesn’t use unsavory labor practices.
Direct trade. This is a practice in which a cacao buyer works directly with the producers to negotiate a fair price and ensure that the farms are paying good wages, not using child labor, and using sustainable growing methods.
Organic. This means that the cacao the chocolate is made from is grown without pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or GMOs.
Single-origin. This is chocolate grown in a single country or region, and is purported to carry the terroir of that region, similar to wine grapes. Knowing the region from which your chocolate comes makes it somewhat easier to research labor practices and environmental stewardship.
ALL of the chocolate we use, create with, and sell here at Ragged Coast is direct trade. Why? Because we have met the folks that grow and maintain the cacao trees from which our chocolate is made. We've seen pictures of their families. We've been to their communities. Much like shopping at your local farmers' market, purchasing chocolate in this manner gives our confections a face, a story, a history. It makes us care about the people that grow and help manufacture this amazing food.
After all this talk, are you as excited as I am to hit the kitchen and start making things with chocolate? Check out our bulk chocolate offerings in our Cookbooks & Ingredients Collection. We've made the exact chocolates we use here at Ragged Coast available to you. And feel free to email me your questions, recipe ideas, or photographs of your creations! I love hearing from you!