What does “70% chocolate” really mean? The answer may surprise you.

Raw cacao seeds and ground cocoa nibs

You know that 70% dark chocolate bar you bought recently? Did some teeny part of you feel pretty good about buying really dark chocolate because, well, dark chocolate is good for us now?

Would you be surprised to learn that there might be MORE good-for-you stuff in a 60% chocolate bar, or even a (gasp) milk chocolate bar, than in the 70% bar you picked up?

I know I was.

Here’s the issue: the cocoa % on chocolate bar wrappers doesn’t actually tell us how much chocolate is in our chocolate (if by chocolate we mean ground-up cocoa beans — the brown stuff with all the antioxidants). In fact, cocoa % is totally useless for that purpose. All we can reasonably expect to learn from the cocoa % is how much SUGAR has been added to our chocolate — and even that is only true for dark chocolate.

Confused yet? Let me try to explain.

What cocoa percentages really mean

First, the basics.

The average chocolate bar has five ingredients:

  • Chocolate liquor: ground-up whole cocoa beans. Contains both parts of the bean: the fat (cocoa butter) and the solids (unrefined cocoa powder)
  • Cocoa butter: extra cocoa butter increases creaminess and fluidity
  • Sugar: because, sugar
  • Lecithin: usually from soy beans, lecithin increases fluidity
  • Vanilla: while old style European chocolate traditionally includes vanilla, there has been a notable movement away from vanilla by today’s chocolate makers

Cocoa % = chocolate liquor + added cocoa butter

Total cocoa percentages include not just chocolate liquor, but also added cocoa butter. The amount of each ingredient need not be disclosed by the chocolate maker, and the ratio between the two ingredients can vary wildly. Dark couverture chocolate, which needs to be highly fluid if chocolatiers are to work with it, often has a nearly 1:1 ratio of cocoa liquor to cocoa butter. Eating and baking chocolates don’t need as much cocoa butter, so their ratio may be closer to 2:1.

Here’s where the confusion around cocoa % becomes an issue for consumers. Say you’re choosing between two chocolate bars with the exact same ingredients, listed in the same order. You’re frustrated because the ingredient percentages aren’t listed on the packaging. But as an experiment, let’s pretend for a moment that they are.

Here’s what you’d see:

Bar #1: 70% dark chocolate 

Ingredients:

  • chocolate liquor (66%)
  • sugar (29%)
  • cocoa butter (4%)
  • soy lecithin (<1%)
  • vanilla (<1%)

Bar #2: 70% dark chocolate

Ingredients:

  • chocolate liquor (41%)
  • sugar (29%)
  • cocoa butter (29%)
  • soy lecithin (<1%)
  • vanilla (<1%)

In both cases, the % chocolate liquor and the % cocoa butter add up to 70%. Both bars have the same amount of added sugar. However, the first bar contains 66% actual ground up cocoa beans, whereas the second bar contains only 41%. That’s a 25% difference. And as a consumer, you have no way of knowing which is which.

As if that’s not confusing enough, consider the ingredients list for this milk chocolate bar:

Bar #3: 60% milk chocolate

Ingredients:

  • chocolate liquor (42%)
  • sugar (25%)
  • cocoa butter (18%)
  • milk powder (14%)
  • soy lecithin (<1%)
  • vanilla (<1%)

That’s right — you could buy a dark milk chocolate bar and get MORE ground cocoa beans by weight than you would’ve if you’d bought the #2 dark chocolate bar above. So if you’ve been buying dark chocolate for health reasons, these numbers may give you pause.

The only way to really know exactly how much chocolate liquor is in your chocolate bar (besides calling the chocolate maker and asking) is by buying chocolate with no added cocoa butter. It does exist — chocolate makers sometimes call it “two-ingredient chocolate,” since this type of chocolate typically also excludes lecithin and vanilla. I like Undone Chocolate‘s two-ingredient bars, although admittedly I’m biased because I’ve spent a lot of time helping out in their shop. But many other chocolate makers make two-ingredient chocolate — Taza, Dandelion, Rogue and Sirene all do, just to name a few. I recently tried a great one — an 82% two-ingredient bar made with Peruvian beans by Maverick Chocolate, from Cincinnati, Ohio. You can find other two-ingredient brands at most good chocolate stores, or check out the selection at Chocosphere.

But here’s a longer term solution to the cocoa percentage problem: chocolate makers should provide consumers with the percentage of chocolate liquor or cocoa solids in their bars, not just the meaningless cocoa %. Giving consumers a breakout of exactly how much of a bar is made from whole cocoa beans and how much is added cocoa butter (which, btw, most chocolate makers buy in bulk from industrial manufacturers, although there are exceptions) would be a more honest, transparent way to market chocolate. It would also discourage chocolate makers from adding extra cocoa butter for the sole purpose of inflating their chocolate’s cocoa percentage.

Another perk: providing information about the percentage of chocolate liquor in chocolate might even boost sales of dark milk chocolate, which is poised to be the next big thing in high end chocolate. But I’ll save that for another post.

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Couverture chocolate (and why chocolatiers aren’t rocket scientists)

Chef Rubber 64% dark chocolate chips

Chef Rubber 64% dark couverture chocolate

Are you confused by couverture chocolate? You aren’t alone. I hadn’t even heard of it before I began my confectionery training. But never fear — here’s the quick and dirty on couverture chocolate for your reading pleasure.

Couverture is a type of chocolate made specifically for confectionery use. Its defining characteristic is its higher cocoa butter content (32-39% ADDED cocoa butter, on top of the cocoa butter already present in the cocoa mass). The extra cocoa butter makes couverture thinner when melted, so professionals can achieve super-thin, super-shiny bonbon shells for their confections. It also gives couverture a really smooth texture and mellow flavor — in no small part because the cocoa butter significantly dilutes the flavorful (but less creamy) cocoa bean mass.

Chocolatiers refer to the more liquid quality and easy pourability of melted couverture in terms of its viscosity — specifically, they categorize couverture as “high viscosity” chocolate. When I first started working with chocolate this confused me to no end, because in physics, the higher the viscosity, the THICKER the liquid. For some reason (maybe they were high on theobromine), chocolatiers decided to reverse that — they call chocolate that is thin and runny “high viscosity.” Clearly someone wasn’t paying attention in high school physics class!

It would be remiss of me to talk about couverture chocolate without noting that, well… it’s delicious. Especially if you like that smooth, European, vanilla-forward chocolate style. But who likes that, right? 😉

You may be wondering if you’ve ever tasted couverture, or if you would even recognize it if you saw it on a shelf, and my guess is that you would. Valrhona and Callebaut are two of the most well known couverture makers — you’ve probably heard of them. Michael Cluizel, Amedei and many others make excellent couverture too.

If you’re interested in a couverture starter kit, I recommend ordering it on Chocosphere, which has a great selection of bars and sampler packs (I love this one). Try the Valrhona classics like Manjari and Guanaja. Jivara is a great couverture milk chocolate (also by Valrhona), if that’s what you’re looking for.

If you do try any of these, please let me know what you think of them.

Sugar-free chocolate: why it doesn’t work (yet)

Stevia plant
Stevia plant

I’m interrupting your regularly scheduled gianduja blog series to bring you this important public service announcement.

Apparently a UK firm has developed a way to eliminate the bitter aftertaste of chocolate sweetened with stevia. This is very cool news for chocolate lovers who can’t (or won’t) consume sugar.

To date, sugar-avoiders have had very few options when it came to chocolate. Most of the sugar-free chocolate on the market relies on sugar alcohols (erythritol, xylitol, mannitol, etc.) for its sweetness. Sugar alcohols are notorious for causing GI distress in some people, making chocolates sweetened with them not worth the discomfort for those affected. But stevia, an all-natural calorie free sweetener, doesn’t cause GI issues and doesn’t affect blood glucose levels the way some artificial sweeteners are purported to do.

That said, stevia tastes terrible in chocolate. I’ve tried adding it to unsweetened chocolate several times, and on a good day the results taste like aluminum.

Which is unfortunate, because I really WANTED to like stevia-sweetened chocolate. Not because I worry about my sugar intake, but because I grew up eating a lot of stevia (health-obsessed family + diabetic parent = lots of weird food in the house) and have grown to appreciate its gentler, lingering sweetness in foods like oatmeal or plain yogurt. It’s the perfect sweetener for coffee. So why not chocolate?

It turns out, the answer to that question is complicated. One of the interesting things I’ve learned while working for a local small-batch chocolate maker is that sugar does more for chocolate than just sweeten it. It also affects chocolate’s viscosity, texture and flavor intensity.

Sugar’s effect on chocolate’s viscosity:

Adding sugar to chocolate reduces the chocolate’s relative cocoa butter content, which means adding sugar will thicken your chocolate. Cocoa nibs are about 50% cocoa butter, and most chocolate makers add additional cocoa butter to facilitate molding and enhance texture. But add 30% sugar to that chocolate and your total cocoa butter percentage will fall significantly. This leads to thicker chocolate that many chocolatiers may find unsuitable for enrobing confections.

Sugar’s effect on chocolate’s texture:

Conching machine or melangeur
Photo credit: Mark Chamberlain via Rochester City Newspaper

Also, part of the art of making chocolate is figuring out the right time to add the sugar. The cocoa beans are ground by granite rollers in a melangeur for several days, and sugar is added at some point along the way. Added too late, and — depending on the chocolate maker’s refining equipment — large sugar particles may result in a gritty texture (interestingly, Taza Chocolate leaves large sugar particles in its chocolate on purpose, and the texture of their chocolate is quite unique).

Side note: one thing I’m still trying to figure out is what happens if sugar is added too EARLY in the grinding/refining process? Why don’t chocolate makers just add sugar at the very beginning, as soon as the nibs have liquefied in the melangeur? Is it possible for sugar particles to become TOO small?

Sugar’s effect on the intensity of chocolate’s flavor:

Generally, in dark chocolate anyway, the lower the percentage of sugar, the higher the percentage of cocoa mass. At least theoretically. The thing is that most chocolate makers also add additional cocoa butter to their chocolate, and the “cocoa solids” percentage stated on chocolate bar wrappers includes the combined weight of the cocoa mass AND the added cocoa butter. So a 70% dark chocolate could be 30% sugar and 70% cocoa mass (known in the industry as “two-ingredient chocolate”). Or it could be 30% sugar, 20% cocoa butter, and only 50% cocoa mass. Suddenly that chocolate isn’t sounding so dark, is it?

Earlier in this post you learned that sugar makes chocolate thicker by reducing its relative cocoa butter percentage, and chocolate makers often add extra cocoa butter in order to thin it out again (and sometimes to improve its texture). Given that cocoa butter has very little actual chocolate flavor, the more additional cocoa butter in a chocolate, the less intense its flavor.

Enrobed chocolate bonbon“Couverture” chocolate — the chocolate used by chocolatiers to make bonbon shells and enrobe truffles —  by definition must contain over 31% added cocoa butter. So that means that a 65% dark couverture chocolate is likely made from 35% sugar, at least 31% added cocoa butter and, at the very most, only 34% cocoa mass (most likely less because most cocoa makers also add soy lecithin). 34% cocoa mass does not an intense chocolate make.

So as you can see, sugar interacts with other ingredients in chocolate in complex ways by displacing cocoa butter and affecting texture. Chocolate makers have been trying to tweak processes and recipes for hundreds of years. Replacing sugar with a sweetener that has a completely different chemical composition is complicated, requiring multiple adjustments along the way, and a lot of trial and error.

It will take a lot of thought, time and experimentation before chocolate makers figure out how to make great chocolate sweetened only with stevia, but I’m guessing it can be done. I’m curious which chocolate maker will be the first to make that leap.

Using transfer sheets to decorate truffles

Chocolate truffles decorated with transfer sheets

Dark Chocolate Truffles Decorated with Transfer Sheets

Last weekend I spent Sunday afternoon holed up at Union Kitchen with a professional chocolate maker and a former chocolatier*.

The mission: make chocolate truffles out of Undone Chocolate.

The plan: make a ganache out of Undone’s salted 72% chocolate bars, pour into a frame and let it cool in the industrial refrigerator, then cut it into squares and dip it in tempered Undone Chocolate.

The twist: decorate the truffles with chocolate transfer sheets.

Chocolate transfer sheets are like temporary tattoos for truffles: you press them on when the chocolate is in liquid form, and when the chocolate hardens and you peel them off and the pattern of the colored cocoa butter remains on the surface of the truffle as if you’ve used a stencil and spray paint. (Non-toxic spray paint, naturally).

Transfer sheets can also be used with specialty molds. We actually did consider using molds for these truffles but quickly realized it was unworkable — the chocolate was simply too thick for small molds and wouldn’t spread evenly into the corners.

Why is Undone Chocolate so thick? Well, that’s just what happens when you make two-ingredient chocolate. Most chocolate makers add additional cocoa butter to the other ingredients (primarily cocoa mass and sugar) before grinding and refining them. Undone skips this step. The resulting chocolate is potent, thick and intense, and it won’t easily spread into the crevices of molds (this is also a characteristic of “high viscosity” chocolate).

Anyway… we opted for hand dipping the ganache squares in chocolate, and we added some additional cocoa butter to it to make the enrobing process easier. This turned out to be a good call. The extra cocoa butter produced a couverture-like chocolate that tempered well and left our bonbons with nice thin shells.

Using transfer sheets to decorate chocolate truffles

I cut the transfer sheets into squares and pressed one onto each enrobed truffle while the chocolate shell was still wet. Chocolatiers with fancy equipment skip this part — they can cut the entire slab of ganache at once using a guitar cutter**, after which they send the pre-cut ganache squares through an enrobing machine (it’s like a chocolate shower) hooked up to their tempering machine.

In any event, the transfer sheets worked beautifully. I recommend them to home chocolatiers attempting to create professional-looking truffles without colored cocoa butter or fancy molds. I bought these particular transfer sheets from Chef Rubber, but you can buy small quantities of them cheaply on Amazon.

 *Chocolate makers are the people that roast raw cocoa beans and grind them into chocolate. Chocolatiers take a chocolate maker’s product and turn it into confections, like truffles.

Confectionary guitar
Confectionery guitar

 

**Btw… that guitar cutter is a $2000 piece of equipment. And tempering machines with enrobing attachments can cost ten times that. Of all the barriers to entry faced by aspiring chocolatiers, the initial capital investment in equipment is probably the most difficult to surmount. But I digress.

 

Truffles with dark chocolate mint ganache

Molded dark chocolate bonbons

Molded Dark Chocolate Bonbons

A couple of years ago I bought an indoor herb garden as a birthday present for my husband. We grow basil, cilantro, dill, parsley and mint, but mint is the one we seem to use least frequently — so I was excited when I realized I could use all that mint to flavor my ganache.

I won’t get into too much detail about how I made these because the process was very similar to how I made the lemon ganache truffles a couple of weeks ago. The only difference was that this time I infused the cream with mint while the cream was still cold. Being short on time, I thought it would be more efficient to blend them up together in my Magic Bullet.

Fresh mint whipped cream
Fresh Mint Whipped Cream

Well… it turns out you can make really fluffy whipped cream in a blender! I had no idea. Green whipped cream too. Whoops.

Despite this accident, it turned out beautifully. I used 70.4% dark Callebaut. Not too sweet, and the ganache had just the faintest hint of mint.

At the last minute I second-guessed myself and added a drop of peppermint oil. I wish I’d skipped it. The subtlety of the mint had been refreshing, but the peppermint oil made these truffles taste like Andes Candies — which are tasty, but not very original. I’d really hoped the fresh mint flavor would come through.

Whisked Chocolate Mint GanacheSigh.

Still, the truffles came out so shiny and pretty — I couldn’t have been happier with the result (aesthetically, anyway).

Plus, now I know how to make green whipped cream in a blender. Which will come in handy… never?

First attempt: ganache-filled chocolates

Molded dark chocolate truffles

Molded dark chocolate bonbons

Over the weekend I tried my hand at making molded chocolates for the first time. I was dying to use my new chocolate tempering machine (more on that in another post), so when I found myself with a whole free Sunday and a sweet tooth, I decided to go for it.

I whipped up some lemon ganache, poured it into a piping bag, tempered a pound of deZaan 64% dark couverture chocolate, and got to work (for full instructions, scroll to the bottom of this post).

Molded dark chocolate bonbons

Here’s what I learned:

  1. One pound of chocolate is NOT a lot to work with when making bonbons. I barely had enough chocolate for one mold sheet.
  2. It’s very challenging to get the chocolate out of the tempering machine and into a piping bag without letting the chocolate get too cold (and therefore thick and hard to work with). I’m still figuring out the best way to do this — suggestions are welcome.
  3. Make sure you have a good (wide) spatula or scraper on hand, as well as some kind of wide receptacle to catch the chocolate runoff (a clean sheet pan might be perfect for this). If you try to pour chocolate from your mold tray into a 12″ mixing bowl, you’ll leave half of it on the floor (um, yes, that happened).
  4. Put down some newspaper! Or a tarp! And wear an apron, for the love of god. Or a hazmat suit. You will get dirty.
  5. Work fast so your chocolate stays close to 90 degrees. If you let the chocolate cool too much, you’ll end up with very thick chocolate shells and less room for ganache.
  6. Clear plastic molds (rather than opaque silicon trays) have the advantage of allowing you to see when the chocolates are ready to come out of the fridge. To check them, take a peak at the bottom of the mold. When the chocolate has hardened, it will visibly pull away from the plastic (this is one of the many useful things I learned while helping out at Undone Chocolate).
  7. Don’t be like me and forget to tap the air bubbles out of the molds (whoops).

    Making molded dark chocolate bonbons
    What a mess!
  8. Don’t be like me and wait too long to scrape the excess chocolate off the top of the mold tray. If you let it harden on the tray, it will be a lot harder to remove the chocolates. Trust me on this one.

Instructions for making molded chocolates:

  1. Fill a piping bag (or a ziplock bag with the corner cut off) with tempered chocolate and pipe it into the molds (fill them completely).  Then flip the mold tray upside down, letting the excess chocolate drip into a large, clean bin or tray (you can remelt it later).
  2. Scrape the front of the tray clean with a spatula, leaving a thin coating of chocolate inside each mold. Tap the tray (right-side up) on the counter a few times to remove air bubbles. Flip it upside down and stick it in the fridge for a few minutes to set.
  3. Once the chocolate shell has hardened, pipe ganache into the molds. Leave a few millimeters at the top — it’s better to under fill than overfill.
  4. Seal the molds with a thin layer of chocolate (you may need to gently reheat your chocolate at this point, or temper a new batch if you’ve run out).
  5. Repeat step 2.
  6. Gently flip your tray upside down onto a dry surface. The chocolates should drop right out. Wearing latex gloves for this step will prevent finger prints (if you care). If necessary, trim the edges with a sharp knife.
  7. Try one! Or, um… four, if you’re like me. But who’s counting.

Anyway — I hope you have a great time making your own chocolates. Please let me know how it goes!

Tempering chocolate: seeding method

The seeding method of tempering chocolate
Adding seed to melted dark chocolate
Adding seed to melted chocolate

Last week when I posted about my first attempt using the tabliering method for tempering chocolate, I promised to review the seeding method in a later post. So here it is.

This will be a much shorter post than my last post on tempering because there is a lot of overlap between the tabliering and seeding methods of tempering.  In both methods, the melting process is the same, as is the temperature to which the chocolate must be raised to dissolve the fatty acid crystals (this happens for dark chocolate at roughly 116-118 degrees Fahrenheit).

Here are the most important differences between tempering by seeding versus tabliering:

  1. The seeding method only works if you have some tempered chocolate on hand to use as your seed chocolate. So if all you have is a block of untempered chocolate, you’ll have to use the tabliering method.
  2. The seeding method is much, much less messy than the tabliering method. No brown fingernails, no chocolate residue all over your counter. However, the tradeoff is that seeding takes 10-15 minutes longer than tabliering.
  3. With seeding, once the seed chocolate is thoroughly incorporated and the chocolate has cooled to 88-90 degrees Fahrenheit, you’re done, the chocolate is tempered. You don’t have to cool it to 82 degrees and then reheat it to 90 degrees like with tabliering.

    Melting dark chocolate couverture
    Melting dark chocolate couverture

Here’s how to get started. First, melt your chocolate in the microwave. Reserve some unmelted seed chocolate — roughly 10-20% of the total chocolate you’re working with. Just eyeball it, you don’t need to be precise.

For step-by-step instructions on tempering using the seeding method, check out this excerpt from The Professional Pastry Chef by Bo Friberg (provides directions for both seeding and tabliering methods).

Basically you want to bring the melted chocolate up to 116 degrees Fahrenheit, add your seed chocolate, a little at a time, stirring constantly, waiting until the seed has fully melted before adding more. Keep this up until the chocolate cools to 88-90 degrees. It may take 10-15 minutes to cool. When the temperature hits 90 degrees, it’s tempered.

Unmelted seed in my tempered chocolate
Unmelted seed in my tempered chocolate

Dip the back of a spoon in the chocolate to do a quick test — the chocolate should firm up in the fridge in a couple of minutes.  It should look shiny, you should be able to touch it without it instantly melting, and when you try to break it you should hear a sharp snap.

If you see any extra unmelted seed chocolate in your bowl at this point, you’re supposed to remove it to avoid overcrystalization (I’ll write more on overcrystalization in a future post).

When this happened to me, I couldn’t find a good way to remove the seed, it was kind of like trying to remove egg shells from raw egg whites with your fingers. I tried a slotted spoon, but the holes were too small. Finally I gave up and left it in.

Testing the temper of dark chocolate using the seeding method
See how tests 3 and 4 have a lovely shine?

As you can see, compared to the tabliering method, it took me an extra 11 minutes to get from melted chocolate (test 1) to tempered chocolate (test 3).  However, I had no trouble keeping it tempered for 20 minutes (test 4), partially because I was obsessive about rewarming it every few minutes.

Overall I MUCH prefer seeding to tabliering.  The 11 extra minutes it took to cool down the chocolate are SO worth it for the extra control and (comparatively) minimal clean-up.