Chocolate is a very VERY interesting beast. My friend Erin recently asked me to tell her my favorite kind of chocolate to use in baking (specifically in something like the pumpkin chocolate chip cookies). The obvious answer is that it depends on the recipe, at least as far as the strength of the cocoa. Some recipes really just call for a milk chocolate or a semi-sweet, others need a bittersweet or unsweetened cocoa. Sometimes my chocolate preference is flavor driven.
The other answer is that I'm picky about my chocolate, in both quality and processing. Depending on the way the cocoa is processed, some companies take the cocoa butter out entirely, and add oil back in to make their finished chocolate product. There are a few reasons a company might do this, and I'll get into this in more detail in a sec, but given the choice between a chocolate with cocoa butter and a chocolate with some kind of non-cocoa related oil, I'm going to pick the cocoa butter every time. With that said, the cocoa butter chocolate is probably going to taste better anyway, but QUALITY of taste is a huge factor for me when I'm picking a chocolate.
Ok, let me stop here and give you a run through of how chocolate is processed, from bean to bar.
Chocolate is grown along the equator where the climate is wet (70 inches of rainfall a year) and humid (90% humidity). We're talking rain forest here, where it's wet, humid and the average temperature is 80°F. Hawaii is the only place in the US with a climate supportive enough to grow the cacao trees, but most of the growth occurs in Africa and South America (Central America, Madagascar, Sri Lanka and Indonesia are among some of the other climates conducive to cacao tree growth). Cocoa beans grow in pods on trees (Theobroma Cacao). There are two subspecies of cacao trees: the criollo (creee-oh-yo), and the forestero (forrest-err-oh). The criollo produces a pod with a higher cocoa butter content, and its beans are less bitter than those of the forestero. The criollo tree takes longer to cultivate and bears less fruit than the forestero. The forestero produces beans that are more bitter in pods that have less cocoa butter, BUT it yields more fruit than the criollo, and it yields that fruit two years earlier than the criollo. So. You can see why each tree is attractive for its various reasons to cocoa growers.
INTERESTINGLY, there has been a cross between these two types of cacao trees which resulted in what's called a trinitario. I'm assuming it's resulted in bringing together the best qualities of each?
Now. Cocoa beans grow inside a pod that buds off of the tree. The pods are harvested by hand, cut open and the pulp is removed to get to the seeds. These seeds are fermented for about a week to enhance their flavor, then dried on large racks (in the sun). At this point they're ready to be sold and shipped off to chocolate processors.
The cocoa beans are roasted to bring out their flavor, this sounds like coffee, right? From the roasting chamber, they're funneled through a hopper and stirred before heading off to be winnowed. The winnowing takes any foreign objects off the seeds (fine skins, rocks, sticks- don't forget, these beans came straight from being dried in the fields). Winnowing is the initial refining process, and it produces a cocoa nib. After the winnowing, the nibs are ground either by stone or steel, resulting in what's called chocolate liquor (though it's not liquor liquor- it's simply what the paste is called), and it's at this point that the cocoa butter might be removed from the bean. From there, the ground seeds are put through the concher for further refining- this is where additional cocoa butter, sugar, vanilla- anything that's going to flavor the chocolate, or determine the chocolate "percentage"- is going to be added, and this process is what's going to give the final chocolate product a smooth quality. This part of the chocolate adventure can take anywhere from 90 minutes to FOUR DAYS.
Finally, the chocolate liquor is is tempered to create what's called the "snap" and sheen, and then the chocolate is molded into the finished shape.
TA DA: chocolate. It's quite a process, isn't it?
During the grinding process, the nibs might be ground down to a powder form, known as cocoa powder. We use this in baking all the time, and it's a great way to add chocolate flavor without excess liquid or sugar. Some companies, I'm not going to name any here (but you could probably guess who they might be, or a quick google search is going to point them out), will use this process to grind all of the cocoa butter out of the bean, and replace that cocoa butter with oil, and sell the extremely valuable cocoa butter to the cosmetics industry. There's nothing unethical about this, since they're being honest and it's safe and completely legal. It just.....doesn't taste good.
I SHOULD add that a pretty famous example of a company that deliberately takes the cocoa butter out of the bean and substitutes a fat back in is English Cadbury. They're not being underhanded, they're adding palm oil to develop a very specific, signature flavor. And if you've ever had English Cadbury (not American Cadbury which is owned by Kraft, and which tastes entirely different from English Cadbury), you'll know that their chocolate is absolutely DELICIOUS. English Cadbury also set off quite a hilarious only-in-Europe scandal when the UK joined the EU. In Europe there are VERY strict guidelines governing chocolate production and chocolate percentages (what can be labeled a bittersweet, versus what is a semi-sweet, etc), and all of the traditional European chocolatiers were horrified to think that Cadbury milk chocolate with its palm oil was going to be allowed to sit next to their traditional milk chocolate, and the Two Chocolates Policy was developed in order to settle the unrest.
Oh, Europe. I love you and your standards.
Chocolate percentages are really the measure of the percent of cocoa in a particular chocolate. 65% chocolate contains 65% cocoa. See? You'll notice the % of cocoa on a chocolate package, and 85% cocoa doesn't make the chocolate BETTER than 65% cocoa, it just makes it more bitter and less flavored. You probably don't want to EAT 85% chocolate. Unless, you like super bitter chocolate. And then you might want to. I don't know your life.
Through tasting, I've discovered that my favorite kind of chocolate to EAT is a 65% bittersweet. I like the complex flavors that can come out in a bittersweet- I've tasted everything from tart cherries to blue cheese in the layer of flavors of a good 65% bittersweet chocolate.
Finally, when I'm choosing a chocolate, ethics play a role. Chocolate is grown along the same geographical line as coffee. You may have heard of the fair trade movement in coffee, right? Chocolate growth and production isn't as regulated as coffee, but many of the same issues that exist in coffee growth and control ALSO exist in cacao growth and control. It's up to the individual chocolate processor to do their research and buy their beans from growers who operate in an ethical manner, and there is a movement in the chocolate world towards direct trade or fair trade. It can be difficult for larger companies to ensure their beans are coming from fair trade growers, because of the volume of beans involved, but many medium and small bean to bar producers DO have the luxury of working with fair trade growers. I've also seen larger companies putting out a fair trade specific chocolate, which is an EXCELLENT first step. Whenever possible, I try to support companies that employ ethical business practices. And it's funny, but I've been finding that companies who act with ethical growing guidelines in mind, tend to produce a better quality chocolate. So: win/win.
Some of the best chocolate I've had is made by small bean to bar manufacturers. Taza is one of my favorites. They're a small company based here in Summerville, and they practice direct trade with their bean growers, which is really progressive, in my opinion. Their chocolate is delicious, and their flavors are adventurous, and if you're local, they offer tours of their factory. Go! See them! Give them your support!
Rogue is another chocolatier that I love- he's a guy. Making incredible small batch chocolate. I've tried his Hispaniola 70% and it's AMAZING. I believe he makes a batch, and that's it. So essentially all of his chocolates are limited edition in a way. If you come across a bit of Rogue chocolate, I'd say it's a must try.
Mast Brothers are located in Brooklyn. They consider their chocolate making to be a craft and are incredibly devoted to bringing out the best flavor in their beans and developing uniquely delicious chocolate. Their ingredients are simple, and what they DO with those ingredients is exceptional. If you're in New York, and you want an experience, pop in and see if you can get a tour. Support them too.
Theo, for you Seattle-ers, is a company I can really get behind. They are another purist chocolatier who use premium ingredients in their chocolate, and back up their quality chocolate with a fair trade promise. I have some Theo drinking chocolate in the pantry, but I hear their bread & chocolate bar is to die for. Bring it back, Theo! If you're in Seattle, stop in and see them.
It can be a little difficult to find fair trade companies that produce enough chocolate to make baking with it cost effective, however, as I mentioned above, there ARE larger companies that might produce a special batch of fair trade chocolate. Guittard has a 55% semisweet that they're calling Akoma. This is pulled from the package, "Akoma represents 'heart' in traditional Adinkra symbols of West Africa where cocoa beans for this chocolate are grown." This particular batch is marked fair trade certified, but based on their statement about ethical labor, I believe Guittard tries to approach all of their chocolate production in the most responsible manner possible. When I bake at home, I use Guittard almost exclusively. I think they make a great product, and I appreciate their ethical approach to manufacturing. I find Guittard at Whole Foods (which is an excellent place to cruise around if you want to try some specialty small bean to bar chocolatiers).
|all of these chocolates are fair or direct trade...and DELICIOUS.|
Have you come across some of the small bean to bar chocolate producers? Or tried any of the specialty chocolatiers mentioned above? If you do try or have tried them, I'd be interested to hear what you think!
(and, I want you to know I've edited myself- this is just choosing my chocolate. I can write a whole ENTIRE SEPARATE post about tasting chocolate)(which, actually, I think I will! oh gee, I'm so sad about the research that will have to go into that one)