The beloved bar has come a long way in quality and complexity. Here's a primer on how it's made, and how to choose the best and most ethically produced.
You probably think you already know everything you need to know about chocolate.
For instance: The higher the percentage of cacao, the more bitter the chocolate, right? The term "single origin" on the label indicates that the chocolate expresses a particular terroir. And wasn't the whole bean-to-bar movement started by a couple of bearded guys in Brooklyn?
Wrong; not necessarily; and definitely not.
Americans spend US$21 billion on chocolate every year, but just because we eat a lot of it doesn't mean we know what we're eating. And misunderstandings at the store can make it especially hard for chocolate lovers to figure out which of the myriad, jauntily wrapped bars crowding the shelves are the best to buy, in terms of both taste and ethics.
One thing that's clear is that there are more varieties of handcrafted chocolates on offer than ever before, at prices that soar as high as US$55 ($85) a bar.
According to the Fine Chocolate Industry Association, sales of premium chocolates grew 19 per cent in 2018, compared with 0.6 per cent for mainstream chocolate like the classic Hershey bar. Over the past decade, the number of small American bean-to-bar chocolate producers — the kind with cacao percentages and places of origin printed on those hyper-chic labels — has jumped from about five to more than 250.
But while creativity and technical acuity in chocolate making have blossomed, ethical and environmental concerns still plague the supply chain. Despite a 20-year effort to battle the systemic poverty, child labor and deforestation endemic to the industry, those problems may actually be getting worse.
It might seem a lot to think about as you choose your Valentine's Day chocolates, but here are answers to some basic questions you may not even know you had.
How is chocolate made?
All chocolate, even white chocolate, starts with the fruit of the cacao tree, an equatorial, Seussian-looking plant with plump, bumpy, ovoid pods that grow directly from the trunk.
The cacao beans (also called cocoa beans) are the seeds that grow inside the pod, surrounded by fleshy, juicy fruit that tastes a little like a mango crossed with a pear that was carrying a lychee. After harvesting, the beans are fermented for up to a week to develop their flavours, and dried.
To make chocolate, the dried beans are roasted, then cracked to separate the outer husks from the inner nibs, which have a nutty, earthy flavour and crunchy texture — and are excellent added to baked goods. The nibs are about half cocoa solids and half cocoa butter.
Chocolate makers grind the nibs into what's called chocolate liquor, or chocolate paste. This liquor is ground again, along with sugar and other ingredients that might include milk powder to make milk chocolate, lecithin to smooth the texture, or vanilla for flavour. Sometimes extra cocoa butter is mixed in to give creaminess to dark chocolate or to mellow the flavour of extra-bittersweet chocolates without much added sugar.
(Industrial chocolates may include other ingredients, like vegetable oil, corn syrup or glucose, or vanillin, an artificial vanilla. Always read the label.)
The goal of this second grinding, called conching, is to reduce the size of the sugar and cacao particles until they feel like satin on the tongue, a process that can take anywhere from 24 to 72 hours. Then the chocolate is tempered (heated and cooled to specific temperatures) so that it sets with that characteristic glossy look and snappy texture. After that, it's ready to savour.
What is bean-to-bar chocolate?
Strictly speaking, all chocolate is bean-to-bar, just as all meals are essentially farm-to-table. But just like the chef who fanatically seeks out all her ingredients, down to the flakes of salt garnishing her sustainable line-caught crudo, bean-to-bar chocolate makers obsess over the character and ethical origins of their beans.
This is in marked contrast to mainstream industrial chocolate, in which the beans are a commodity product, bought in bulk for price, not quality.
"If there are infested, moldy, terrible-looking beans mixed in with the good ones" large chocolate companies will buy them anyway, said John Scharffenberger, a founder of Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker in San Francisco. That's because big companies often mix in so many other ingredients that the consumer won't taste any bad beans in the final product.
The best bean-to-bar chocolate makers (also called craft or micro chocolate makers) choose beans the way chefs choose tomatoes — obsessively, often visiting the farms where the beans are grown. They roast and grind the beans themselves before making them into chocolate bars.
Pastry chef and author David Lebovitz, who wrote "The Great Book of Chocolate," compares bean-to-bar chocolate to natural wine. "It's exciting and alive in a way that even really great regular chocolate isn't," he said. "It can surprise you."
Who started the bean-to-bar craze?
The new wave of craft chocolate began with Scharffen Berger, founded in 1996 by Scharffenberger, a winemaker, and Robert Steinberg, who had studied at the famous chocolate shop Bernachon, in Lyon, France.
"When we started, there were only nine companies grinding their own cacao in the United States and they were all huge, except for Guittard," Scharffenberger said, referring to Guittard Chocolate Co., also in the San Francisco area. "We were the first new chocolate maker on the scene in 150 years."
When Gary Guittard, the company's fourth-generation owner, sampled some of Scharffen Berger's chocolate, it spurred him to revamp his own production, in some cases going back to the way his great-grandfather made chocolate when he started the company in 1868.
"Scharffen Berger was the disrupter," Guittard said. "Trying their chocolate was just terrible for me. It opened my eyes to a world of flavours that had been present in our chocolates 50 years ago but that were lost. We had to change everything to get them back."
Scharffen Berger was sold in 2005 to the Hershey Co., which moved the operation to Illinois. But other small bean-to-bar makers quickly followed Scharffen Berger's lead. There are now more than 250 in the United States. And even though Brooklyn, contrary to popular belief, didn't invent the bean-to-bar craze, it has several producers, including Kahkow, Cacao Prieto, Jacques Torres, Raaka and Fine & Raw.
Is a bean-to-bar chocolate maker the same as a chocolatier?
No. A bean-to-bar maker makes chocolate from cacao beans. A chocolatier buys premade chocolate, then melts it and combines it with other ingredients to make confections like truffles or pralines. And this isn't at all a bad thing: The best chocolatiers buy superb bean-to-bar chocolate as a starting point. (Many professional chocolatiers buy from Valrhona.) It's just that making chocolate and making chocolate confections are two different skill sets.
What is single-origin chocolate?
To return to the wine analogy, many people think that single-origin cacao beans are like grapes from one vineyard, producing chocolate that expresses nuances from that particular soil and vintage in the same way a wine might.
And sometimes that's true. But just as often, beans labeled as having a single origin in, say, Peru or Trinidad can come from small farms in different parts of that region, each farm with a distinct terroir, variety of cacao bean and fermentation process.
"Single-origin is a flexible term," said Maricel Presilla, author of "The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes." "It could refer to a specific farm known for a particular cultivar of fine cacao. Or it could mean a larger region where they grow a mix of cultivars, some of which are high-quality and some of which are not. Just saying that a cacao comes from Ecuador opens a can of worms because there are so many genetic varieties. You can't be sure what you're getting."
That said, knowing a chocolate's origin can tell you something general about its flavour. I've found that chocolates made from fine Latin American beans tend to be complex. Some might be bright and fruity, with notes of dried apricots, fresh berries and dark fruit, while others taste of nuts or fresh herbs. West African chocolates are often more straightforwardly fudgy, sometimes tinged with flavours of coconut, raisins and coffee.
When you're buying single-origin chocolate, Presilla's advice is to look for as much detail on the label as possible, including country and region, farm or estate, and the genetic variety of the cacao. "It's a lot for the consumer to understand," she said, "but if the chocolate maker is transparent about it, it's a sign that they are putting thought and care into the bar."
What does the cacao percentage on the label mean?
Cacao percentage is the amount of cacao mass (ground-up beans) present in the bar.
In order for something to be labeled chocolate in the United States, it must be at least 10 per cent cacao mass. Most milk chocolate is 10 per cent to 30 per cent cacao; most bittersweet chocolates, 35 per cent to 55 per cent. (For white chocolate, only the cocoa butter is used, and it must constitute at least 20 per cent of the bar.)
Historically, the cacao percentage was printed on the back of the package in tiny type, if it was listed at all. But this had changed by 1986, when Valrhona introduced its Guanaja chocolate, the first bar with a 70 per cent cacao content. And it said so right smack on the front of the label, indicating a more intensely bittersweet flavour. Other chocolate makers quickly followed suit.
Here's the confusing part. While most people assume that the higher the cacao percentage, the more bitter the chocolate, that's not always true. In some cases, a chocolate maker's 68% might taste more bitter than its 74 per cent.
That's because the percentage includes both cacao solids and cocoa butter. The solids are bitter, while the butter is smooth and creamy. If a chocolate maker adds extra cocoa butter to produce a smoother texture, the overall cacao percentage will increase, but the bitterness will not.
Carol Morse, who owns Acalli Chocolate in New Orleans, adds a small amount of cocoa butter to her Teapa Dulce 64 per cent dark bar to round out the inherent toasty flavours of cacao and make the chocolate slightly creamier on the palate.
"I'm working with so few ingredients, so it's all about balancing them," she told me in her workshop just outside New Orleans, where she was wrapping the latest batch of glossy brown bars by hand in gold foil. Piled in a corner, burlap bags of raw cacao beans from Peru were waiting to be sorted, then roasted in a repurposed rotisserie oven once used at a Walmart store. "A small amount of added cocoa butter can make a huge difference."
What is direct-trade cacao?
One of the biggest ethical concerns about chocolate-making is the cacao supply chain. In the current system, the vast majority of cacao beans are sold as a commodity crop without regard to quality. Because farmers aren't paid more for better beans, there's no incentive for them to plant finer-flavoured cultivars. Nor would they have the money to do so. In West Africa, which grows 60 per cent to 70 per cent of the world's beans, many cacao farmers live below the poverty line, making less than US$1.90 a day.
Direct trade refers to beans that are bought outside this system, most often directly from farmers or farmers' cooperatives. These beans are usually higher quality, and the farmers are paid anywhere from 50 per cent to 300 per cent more than the market price of commodity cacao. Currently, though, direct trade accounts for less than 1 per cent of the cacao beans on the market.
While some chocolate makers buy directly from farmers, most of the micro, bean-to-bar makers in the United States get beans from one of two direct-trade cacao importers, Uncommon Cacao and Meridian Cacao. Both have strong social goals that include living wages for the farmers.
"Ninety percent of the world's cocoa is grown on 6 million small farms, and most of the farmers can't survive on what they're paid," said Emily Stone, a founder of Uncommon Cacao. "Our mission is building a more equitable and transparent supply chain."
What about the ethics and environmental impact of chocolate production?
The past two decades have brought reporting about the use of child labor, sometimes under hazardous conditions, on cacao farms in Ivory Coast and Ghana, and of widespread destruction of forests in cacao-growing regions worldwide.
By 2001, consumer outrage had prompted the major chocolate companies to pledge to end the worst forms of child labor in the cacao industry. But no laws were ever passed in America to require this (those same companies lobbied against the legislation and quashed it). Reports have surfaced that little has changed.
It's a similar story with environmental impact. In 2017, 34 chocolate companies agreed to end deforestation by their industry. But according to a 2018 report by the environmental group Mighty Earth, cacao production was still ravishing forests, and the animals living within them, at an alarming rate.
Even when the industry does act, efforts from the top down can fail to take root. Both child labor and deforestation are part of the daily realities of the systemic poverty afflicting West Africa, said Kristy Leissle, a founder of the Cocoapreneurship Institute of Ghana and author of the 2018 book Cocoa.
To truly improve the lives of farmers and their families, Leissle said, the farmers need to be included in the conversation. "The current initiatives have been imposed on Africa from European and North American people who are not engaged in the daily labor of cocoa farming," she said. "The solutions need to come from within the cocoa industry in Africa. That's where the expertise is."
Cacao, a shade-tolerant plant, can be grown under the forest canopy without drastic clearing. And when grown in a sustainable manner, it can have a low carbon footprint.
Consumers looking for chocolate that is sustainably and ethically grown should parse a lot of labels and ask a lot of questions. A good start is looking for Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance and organic certifications. These independent, third-party audits can be an important part of the process, even if they are only partly effective.
Many craft-chocolate makers don't seek certification. Instead, companies like Dandelion Chocolate in San Francisco publish detailed sourcing reports on their websites, telling where they buy their beans and for how much. "It's transparency that goes deeper than what you can fit on a label," said Greg D'Alesandre, an owner of Dandelion.
"Everyone wants to be able to buy chocolate and go to heaven," Presilla said, "but the issues are complicated."
RECIPE: Chocolate tahini mousse
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Total time: 1 hour, plus chilling
For the chocolate mousse:
• 1 cup/240 milliliters cold heavy cream
• 1 tablespoon powdered sugar
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• Pinch of fine sea salt
• 5 ounces/140 grams extra bittersweet chocolate (around 70%), chopped
For the tahini mousse:
• 1/2 cup/65 grams powdered sugar
• 1/4 cup/60 milliliters tahini
• 1/3 cup/80 milliliters crème fraîche
•1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• Pinch of fine sea salt
• 2/3 cup/160 milliliters heavy cream
For the candied cacao nibs (optional):
• 1/4 cup/50 grams sugar
• 1/2 cup/60 grams cacao nibs
Flaky sea salt, for serving
1. Make the cream for the chocolate mousse: Using an electric mixer fitted with a whisk or beaters, combine 3/4 cup cream, powdered sugar, vanilla and salt. Whip to medium-firm peaks, then transfer whipped cream to a bowl and refrigerate until ready to finish the mousse in Step 6.
2. Prepare the tahini mousse: In the same mixer bowl (no need to wipe it out), combine powdered sugar, tahini, crème fraîche, vanilla extract and salt. Beat everything together until smooth, scraping the sides of the bowl as necessary.
3. Reduce mixer speed to low and slowly beat in cream until the tahini mousse thickens. It will be thinner than whipped cream but should still mound on a spoon. Refrigerate while you finish preparing chocolate mousse.
4. Place chocolate in a small bowl. Melt in the microwave in 30-second bursts, stirring after each burst. Heat an inch of water in a medium pot over medium-high until simmering. (Alternatively, put chocolate into a large heatproof bowl and place it over the simmering water. Stir chocolate occasionally with a silicone spatula until it melts.)
5. Remove bowl of melted chocolate from the pot. Pour in remaining 1/4 cup cream, and let sit for 1 minute. Whisk until smooth.
6. Using a rubber spatula, fold in 1/3 of the prepared whipped cream into the chocolate mixture, then fold in remaining whipped cream.
7. Gently fold tahini mousse into chocolate mousse, leaving very visible streaks. Place mixture in serving bowls or ramekins, and chill until firm, at least 2 hours and up to 2 days.
8. As mousse sets, make the candied cacao nibs (if using): Heat oven to 325 degrees, and line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. In a small pot, bring sugar and 1/4 cup/60 milliliters water to a boil, and simmer, stirring, until sugar has completely melted, 2 to 4 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in cacao nibs.
9. Spread nibs in an even layer on prepared baking sheet. Bake until dry and crunchy, about 20 minutes, stirring halfway through. Let cool completely.
10. Spoon nibs, if using, on top of mousse, sprinkle with flaky sea salt, and serve.
RECIPE: Cocoa nib sablés with flaky sea salt
Yield: About 2 dozen
Total time: 1 hour, plus chilling and setting
• 1 cup/225 grams salted European-style (cultured) butter (2 sticks), at room temperature
• 3/4 cup/95 grams powdered sugar
• 1 large egg yolk
• 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
• 1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
• 2 1/2 cups/320 grams all-purpose flour
• 1/2 cup/65 grams cocoa nibs or mini chocolate chips
• 2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
• 1/4 teaspoon coconut oil
• Flaky sea salt
1. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or beaters, beat together butter and powdered sugar until smooth and fluffy. Beat in egg yolk, vanilla and fine sea salt until combined. Beat in flour until just combined, then fold in cocoa nibs.
2. Shape dough into a 1-inch-thick disk, wrap with plastic wrap, and chill for at least 1 hour and up to 3 days.
3. Between two sheets of parchment paper, roll dough until it's 1/4-inch thick, then chill the dough for at least 30 minutes or until firm.
4. Position racks in the top and bottom thirds of the oven, and heat oven to 325 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
5. Use a 2-inch round cutter to cut out cookies, and transfer to lined baking sheets. Re-roll and cut scraps.
6. Bake cookies until they are puffed and deeply golden, 18 to 25 minutes, rotating and switching the baking sheets on racks halfway through. Cool cookies on the baking sheets for 5 minutes, then use a spatula to transfer them to wire racks to finish cooling completely.
7. Place bittersweet chocolate in a small bowl with the coconut oil. Melt the chocolate in the microwave in 30-second bursts, stirring after each burst. Alternatively, place the bowl over a pot of simmering water, and stir until chocolate is smooth and melted.
8. Using a fork, drizzle the chocolate over the cooled cookies. Sprinkle with flaky sea salt while the chocolate is still melted. Let set for at least an hour or two before serving cookies. Or store in an airtight container, between layers of parchment or wax paper, for up to 3 days.
RECIPE: Bittersweet brownie shortbread
Yield: 32 bars
Total time: 1 1/2 hours, plus cooling
For the shortbread:
• 1 1/2 cups/340 grams cold unsalted butter (3 sticks), cut into 1/2-inch pieces, plus more for greasing the pan
• 3 cups/385 grams all-purpose flour
• 3/4 cup/150 grams sugar
• 1 1/4 teaspoons fine sea salt
For the brownie:
• 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter (2 1/4 sticks)
• 3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
• 1 1/4 cups/265 grams light brown sugar
• 1 cup/200 grams sugar
• 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon/45 grams cocoa powder
• 3 large eggs
• 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
• 1 1/2 cups/190 grams all-purpose flour
• 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
• 3/4 cup/90 grams slivered almonds, chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)
• Flaky sea salt
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish, and line with parchment paper so that there is a 2-inch overhang on the two long sides.
2. Prepare the shortbread: In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment or beaters, mix together flour, sugar and salt. Beat in butter on low speed until dough just comes together but is still a little crumbly. (Or pulse together ingredients in a food processor.)
3. Press dough into prepared pan. Prick dough all over with a fork. Bake until golden, 30 to 35 minutes. Remove from oven. Raise oven temperature to 375 degrees.
4. As shortbread bakes, prepare the brownie: Place butter and chocolate in a large bowl. Melt in the microwave in 30-second bursts, stirring after each burst, until smooth. (Alternatively, place bowl over a pot of simmering water, and heat chocolate and butter, stirring until smooth and melted.) Whisk in sugars and cocoa powder until smooth, then whisk in eggs and vanilla.
5. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour and sea salt. Whisk into chocolate mixture until no streaks of flour remain. Fold in nuts, if using. Spread mixture onto the warm shortbread base. Sprinkle lightly but evenly with flaky sea salt.
6. Bake until the top is set, the center is soft, and the edges start pulling away from the pan, 23 to 28 minutes. (A toothpick inserted into the center will come out gooey.) Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Cut into bars before serving.
And to drink ...
As Valentine's Day approaches, wine and chocolate have a way of finding each other like lovers whose attraction transcends their commitments. They don't belong together, but they can't help it. This is a pairing dictated by mood and opportunity rather than rationality, so drink what you like best and don't sweat it. If you do care which wine actually goes well with chocolate, a small set of fortified wines beats all others. It includes Madeira, which is just wonderful, and some lesser-known wines — Maury, Banyuls and Rivesalts — referred to collectively as vins doux naturels, that can be even better. Port and marsala can also work well. I'm not a fan of red wine and chocolate, but if that's what you prefer, look for big, portlike reds, an extravagant zinfandel, for example, or an Amarone.
— Eric Asimov
Written by: Melissa Clark, Joshua Bright and Bryan Tarnowski
Photographs by: Eve Edelheit
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES