How to buy dark chocolate without becoming bitter

I am a chocolate snob. I will not consider chocolate named for planet “Mars” and I do not dine on bars big enough to call “Mr”. I stopped spending my chocolate cash and torturing my taste-buds when I discovered the smooth silky stuff known as fine dark chocolate.

Fine dark chocolate is gaining popularity these days. Chocolate connoisseurs and aficionados alike are now according the cacao bean the same respect usually reserved for fine wines and cheeses. Around the world you can find tasting groups and sommeliers dedicated to dishing on single-origin chocolate made from cacao plants grown in Ecuador, Madagascar, Peru, and others.

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Websites are cropping up to discuss the dark velvety stuff too. There are forums dedicated to reviewing the best bars, the finest companies, and the richest flavors from around the globe. All this chocolate chatter is enough to drive a girl crazy.

To avoid becoming bitter, here are 5 things to consider when navigating the dark world of fine dark chocolate:

1. Price:

A bar of fine dark chocolate can start at $2 bucks a bar and head upwards to what the market will bear. Price really depends on a number of factors, including: bean origin, cocoa percentage, production methods, connoisseur conviction, and branding. Fine dark chocolate tends to cost more than a crappy candy bar. You get what you pay for.

2. Bean Origin:

Buying fine dark chocolate is much like choosing a bottle of wine. You can shop by location and by brand. When considering fine chocolate, you can choose beans grown from around the globe. Each location presents unique flavors and notes only possible given the particular climate, soil, and bean variety. Some of the most popular chocolate origins are (in alphabetical order): Caribbean, Ecuador Indonesia, Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, Sao Tome, South America, Trinidad, and Venezuela.

3. Cocoa Percentage:

The cocoa percentage proudly presented on fine bars refers to the total amount of cocoa in the product. This percentage can consist of a mixture of cocoa solids, chocolate liquor, and cocoa butter. The higher the percentage, the more cocoa the bar contains. Common percentages are 65%, 70%, 75%, 80%, and 85%. I once tried a 99% bar only to bust my face on the bitterness. If you’re new to dark delicious chocolate, start at around 65% and then go higher.

The different types of cocoa:

  • Cocoa: The dried and partially fermented fatty seed of the cacao tree from which chocolate is made.
  • Cocoa Powder (Cocoa Solids): Dry powder produced by grinding the seeds and extracting the Cocoa Butter.
  • Cocoa Butter: The pale yellow, pure edible vegetable fat of the cacao bean.
  • Chocolate Liquor: A mix of cocoa solids and cocoa butter. This is the stage in processing the cacao beans before the solids and butter are separated.

A word of cocoa caution: Just because a bar contains more cocoa doesn’t mean it’s better or tastier. A high cocoa content is no guarantee for flavor. It’s the quality of the beans and processing methods that have the biggest impact on the final taste.

4. Health:

Depending on the day of week and time of year, the media either tout or decry the health benefits of eating dark chocolate with high-cocoa content. Those that cite the goodness of cocoa believe that epicatechin, an active member of a group of compounds called plant flavonoids, is heart healthy. Apparently, flavonoids can keep cholesterol from gathering in blood vessels, reduce the risk of blood clots, and slow down the immune responses that lead to clogged arteries.

Those that decry the healthfulness of chocolate say most people confuse the good cocoa rich bars with the bad candy bar crap, and eat the latter in great gusto. The anti-cocoa group also call the research bunk.

5. Chocolate Brands:

There are numerous brands available to dark chocolate fans. Some of the most expensive, and popular include (in alphabetical order): Amedei, Bonnat, Domori, Michel Cluizel, Pralus, Valrhona, and Weiss. I am not against loving Lindt, as the price is right, the origins are varied, and the cocoa percentages are diverse. Plus, fine dark Lindt chocolate can be found at most grocery, drugstores, and Amazon.

Ban Candy Bars:

Candy bars are crap. They are loaded full of sugar, filled with mystery ingredients, and may halt your heart with hydrogenated fats. Stop eating this mass-marketed faux chocolate candied crap and start eating real cocoa chocolate to please your palette and boost your health. It’s easy to spot candy bars, just flip the wrapper flap and scan the ingredients. If cocoa mass, cocoa powder, or cocoa butter are NOT listed at the top and you see stuff like sugar, syrup, and hydrogenated vegetable oil, then take a pass.

Chocolately Conclusions:

Many dark chocolate connoisseurs will agree there are a few things to consider when melting for dark, bitter, or bitter sweet chocolate cocoa goodness. Some criteria for the choosey are:

  • High cocoa content: Fine dark chocolate should be at least 60% and up.
  • All natural ingredients: No additives, and no artificial flavorings.
  • No fat substitutes: Cocoa butter is the key to good chocolate since it melts very close to body temperature.

Do you like the dark stuff? Is fine dark chocolate worth a few more bucks? Are you a chocolate snob?

Your two cents:

  1. Jokerine April 24th, 2008

    Yes I am a chocolate snob. I am not such a Lindt fan but prefer Rausch (in Germany) or Schraffen Berger (in US).

  2. Helen April 24th, 2008

    Hi, I love dark chocolate too! We minimize dairy for health reasons at our house, so dark chocolate was a pleasant surprise as we made that transition.

    You almost touched on this with bean origin, but I think it’s important to also consider the ethical considerations with chocolate. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labor_exploitation_in_the_chocolate_industry
    It seems things are improving, but it’s worth a look.
    Endangered Species is one company that takes this really seriously (and they are quite tasty!)

    Thanks for the article, now I want chocolate!

  3. Kerry April 24th, 2008

    Jokerine: My “better half” is German. He agrees with your chocolate selections. I only mention Lindt due to favorable price and it’s easy to find locally. My pantry is filled with fine dark chocolate from around the world. I love it.

    Helen: Thank you so much for adding a mention to ethical chocolate. I can’t believe I missed mentioning it myself.

  4. Jules April 26th, 2008

    Love dark chocolate. I actually like the 99% stuff–it does take some getting used to, but the key (I think) is to take a sliver of it with coffee.

    I only buy chocolate to use when baking, though (the leftovers are plenty to give me my chocolate fix). Even though dark chocolate is comparatively inexpensive and common in Europe, I do try not to support unfair businesses.

  5. Kerry April 26th, 2008

    Jules: You like the 99% stuff? Dang. Cause seriously, the really really bitter stuff breaks my face. I can see how savoring just a little sliver with coffee could be an experience. But wow, that’s bitter!

  6. Beth April 28th, 2008

    Close to my heart are Bernard Callebaut and Theo’s chocolates. Both worth checking out. Theo’s delivers to Canada and Callebaut is Canadian. Watch with Theo’s as there is a brokerage fee for many of the couriers that deliver it to Canada. Their “bread and chocolate” chocolate bar is to die for. It is a beautiful combination of dark chocolate and a salty crispness of crushed bread crumbs. Divine. Callebaut is pricey but worth every penny.
    If any Vancouverites, or those visiting Vancouver, have the fortune of dining at Lumiere while in town, they should save room for the petit fours and chocolates that come as the final course of your meal. Pastry chef Wendy Boys makes hands down the best chocolates I have ever tasted and are sadly only available as the final course of a meal at Lumiere.

  7. Niche Topics July 28th, 2009

    Thanks for sharing, great tips! I’ve been using dark chocolate for years to curb hunger; cocoa is a natural appetite suppressant 😉

  8. Lisa August 28th, 2009

    I’ve just been researching cough suppressants other than codeine for my persistent cough. Turns out dark chocolate has been found more effective than codeine for this purpose. I’m on my way to get some now.

  9. Tom January 8th, 2010

    Hi, I recently tried some Lindt 90% cacao chocolate and found it ever so slightly unpleasant. I really love the 85% but think that may be the sensible boundary for chocolate makers to stay at. It seems odd to have to work at it or build up to a stronger chocolate. For instance the Lindt 99% suggests trying the 70 and 85% bars first, to become accustomed to biterness; but that got me thinking; should it be something you can enjoy whenever you feel like, or something you have to work at to appreciate, like meditation or some other spiritual exercise? For me, this idea makes appreciating chocolate seem like a chore, so I will stick with my 85% and enjoy that without any required preparation. At least that way it will always remain a joy to eat, not some obsessive striving for some elitist enlightened connoisseur status.

    For an example of what I mean, look at this site and the strange comments, some of which even argumental and snobbish: http://www.keacher.com/?p=388

    But maybe I’m just overthinking the subject! 🙂

  10. Carolyn January 31st, 2010

    Hi, I just wanted to add more to Helen’s comment on ethical chocolate and recommend that everyone read “Bitter Chocolate” by Carol Off. This book will change your life, especially if you are a chocoholic like me. It’s one thing to save money and buy less expensive chocolate, but when you look at the big picture of what cocoa production is costing the planet in human rights, pesticides, exploitation, corruption, abuse, etc., fair trade chocolate is the only way to go. Please support fair trade!

  11. dessa June 30th, 2010

    Dont you know that chocolates can improve the quality of your skin? and Improve breathing problems..What you take into your body determines how your body will function.

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