Chocolate By The Numbers

"Chocolate percentage" is an imposing phrase thrown around loosely among chocolate connoisseurs. It refers to the percentage of cocoa mass (aka chocolate liquor), the essence of chocolate, in the chocolate bar itself. More cocoa mass means a higher percentage, darker color, and a more intense chocolate taste. Unsweetened or bitter chocolate contains nearly 100 percent cocoa mass. Semisweet and bittersweet chocolates have added sugar, so their cocoa percentages are a little lower - good quality dark chocolate usually contains a minimum of 50 percent cocoa mass, but can go as high as 85 percent. Because milk chocolate has more added sugar than dark, as well as dried milk solids, it has a lower percentage of cocoa mass, usually about 30 to 40 percent. And for those who love the taste of milk chocolate but crave the deep chocolaty flavor of dark, many companies are creating dark milk varieties which have a higher cocoa mass percentage than conventional milk chocolates.

The percentage also gives us some idea about the chocolate's sweetness. If a dark chocolate contains 70 percent cocoa mass, it must contain about 30 percent sugar. The chocolate will have an intense chocolate flavor, with just enough sugar to make it palatable. The lower the chocolate's percentage, the higher the percentage of sugar and the sweeter the chocolate will be.

So far, this all seems relatively simple. Here's the catch: Not all chocolates with the same percentage have the same taste, because of the varying lengths of time for which the cocoa beans are roasted. One manufacturer may roast inferior cocoa beans longer than another would roast its superior beans (which require less heat to bring out their flavor). Both chocolates may contain the same percentage of cocoa mass, but the chocolate made from inferior beans will taste bitter, while the other has a more pronounced, unmasked taste. This means that a higher percentage doesn't guarantee a better chocolate. To avoid paying top dollar for a bar of chocolate that could pass as a bar of soap, purchase a reputable brand. Better quality chocolate bars have fewer ingredients, usually only five or six, and use real vanilla (not vanillin or other artificial flavorings).

But what about white chocolate? White chocolate is exempt from percentage classification, because technically, it's not chocolate. It lacks cocoa solids. However, this doesn't mean you shouldn't look for quality white chocolate. Like its darker counterpart, the good stuff can easily be found just by reading the label. The key to good white chocolate is cocoa butter. Inferior white chocolate has replaced some or all of its cocoa butter with cheaper fats, like coconut or palm oil, which are pale in color when compared to cocoa butter's slightly yellow tones.

When chopping chocolate for baking, a long serrated knife is the best tool to produce thin strands of easily meltable chocolate. Cutting on a bias is also noticeably easier than cutting the chocolate straight across. And if you're cutting chocolate into large chunks, use a chef's knife, as the serrated edge will break the chocolate into pieces that are too fine.

Now that you know how to read the labels and make sense of the chocolate percentage numbers game, try putting the chocolate to good use. We've provided you with five luscious recipes, each using a different percentage range of chocolate. And that's only the beginning: chocolate tastings, recipe experimentations and a world of delicious new chocolates are all easily within your reach.

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