It was 8:15 pm and my husband, who rises at 4:00 a.m. every morning, had already gone to bed. I was almost home from work when my phone rang.
“Uh, hello?” a voice said on the other end. Translation: “Mom, I’m here in your kitchen ready to taste chocolate. Where are YOU?”
“I’m pulling in the drive, kiddo…be right there.” We had a date. 8:15 to 9:00 pm that evening, she (20 years old), my neighbor (35 years old) and I (48 years old) were going to have a Dark Chocolate throw-down. We were looking for the perfect bar of dark chocolate to recommend to our readers for a Valentine’s Day post. Rylee was in the kitchen staring at me mischievously when I walked in the door.
“Let’s get started!” she grinned.
Chocolate does that to some people, doesn’t it? It has some sort of built in beacon that pings a signal in the center of your brain beckoning over and over, “Here I am. Taste me! Here I am. Taste me!” Rylee and I were appreciators of a good dark chocolate but tonight was going to be special. I had spent the past few days stopping by Forward Foods, Whole Foods Market and Homeland to pick up a wide assortment of high-level cacao chocolates and we were going to taste them that night. Every single one of them.
Missy arrived right after I, and we began to set up our experiment. We carefully shaved off small bits of every bar, put them on a single saucer, lined up glasses of water and put on some hot water for tea.
As we tore open the bars while prepping, I thought back to my first memories of dark chocolate. My grandpa Frank used to purchase bulk bags of Hershey’s miniature candy bars and he knew I liked the “Specials.” I remember watching him open bags, digging around and picking out the two or three that were in every bag. It seemed those bags had the greatest percentage of Mr. Goodbars and Hershey’s Krisps, then Hershey’s Milk Chocolate, THEN the Specials. I felt like a princess because he was finding the treasure and handing it over before he ever picked one for himself.
Years later, I still have about one square of dark chocolate every morning or night and I love it dearly. I love breathing in the chocolaty aroma before putting it in my mouth. I love the way it melts and begins to turn to liquid, and I love to barely chew the last little bit so that my teeth get in on part of the action as well.
I think eating chocolate must be slightly spiritual. After all, it IS a vegetable, no? And it’s actually good for you. It can lower your blood pressure and in small quantities do good things for your body. Evidently, others think about it as spiritual as well. There is almost as much information about tasting chocolate as there is about tasting wine. And, just like wine…there are many ways to classify the various aspects of dark chocolate.
One of my favorite moments in reading up on dark chocolate was learning to pronounce the word “cacao.” I always thought it was “kuh-kay-oh.” Nope. It’s “kuh-kow.” I’m such a Trekkie that the word reminds me of the Queen of the Vulcan’s, T’Pau (tuh-pow). Okay…back to the chocolate.
So, there we were, see? Missy, Rylee and I with our pens, paper drawn into makeshift spreadsheets and taking our jobs very seriously. And I THOUGHT we were going to have a winner but I didn’t factor in one very important element: human beings have different palates and flavor profiles they appreciate over others. And, we had an example of that very phenomenon right in our kitchen. Missy liked the sweeter profiles. She can afford to…she’s a long-distance runner. Rylee had a mid-range palate and liked the moderate to mild profiles. And I, of course, gravitated toward the opposite side of the sweet spectrum to those with bitter liquor, dried fruit and roasted flavors.
After all was said and done, our scores were almost split into thirds as to what we most liked in a chocolate. Evidently, chocolate is very personal as well as spiritual. Therefore, I’m going to simply provide you our notes on each bar. We graded on texture, meltability and taste. And, the taste gradients range from sweet to moderate to bitter. I hope our notes our helpful to you when thinking about selecting your next dark chocolate bar. Besides, whether you drink it, eat it, bake with it or inhale it (just kidding) – - a bit of dark chocolate could probably do just about everyone some good.
And of course in the movie Chocolat, it turned a whole town around, didn’t it? And, anything that can turn Dame Judith Dench’s character around in that movie HAS to be magic.
Baker’s Semi-Sweet Baking Squares (54%) Sweet profile, good melting qualities. Compared to the others, this chocolate almost has a “milk chocolate” flavor. And wasn’t it considered very bitter back in the 60s? One judge said, “Tastes like brownies. Mm.”
Chocolove XOXO Organic (73% Cacao) Smooth but takes a while to melt; almost had to chew to complete tasting. Mild to bitter with a liquory back flavor. Not very impressive over all. Texture was slightly fudgy; no snap.
Endangered Species All-Natural Supreme Dark (72%) High melting qualities, slightly fibrous, pasty/fudgey on breaking, mid-range overall score. Flavor notes on the bitter side, but nondescript.
Equal Exchange Organic & Fairly Trade Very Dark (71%) Smooth texture, melts easily with a fruity finish. Fruity like dried cherries. One all three judges could tolerate, and one we recommend.
Ghirardelli Bittersweet Premium Baking Bar (60%) Melting qualities not as high as others, bitter notes w/non-descript liquor type finish. One of the most bitter of all brands. This one was not highly rated, but it was generally accepted that for the price cooking with this chocolate would be okay.
Hershey’s Special Dark Melting qualities good, sweet flavor so two of the judges liked it quite a bit. The chocolate was smooth (one judge put “slightly gritty”), it snapped apart moderately.
Madécasse Single Origin Madagascar 70% Both this bar and the 75% bar below were similar. The break was moderate (high snap is supposed to speak to highest quality), and the 75% bar was slightly darker in flavor than the 70% (duh). They both had after flavors of fruit, but the Dark & Bold almost tasted like raisins, whereas the slightly lighter tasted of dark cherries or even apricots. Moderately high scores on both. Those who liked the sweeter bars did NOT like these chocolates.
Madécasse Single Origin Madagascar Dark & Bold (75%) See note above.
Scharffen Berger Bittersweet Fine Artisan Dark (70%) This was an interesting chocolate. It’s packaged in larger brick styles rather than smaller squares so if you like to break off pieces to eat a bit at a time, we do not recommend. It had high meltability and was a smooth chocolate, but the after taste was interesting. Almost slightly yeasty and brown. One person mentioned “beer” as a whiff of a flavor they were getting. One judge absolutely despised this chocolate. Overall scores – only moderate.
Taza Chocolate Mexicano Stone Ground Organic (70%) This chocolate is packages in a circle shape with pie wedge pieces to break. Both Taza brands were very fibrous, almost gritty, and interesting. This one in particular had adjectives like “grainy, gritty” and the meltability wasn’t scored very high. This is more a “destination chocolate” than a standard that could be used in a versatile way for many recipes.
Taza Stone Ground Organic (70%) This was similar to the Mexicano above. Both were noted for a low-melting quality – we all had to “chew” it. Personally, I kind of liked them and they provide a slightly rustic chocolate experience I could go for every once in a while. I wouldn’t mark them off the list, but wouldn’t keep them as a standard either.
Theo Jane Goodall Organic Dark Chocolate (70%) This chocolate was very similar to the Madagascar profile and the Equal exchange. We could hardly differentiate the three. I wonder if the origins of the cacao was similar? I liked this type of chocolate and would recommend any of the three because it’s a nice, consistent, high quality dark chocolate that delivers on all levels. Good one.
Toll House Nestle Baking Bar (72%) This chocolate had notes that were almost replicas of the Baker’s chocolate. For those who have sweet flavor wishes, this one is for you. I think it’s incredibly interesting that this is considered a baking chocolate when the level of sugar is a good deal higher than many of the others.
Whole Foods Costa Rica Dark (71%) When reading about chocolate, one of the flavor notes usually mentioned is “burnt toast” or “coffee.” That’s what we got with this particular bar. Because I love coffee and toast, I really liked it. However, the break was fudgey and while the meltability was very good, I think it is only a moderately high quality.
Whole Foods Market Organic Dark (72%) This flavor and performance was also similar to the Theo and Madagascar blends. Personally, I like this profile best. It’s also similar to Newman’s Own Organic Dark Chocolate. The Newman’s was hiding until the end, and I’ve not added it alphabetically to the list like the others. However, it was excellent. I like Paul Newman’s company flavor profiles. The other two judges thought it was a little bitter.
End notes: We had every intention of declaring a “winning” chocolate. But I believe our tasting rather served an educational purpose than a blue-ribbon show down event. I’m very hopeful that if you are a dark chocolate lover, then there will be helpful information in this post for you. If you don’t, then perhaps at least you’ll understand some of the reasons why you don’t care for it as much. And, since I now have a stash of dark chocolate that will last me quite possibly the rest of the year (even after giving away a selection to both my daughters), according to all the literature, I should feel less stressed, have controlled blood pressure and a smile on my face every night I eat a little square. Or triangle. Or rectangle. Or pillow shape.