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Up to Your Elbows in Chocolate

We've developed a series of fun and quick lessons in chocolate making. Learn to taste and compare, melt and temper, mix and match, dip and mold!

Lesson—Understanding Cocoa Percentage


Why do plain chocolate bars vary so much in flavor? When you buy a semisweet bar, for example, it could taste very different from another brand. What exactly is all this talk about chocolate percentage and what impact does that have on flavor? Chocolate can come in a variety of flavors, which contain the following ingredients and are categorized by the industry as:

Unsweetened or Brute (FDA Bitter) flavor ingredients: cocoa liquor, cocoa butter, sugar, and spices. Unsweetened chocolate is mainly used for cooking purposes, as it has a cocoa liquor component of more than 85 percent for sweetened versions and up to 99 percent for the unsweetened versions.

Bittersweet (FDA 35+ percent cocoa liquor) flavor ingredients: cocoa liquor, cocoa butter, sugar and spices. Unfortunately there is a big difference in the flavor and sweetness between chocolate with 35 percent cocoa liquor and chocolate with 84 percent cocoa liquor (the highest amount before it becomes classified as unsweetened). Remember, the higher the cocoa liquor content, the less the percentage of sugar.

Semisweet or Sweet (FDA 15+ percent cocoa liquor) flavor ingredients: cocoa liquor, cocoa butter, sugar and spices. Again, there is a wide range of chocolate liquor percentages—from 15 – 34 percent in this category. What is interesting to note is that to be considered semisweet or sweet chocolate, the bar only has to contain 15 percent cocoa liquor.

Milk Chocolate (FDA 10+ percent cocoa liquor) flavor ingredients: cocoa liquor, cocoa butter, sugar, milk or cream powder, and spices. Milk chocolate flavor has a lot to do with the type of milk or cream product that is used in its manufacturer as well as the strength and taste of the cocoa liquor. Because the added milk or cream softens or masks the flavor of the chocolate liquor, it is easy to use over-roasted, lesser-quality cocoa beans to deliver flavor. When you taste a beautifully-made milk chocolate, made from fine cacao beans, you will definitely know the difference. Milk chocolate contains not less than 10 percent by weight of chocolate liquor, not less than 3.39 percent by weight of milk fat, not less than 12 percent by weight of total milk solids and the remaining percent by weight of sugar and/or spices.

Dark Milk Chocolate you’ll find some manufacturers are now producing milk chocolate with a higher cocoa percentage.

White Chocolate (FDA 20+ percent cocoa butter) flavor ingredients: cocoa butter, sugar, milk or cream powder, and spices. White chocolate contains not less than 20 percent by weight of cacao fat, not less than 3.5 percent by weight of milk fat, not less than 14 percent by weight of total milk solids, and not more than 55 percent by weight of sugar. Because there is only cocoa butter, with its hint of chocolate flavor, in white chocolate, the different products available seem to all taste the same. The flavor is mainly one of milk, vanilla and sugar.

Cocoa Percentage: What’s the Big Deal?

As you can see from the categories above, chocolate flavor starts with the cocoa bean itself (the ground bean is usually referred to as chocolate liquor in the industry), represented by its two parts: the solid particles and fat, i.e. cocoa butter. The highest percentage of cocoa bean content is obviously in the Unsweetened category—but not many of us can really enjoy a hunk of unsweetened chocolate.

As we move down the page from that category, the cocoa percentage decreases as the sugar increases (along with the percentage of milk products in milk and white chocolate). And there are many different percentage content steps in between the major categories.

But don't just assume that a high cocoa content bar will taste better than a low percentage bar. Chocolate flavor preferences, like wine, vary with each of our palates. Also percentage doesn't let you know if the beans themselves were of good quality and whether they were processed correctly to bring out the beautiful flavor notes. Fermentation, drying and roasting are as important as the beans themselves in producing a great flavor.

Single Origin, Vintage or Grand Cru

These are dark chocolates whose origins are specific to a region or plantation. Quality can depend upon the quality of the beans and their processing so make sure to taste before buying.

To understand chocolate flavor, you need to understand the different types of Theobroma cacao. The types of true cacao originated in South America. The first to be discovered and cultivated by the European growers was the criollo (pronounced kree’owlow) from northern South America. Its name means “native birth" and it remains today the most coveted type, if processed correctly, as it has low acid levels and produces a complex, full-flavored chocolate. For example, a rare criollo named for its translucent white color is Porcelana cacao from small plantations in Venezuela.

Unfortunately, the criollo is the most difficult cacao tree to grow, so this type accounts for approximately one percent of the world’s cocoa production. Also it is hard to find, as cross pollination has further diluted the type over time.

Later the forestero (“of the forest”) from the Amazon basin was discovered and began to be cultivated. While the forestero cacao bean itself had a more bitter and acidic flavor, it was a very hardy plant and produced many more fruit pods. Because of those attributes, the forestero has grown in popularity to account for approximately 92 percent of the world’s cocoa production today.

The amelonado was originally a Lower Amazon forestero type that was cultivated in Bahia and the Caribbean islands. Because of its hardiness, this forestero then made its way to West Africa. The amelonado has a mellow flavor that is perfect for milk chocolate.

The trinitario (“native of Trinidad”) cacao type was born after disease devastated the criollo cacao plantations in Trinidad in the 1700s. After the disease had passed, plantations decided to reestablish their business by importing forestero stock from Venezuela. The new stock crossed with the few remaining criollo trees. The hybrid that developed combined the hardiness of the forestero with the full flavor of the criollo. The trinitario type accounts for approximately 5 percent of the world’s cocoa production.

The nacional type is a forestero hybrid cross that surfaced in Ecuador with unknown origins. It has a robust sweet and fruity flavor that is easy to identify and accounts for approximately 2 percent of the world’s cocoa production.

Over the centuries the types of cacao have been mixed and mingled so that origins are sometimes hard to discern, and the differences in flavor can vary from one plantation to another, even though the type is the same.

With all these flavor differences between types, as well as differences within the type itself, depending on growing conditions and region, chocolate manufacturers can make the flavor of their chocolate products unique by blending different cocoa beans that have been fermented and dried to their specifications.

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