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
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
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
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.