It’s easy to find a great snacking chocolate. But cooking is different: Choosing the right dark chocolate can make the difference between a dessert that’s flawless and one that’s a flop.
Last Updated Feb. 14, 2023. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 21: Bake Sale Favorites
In the past decade, Americans have gotten serious about dark chocolate. Rich, complex, and even bitter, its flavor transcends the mild, sugar-laden milk chocolate that many of us grew up with. As a result, ever-climbing cacao percentages are now posted prominently on packaging, and chocophiles have come to describe bars with the same level of detail that they’d use for a fine Cabernet. “Bean to bar” is hot, as artisanal chocolatiers take control of every aspect of chocolate making, from sourcing to production. Single-origin bars are trendy, too, showcasing distinct regional characteristics such as the intensely floral flavor of beans from the mountains of Peru or the dried mint overtones of bars made from the beans from Trinidad.
But almost all these pricey chocolates are meant to be eaten plain, savored by the sliver, rather than used for cooking. It seems wasteful to cook with them, as many of their more delicate notes won’t survive a hot oven. (You know that unmistakable fragrance that pervades the kitchen when you’re baking chocolate cake or brownies? Those are flavor and aroma volatiles driven out of the baked goods by the heat.)
To find a great everyday dark chocolate, we focused on national supermarket brands; after all, we want to be able to pick some up whenever the need for a brownie strikes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t set a standard of identity for dark chocolate except that “bittersweet” and “semisweet” chocolate must contain at least 35 percent cacao—and it doesn’t differentiate between the two terms. (The cacao percentage is the portion of the chocolate made from the cacao bean and includes both cocoa solids and cocoa butter; the rest is mostly sugar.) In the past we’ve focused on products with about 60 percent cacao, but this time, to truly evaluate all the supermarket options, if it met the FDA’s 35 percent cacao minimum, we considered it for our lineup. We found nine nationally available chocolates, priced from $0.47 to $1.43 per ounce, and included our winner from a previous tasting, which is available in most Whole Foods Markets and via mail order.
We conducted three blind taste tests, evaluating the chocolates’ flavor, sweetness, texture, and overall appeal. We sampled them plain and also in brownies to see how well the chocolate flavor endured heat. Finally we melted them in pots de crème—a creamy application where textural differences are laid bare. After the results were tallied, we had to ask: Was there such a thing as a great-tasting, easy-to-find dark chocolate that works well in recipes? Happily, yes. But buyer beware: It’s stacked on supermarket shelves right next to prod...
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