What do you look for when buying high quality plain chocolate? Do you stick to a trusted brand? Do you always check the percentage of cocoa solids? Do you check the sell-by date? Find out how to tell if the quality of the chocolate is high before you splash your hard-earned cash on it.
In this video, Bill Keeling of Prestat (the Queen's chocolatier) explains how you can tell that chocolate is good quality and has been made well.
Although most chocolate melts at a comparatively low temperature, good quality chocolate should make an audible snap when you break it at room temperature.
Most kinds of chocolate melt in the mouth (or on the fingers). But if you're biting into good quality chocolate then you're likely to feel a slight crunch or crackle as your teeth go through it.
Good chocolate should be shiny not matte. See tempering below for more.
Stale chocolate doesn't taste good so always check the date on the packaging before you buy. Look for long-dated chocolate because it will be fresher. Chocolate with a sell-by date nine months ahead will taste better than that with a sell-by date of three months ahead, for example. Some in-date chocolate can still be a problem. A whitish bloom for example may mean that the chocolate hasn't been properly tempered or stored – maybe in conditions that are too hot. So beware of buying it just after a bout of hot weather.
Good chocolate should have a range of flavours. The sugar and fat should not dominate. Look out for flavours within plain chocolate such as vanilla, red berry fruits, caramel and tobacco. Compare two bars to see if you can differentiate between them. For example, Tesco's Ivory Coast 74% cocoa solids should taste fruitier than the slightly more bitter Morrison's 85%.
Look to see if it says where the beans are from – many of the best chocolate is grown in South America, the Caribbean or West Africa. Like good coffee and whisky, a single origin can be a sign of quality but blends can also have an amazing balance of flavours. How it's been made is often more important to taste than where it comes from or what variety of beans have been used.
To preserve its great flavour chocolate needs to be kept at 15-18 degree Celsius and 50° humidity. In other words, a cool, dry-ish place well away from other flavours. Wrap it carefully and store in a kitchen cupboard or drawer where it won't get too hot. The fridge is not only too cold, it's also too humid and full of other flavours.
Chocolate terminology unravelled:
Cocoa (aka cacao) beans are the dried and fermented seeds of Theobroma cacao. They're usually roasted before being separated into cocoa butter, cocoa solids and cocoa nibs.
Cocoa butter (aka theobroma oil) is a pale yellow, edible vegetable fat. It's extracted from the cocoa bean to make chocolate.
Cocoa solids are what's left after the cocoa butter is extracted. They're used in milk and dark chocolate but not in white chocolate.
Criollo, Forastero, and Trinitario are all varieties of cocoa bean.
Tempering – chocolate is heated carefully to control the crystallisation of cocoa butter. If you heat it (or cool it) without controlling temperature the chocolate will be dull, grainy and won't snap. This is because the crystals are all different sizes. Badly tempered chocolate is more likely to exhibit chocolate 'bloom'. If you're making chocolates (rather than truffles) or chocolate eggs for example, you'll need to temper it to give it snap and shine.
Couverture is very high-quality chocolate with 32–39% cocoa butter, which, when tempered properly, improves the shine, snap and flavour.
Ganache is melted chocolate blended with fresh cream. It's used for truffles and for coating cakes.
Praline is a combination of chocolate and nuts, often with sugar and sometimes cream.
Grand cru/premier cru are terms borrowed (and swapped over) from wine-making, but in the case of chocolate, it means almost the same as 'single origin' or 'single estate' i.e. all the beans used to make it come from one area or plantation.
Lovely things to make with your favourite kind of chocolate:
Pear, hazelnut and chocolate crumble
Strawberry white chocolate cheesecake
Homemade Snickers (aka Marathon)
Delicious egg nog truffles
Homemade chocolate bark
Chocolate ganache tart
Classic chocolate eclairs
Chocolate and peanut butter cake
Après-ski hot chocolate
Seventy five things to make with white chocolate
More food know-how:
A tasting guide to the Scottish whisky regions
Whole lotta pies: join the upper crust
How to read a whisky label