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buying guide

chocolate buying guide

Chocolate Bars
Hemp seed, New Orleans chicory, chipotle chili and creme brulee... chocolate bars come in just about every exotic flavor imaginable. But for many chocolate connoisseurs and purists, there is only one chocolate bar worth tasting -- a plain dark chocolate bar with about a 70% cacao content. Go up to 85% and you are getting too bitter. Go down to 60%, and you've got something too watered down. The "back to basics" trend is taking off, and it's taking exotic flavors, nuts, spices and other "add-ons" off the table with it. Milk chocolate and white chocolate are also on the outs.

Look for dark chocolate bars that are labelled as single-origin or single-estate. The vast majority of chocolate out there is made of from a generic blend of cacao beans from different countries. Single origin chocolate is a rarer breed -- it's chocolate that's made from the cacao beans of a particular country, region or even a single plantation or estate. Each has its own distinctive characteristics and flavor profile. Chocosphere carries tons of single-origin chocolate bars. Some of the best include Amedei's hard-to-find Porcelana bars which come from rare white cacao beans sourced from small plantations in Venezuela. Also look for bars by Valrhona, Domori, Michel Cluizel and Dolfin.

Chocolates & Truffles
Chocolates with unusual and exotic fillings have been all the rage lately, but for those who've had their fill of Tarragon Grapefruit or Chinese Five Spice, several places still carry simple, unflavored chocolates. La Maison du Chocolat on Madison Avenue carries super-elegant boxes of plain chocolate truffles. NOKA's single-estate dark chocolate truffles are another impressive and pricey option. Bridgewater Chocolate and Knipschildt also carry boxes of plain chocolate truffles. Other options include Gearhart's Chocolates in Charlottesville, VA, where you can custom fill a box with their 73.5% Venezuelan single bean Criolla chocolates. Chuao Chocolatier of San Diego also allows you to fill your own box with all-chocolate options.

Hot Chocolate
Most of us grew up on hot cocoa, not hot chocolate. What's the difference? Hot cocoa (like Swiss Miss, Hershey's, etc.) is the cheap stuff. It's made from only half of the cacao bean - the bitter cocoa solids. Hot chocolate is the premium stuff. It's made from the entire cacao bean -- the cocoa solids AND cocoa butter. Using the entire bean gives you a richer, more complex drink. Many premium hot chocolate "mixes" are simply bags of high-end chocolate shavings that you melt into your hot milk or water. L.A. Burdick and MarieBelle make some of the best.

The Bean
Chocolate can be made from three types of cacao beans: Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario.

Forastero - Used in lesser quality chocolates.

Criollo [cree-O-yo] - The most highly-prized bean. Two types of Criollo beans in particular are thought to be the best of the best -- Porcelana and Chuao [chew-wow]. Both are grown in Venezuela.

Trinitario - A hybrid between Criollo and Forastero. Combines the hardiness of the forastero bean with the superior taste of the Criollo bean. There are some very good chocolates made from this bean.

Dark, Milk or White?

The cacao bean (pronounced kah-cow or kah-KAY-oh) can be broken down into two parts -- dark, bitter cocoa solids and white, fatty cocoa butter:

Dark Chocolate: Made from both parts of the cacao bean - the cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Has a complex, slightly bitter flavor.

Milk Chocolate: Like dark chocolate, but diluted with milk. Has a milder, less bitter flavor.

White Chocolate: Made from just one part of the cacao bean - cocoa butter. Since it is missing the sharp, flavorful cocoa solids, white chocolate has a buttery, bland taste.

Hot Cocoa: A cheaper chocolate drink. Half the cacao bean (the cocoa solids) are finely ground into a powder and used to make cheaper "hot cocoa" mixes.

Hot Chocolate: A premium chocolate drink. Made from real dark or milk chocolate shavings. Unlike hot cocoa, which is made from just cocoa solids, hot chocolate contains cocoa solids and cocoa butter.