Mom might have told us to finish our dinner before digging in to dessert, but I’m happy to announce that with chocolate, it’s quite the opposite: The best time to taste is actually first thing in the morning, before you’ve even had breakfast. Now, this is mainly the case for chocolate bars, not cake, ice cream, and brownies—you’re on your own with those.
For chocolate bars, the morning works because your palate has had time to rest overnight and will be even more adept at picking up nuanced flavors. Think about it: If you’ve just polished off a big pile of pancakes and syrup, you might not be able to taste sweetness as well. And if you’ve just gorged on garlicky potatoes and roast chicken with onions, well, say goodbye to tasting much of anything else. That’s why experts insist on inspecting in the a.m., when their palates are neutral and have had some beauty sleep. Mornings: Not stellar for breath, but great for tasting.
No matter your personal preferences, when you have a fine bar of chocolate in front of you, you don’t want to be all Augustus Gloop about it. Take it slow, one smallish bite at a time. Here are some tips for tasting chocolate with all the care it deserves.
Wake and Taste
The best time to taste is in the morning, when your palate has had its beauty sleep. Start with a plain old chocolate bar that doesn’t include any add-ins like almonds or salt. Let your bar warm to room temperature before you even think about eating it, then break off one to three squares and listen for a sharp snap (a mark of quality chocolate). When you’re tasting more than one bar at the same time, some people say to try them in order from the highest cocoa percentage to the lowest, while others prefer tasting from the lowest cocoa percentage to the highest. Test both ways and see which you prefer.
Take a Look
Chocolate isn’t just brown. The color of the bar will tell you a lot about the way it tastes. First off, are there white patches? That could be bloom, when the fat separates from the cocoa, and indicates that the texture is probably off. If there aren’t any obvious defects, look more closely at the color. Chocolate from Ghana and Tanzania will be darker than chocolate from Madagascar, which is reddish. Some of the best cocoa beans in the world are white (Porcelana and Peruvian Nacional, if you want to get nerdy about names), which creates a lighter-colored chocolate. And if it’s milk chocolate, it will, of course, be even lighter.
Stop and Smell the Chocolate
Who needs roses when you have cocoa beans and sugar? Smelling the chocolate before popping it in your mouth will help you figure out how it’s going to taste. Does it smell sweet? Like vanilla? Like burnt rubber? The chocolate won’t always taste the way it smells, but scent can reveal quite a lot about what’s going on in that little brown bar. There are a lot of theories about how to best smell chocolate. Eagranie Yuh, author of The Chocolate Tasting Kit, says to “hold the chocolate between your thumb and index finger, cup your other hand around it like you’re going to tell it a secret, bring it to your nose, and smell it.” Others say to place the chocolate on a plate or a piece of paper before smelling it, since any smells on your fingers might mask what’s going on in the chocolate. Regardless of the method you use, bring the chocolate as close to your nose as possible and sniff deeply (pro tip: the edge of the chocolate that’s just been cut or snapped often smells the strongest). Some people are super serious about the smelling portion of tasting chocolate, and at chocolate competitions you’ll often see judges walking around with brown smudges on their noses.
Bite Off a Piece
Some people chew the chocolate completely, while others let it slowly melt on their tongue. I like to chew it once or twice and then stop. I close my eyes, let the chocolate melt on my tongue, and see what I taste. Raisins? Sure. Red berries? Often. Walnut notes? You better believe it. Of course, you also might not taste anything but chocolatechocolatechocolate. Try comparing that one bar to other bars and then see if you notice a difference. Chocolate expert Clay Gordon recommends trying four bars at a time and comparing and contrasting pairs to determine your favorite of the group (he calls this a “tasting pyramid”). A comparison tasting will definitely make it easier to pick out the specific flavors of each bar: one might be spicier than another or earthier. Use the flavor wheel to help guide you.
Don’t be distracted by texture. A smooth mouthfeel can, of course, intensify the experience of the chocolate, but texture isn’t the same as taste. Grittier chocolates often have flavor profiles that are as complex as — if not more so — those of smooth chocolates. Don’t pummel your mouth with one chocolate right after the other. Slow down and use a palate cleanser like lemon water, plain crackers, or slices of green apple between bars. At the International Chocolate Awards, we judges use plain cold polenta. It doesn’t taste great, but it works like a dream. When you get really good like expert Ed Seguine, who has worked for Mars and Guittard and now owns his own company, you’ll be able to taste different notes at the beginning, middle, and end of a piece of chocolate, like a wine’s nose, body, and finish. These qualities are more detectable in some chocolates than in others; some have flavor notes that evolve as you eat them, while others stay more constant.
The best tasters take vigilant notes, so they can remember what the heck they tasted the week before, as well as the disappointments and highlights. Many serious tasters won’t characterize chocolate bars by which ones they liked or didn’t like. Instead they’ll break it down into aroma, sweetness, bitterness, acidity, roast, and so on, withholding judgment on whether a chocolate is “good” or “bad.” If you’re planning to judge the International Chocolate Awards or the Good Food Awards, sure, go ahead with this strategy. If you’re looking to find a few bars to enjoy, though, it’s fine to note whether you liked it or didn’t like it, and if you’d buy it again. After all, chocolate is about pleasure and fun.
Use your ears, too. The snap is the sharp sound a properly tempered chocolate bar makes when it’s broken into two pieces. Experts look for a good snap as a mark of quality chocolate.
Excerpted from Bean-to-Bar Chocolate © by Megan Giller, used with permission from Storey Publishing.
Megan Giller is the author of Bean-to-Bar Chocolate. She is a food writer and journalist whose work has been published in The New York Times, Slate, Zagat, Food & Wine, and Modern Farmer. Giller has written extensively about the food scenes in both New York City and Austin, Texas, and her blog Chocolate Noise was a 2016 Saveur Food Blog Awards finalist. She offers private chocolate-tasting classes, hosts “Underground Chocolate Salons,” teaches classes at shops across the country, and judges at chocolate competitions. She lives in Brooklyn.