We get it: Sometimes, when there's a bar of chocolate around, you just can't help it. Your inner Augustus Gloop comes out and scarfs it down in a matter of minutes. But there's something to be said for mindful eating—that is, taking an approach similar to one that you might try with wine or cheese. Tasting chocolate—really tasting it—can be a wonderful experience and a discovery tool, too. It can help you understand the nuances between similar types of chocolates, and it could even turn you into a bit of a chocolate snob (life's too short to eat bad chocolate, right?).
What You Need
Setting up a chocolate tasting isn't unlike setting up one for wine or cheese, actually. Start with five or six types of chocolate, since, as Fran Bigelow of Fran's Chocolates in Seattle says, more than that could result in "palate fatigue." You may want to include some dark chocolate (in different cacao percentages), milk chocolate, and chocolate with fun and unique inclusions. "Creating contrasts allows you to use different taste buds and thus better appreciate the personalities of each chocolate," explains Bigelow.
Along with the chocolate, you'll want room-temperature water available as a palate cleanser. Aaron Lindstrom, chocolate ambassador at Theo Chocolate, also likes to put out sparkling water, plain crackers and/or apple slices. Brad Kintzer, chief chocolate maker at TCHO, recommends starting with the dark chocolate that has the highest cacao percentage and then progressing through to lower cacao percentages and milk chocolates. Milk powder and sugar can stick to your palette, he explains, which reduces your ability to taste the nuanced flavors found in cacao. After tasting a sweet chocolate, everything you taste right after will have a more bitter flavor. Between each bite, have a sip of water to refresh your palate.
Look, Smell, Taste
As for the actual tasting, there are three main steps. First, look at the chocolate. Kintzer says it should be glossy and shiny, and when you break off a piece, you should hear a clean snap. These are signs the chocolate is well-tempered (or that it went through a series of temperatures to ensure a sound structure and the best flavor). If it bent more than snapped, has a spotted/dusty surface, or looks streaked, it's probably "bloomed." This could mean the chocolate went through different temperatures in a short amount of time, which may affect its texture and taste.
Next, smell the chocolate. Hold it up to your nose and breathe deeply (ahhhh!). Lindstrom says you don't need to be a chocolate connoisseur to detect nutty, fruity, and chocolatey notes. And Kintzer says that sometimes when he's tasting chocolate, it'll spark a "scent memory," reminding him of a camping trip, something funky in a brewery or the cotton candy stand at a carnival. "Relax. Inhale. Let your brain run wild," he suggests. Do you smell coffee, flowers, something earthy, spices, caramel? If you picked up notes of fruit, what kind? A lot? A little?
Finally, it's time to taste! Bigelow advises starting by biting just a small corner, to break down the chocolate's structure and release its aromas. Close your mouth and let it melt on your tongue. The chocolate's temperature will slowly rise, resulting in the final release of its aromas. Breathe out through your nose, then inhale to experience the diversity of notes in each chocolate. Remember that each person's taste will be different or bring to mind different flavors as they describe the chocolates. Take a few more small bites and you'll probably notice even more.
There are a few criteria to look for when choosing chocolate, says Bigelow. Good chocolate's balance depends on the taste triangle of bitter, sweet, and acidic. You shouldn't be able to discern any sugar, and its acidity should be low (if anything, it should add a delicate, fruity note). The bitterness should be perceptible but definitely not unpleasant, and the aftertaste? "It should be the wonderful flavor of chocolate," she says.