Have you ever wondered what that other 15% is in your 85% chocolate bar?
Sometimes, it’s obvious that certain ingredients have been added: pistachio, volcanic salt, or orange peel, for example. Sometimes, it’s not so obvious: what’s soy lecithin? Is it good or bad? Why does my craft chocolate bar contain ingredients that I don’t recognise?
I reached out to several craft chocolatiers to find out what the different ingredients in our chocolate bars are, what they suggest avoiding, and what they recommend. Because when it comes to fine chocolate, it’s not just about creating a sweet treat. It’s about using the right ingredients: the ones that make the bar unique, transparent and, of course, delicious.
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“Fairly Traded” 75% Tanzanian chocolate with sea salt. Credit: WKND Chocolate
The Essential Ingredients
There are certain things that you just can’t make a chocolate bar without. Unsurprisingly, one of those is chocolate. The other, unless it’s a 100% bar, is sugar (or artificial sweeteners, something that most fine chocolatiers warn against).
However, not all “chocolate” takes the same form. Elaine Read of Xocolatl Chocolate says, “In the craft chocolate world, a ‘two-ingredient’ manufacturer uses only cacao and cane sugar; a ‘three-ingredient’ manufacturer will use cacao, cane sugar and cocoa butter… Milk may be present in both fine and every-day chocolate but should not be present in ‘dark chocolate’ unless it is labeled ‘dark milk chocolate’.”
She also adds, “Industrial manufacturers, even those who make chocolate for boutique-label chocolatiers will often have cacao, cane sugar, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, vegetable oils (US only), and vanilla/vanillin [a vanilla substitute].”
85% Peruvian fine chocolate. Credit: Nina Fine Chocolate
Cocoa Beans vs Cocoa Butter
So, what’s the difference between cacao beans and cocoa/cacao butter? Why do some chocolatiers make two-ingredient bars and others three-ingredient bars?
Lauren Heineck, Founder of WKND Chocolate and Well Tempered Podcast, tells me, “Cacao beans are imperative to the formation of chocolate….cocoa butter (fat) is a natural element of the bean. When you grind down cocoa beans to make chocolate, you’re creating a composite of fat and fiber/proteins. Of course, cocoa butter by itself is also sold, obtained most commonly by means of mechanical presses.”
Interestingly, some origins have different amounts of fat than others. “Those origins that are typically very close to the equator have notoriously been known to have less cocoa butter,” she explains, “so that might mean that, if I’m making two 75% bars of varied origins, the recipes could differ because of the inherent cocoa butter within the bean, regardless of their seemingly identical percentage.”
This, of course, has an impact on the bar itself. “My 75% Tanzanians would be naturally fattier, smoother in the mouthfeel than my Ecuador,” Lauren continues. “That’s not always the case, they are certainly outliers, but that might be the instance in which, if I am going to make a 75% Ecuador I might add 3% or 5% cocoa butter if I want a product line that has the mouthfeel and smoothness throughout.”
A craft chocolate, from bean to bar. Credit: WKND Chocolate
Soy Lecithin: A Controversial Ingredient
Some boutique bean-to-bar chocolatiers will include soy lecithin. Others won’t. What’s the big deal?
Well, it comes down to heat. Elaine explains, “You see the separation of cocoa butter when you let chocolate either get too hot or too cold – the perfect example of this is the cloudy, tan or grey color and crumbly texture that appears when you leave your chocolate bar in the car and it melted and then you put it in the freezer to harden back up and find you have a streaky and coarse chocolate bar.” But using soy lecithin, which is an emulsifier made from soybeans, prevents this from happening.
Chocolate doesn’t need soy lecithin, although it helps it to withstand temperature variations. There are also other pros and cons. Elaine continues, “Using a lecithin makes the manufacturing of chocolate easier and cheaper.
“Manufacturers who choose not to use it (ourselves included and many in the craft chocolate world) usually make the decision that making chocolate without the emulsifier, while more difficult and costly, results in a more pure product.” She explain that it has fewer ingredients, a smaller ecological footprint, and can be part of a more direct or transparent supply chain. Other concerns can include soy allergies, while Lauren adds that soy might be genetically modified.
On the other hand, since soy lecithin is used in miniscule amounts, all my interviewees agreed that it’s either impossible or very difficult to taste.
Lauren also tells me that “soy lecithin creates less viscosity… so that it works better through the machines. So, especially those chocolate makers with more larger machine setups, you don’t want your pipes being clogged or that your 75% chocolate can’t move through the machines.” Soy lecithin can help to avoid this. So too can adding more cocoa butter, she adds.
Smooth dark chocolate straight out of the mold. Credit: Daniel Fazio
The Vanilla Debate
Another common but often looked-down-on ingredient is vanilla. Luz Jungbluth of Nina Fine Chocolate tells me, “If you encounter a chocolate bar that has vanilla, it’s usually used to disguise the bad flavours of the cacao. These bad flavours may result from a bad fermentation or a bad drying process.”
Elaine agrees, saying that vanilla and its synthetic substitute, vanillin, “historically has been added to improve the flavor of chocolate that was made with inferior beans, inferior either in flavor profile due to poor post-harvest practices on the farms or inferior in flavor due to extremely heavy roasting by the chocolate maker.”
However, she makes the point that vanilla isn’t always bad. “In craft chocolate,” she explains, “makers will use real vanilla bean as an intentional flavor to enhance the overall flavor profile. You can usually tell if vanilla is used as an intentional flavor additive if the bar’s label highlights the vanilla as a component of the bar. If vanilla or vanillin is only listed on the back in the ingredients section, it is likely just intended to mask off-flavors.”
Which brings us to my next point: the intentional addition of flavors designed to highlight the cacao’s distinctive notes.
Spices, flowers, fruits: just some of the ingredients that chocolatiers may make use of. Credit: WKND Chocolate
Other Flavours & Ingredients
Some consumers favor a two- or three-ingredient bar that allows them to savor the notes of origin. Others like the way certain additions can offset those notes, allowing them to shine.
Lauren tells me, “I think it’s an interesting question… I would like consumers to come to a place where they feel confident in the chocolate they like to eat.
“Who am I to say that chocolate shouldn’t have more than four ingredients? Because there are people that go crazy for a chocolate with nuts and I don’t want to take that away from them… You might have 36 ingredients, just like you may have a mole [traditional local sauce] in Oaxaca made with 36 ingredients. Chocolate is an incredible medium for creating things. It’s a canvas for creating, whatever your artwork.”
As Oliver Eggers of Nina Fine Chocolate says, “Cacao has so many different chemical components that, if you compare chocolate to wine, when you are eating chocolate, you can find as many surprises as when you are tasting wine.” And this means that some people want to just taste the chocolate while others want to treat that complexity as a playground for different flavours.
Take salt: “A lot of us use sea salt or volcanic salt for various finishers on chocolate,” Lauren explains, “in the same way you might sprinkle a little on a piece of steak, and it brings out the features of the chocolate. It balances the bitterness and acidity so that you have a more overall pleasing experience.”
There’s no need to stick to the traditional ingredients, either. She’s been experimenting with using seaweed, and mentions that Japanese umeboshi, a pickled fruit often called a salt plum, “would probably be very delicious.”
“It goes beyond flavor wheels,” she emphasizes, “because it’s about matching a matrix of flavors. We get to be chefs. We get to create plates that happen to be in chocolate form.”
Sea salt and fine chocolate. Credit: WKND Chocolate
Perhaps you like your chocolate dark, silky-smooth, and without any extra flavors. Or maybe you prefer it sprinkled with a little sea salt. Or it could be that you’re open to any flavor experience you get to try.
No matter how you want your chocolate, understanding the ingredients on the label will help you to understand why it tastes the way it does, select the bars you want to eat, and discover your personal favorites.
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Written by Julio Guevara.
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