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How to Taste Chocolate

Chocolate Tasting Advice from Master Chocolatier Jacques

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How to Taste Chocolate

From left to right: cinnamon-hazelnut praline, Earl Grey ganache, and passion fruit ganache.

(c) 2008 Elizabeth LaBau, licensed to About.com, Inc.
At the 2008 All Candy Expo I had the opportunity to attend a luncheon lecture from master chocolatier Jacques Torres, of Jacques Torres Chocolates. The lunch included chocolate in every dish: the chicken was sauteed in a bittersweet chocolate sauce, the roast beef was brushed with cocoa, the salad dressing had melted white chocolate, and of course the dessert was a rich chocolate brownie. (To see photos of the lunch and of Mr. Torres, click on the candy picture to the right.)

Mr. Torres began by talking about the elements that go into creating a “premium” confection. I probably would have guessed some of his criteria, like impeccable ingredients, technique, and craftsmanship, but he had other elements on his list that I hadn’t thought about, like technology, customization, instinct, and imbuing your candy brand with a compelling story. He also shared anecdotes about opening his New York stores, and showed how it was possible to accomplish big things with a small amount of money and lots of hard work. Finally, we were provided with three chocolates and Mr. Torres led us through a guided tasting, showing us what to look for in quality chocolates.

Mr. Torres had us begin by looking at the chocolate: is it shiny or dull? Chocolate that is well-made and properly tempered has a nice sheen. When you rub your finger across the chocolate, how does it feel? Chocolate that has “bloomed,” or lost its temper, will feel grainy when you rub it, while tempered chocolate will feel smooth and satiny.

Next, we were instructed to smell the chocolate. Fresh chocolate will have a gorgeous chocolate odor, while older chocolate will not smell as potent. Mr. Torres also told us that there is a palpable difference in smell between different dark chocolates—semi-sweet chocolates (around 60% cacao) smell much more mild than chocolates in the 70-80% range, which have a more acidic fragrance. Since we only had one dark chocolate in our assortment I couldn’t test this theory, but while I have no doubt Mr. Torres can tell the difference between the chocolates by smell, I’m not so confident that my nose could do the same.

Finally, we were allowed to taste the chocolate. The three chocolates we tasted were a milk chocolate heart with passion fruit ganache, a milk chocolate square with a cinnamon praline filling, and a dark chocolate square with an Earl Grey tea ganache. We started with the passion fruit heart, which was incredible. The ganache was silky smooth and intensely flavored. Passion fruit has a lot of citric acid, so the flavor was very fruity and very tart, causing my mouth to water even after the candy was gone. The passion fruit was the first flavor note to hit, then after a few seconds the smooth, sweet milk chocolate came through and, in Mr. Torres’ words, “calmed down” the passion fruit.

After the candy has been swallowed, the flavor quickly leaves the mouth, which is another sign of a well-made chocolate. The smooth texture, or what is often called mouthfeel, signifies the quality of the chocolate. If the candy was cheaper and did not have enough cocoa butter, or replaced some of the cocoa butter with other inferior fats, the texture might be grainy and the feel of the fats might coat the mouth long after the chocolate has melted. Additionally, if the taste of the filling lingers long after the candy is gone, this means that artificial flavoring or essential oils were used. If the filling flavor disappears quickly, you can be reasonably sure that natural flavorings, like fruit purees, were used instead. Mr. Torres uses only natural flavorings, so it was a wonder to find that the incredibly intense passion fruit flavor was gone soon after the candy was swallowed.

The final two chocolates demonstrated Mr. Torres’ mastery of harnessing disparate flavors and coaxing them together into unexpectedly delicious combinations. The milk chocolate square featured two different layers: a hazelnut praline on bottom, and a cinnamon ganache on top, made from cream infused with cinnamon sticks as opposed to ground cinnamon. The first sensation you feel when biting into this candy is a slight grain from the sugary praline, then a strong cinnamon note comes through, nicely complimenting the toasted hazelnut flavor. The cinnamon “hits you on the nose,” in Mr. Torres’ description, but quickly disappears once the chocolate is gone. This chocolate was quite addictive and my favorite of the three we tried.

The dark chocolate square had a dark chocolate ganache inside infused with real Earl Grey tea. Unlike other tea chocolates I’ve tried, the Earl Grey flavor was strong, true, and unmistakable. The flavor took a little more time to develop, as is the case with many tea products, and it lingered longer on the palate. The dark chocolate was a good match for the savory, smoky tea, and although I am not the biggest fan of tea, I appreciated this chocolate for the depth of flavor and obvious quality of the chocolate used. At the end of the chocolate tasting I felt as if I had a new understanding of how to approach and analyze chocolates, and I can’t wait to apply these techniques to other chocolates I encounter.

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