With Valentine's Day just around the corner, isn't it about time that your treated your significant other to some chocolate? For a change, try a really respected brand, take your time, and concentrate on the whole chocolate experience.
So here are some guidelines for what to look for in chocolate, but be forewarned, eating *really* good chocolate trains your taste buds to identify mediocre chocolate. Once you've tasted the good stuff, there's no going back. . .
The chocolate should be smooth and shiny. If there are white blemishes on it (known as bloom), it could be a sign that the chocolate was not properly stored. It could be that the chocolate was warmed to the point where it melted or it was stored in a moist refrigerator. A little bit of bloom shouldn't affect taste much but the texture won't be as smooth. If you're paying for good quality chocolate, you should make sure that it's being treated right.
Try bending the chocolate. It should break off with a clean snap. If it bends, it probably means that the chocolate maker is substituting vegetable oil for cocoa butter, which lends chocolate its magically smooth texture.
The main ingredient in chocolate is derived from the cacao bean. A lot of the time you'll see a percentage sign on the chocolate package that tells you how much cacao is in the chocolate. The higher the percentage, the more bitter the chocolate will be. Darker chocolates usually have a higher cacao percentage.
The percentage to choose is largely a matter of taste, but to taste the complex flavors of good chocolate, I would aim for above 60% cacao. This level is often called semi-sweet.
Chocolates that are above 80% are pretty bitter and not as accessible to casual chocolate lovers.
Take a bite of the chocolate, and let it slowly melt on your tongue. The texture should be perfectly smooth with no hint of graininess. The flavor should last long on the tongue and be pleasant all the way down. This long “hangtime" allows you to search for other secondary tastes. Is it nutty? Is it fruity? Is it woody? Tasting great chocolate is similar to wine tasting in a way.
With cheaper chocolates, I find that that their lower cocoa butter content makes for a less smooth texture and a shorter lasting flavor. Worse, preservatives often lend an unpleasant aftertaste.
With a little practice, you'll be able to spot bad chocolate instantly. It's both a blessing and a curse; you might not see supermarket chocolate bars quite the same way anymore, but you'll be in nirvana when you get a piece of high-quality chocolate.
This is not an exhaustive list of good chocolate makers, but they all make premium chocolate and are not too hard to find in the US.
Green & Black's
Howie Wang is creator of the FoodieView Recipe Search Engine , where you can find thousands of chocolate recipes.