One of my favorite things to give as a hostess gift is a stack of hand-selected chocolate bars from my local gourmet market. It’s fun, whimsical, and shows a little more thoughtfulness than a bottle of wine purchased en route to a dinner party. But store shelves are saturated with chocolate bar options these days. With all of the choices out there, what do you get? How do you know that $4 bar of 70 percent is really that good? After 15 hours of research, I spoke with chocolatiers, chocolate retailers, and a 15-year veteran of the business to try and wrap my head around this mammoth subject. We whittled down 44 considerations to 16 and then to seven. If you’re looking for a great chocolate bar to give friends and family that won’t break the bank, we recommend Hachez Cocoa D’Arriba.
This German chocolate bar is heavy on chocolate flavor, with an über-creamy texture and just a touch of bourbon vanilla. It has rounded dried plum notes in the front and finishes with bright red fruit. Taste is subjective, but we found the Hachez has the perfect amount of bitterness but with more pleasant fruit notes than the competition.
As this chocolate dissolves on the tongue, it offers up complex layers of flavors that we found were even better on the second bite and more interesting overall than the other chocolates we tried. This is the bar you want to serve folks with an adventurous palate, but it will also likely please anyone who likes bitter dark chocolate. We also like the slimness of this bar. It measures a waify 4 millimeters, the same as our runner-up, which makes it a satisfying—but not overwhelming—kicker to a great meal. With a price point between $4 and $7 online, it makes a great little stocking stuffer (or simply a treat for yourself).
For a slightly less bitter chocolate, we’d go with the Michel Cluizel Noir de Cacao 72%, our runner-up choice for two years in a row. Made in France, this equally thin bar melts effortlessly on the tongue, delivering a rounded sensory experience. Some might find it more balanced than the Hachez, but we thought it a tad less interesting, with more muted bitter and fruit flavors. It’s the kind of bar that will likely elicit a “yum,” but maybe not an “oh, wow!” like the Hachez.
And if you’re looking for a baking and cooking chocolate that’s a cut above supermarket brands, go for Valrhona ($20 for 1 pound). A favorite of professional chefs and serious home cooks, it also makes a tasty snacking chocolate. It has a deep flavor and smooth mouthfeel, but also tastes a bit more sugary and less delicate than our main pick and runner-up. The thicker tablet (roughly 1-inch thick) is for baking and cooking purposes only.
Let me just say this right off the bat: Chocolate is personal. We don’t want to tell people that the chocolate they’ve been enjoying for years is bad and that they should stop buying it right now. If that’s what you like, go for it! Hannah Sullivan at Alma Chocolate put it very well: “It should be delicious to the person tasting it. I try to never judge what someone thinks is ‘yuck’ or ‘yum’—although the more someone tastes, the more sensitive they become to what they think is good.”
We are just trying to shed some light on an otherwise mysterious subject and provide some tools for self-education and exploration. So let’s get down to it, shall we?
What do I know about chocolate
I’ve been making my living in the world of food for about 18 years. I was a self-taught baker before attending the California Culinary Academy to beef up my chops on the savory side of things. I continued to work in restaurant kitchens in San Francisco, Austin, and New York City. When I got tired of that, I became a food editor for Martha Stewart Living and Everyday Food. During this time, I’ve come across a lot of chocolate for cooking, eating, and candy-making. I can pick out a high-quality chocolate quite easily, but there’s always room for more learning.
How we picked and tested
When we first tackled this guide, figuring out which chocolate to bring in seemed like a daunting task. There is so much chocolate out there! To get a better idea of what makes great chocolate though, I set out to talk to experts like Hannah Sullivan at Alma Chocolate, Joanne Kryszek at Chocosphere, Christopher Elbow at Christopher Elbow Artisanal Chocolate, Eric Case at Valrhona and Suzie Hodon at Choco Q. They told me that to understand good chocolate is to understand how it’s made from bean to bar.
There’s a whole world and story behind this (which you can read in What makes great chocolate?), but basically, good chocolate comes from good beans that are processed with care. And that means the company that makes the bar should have good relations with farmers and a reputation for consistently high quality and flavor.
After being initially overwhelmed by the amount of seemingly high-quality chocolatiers (everyone has their favorite), we decided to set some parameters. Chocolate bars that had extra flavors and mix-ins added were immediately out—that means no nuts, chiles, fruit, milk, or salted anything. A good chocolate should speak for itself. If a company doesn’t make a plain bar, chances are it’s trying to mask the quality of the chocolate itself. Next, we decided to exclude otherwise excellent producers that only made single-origin bars (like Dandelion in San Francisco or Woodblock in Portland, Oregon). The reason for that was, well, which one of the many single-origin offerings would be the right contender to bring in? It was impossible to tell, we would have to taste every offering from a single producer, compound that by the multitude of brands selling chocolate this way, and it would have been way too much to make it objective. Lastly, we stuck with dark chocolate with cocoa percentages that ranged from 61 percent to 85 percent because that’s a good blend of flavor and sweetness that’s pleasing to most palates.
In the interest of accessibility, we wanted to be able to recommend a bar that could be purchased easily at a store or through a reputable internet source. We also pitted cheaper grocery store brands against high-quality boutique chocolate to gauge what, exactly, the difference was between them. I really didn’t understand the difference between the same percentages of different brands until I actually tasted for myself. The differences are staggering. You really can taste the difference between a whole bean dark chocolate bar and one that has had a bunch of extra cocoa butter mixed into it. Since cocoa butter has no flavor (it’s just fat), the sugar becomes much more pronounced. Plus, the quality of the cocoa beans used to make the chocolate have so much to do with the flavor. Cheap bars of chocolate comes from cheap cocoa beans.
This year we brought in nine new contenders to test along with our top two picks from last year. This pool of chocolate bars included Hachez, Bissinger’s, Christopher Elbow, Dolphin, Côte D’or, Valrhona Noir Andoa, Newman’s Own, Cafè-Tasse, Amedei, Michel Cluizel, and Guittard Quetzalcoatl.
When we initially wrote this guide, we split the tastings into 2 rounds. For our first round of tasting I recruited fellow Sweethome writer Christine Cyr Clisset and her husband to taste 16 dark chocolate bars with me on a brisk New York City evening. The first tasting wasn’t blind; it was more like three friends sitting around a table, objectively tasting and discussing. We were looking for things like mouthfeel and texture, waxy or chalky, gritty or smooth. Flavor was very important, too. We were looking for complex and exciting flavors, or even samples that hit right in the middle with quintessential chocolate flavor. We checked for “off” or “funky” flavors.
After the first round, I then invited six friends over for a blind tasting. Like the hot cocoa review, I had them make notes and rate their first, second, and third-place favorites, and also the one they liked the least. In the end, there was a clear winner, one that was called out by everyone who tasted, in the first and second rounds.
For this update, Christine and I tasted our top two picks from last year, along with nine highly-rated bars we didn’t try for the original guide.
This year, we really like the Hachez Cocoa D’Arriba 77% for its bold, chocolatey flavor. We found that it has a more complex flavor balance than all of the other chocolates we tried without overpowering the palate. It’s bitter without being the least bit chalky and slightly fruity without tasting acidic.
While our runner-up, Michel Cluizel Noir de Cacao 72%, has more balance overall, the Hachez delivers more complexity as it melts on the tongue with fruit-forward flavors that evolve the longer you savor it. It’s thinner (4 millimeters) than most of the other bars we tried, which we find more appetizing for serving after a meal. Although easily available online, you can also find this bar in gourmet markets and grocery stores. In New York, I found Hachez at Economy Candy and Food Emporium Fine Chocolates.
Hachez’s intense chocolate flavor tells us that they don’t add a lot of cocoa butter to their chocolate to boost up those percentage points. It has a smooth texture and the bar is a bit thinner than our previous pick, which makes for a more enjoyable bite. This allows the chocolate to simply melt on your tongue so you can fully experience the subtle flavor notes.
Christine and I liked how the flavor evolved as it lingered. At first bite, you get the bitter right away, along with dried plums. As it sits longer, that rounded dried fruit turns into ripe red fruit. We both liked this right away, and even more so on the second round of tasting. Hachez is a perfect bar of chocolate to bring out at the end of dinner to have with coffee or cordials. It would also be great for a mid-afternoon pick me up. The added bourbon vanilla flavoring isn’t overpowering. Rather, it contributes to the fullness of the flavor.
Hachez is the second-largest German chocolatier, after Lindt. The company was founded by a Belgian Chocolatier named Joseph Emile Hachez. They still make chocolate, bean to bar, in their facility in northern Germany with beans from Ecuador and Venezuela.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
Maybe some people might find this chocolate bar too bitter or bold, and that’s okay. If you want something that’s not so aggressively chocolatey, try our runner-up, Michel Cluizel, which has a rounder flavor. As for availability, if you don’t live near any gourmet markets, you will have to order this through the internet, which eliminates that “instant gratification” some of us are looking for in purchasing a chocolate bar.
For a more rounded flavor that’s neither particularly bitter or heavy on the fruit notes, we like Michel Cluizel Noir de Cacao 72%. It has a balance of sweetness to bitterness that I think is perfect, but it doesn’t deliver the same cascade of flavors as the Hachez. We think it’s a great chocolate, but prefer the Hachez’s slightly more pronounced bitter and fruit-forward notes.
Joanne Kryszek at Chocosphere called this out in her list of favorite makers. This is truly a fine chocolate bar, made in Southern Normandy, France. While it’s slightly fruity, it has a bit of nuttiness to balance the flavors. The mouthfeel is very smooth, with no detection of particles of sugar, and it melts evenly on the tongue. Like the Hachez, we like the thinness of the Michel Cluizel bar (4 mm), which helps the chocolate dissolve so evenly.
At a price of $6.25 for a 2.5-ounce bar, it is a treat for special occasions. As one of my tasters put it, “It has an earthy flavor, nutty on the finish with a light, pillowy texture — very smooth.” Other tasters thought it was “thick, almost sticky, fudgy with subtle tanginess.”
Great for baking
When you want a great-quality chocolate for baking or other cooking projects, we love Valrhona. A favorite with professional chefs and advanced home cooks alike, you can purchase it in easy-to-measure feves or look for it in hand-wrapped blocks broken from a large tablet in the bulk section of your local Whole Foods or other high-end gourmet markets.
I speak from personal experience when I say that Valrhona is one of the best chocolates to work with, and Sweethome senior editor Ganda Suthivarakom agrees, saying “I also always choose Valrhona for cooking because it tastes chocolate-ier to me.”
Just to be perfectly clear, we did not test these chocolates in cooking applications, we just called this one out for this purpose from personal experience. Also, I really enjoy this chocolate for eating. It has superb mouthfeel and the flavor is intense. But it is slightly sweeter than our main picks and not quite as complex, flavor-wise.
We also think that the 1-inch thickness of this block of chocolate isn’t quite as appetizing for serving after a big meal. You could cut up chunks and serve them on a dessert platter, but they won’t melt on the tongue as nicely as the thin Hachez or Michel Cluizel bars. Valrhona makes blended bars in various percentages, so play around and find the one that complements your palate and baking style.
Guittard Quetzalcoatl was our previous pick. Sadly, it didn’t taste like it did when we tested it last year. The flavor was heavy on the vanilla, and those coconut notes that we loved so much last year were undetectable. It’s more sweet than bitter this time around, but it still has a very smooth texture. Like wine, fine chocolate depends on the quality of the harvest, no matter how much the chocolatier tries to put controls in place.
Christopher Elbow ($7) is a very easy bar to eat. It has an incredibly smooth texture and it’s more sweet than bitter. For dark chocolate newbies, this is like a really nice bike with training wheels.
Amadei Toscano Black 70% ($13) was very sweet with bright fruit notes, which came off as being acidic. The beautiful packaging of this Italian-made bar made us think it would make a great gift, but the high price and lackluster flavor didn’t impress.
Cote D’or Noir Intense ($4) has a unique smoky flavor, reminiscent of Spanish smoked paprika. It’s a very grown-up chocolate but may not be for everyone. If you like things a little freaky, this may be your bar.
Café-Tasse ($6) was pretty chalky and bitter. I liked this at first, but when it made it to the second round, we both couldn’t understand why we liked it the first time. It was pretty uninteresting.
Valrhona Noir Andoa ($7), an organic fair trade bar from Valrhona, is very fruity and acidic.
Newman’s Own ($3) has good texture, but is also very sweet and doesn’t have a lot going on. It’s something I’d use in a pinch for baking.
Dolphin ($5) is more sweet than bitter and the flavor was very one-note. Not worth the money.
Ghirardelli Intense Dark Twilight Delight was not that great in the first tasting, but we felt that we needed a supermarket brand to advance to the blind tasting. At last year’s tasting, it got a vote for second place and two votes for third place. The most common descriptive for this brand was “waxy.” Other tasters found it had a “dry, powdery feel,” and “bitter finish,” but was “rich in chocolate flavor.”
El Rey Apamante Dark Chocolate 73.5% is still one of my favorites, but it didn’t get the love from the blind tasting group. All El Rey chocolate comes from Venezuela, and it is truly something to experience if you want to try 100% Venezuelan chocolate. It has a toastiness that is almost like a marshmallow straight off a campfire.
Green and Black’s 70% is a fine chocolate that’s pretty easy to find at higher-end grocery stores. It’s heavy on the red fruit and is almost overwhelmingly sour, like a mouth full of dark red cherries.
Divine 70% Dark Chocolate was a hit at the first tasting, but the blind tasters felt that it was bland, with no rich flavor and even a mild “off” chocolate flavor.
Chocolove 70% Dark was waxy, crumbly, and had zero complexity. Actually, it had almost no flavor.
Domori Il Blend 70% is crazy intense chocolate. I loved this one so much, but I was out-voted by the other two first-round tasters. While I found its intense bitterness matched with its perfectly velvety mouthfeel to be most pleasing, my tasting companions found it to be “tannic bitter” and “too rich, a little over the top.” It’s also really expensive at $2.50 for a 1-ounce bar.
Ritter Sport Fine Dark Chocolate 73% comes from a brand that I love purely for their whimsical fillings, but the plain dark chocolate couldn’t stand up to the more refined contenders.
Dove Dark is so mild, it tastes purely like vanilla candy coating. It was more like Magic Shell than a bar of chocolate.
Jacques Torres Dark Chocolate 60% turned out to be pretty chalky and brittle. The flavor was a little flat in the beginning, then moved into slight nuttiness. It’s a nice bar, but not great.
Godiva Extra Dark 85% was very waxy and tasted like coffee that had been sitting on the hot plate for half the day.
Lindt 70% has an unmistakable plasticky taste and feel. They list extra cocoa butter in the ingredients, so there must be a lot of the stuff in there. The sweetness borders on cloying. One commenter called it “good Easter bunny chocolate.”
Scharffen Berger 62% Of the two Scharffens in the mix, this one was more balanced. It was a bit subtler in the fruit, but it still was lacking in complexity.
Scharffen Berger 70% is so heavy in sour fruit overtones, it’s all you can taste. I found this imbalance off-putting.
What makes great chocolate?
Making chocolate is a process, that’s for sure. Each step plays an important role in the end result. While understanding how chocolate is made doesn’t help you much while standing in front of a huge display of bars trying to decide what to buy, it’s a cool thing to know if you’re really into chocolate.
The cacao bean is the most important part of chocolate. Great chocolate cannot be made from a substandard bean. There are three major varieties of cocoa used for chocolate production: Criollo, Forastero, and Trinitario. Criollo is highly prized for its complexity. This variety is also the rarest, as the tree is susceptible to disease. About 1 percent of the world’s chocolate comes from Criollo, and it grows mainly in Central America.
Forastero is a heartier bean originating in Brazil. It can withstand harsher growing conditions and is farmed in South America as well as West Africa. Depending on who you ask, Forastero makes up 80 to 90 percent of the world’s cocoa production. This is the bean of the cheap chocolate bar—think supermarkets, gas stations, and Fun Size. There are exceptions, of course. I was told that there are some good chocolates coming from Forastero beans, but no one could give me any examples. (Damn you, secretive chocolate industry!)
Trinitario is a hybrid of Criollo and Forastero. As its name suggests, this variety started in Trinidad 300 years ago and is responsible for roughly 5 percent of the world’s cocoa production. Higher-end chocolates come from this bean as it has some of the complexity of the Criollo and the heartiness of a Forastero.
But cacao variety is not the only important thing. Eric Case, Key Sales at Valrhona and a 15-year veteran in the business, said, “The most important thing about chocolate is where the beans come from, how the beans are grown, and water.” He also added, “Water is food for cocoa, it’s the placenta … It actually creates the placenta which is the [white pulp] around the beans that sustains them while it grows. How the beans are grown is super important. Are they shade-grown or sun-beaten? If out in the sun, all the water will evaporate.” Basically, the more water, the better the bean.
Generally speaking, beans that come from Venezuela and Madagascar are considered the best. But, and here’s that exception to the rule again, great beans are being grown in parts of the Caribbean, West Africa, and other parts of Central and South America.
Joanne Kryszek, an owner at Chocosphere, said, “Just as it takes a master winemaker to make great wine from good grapes, the same goes for chocolate. The skill and technique of the maker is almost as important as the quality of the cacao. Great makers know how to process the beans to bring out the best qualities of the bean’s genetics and geographical origin.”
After the cocoa bean is harvested, the beans are removed from the pod, and put through a fermentation process. This removes many of the tannins and astringency from the beans. This is a very important step in the final flavor of the chocolate. While further steps down the line in the chocolate-making process contribute to smoothing out the flavor, the more care taken in the fermentation process, the better the bar will be. To quote Eric Case, “Fermentation is where flavor begins.”
After the beans have been fermenting for several days, they are dried, usually in the sun on large concrete slabs. When the beans are dry, they are ready to be shipped. Some say these two processes are two of the most important in the chocolate-making process when it comes to flavor development; they’re done by the farmer, not the chocolate maker. This is why the better chocolate makers have developed relationships with their growers to make sure standards are put into place and processes are done the same way every time.
Roasting comes next in the process. This is done by the chocolate maker. Although there isn’t much detail about it, roasting is where a lot of chemical reactions happen that are important to the overall flavor. This is one of those trade secret things, and chocolate makers are very tight-lipped about their procedures. The roasting step is also very important for the next step, winnowing, as roasting helps separate the germ and the shell from the the actual nib. After the beans are cooled, they are put in a winnowing machine that removes the germ and shell from the nib. After winnowing, the nib can be Dutched, or alkalized. This darkens the color and mellows the flavor. Dutching is not necessary, as there are many delicious natural chocolates out in the world. To Dutch or not to Dutch is the question for the chocolate maker.
The nibs are then ground, which makes cocoa liquor, or cocoa mass. For blended chocolate (beans from different origins) this is the point in the process where the nibs will be combined. In some cases, cocoa liquor is then pressed to extract cocoa butter, the cocoa butter is then used to add to other cocoa liquor to make chocolate. The cocoa solids left behind, or the “presscake,” is ground into cocoa powder. Extra cocoa butter is added is commonly added to chocolate. Couverture—this is what chocolatiers and pastry chefs generally use—is a high-quality chocolate with a higher percentage of cocoa butter. Not all chocolate has extra cocoa butter added to it. There are many producers that make “bean-to-bar” chocolates without added fat. One is not necessarily better than the other. Christopher Elbow, owner of Christopher Elbow Chocolates, told me that while he enjoys a nice whole-bean chocolate bar for eating, he can’t work with it.
The cocoa liquor with or or without added cocoa butter is then mixed with sugar, emulsifier, and sometimes vanilla (or other flavoring). It then goes through a refining process, which requires the mixture to go through a series of rollers until the gritty mixture turns smooth.
The mixture then goes through another process called conching. The conche rolls and kneads the chocolate mixture constantly, breaking down the particles ever smaller, to create the smooth mouthfeel that chocolate is prized for. Conching can occur from anywhere between 6 to 72 hours; the longer the chocolate is conched, the better.
The final step is tempering. Tempering is crucial to the final product when talking about texture. Fine Cooking has a great explainer on this process, saying, “Tempering is a process that encourages the cocoa butter in the chocolate to harden into a specific crystalline pattern, which maintains the sheen and texture for a long time.” Properly tempered chocolate is glossy and when you break it, there’s an audible “snap”. Poorly tempered chocolate can have white streaks, blotchy fat “blooms”, or even have a spongy interior. It would be such a shame to lose all of that hard work to a bad temper (pun intended).
So, let’s say you’re holding a bar of chocolate in your hand. What’s a good checklist of quality? Well, first look at it. A good sheen and that audible “snap” when breaking it are great indicators of proper tempering. The flavor should be complex and evolve as it melts on the tongue. You shouldn’t be able to detect any particles, such as sugar crystals or cocoa solids. A smooth chocolate means better refining and longer conching.
Christopher Elbow said that when he’s tasting chocolate, he looks at flavor, first and foremost. Then he looks for a nice balance and acidity, and, of course mouthfeel. Smoothness is very important with chocolate. When talking about minimally processed, or old world style chocolate, he said, “…it doesn’t unfold on your tongue very pleasantly. If you can physically detect the particles of sugar and some of the cacao fiber on your tongue, I don’t think it’s a very good attribute of a bar. I prefer it to be very smooth, to melt homogeneously on the tongue.”
Each chocolate has its own set of flavor profiles. When talking about fruit, it’s common to identify red fruit like berries or cherries or yellow fruit like mangoes, passionfruit, or even bananas. Citrus fruit and dried fruit are also common flavor notes. Nuttiness is another common flavor profile found in chocolate. Bitter walnut, hazelnut, and almond are characteristic of the Forastero bean. When we say earthy, we’re talking about aromas of soil (in a good way), musk, or even mushrooms. You might get a bouquet of flowers in your nose when tasting some chocolates, violets and orange blossoms have their place in this world. There’s spice, not only the vanilla that some producers put into their bars, but cinnamon, black pepper, and anise can naturally occur. All of that along with more esoteric flavors like grassiness and other vegetal flavors means exploration into chocolate can be really exciting stuff. But if you can’t taste any of that, don’t worry, as long as you’re enjoying yourself, that’s all that matters. Get to know what you like about chocolate. It can be quite intimidating to read about all of the flavors that can come up in a simple piece of dark chocolate, but becoming fluent in this particular language helps when reading up on different types of chocolate or identifying what agrees with you and what doesn’t.
Freshness and storage
Chocolate is best when stored in an airtight container, out of the sunlight, at temperatures between 65°F and 68°F (big window, I know). Here’s why: Chocolate has a lot of fat in it, and fat absorbs odors. Your pantry and refrigerator have a lot of errant smells going on and they will easily be soaked up by the chocolate. Also, humidity is the devil for chocolate, excess humidity will make chocolate “bloom” (fat solids rise to the top and create blotchy white spots). In these ideal conditions, dark chocolate can keep for a year and milk chocolate for 6 months (solid bars, not filled bonbons).
It’s best to store chocolate at climate-controlled room temperature, but not all of us have that luxury, so here is how to refrigerate: Wrap your chocolate very tightly in cling wrap, then store in an airtight container or zip-top bag and store in the refrigerator. When you are ready to use/eat it, remove from the fridge but keep it wrapped tight until it comes to room temperature. This is for two reasons: There is a lot of humidity in a refrigerator, and we already established that humidity is the devil. Also, you want to keep it wrapped up while it comes up to temp so it doesn’t collect any condensation, which can alter the texture.
What about bars you’ve had for a while? How do you know they’re good? Look at them and make sure they’re still shiny and haven’t lost their temper. Any blooming is a sure sign of improper storage. Next is to taste is to see if they’ve adopted any of the flavors or smells around them. Also, if they taste stale, you know they’re old. Go buy yourself some fresh chocolate.
Wrapping it up
You can’t beat the Hachez Cocoa D’Arriba as a great crowd-pleasing chocolate bar that is perfect for gifting. The price is right, it’s bold, and its flavor profile doesn’t require a super-taster’s palate to be appreciated. So if you need a last-minute gift for that dinner party or the person you forgot to add to your list, pick up a few of these or add one to a hand-picked assortment that is sure to please.