5 Smart Tricks for Tasting Chocolate Like a Pro
At the end of a long day, all I want to do is sit on my couch with a really great bar of chocolate and let its unctuous, scrumptious flavor melt all over me. As I sit there with my eyes closed, I can feel the chocolate intensity give way to layers of dried cherries and floral honey. In other words, I’m in heaven.
When I describe this ritual to most people, they tell me their experiences of eating chocolate aren’t so lurid, and that their bar usually disappears in their mouth before they realize it’s there. I’m not surprised: It took me more than seven years, thousands of bars, and writing a book, Bean-to-Bar Chocolate: America’s Craft Chocolate Revolution, to learn how to taste this way. That’s also why I now share that knowledge with chocolate-lovers everywhere: Every week at Chocolate Noise, my woman-owned and operated social enterprise, we lead online, team-building chocolate tastings where guests start off saying chocolate tastes like, um, chocolate. By the end of the session, they’re gushing over the flavor of fresh raspberries in one bar, oaky bourbon barrels in another, even the sweet nectar of orange blossoms in a third. What makes the difference? Well, there are all sorts of tricks and tips to tasting chocolate like a pro.
Trick #1: Listen for a snap.
So you’ve just unwrapped your chocolate bar. Look at that beautiful design on the mold! There’s a more scientific way to see if you’ve bought well-made chocolate, though. One test is called the snap, and it allows you to determine if the chocolate is in temper. It takes a lot of skill to temper chocolate, and it’s one mark of quality.
What to do: Break a piece off and listen for a sound very much like when you snap your fingers.
What you’ll notice: Dark chocolate will have a stronger snap than milk chocolate and white chocolate, due to the amount of cocoa butter in it. But all three should snap, not bend. If your chocolate bends, it means that it’s too warm, it hasn’t been stored properly, or that it has other fats in it besides cocoa butter and isn’t as high-quality as we’d ideally like. The snap is a way to easily test your chocolate before you taste it.
Trick #2: Smell a cut side.
Think about the last time you used fresh herbs. You probably chopped the basil, thyme, or cilantro before sprinkling it onto your food. And I bet it smelled even better after you cut it, right? The same principle works for chocolate. In fact, the majority of what we consider taste is actually smell.
What to do: After you’ve gotten snappy with your chocolate, smell an edge that you’ve just snapped off the main piece of the bar.
What you’ll notice: This part of the bar might smell more strongly than other sections. You might notice other aromas that are earthier, fruitier, or just chocolatier or sweeter smelling than you’d realized before. It’s a little preview of what’s to come. If you don’t smell anything, try rubbing the chocolate with your finger so that it melts a little bit, then sniff again.
Trick #3: Hold your nose.
This might sound counterintuitive, since we’re trying to smell and taste things, after all. But trust me: It works.
What to do: As the chocolate melts in your mouth, pinch your nose shut for a second or two. Then release.
What you’ll notice: Since so much of what we taste is related to what we smell, this kind of tricks our brain. Suddenly we can taste so much more! This one is especially helpful if you’re in the middle of trying a chocolate and feel like you’re getting nothing out of it.
Trick #4: Let the chocolate melt in your mouth.
It’s hard not to scarf down a rich, delicious chocolate bar in one bite, leaving its flavors in the dust of our fudgy desire. But that doesn’t give your piece of chocolate time to reveal all of its lovely flavors and textures.
What to do: Chew one or two times to start to break the solid piece up in your mouth, then let it melt across your tongue and your cheeks. Breathe in and out as it melts.
What you’ll notice: Other aromas and flavors that were hiding at first. I’ve heard many a guest at my tastings say they’ve never experienced chocolate so luxuriously as when they use this method. For example, the first bite of Fruition’s Marañon Canyon Dark Milk bar is dark chocolate deliciousness. But as it melts on your tongue, it starts to taste like bergamot (the main ingredient in Earl Grey tea), cashew, and even caramel.
Trick #5: Taste with palate cleansers.
A palate cleanser is a neutral food or beverage that you ingest in between the items you’re tasting. Think of the coffee beans in the perfume aisle: You give them a sniff when you can no longer tell the difference between Acqua di Parma and Tom Ford Tobacco Vanille. In chocolate tastings we have our own set of tools to cleanse the palate, and while they aren’t strictly necessary, they can help a lot. Plus, they’re fun!
What to do: Choose neutral beverages and foods like room-temperature lemon water and water crackers, and be sure to wait to taste the next chocolate until all of the flavor of the palate cleanser is out of your mouth.
What you’ll notice: Everyone has their favorite palate cleanser and is very loyal to it. For example, when I judge the International Chocolate Awards, it always serves a specific brand of Italian polenta — unseasoned and at room temperature, so that it kind of sandpapers your tongue and allows you to taste the next chocolate perfectly. Without the palate cleanser, I’d probably just taste something chocolatey and a little bitter rather than the specific passionfruit note, for example, that the maker was striving for.
Regardless of which tricks and tips you use, the most important thing to remember is to have fun. After all, we’re talking about chocolate here!