Intense. Bitter. Full-bodied.
Dark chocolate for true connoisseurs.
For years, as soon as we reached the maturity to free ourselves from milk chocolate as children, disingenuous brands of the so-called “black chocolate”—alternatively known as extra dark chocolate—made us believe that the best chocolate for our health and palate had to be directly functional to its percentage (the higher, the better). Consequent to such logic, the chocolate ought to be über-dark, intense, and bitter.
Nothing more misleading to someone serious to be considered an expert chocolate taster could be fabled.
What can be called extra dark (black) chocolate?
Since there’s no single definition or reference to which percentage of cocoa dark chocolate starts, even less so there’s one for extra dark. Let’s say, however, that this type of chocolate is marketed with percentages typically between 80‒85% and 99%—therefore, unusually high for a classic dark of around 65‒75%.
But are all the extra dark chocolate brands the same?
An upmarket chocolate brand—that carefully selects fine flavor cocoa beans and meticulously executes a tailor-made process maximizing the quality of the cocoa—can produce chocolate that is anything but bitter and black, even at extremely high cocoa percentages:
Original Beans Cusco Chuncho 100%:
despite being just cocoa mass, this bar has extremely low bitterness and a brown color
Greater difficulty and experience is required in interpreting the differences between extra dark chocolate brands that are more accessible to the mass:
Michel Cluizel Noir Infini 99% vs. Perugina® Nero® 95%
Although the Michel Cluizel Noir Infini 99% tablet has a slightly higher percentage of cocoa than the Perugina® Nero® 95%, it does not intimidate us with the unnatural opaque black of the second.
How is it possible? Let’s start with the ingredients list and tasting impressions:
Perugina® Nero® 95%
Ingredients: cocoa mass, sugar, cocoa butter, sunflower lecithin, natural vanilla extract.
- the color is so worryingly black that even under natural light, the square appears like a stub of charcoal;
- the bar smells so burnt that it is like opening a tobacco can;
- the mouthfeel is remarkably astringent, like trying to swallow Dutched cocoa powder used for baking.
Michel Cluizel Noir Infini 99%
Ingredients: cocoa mass, sugar, ginger, cinnamon, vanilla powder.
- the color is a matte dark brown with pinkish mahogany highlights;
- the aroma is smoky—but not unpleasantly burnt—suggesting a high-temperature roasting with a wet pre-drying to intensify the formation of Amadori compounds—the flavors at the tail of the Maillard reactions;
- the flavor is archetypally cocoa, with moderate acidity, high bitterness, and a slightly astringent mouthfeel.
(As a side note, the Norman Cluizel was the first brand in history to make dark chocolate at unusually high cocoa percentages, with their two 85% and 99% cacao tablets launched back in 1989. The same year Lindt immediately climbed on the bandwagon to introduce their extra dark Excellence line.)
A noticeable difference to a careful tasting stands out between the two extra dark tablets. A process known as alkalization puts the black color and burnt flavor of the Perugina Nero chocolate at a lower level than the Michel Cluizel Noir Infini.
The technique of alkalization—also known as ‘Dutching’—was first introduced by the Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes van Houten in 1828. The process consists of treating the cocoa nibs with an alkali solution such as potassium or sodium carbonate. The alkali treats the cocoa nibs by raising their pH from 5.5 to near neutrality at 7, intensifying the cocoa color and flavor and aiding the dispersibility/suspension of the cocoa solids in water solutions.
When a Lindt-like brand processes chocolate with alkali to make it more intense in color and bitter in flavor, it doesn’t do so to elevate our senses to make us reach a gourmet status or let us know the aromatic nuances of dark chocolate, but rather to compensate for the excessive acidity and astringency of the cocoa beans coming from lots of different origins that have been unevenly and hurriedly fermented to be processed in bulk as soon as possible.
Let’s then figure out how the “black” chocolate would be disgusting if the cocoa from which it derives hadn’t been corrected through alkalization to deceptively delight our senses as true chocolate connoisseurs!