What to look for in high-quality Easter chocolate

Not all chocolate is created equal

There’s a reason why most white chocolate seems like all sweetness and no substance. Or why that little foil-wrapped “chocolate” treat is waxy. There’s also evidence that it’s far less healthy than the darker stuff.

“You get what you pay for,” says Norman Brownlee (Baking ’94), a Culinary Arts pastry instructor who spends a lot of time working with, thinking about and tasting chocolate.

As we approach one of the sweetest times of the year, we asked Brownlee to explain why not all chocolate is created equal.

Two ingredients to look for

chocolate beans, cocoa butter and cocoa

Chocolate comprises two components, Brownlee explains: cocoa butter and cocoa solids.

Heat a cocoa bean, or nib, and the butter comes out of it, allowing it to be separated and removed.

That butter, which is a high-quality, expensive fat, can be used in other products, such as cosmetics. Better yet, it can be added back to finished chocolate products in controlled amounts.

“When you get into the cheaper chocolates they use different [less expensive] fats to make it,” explains Brownlee.

As a rule of thumb, cocoa butter and cocoa solids should both be on the list of ingredients of a high-quality chocolate product.

Bad fats and “palate cling”

chocolate hearts wrapped in red foil

Common among those cheaper fats is palm oil, which is high in the saturated fat that can cause cardiovascular health issues. (Unlike cocoa butter, these fats have a melting point that’s higher than the body’s natural temperature, which causes them to linger dangerously in our systems.)

“The flavour is not there and the texture’s different."

They also have an impact on taste, says Brownlee.

“The flavour is not there and the texture’s different. You get that fat that sticks to the roof of your mouth. We call it palate cling.”

White chocolate qualifies as chocolate when …

pieces and shavings of white chocolate

If white chocolate has cocoa butter in it, Brownlee considers it the real deal. He looks for a butter content of about 35%. This will not only give it that classic sheen but it will balance the sweetness with a smooth richness.

Milk vs. dark

dark chocolate and a chocolate bean pod

While Brownlee notes that it's a matter of preference, he also points out that dark – upwards of 60% – is generally healthier.

Cocoa contains flavanoids, the plant-based compounds that have antioxidant properties and have been found to be important for our health. Research shows that flavonoids have the potential to improve insulin sensitivity, decrease blood pressure and inflammation, and protect against heart disease. Happily, these compounds are present in cocoa beans – and therefore moreso in dark than milk chocolate.

It’s also pleasing to eat: real chocolate causes the brain to release endorphins, the hormones that make us feel good. It even contains stimulants, such as caffeine and theobromine.

“Dark chocolate is a good thing, in moderation,” says Brownlee, who prefers it to sweeter milk chocolate.

“I find the flavour more interesting. It’s a lot like red wine. Different chocolates will give you different characteristics.” Because of varying blends of cocoa butter and solids, and differing bean sources, no companies’ dark chocolates will taste the same, even if the same percentages.

Ethical sources

cocoa beans held in hands

Brownlee likes to know where his chocolate comes from. According to Fairtrade Canada, living and working conditions on farms – most of which are run by families in the tropics – can be difficult.

Fairtrade products ensure a minimum price for those who work at chocolate’s source, and raises their standard of living.

At NAIT, Brownlee uses Valrhona and Callebaut chocolate. Both companies actively invest in the livelihood of the farmers and communities that supply them with beans.

Less is more

two square pieces of chocolate

Browlee has a theory that “with the higher quality chocolate, you don’t have to eat as much.” Unlike less expensive chocolates, the good stuff packs a lot of flavour, which he finds more satisfying. So, while the cost may be higher, you can get away with less.

“You can have a smaller portion and enjoy it that much more.”

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