Eating chocolate is a no-brainer. You open the package, break off a piece (or bite right into the bar? :)), scoff it in, swallow, repeat. Ok, but what about TASTING chocolate? That is a whole different experience. I’m talking about mindful tasting here. When you sit down, take a moment to enjoy a piece of quality chocolate, indulge and use all your senses. It can be quite a meditative experience and I’d encourage you to practise everyday.
In case you feel a bit lost and don’t know where to start, I created a small flash-card that shows you the basic steps and guides you through your tasting. In today’s post I will give you some more detailed guidance on the first part of the card which covers the topic of mindful tasting by using your senses.
You will find the other sections in the upcoming posts:
part 2 (the bean-to-bar process)
part 3 (the cocoa belt – cacao origins)
part 4 (the flavour wheel)
Mindful tasting: use your senses!
The most important thing that you can do to practise mindful chocolate tasting is to really tune in with all your senses and pay attention to what you feel and discover through each of them. Some of them will give you cues to assess the quality of the chocolate, others will help you broaden your flavour spectrum.
We almost always take our sight for granted, and we don’t even think about it. Although it is one of the most important senses that helps us decide to buy a chocolate or not. Our eyes are constantly drawn to harmonious colours, images so the packaging of a chocolate bar is the first thing we notice. And further on, when you are about to taste a chocolate, you should also pay attention to what you see.
You can look for signs of good craftsmanship and check that the chocolate has a nice sheen, glossy surface, which shows that the bar is in a perfect temper. Signs of heat damage or bad tempering include: dull surface, white spots or streaks. This means that the chocolate has lost its perfect crystalline structure either during production or while it was stored and transported.
Air bubbles or holes (popped air bubbles) show that the chocolate was either too thick (viscous) at production or that the maker didn’t manage to get rid of the bubbles by tapping the mould. This is not so much of an issue with solid bars (although it does affect the visual experience), but with any filled chocolates, the burst bubbles can let air and moisture enter the inside of the chocolate and start to grow mould. The same applies for cracks that can usually be seen on the bottom of the filled chocolates where they were capped. Filling can leak out and moisture can get inside and grow bacteria. The shelf life of such chocolates shortens considerably.
Chocolate dust is a phenomenon that happens usually when the chocolate wrapping is not tight enough and during transportation the chocolate gets bashed around inside the packaging so that the surface and corners get knocked off creating a fine powder and tiny pieces floating around in the packaging. This gets worse if the bar has something sprinkled on top as well.
Listen to your chocolate. It is calling your name… 🙂 Jokes aside, you can assess the quality of the temper by breaking a piece of chocolate in half. You should hear a sharp and loud snap. This means that the crystalline structure of your chocolate is perfect. If the chocolate is soft and crumbles as it breaks, and makes no snapping sound it is probably quite warm and your chocolate is getting out of temper. Bear in mind that the more cocoa solids a chocolate has the harder it will be to break it and the sharper the snap will be. Milk and especially white chocolate tend to have softer snap, but you should still be able to break them with a snap if stored at a proper temperature.
Cocoa butter melts at 34°C (93.2°F), so our body temperature is perfect for melting chocolate. The more cocoa butter a chocolate has the easier and quicker it will melt in your hands. That’s why you shouldn’t hold chocolate in your hand for too long. Even after a few seconds you will leave your fingermarks on the surface of a chocolate. By touching the chocolate you can also look for the smoothness of the surface. In case your chocolate appears dull because of getting out of temper (cocoa butter bloom), by rubbing the surface you can rub off the cocoa butter that separated and the surface will get a bit shinier again.
Our nose has more aroma and taste receptors than our tongue. It is very important to focus on using your smell if you really want to discover the chocolate (or other food) that you are tasting. To see how much difference it creates, experiment with the following:
- hold the chocolate you are about to taste as far out from you as possible. With your other hand, hold your nose and only breathe through your mouth. Now, put the chocolate in your mouth and let it melt, move it around in your mouth, then swallow. Only release your nose when all the chocolate is gone.
- repeat the tasting with the same chocolate but now bring the chocolate close to your nose and smell it before you put it in your mouth. As you let the chocolate melt and move it around in your mouth make sure to breathe through your nose all the way.
- Mix up the two methods by starting with your nose held, then release just when the chocolate is completely melted in your mouth and you are about to swallow.
Compare your experience. The first tasting didn’t deliver much flavour, did it? It’s exactly like when you have a cold and a stuffed nose. You can’t taste much. Smelling your chocolate prior to tasting will enhance your tasting experience as you will be able to detect much more flavour.
Try not to smell the chocolate while it’s still inside the packaging as the smell of the wrapper can alter the aromas of the chocolate itself. Be careful not to have any strong smelling perfume on you, and don’t use perfumed handwash or cream (also don’t cut onions right before tasting – happened to me…!) as these can make it hard for you to smell the real aromas of the chocolate. If the room where you taste is a bit cool, you might not be able to smell much. You can try to warm up the chocolate in your palm a little bit so the melting cocoa butter can release the aromas more easily.
Finally, you get to put the chocolate in your mouth and taste it. There are various methods as to how should you do this. Some say never munch on the chocolate, be patient and wait until it melts completely in your mouth. But if you have a thick piece, this could take ages. So I recommend you to do an initial few chewing movements to chop up the chocolate into smaller pieces that will melt more quickly. Same applies for when you have inclusions such as nibs, nuts, or other things that need to be chewed. Again, you can play around with various methods to see how different your tasting experience becomes:
- Slow tasting: Smell the chocolate, put it on your tongue, breathe trough your nose and wait until the chocolate melts completely in your mouth. Don’t chew, but you can move around the piece with your tongue. You can close your eyes and cover your ears to minimise audio-visual distractions and focus solely on your smell and taste. Try to catch every single flavour note, focus on the texture, mouthfeel (is it creamy, grainy, sticky, greasy, does it leave a film coating on your tongue, how easily does it melt), and pay attention to the aftertaste, how long does it linger, where can you taste it. Note whether the flavour is balanced, constant or does it create waves of flavour notes that develop one after the other. Where can you taste sweetness, sour and tart notes, is there any bitterness, astringency (your mouth drying out like when you eat walnuts or drink dry red wine).
- Speedy tasting: smell the chocolate for a second, put it in your mouth, chew vigorously then swallow. The whole process shouldn’t take more than a few seconds. What flavour note was the most dominant? Did you detect sweetness or astringency? What happened with the aftertaste? How did this affect the texture and mouthfeel? The idea behind this type of tasting is that you can still find nice flavour notes, but compared to the slow tasting, you are missing out on so much! As the cocoa butter is the flavour carrier, it releases the flavour componds as it melts. If you just chew the chocolate and swallow, the cocoa butter doesn’t have enough time to fully melt and unlock all the flavours.
You can use various types of visual aids to put into words what you just tasted. The flavour wheel on the reverse of this tasting guide is there for you, but feel free to use other flavour wheels or maps you can find. More on visual tasting aids in part 4 of this series.
Don’t forget to check out the follow-up parts of this series: part 2, part 3, part 4.
To maximise your tasting experience check out these other tips too before you start.