Cocoa percentages in chocolates

It’s trendy these days to talk about chocolate’s cocoa or cacao percentages. In France, all chocolate must be labeled with these percentages; in the United States it’s optional, but it’s becoming more common. However, even if you don’t see the percentages on the package, there are regulations that govern the amount of cacao that must be present for a chocolate to be labeled here as milk or semisweet chocolate. For example, although one company’s bittersweet may taste like another’s semisweet (the FDA makes no distinction between the two names), both must have at least 35 percent cocoa. Similarly, sweet chocolate (which is more a commercial designation) must have at least 15 percent, and milk chocolate must contain at least 10 percent. High-quality dark chocolates have upwards of 50 percent cocoa, and French milk chocolates have about 30 percent cocoa.

All chocolate starts with the ground nibs of cacao beans, a substance called cocoa liquor, which is made up of equal parts cocoa butter (fat) and cocoa. Unsweetened chocolate, or what is sometimes called baker’s chocolate, is pure cocoa liquor and, therefore, 100 percent cacao. To produce the range of chocolates from bitter to sweet, sugar is added to the liquor, and usually more cocoa butter too. Technically, the higher the percentage of cacao, the more chocolaty and less sweet the chocolate will be. The reason I say technically is that you can’t really play chocolate by numbers alone. Like everything that starts with something produced by Mother Nature, what’s truly important is the quality of the primary ingredient, in this case the cacao bean — the way it is grown, the way it is harvested, and how it is dried, roasted, and blended. Knowing this, you can see why it’s not so much about loving a chocolate that’s 70 percent cocoa as it is about loving a particular chocolate. From here, it’s an easy jump to the idea that the best chocolate is the one you like best. My advice: taste, taste, and taste some more.

Dorie Greenspan