How to Buy the Best Chocolate, According to Professional Chefs and Chocolatiers
Here’s everything you need to know before buying your next bar or box.
If there's one thing people never need an excuse to add to their shopping carts, it's chocolate! But how do you know that what you’re buying is the good stuff?
"Defining quality chocolate is not a straight answer," says Brigitte Laliberté, who coordinates Cocoa of Excellence, a program that recognizes cocoa quality and flavor diversity to improve farmers’ livelihoods and drive sustainability of the cocoa supply.
A good place to start, says Alex Whitmore, founder and CEO of Taza Chocolate, is deciding what kind of experience you’re craving. "When I eat chocolate, I am either trying to satisfy my sweet tooth with an indulgent European-style milk chocolate candy, or I am looking for a true cocoa-forward flavor experience with a rich, dark chocolate."
We spoke to a variety of experts for their tips on how to buy the best chocolate for snacking, baking and more. Here’s what they had to say.
When Buying Chocolate, Keep These Tips in Mind
Pay Close Attention to Cocoa Percentage.
"Adding sugar to chocolate is like putting salt on a steak," says Whitmore. "It can bring out some really great flavors and is a very important part of chocolate making. Some people prefer less and others more." However, there are some ground rules.
High quality dark chocolate bars should be at least 65% cacao. "Below 65% and there’s too much sugar," says Maureen Elitzak, co-owner and primary chocolatier of Zak’s Chocolate, a lauded small-batch craft chocolate maker in Scottsdale, Arizona. "The sweetness overpowers the natural flavors, so it’s more like candy than chocolate."
Look for Minimal Ingredients.
Avoid additives and fillers like soy lecithin and artificial ingredients (including vanillin). Often these are a sign of chocolate that’s made with lesser quality cocoa beans, so other ingredients are sometimes used to hide other flavors and reduce bitterness. "It’s like adding cream and sugar to a bitter, dark roast coffee," says Elitzak. "If the chocolate is made well, those ingredients are not needed."
Artisanal, natural ingredients to complement the chocolate are a different story. For example, at Zak’s, a touch of house-pressed, single-origin cocoa butter is added to make the chocolate a bit creamier.
Many industry professionals also prefer single-origin chocolate sourced from a specific country, plantation, or small family-owned farm as opposed to blended chocolates when it comes to shopping for quality. Single-origin bars (also known as bean-to-bar) strive to reveal the pure character of the cacao. "They can express a wide range of natural flavors that exist in cacao," says Elitzak. "People can look for what they like; fruity or nutty notes, as well as the base flavor we think of as chocolate."
How To Buy Chocolate Responsibly
Look for Official Certifications.
Fair trade certifications such as Fairtrade America and Fairtrade Certified ensure that products go through a third-party verification for fair labor practices and ensures that more of the profit from cocoa returns to the farmers. But certification is not the only (or even the best) way to go when buying chocolate, according to Mark Lundy, the Sustainable Food Systems leader at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. Fair trade chocolate must compete against non-fair trade chocolate in the market, which often causes issues with pricing and demand. Meanwhile, other types of certification from organizations such as Rainforest Alliance, use significantly different benchmarks around sustainable landscapes and management.
Do Your Own Homework.
So how do you know if a chocolate company has a solid relationship with their cocoa producer? "A good place to start is the label," says Jim Elitzak, co-owner of Zak’s chocolate, along with his wife Maureen. "Does the chocolate maker disclose the origin of the beans? If not, for us, that’s a non-starter. Go to the chocolate maker’s website and see how much they disclose about their cocoa bean sourcing. If you can, ask the chocolate maker questions and learn the story of the cacao they source and why they love it."
Lundy also likes to know how a chocolate company engages with their producers. "Do they have stable trading relationships? How long have they been doing business together? Do they pay at or above fair trade price? Do they do above and beyond and reinvest in the local community through an education or reforestation program? The more information and the more transparency they provide about where the cocoa is coming from and how the producers are treated, the better you can feel about what you’re doing."
How to Buy Chocolate for Baking and Cooking
Quality Still Matters.
When baking and cooking, the rules listed above don’t go out the window. Check the list of ingredients on the label — the shorter the better — avoid vegetable fats and look for ingredients that you recognize, says Agatha Kulaga, CEO and co-founder of Ovenly, an award-winning retail and wholesale bakery based in New York City. "Typically, my go-to chocolate will have cocoa as one of the first ingredients, won’t have a ton of additional sugar, artificial sweeteners, or unnecessary fillers or stabilizers. It has to taste, look, and smell like what it is: chocolate."
Don’t Go Overboard.
Can you have too much of a good thing when baking and cooking with top chocolate? Yes, says Kulaga. "There are certain high quality chocolate bars that, in my opinion, are meant to be savored in their pure form — kind of like fancy cheese you wouldn’t want to melt," she says. Use this high quality chocolate as a finishing element of a dish, so it doesn't get lost in the other ingredients.
Consider What You’re Making.
You can buy high quality chocolate in all its popular baking forms — bars, blocks, wafers, chips and cocoa powder. The format of chocolate should depend on the type of treat you’re making and your taste and texture preferences. For example, Kulaga likes to break up bars or use chips in chocolate chip cookies. "If I’m going for a more layered, melty quality in a cookie, wafers are a great option," she says. (Because of their higher cocoa butter content, wafers tend to melt more easily than chips). "For chewy, chocolate-forward brownies (my preferred texture), I’ll use cocoa powder since it’s 100% cocoa, which also results in a more tender brownie that will allow for a longer shelf life," she adds.
Here’s What to Do Once You Peel Back the Wrapper
Check for Shine.
Well-made — and well-cared for — chocolate should have a clean, shiny look to it, says Elitzak. "That tells you that the chocolate was properly tempered (which locks in melted sugar and cocoa butter crystals) and stored in a cool, dry place to maintain that quality." If you see white or gray streaks or ping marks, those are signs of cocoa butter bloom or sugar bloom, which suggests the chocolate was exposed to high heat or humidity.
Another sign that chocolate has been properly tempered is that it will snap when you break or bite into it. "The ‘crack’ is a nice experience," says Laliberté. "Otherwise the chocolate can be a bit too much like a fudge."
When you smell chocolate, what exactly are you looking for? "Quality chocolate should smell like chocolate," says Elitzak. "That may sound funny, but lots of ‘industrial’ chocolate smells artificial or like artificial vanilla. We avoid chocolates that have additives to hide flavors and aromas or that use soy lecithin instead of natural cocoa butter. There should be a clean, chocolatey aroma."
Time for the taste test. When sampling chocolate for quality, be sure to take your time. "Letting a piece of chocolate slowly melt in your mouth and linger for a while is the way I have found to be most effective at evaluating chocolate for my own personal tastes," says Whitmore.
This gives the chocolate enough time to release the different notes and flavors. Generally speaking, quality milk chocolate should be creamy and sweet, while quality dark chocolate should taste like fermented cocoa beans.
Shopping Recommendations from the Experts
Want to put your newfound chocolate knowledge to good use, but not sure which brands to start with? We turned to Agatha Kulaga and the experts behind Food Network Kitchen to see their go-to suggestions for a variety of chocolate-based categories, including baking, melting, snacking and more.
The Best for Chocolate Chip Cookies:
Ghirardelli Chocolate Chips are by far my favorite. You can find both bittersweet/60% (my personal favorite) and semisweet in most grocery stores, and they even sell mini chips, white chocolate chips and other varieties. These chips are perfect for cookies because they're slightly wider and flatter than other brands, giving you larger pockets of gooey chocolate (kind of like a chocolate chunk). And they honestly just taste better than a lot of other chips on the market! — Amanada Neal, Food Network Kitchen Recipe Developer
I like Ghirardelli or Guittard as well. Whether I go chip or chopped chocolate depends on my mood. Sometimes I really want the chocolate chip with stabilizers, so that your chocolate gets melty, but still stays intact and very separate from the cookie part. But sometimes, I love how chopped chocolate bars can create shards that mix all in the dough and the larger pieces get super metly. — Alexis Pisciotta, Purchasing and Events Manager, Food & Cook – Digital Culinary
We use Callebaut 60/40 Callets for our (secretly vegan) chocolate chip cookies. For a sweeter cookie, I like to use Guittard Milk Chocolate wafers. — Agatha Kulaga, Ovenly CEO and Co-Founder
The Best for Melting:
My preferred chocolate for melting is the kind that comes in pistoles. [I'm a] huge fan of Valrhona; their chocolate is high quality and they also carry some fun unique flavors, like a passionfruit chocolate. Callebaut pistoles are also great, that's what I've mostly used in bakeshops I've worked in. — Sarah Holden, Food Network Kitchen Culinary Producer
For melting chocolate, I also prefer a pistole, such as these from Valrhona (pictured above). The consistent shape and size of pistoles make them ideal for weighing and melting. If you can't find pistoles, I would recommend chopping a bar of chocolate (such as Ghirardelli). — Amanada Neal, Food Network Kitchen Recipe Developer
I have always used Valrhona for melting, and prefer feves because they come in small discs that are easily portioned out. You can buy them online, and if stored properly, hold [them] for a long time. My go-to's are Valrhona Caraibe 66% Dark Couverture Chocolate Feves (pictured above) and Guanaja Dark Chocolate Baking Feves 70% Cacao. I also really love Callebaut, but I think it is nearly impossible to get out of wholesale markets. For melting from the grocery store, I tend to buy Guittard or Sharffen Berger and chop it up. — Ginevra Iverson, Director, Test Kitchen
The Best for Baking:
I like the Guittard Cocoa Rouge, if you need Dutch process. Otherwise, Hershey's cocoa is consistent and always in my pantry. — Ginevra Iverson, Test Kitchen Director
My go-to cocoa powder is Hershey's Unsweetened Cocoa Powder. Like Ginevra said, it's consistent in flavor and fairly priced. I love a combination of unsweetened cocoa and melted bittersweet chocolate in my brownies and rich chocolate cakes. — Amanada Neal, Food Network Kitchen Recipe Developer
Same. For natural cocoa powder, Hershey's is it, and for Dutch, I love the Cocoa Rouge, but Droste works fine too. — Alexis Pisciotta, Purchasing and Events Manager, Food & Cook – Digital Culinary
I usually buy Ghirardelli Natural Cocoa and Guittard Dutched cocoa. I also like to keep some black cocoa powder on hand, which is essentially a super Dutched cocoa powder with a very deep, intense flavor (and it's actually black!) Not a cocoa powder to use for every projects, but really fun to use every once in a while. — Sarah Holden, Food Network Kitchen Culinary Producer
The Best Fair Trade:
I recently discovered Tony's Chocoloney and really like their mission, and the chocolate I've tried from them is great. Plus, I've seen their bars popping up more and more at grocery stores and natural markets (they stock it at Wegmans!) — Sarah Holden, Food Network Kitchen Culinary Producer
Green & Black seems to be getting more and more easy to find in stores. — Ginevra Iverson, Test Kitchen Director
UnReal. I love their reinvention of all of my naughty childhood indulgences, but in a responsible, mission-driven way. — Agatha Kulaga, Ovenly CEO and Co-Founder
The Best for Snacking:
It is all fair game, but it definitely needs to be 60% or more — the more bitter the better for me — but because there are other opinions in the house, we typically have a lot of Ritter Sport. The hazelnut (above) and almond ones are favorites and the cornflake one definitely has its place as well. — Ginevra Iverson, Test Kitchen Director
I could snack on so many different chocolates, but I recently tried this Maple & Nibs Chocolate Bar from Raaka (above) and loved it! It's bittersweet and has a nice crunch from the cocoa nibs. And there's a background flavor of maple, which is super interesting and unexpected. Raaka has a variety of interesting flavors available on their website and in stores. — Amanada Neal, Food Network Kitchen Recipe Developer
I'm not picky when it comes to snacking chocolate, but a favorite is definitely the Ghirardelli dark chocolate squares with the salted caramel filling. — Sarah Holden, Food Network Kitchen Culinary Producer
Agree with Sarah — I'm loving Tony's lately. I like how thick the bars are too — it makes for great chomping. Dark Chocolate Pecan is my jam. Also Chocolove's Salted Almond Butter Dark Chocolate. Yum. — Alexis Pisciotta, Purchasing and Events Manager, Food & Cook – Digital Culinary
The Best Vegan Variety:
My favorite vegan chocolate chips or allergy-friendly chocolate chips are these from Simple Truth. These have a nice, rich chocolatey-flavor and no strange aftertaste that I've found with other brands. I swap them for traditional chocolate chips when I'm developing vegan recipes and when I'm baking for people with dietary restrictions, and they bake well and taste great. — Amanada Neal, Food Network Kitchen Recipe Developer