Changing the Face of Premium Chocolate

April 21, 2009

15 Min Read
Changing the Face of Premium Chocolate

Tastings held at La Maison du Chocolat's Madison Avenue boutique include samplings of artisanal couvertures, ganaches, pralines, truffles, mousses and more. At $70 a pop, the sessions aren't for the casual dabbler, but they are proof that even amidst our economic woes, chocolateand premium chocolate, in particularremains a non-negotiable luxury.

A breed apart

What bumps one chocolate into the premium ranks while leaving others behind? It boils down to this: "Ingredients must be top quality," says Richard Benson, director of research and development, North America Innovation, Barry Callebaut USA, Chicago.

That means pure vanilla and sweeteners that consumers read as "real."

"A baking chip can have dextrose in it to help stop it from smearing," notes Michelle Frame, director of confectionery R&D, Kerry Ingredients & Flavors, Elk Grove Village, IL. "But that's one of the ingredients that, if someone's looking for a premium bar, they're not going to want to see." Instead, old-fashioned sugar is the most common choice, along with evaporated cane juice, which "can add additional brown notes that blend nicely with chocolate's flavor," she says.

For other flavorings, natural is obligatory. Natural flavors often require higher use levels and have a shorter shelf life, and they have a certain transparency that leaves little cover for any faults in the chocolate itself. "You've got nothing but the cocoa beans for the flavor profile," Frame says. That means the beans had better be good.

"Bean quality is based on the growing area, the harvesting practice, the fermentation, the drying practicesall are significant influences on the flavor profile, and hence the chocolate's quality," says Benson. "Then the roasting practices, the production of the chocolate liquor, and the processing, refining, and conching of the chocolate itself come into play."

Conchingagitation of the refined chocolate mass in a heated vesselis crucial to a finished chocolate's quality. It drives remaining moisture from the chocolate mass, aerates the mass and distributes cocoa butter throughout the cocoa solids. And it develops chocolate flavor, generating important Maillard reaction products, allowing some phenolics to oxidize, and driving off undesirable volatiles, such as organic acids.

"Before conching," Frame explains, "the flavor components stick out like jagged edges. Conching rounds all that out, files down the astringency, and blends all the flavors together so there are no dead spots and no sharp peaks." Conching also reduces the chocolate's particle size, although most of that reduction takes place during refining. Nevertheless, the finer particles are another indicator of quality, with sizes of 20 microns or smaller yielding a smooth and creamy mouthfeel.

A higher percentage of cocoa butter fat is another prime indicator of a premium chocolate. As a benchmark, Benson points to Europe's premium couverturesprofessional-quality coating chocolateswhich, by EU legal standards, contain no less than 32% cocoa butter.

A dark road ahead

Aside from containing more cocoa butter than mass-market chocolates, premium specimens also have a higher cacao content. Cacao content indicates the portion of the chocolate's weight that comes from ingredients derived from the cacao bean itself. These days, levels as high as 65%, 70% and even up to 99% are not uncommon. (Typical milk chocolate hovers around 35% to 40%.) Whatever falls outside this percentage is made up of sugar, vanilla, lecithin and milk, so the higher the cacao content, the stronger the chocolate flavor, the lower its sweetness and the more robust the finished product.

And, for many chocolate consumers, the higher the quality. "A lot of people do equate higher cocoa solids with a better product," says Frank Calabro, food technologist, David Michael & Co., Philadelphia.

"It's perceived as more adult, as well," adds Rachel Czapla, sensory & flavor insights analyst, David Michael & Co. "When we were children, we didn't like that bitter profile. But as adults, we do."

Dark chocolate courts ambitious flavor pairings, because it needs a bold partner to equal its heft. "Dark chocolate is pretty strong," Frame says. "It's pretty complex, like wine, with all sorts of notes. So, if you pair it with something that's too weak, the chocolate will be overpowering." For example, a mild, milky caramel would be swamped by a dark chocolate, she says; chiles and cinnamon, on the other hand, can go toe to toe.

Ginger is another punchy flavor that pairs well with dark chocolate, and it's showing up in more applications, both as a flavor note and as a bona fide inclusion. Suppliers offer ginger in a number of confectionery-ready forms, from crystallized and syruped pieces to pulps and cremes, and most have the advantages of functionality and a clean labelginger, sugar and little else.

When working with ginger in chocolate applications, "moisture is critical, absolutely criticaland water activity, too," says Paul Ritchie, president, Buderim Ginger Limited, Yandina, Queensland. So, whether or not to use syruped ginger, which he says contains about 22% water, in an enrobing application, for example, will depend on the product's specific requirements. Syruped ginger "looks for small cracks in the chocolate, and the syrup seeps out, causing a sticky base and also causing the product to bloom," according to company literature.

In chocolate bars, add drained syruped ginger, ginger dices, pulped ginger or ginger cremea fine pulped ginger with minimal fiber, temperature stability, and amenability to pumping, extrusion, and mixing with dairy. "It's like a whipped butter, but it's nothing but ginger and sugar," Ritchie says. The texture is smooth and creamy, and it works great in ganache fillings.

For applications that require dry ingredients, crystallized ginger bits work well, as does a product with a small dice size and a dextrose coating that renders it a more-stable base for chocolate, according to Ritchie. "It's already pre-coated and free-flowing," he says, "so you can just turn it out onto the enrobing line and the pieces will be separated."

Superfruits, superchocolate

Like ginger, which is sporting a healthy halo thanks to current clinical research associating it with cold and arthritis-pain prevention, improved digestion and weight loss, chocolate is enjoying a honeymoon as a nascent superfood in itself.

"Whoever thought that chocolate would qualify as a guiltless pleasure?" asks Thomas J. Payne, an industry specialist for the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, Folsom, CA. "Research into antioxidant-containing foods is a boon to chocolate lovers, who are delighted to consider chocolate a healthy choice." That, he adds, makes blueberriessuperfruits in their own righta natural partner. "Blueberries enhance the healthy image of a product. This can be especially valuable with regard to chocolates and confections." And, with premium purchasers looking for "real" ingredients, "consumers like the fact that blueberries are a natural ingredientnothing added, no preservatives," he says.

Manufacturers aiming for an all-natural label might go with shelf-stable, easy-to-handle 100% dehydrated blueberries, with a moisture content of 11% to 18% and a water activity (aw) of 0.5 to 0.6. Processors have also developed free-flowing dried blueberries, which are easy to integrate into confections "where fruit size and individual piece identity are desirable," Payne says. "Freeze-dried products provide crisp flavor notes, tang and real fruit flavor bursts," he adds. "And powders may be used as a coating, such as in chocolate confectionery and chocolate bars."

Raisins are another fruit with a "clean, sweet and fruity taste that is synergistic with chocolate," says Payne, who also acts as specialist for the California Raisin Marketing Board, Fresno. Thanks to their low aw and moisture0.51 and 0.62, and 13% to 18%, respectivelyraisins don't transpire in a product. "The moisture in the raisin stays in the raisin and does not bloom through the chocolate coating," he says. This yields a longer shelf life and cleaner applications. The low moisture also allows manufacturers to apply a smaller amount of chocolate to achieve adhesion, he adds.

Raisin packers sell "confectionery raisins" to the industry, offering specialized oil coatings, shapes, textures and product sizes for panning and other candy applications. "Raisin paste is an excellent flavor carrier and can be used as a filling for bonbons and truffles," Payne says. "A soft, pliable paste that can be modified by the addition of syrups and other creamy or liquid ingredients, raisin paste may also be blended with ganache or chocolate to prepare fruit truffles."

Chocolate flavors out of the box

As any moviegoer knows, raisins are classic chocolate partners, as are peanut butter, mint, orange and almond. But, when Erin O'Donnell, marketing manager, David Michael & Co., did a new-product search to scope out emerging chocolate flavors, she came up with some matches that toss tradition to the wind. "You see a lot of sea salt," she says, as well as tea flavors, "whether it's green tea or different varieties of black tea. And then you have floral flavors like lavender, different alcohol-inspired flavors, ginger and a lot of peppers. That's the offbeat flavor that's gone mainstream, by the way, the hot pepper."

Not long ago, flavoring chocolate with chiles might've passed for a party trickand a mean one, at that. But the walls are crumbling between which flavors we consider acceptable in chocolates, and which ones we don't. "Chocolatiers are experimenting with flavors that historically have not been paired with chocolate," says Courtney LeDrew, marketing manager, Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate, Lititz, PA. "These can be ethnic, they can be exotic or they can be surprising. Even flavors that may seem unlikely, such as bacon, can work well."

Chicago-based Vosges scored a coup with a premium "deep milk chocolate" bar41% cacao and countingthat contains real applewood-smoked bacon and alderwood-smoked salt. O'Donnell, who's tried the confection, sings its praises. "That just knocked my socks off," she says. "I didn't expect it to work at first, but I think it's an amazing flavor pairing."

For his part, Calabro has tasted tobacco-flavored chocolate and been impressed. "I thought it was interesting," he says. "I like when flavors are unique and the profile is unexpected."

Making flavors work

Getting a flavor pairing to work on a conceptual level is a different ballgame from getting it to work in the chocolate itselffrom production through shelf life. And on this point, Frame has some considered advice. "You don't want to put anything with a water base into chocolate as a flavor, because chocolate turns to sludge at the first hint of water," she cautions. But, adding flavor to a water-soluble filling such as a fondant, she says, can work. In fact, save for a few exceptions like chile powder, cinnamon and ginger, most of the flavors added to chocolate confections don't go into the chocolate per se, but into inclusions like fondant, caramel or ganache. "That's not to say that there aren't any flavored chocolates," she cautions. "But generally, they're going to have a shorter shelf life."

Another hurdle is chocolate's habit of binding flavors, particularly fat-soluble ones. "The flavor just kind of dissipates away," Frame says. "So, when you're flavoring chocolates, it's actually pretty complicated to get the flavor in there and get it to stay in there for a reasonable amount of timeand not to go off balance, either, because you'll put in a nice raspberry flavor, and two weeks later you'll get all the top-fruity/floral notes, but none of the bottom notes."

Feeling included

That's why Frame advocates flavoring inclusions when possible. But finding the right inclusions for use in a premium chocolate can be a functional challenge. "Fondant is a good standby," she says. "People are familiar with it, and it works well because it's a soft filling and can be flavored really nicely. It comes across nicely with mint, with fruit flavors." Caramel is another suitable filling, she says.

Benson points to cocoa nibs as an innovative and functionally practical inclusion. "For years, they have been used in Europe, particularly in France, in premium and super-premium dark chocolates," he says. "They provide a unique texture"not unlike that of nuts or coffee beans"and can be of varied particle size for different textural delivery. Since they are cocoa, they're totally compatible with the cocoa butter in chocolate, unlike the fats of nuts, particularly peanuts, almonds and so-on, that can lead to fat bloom and an unsightly appearance. There is also no risk of rancidity, as with nutmeats."

While nuts, and their butters and pastes, are common chocolate companions, their lipid chemistry can make their use problematic. "Nut pastes, which can have an oil content as high as 55%, can create problems in confection centers due to oil migration," says John Sweeney, director of technology, Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate. "These different fillings can sometimes leach through the chocolate or have a poor appearance due to oil migration. This is mainly due to melting-point differences between cocoa butter and nutmeat fats. The melting points of most nutmeat fats and oils are lower than cocoa butter, and this can depress melting points and lead to a soft product if not controlled."

When this happens, you're getting a eutectic mixture. It's like what happens when you put salt on an iced-over driveway to get the ice to melt: mix two incompatible fats, and you lower the mixture's melting point to below that of the individual fats. "Hazelnut, peanut and almond fats are all compatible with cocoa butter to some extent," Sweeney says.

Sweeney notes that manufacturers can modify nut pastes for easier use by tweaking factors in formulation or processing. "Stabilizers, such as 1% to 2% of hydrogenated fats, can be added to increase the melting point of the centers," he says. "However, this ingredient must appear on the label as hydrogenated, which may not reflect the image required by a premium filled candy. Thus, experienced chocolatiers may use oil-migration management techniques by working with suppliers to obtain hard fractions of palm oils, which may be more label-friendly. These will help prevent oil migration and have higher melt points so that they do not soften the chocolate coating."

Frame adds that cocoa powder can act as a barrier. "Provided that the confection is being coated in chocolate, you can put a cocoa base on itjust sprinkle it with cocoa or roll it in cocoa first to create that barrier," she says. "It's not going to last forever that way, but that will extend it some." Then again, if the chocolate is as good as it should be, it probably won't be around long enough to find out.

Kimberly J. Decker, a California-based technical writer, has a B.S. in consumer food science with a minor in English from the University of California, Davis. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she enjoys eating and writing about food. You can reach her at [email protected].

Cocoa Compensation

At a time when Americans are spending less on everything, a bull market for high-end chocolates might seem unlikely, but it's true. Research firm Mintel, Chicago, in its "U.S. Premium Chocolate Confectionery" report, points to premium products as the chocolate category's main driver of growth, with premium sales increasing 129% from 2001 to reach $2.05 billion in 2006, or about 13% of the total chocolate market. Mintel projects those sales to hit over $3.55 billion by 2011.

Economic downturns may dampen those prospects, but not if consumers like Erin O'Donnell and her colleagues at David Michael & Co., Philadelphia, have anything to do with it. "We have a whole drawer-full of premium chocolates at our desk, and we definitely delve into them more on bad' days," says the marketing manager at the flavor company. And why do people like her shell out for the good stuff? "Because it makes you feel better about yourself," O'Donnell says. "Obviously, chocolate can lift your spirits."

Courtney LeDrew, marketing manager, Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate, Lititz, PA, has noticed a similar pattern. "There is a continued shift from consumers purchasing chocolate as a gift for someone else to purchasing it as a gift for themselves because it is an affordable indulgence," she says. In the aforementioned Times article, Marcia Mogelonsky, senior analyst at Mintel, is quoted as saying of premium chocolate purchases: "It's not like buying a car. You can still scrape together a few dollars when you need that little boost." Experts call this "compensatory consumption": the attempt, when circumstances weigh on us, to treat ourselves to luxuries that, while affordable, still reaffirm our sense of worth.

Other factors that Mintel credits with boosting premium chocolate's prospects include heightened interest in chocolates flavored with "novel" ingredients, dark chocolates, and news about dark-chocolate flavanols' potential to reduce the risk for stroke, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. As O'Donnell says: "With all the healthy associations of chocolate, and of dark chocolate specifically, people justify themselves by saying, Well, I could have a whole bowl of ice cream, or I could have a couple pieces of this dark chocolate bar and that's probably better for me altogether."

Defining Moments

What, exactly, does "premium" mean with respect to chocolate? FDA has strict standards of identity to protect the integrity of all chocolates, but it has yet to lay down a legally binding definition of premium.

But the existing standards, found in Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 163, are a start. They specify which ingredients, and in what ranges, can appear in a product labeled as chocolate. For example, sweet chocolate shall contain no less than 15% by weight of chocolate liquor (the semiplastic mass produced from grinding cacao bean nibs). Chocolate liquor itself shall contain no less than 50% and no more than 60% by weight of cacao fat. In milk chocolate, the minimum percentage of chocolate liquor is 10%, while the requirement for total milk solids is no less than 12%. The standards go on to cover white chocolate, buttermilk chocolate and more, but for all chocolate types, they allow the use of nutritive carbohydrate sweeteners; spices and flavorings that do not mimic chocolate, milk or butter; and emulsifiers not exceeding 1% of the formula weight.

Perhaps the most important restriction is on the type of fat allowed. Chocolate may contain no fats other than cocoa butter pressed from cacao nibs and the dairy fat derived from any milk products used in the formula. (Emulsifiers like soy lecithin contribute negligible fat.) That means no vegetable oils and no handy hydrogenated fats can show up if the product still wants to call itself chocolate. "If vegetable fats are added, then the coating is a compound and cannot be called chocolate," says John Sweeney, director of technology, Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate, Lititz, PA.

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