Tasting Chocolate Like An Expert : Life Kit Making (and tasting) chocolate is an art. In this episode, a cocoa expert guides us through the world of chocolate and how you can appreciate it to its fullest.

How To Savor Chocolate Like A Cocoa Expert

How To Savor Chocolate Like A Cocoa Expert

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Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR
A tower made of stacked pieces of chocolate on a pink background with chocolate chips scattered around the base.
Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

Chocolate is a substance that has soothed and ignited humans for thousands of years. But despite our lengthy love affair, many of us aren't clear on where chocolate comes from, or the depth of flavor it holds.

The world's most beloved confection starts as colorful, football-shaped pods that sprout haphazardly from tree trunks and branches — a sort of Dr. Seuss fantasy come to life. Inside each pod is a mass of sweet pulp that enrobes bitter seeds. Seeds that, once processed, become chocolate.

Yuri Cortez /AFP via Getty Images
A cacao pod cut-in-half at the Tropical Agriculture Research and Education Center (CATIE) in Turrialba about 40 km southeast of San Jose on February 16, 2010.
Yuri Cortez /AFP via Getty Images

If your go-to is a Hershey's or other industrial bar, you may think of chocolate as one flavor. But cocoa boasts a wide range of aromas and tastes, explains Darin Sukha, the head of the Flavour and Quality division at the University of the West Indies' Cocoa Research Centre, home to the largest and most important collection of cocoa in the world.

Sukha is one of the leading global researchers in exploring the range of factors that contribute to the flavors that can be found in chocolate. As such, tasting is a crucial part of his work. His exploration includes the lesser-known flavors found in craft chocolate, in addition to the bars you'd find in a check-out line, which are mass-manufactured for consistency. Industrial chocolate is "chocolate that you eat," Sukha says, while craft is "chocolate that you experience."

Although makers get most of the credit, these moments of deliciousness are largely due to the work of cocoa farmers, and the places where cocoa is grown and processed.

So how exactly do we pick up on these extraordinary flavors? By using all our senses: sight, smell, sound, touch and taste. And don't worry if you're not an expert. As Sukha reminds us: "We've been tasting since the day we were born." The possibility of discovery belongs to all of us.

Pieces of chocolate laid on on a red, pink and yellow striped background

Here's how to savor chocolate like an expert.

1. Sight

"Unwrap your bar. Look at it," Sukha says. Cocoa beans are diverse and can range in color from reddish to dark brown. The sheen that you see is a reflection of how it was processed. If you see any whitish discoloration, this is normal; your chocolate hasn't gone bad. Cocoa beans have a very high fat content (roughly 50 percent cocoa solids and 50 percent cocoa fat, known as cocoa butter). Sometimes the fat rises to the surface. It will blend back together when it melts in your mouth.

2. Smell

Cocoa has upwards of 600 aroma compounds that range from bright, tart berries to sweet floral notes. (See the aroma wheel below for more of what you might discover.) You'll get a rush of scents as you open your bar and even more as the chocolate melts on your tongue and wafts through your nose and the back of your throat.

A few examples of the aromas you might encounter in chocolate. Zach Levitt/NPR hide caption

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Zach Levitt/NPR

A few examples of the aromas you might encounter in chocolate.

Zach Levitt/NPR

3. Sound

We don't often think about the sound of our chocolate, but a tight snap gives clues as to how the chocolate was tempered — a process of heating and cooling to stabilize the fat and give it a nice sound and sheen.

4. Touch

Note the texture of your chocolate. "Rub your fingers together and feel whether or not there's a texture or grit, or if it's smooth," Sukha says. This is another clue about the intentions of the maker and how the chocolate is processed. A silky chocolate might have extra cocoa butter; a rough chocolate might be stone-ground.

5. Taste

And now, take a bite. Use your tongue to spread the melted chocolate all over your palate. What you will notice is something akin to a symphony: "You have front notes, middle notes, and afternotes," Sukha explains. "Your chocolate might lead with acidity and follow with fruitiness and earthier tones." And the way to build your skills? "Buy more chocolate and keep tasting it."

Simran Sethi is a journalist and author of the book Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love. For a more detailed exploration of tasting, and the stories behind chocolate, check out The Slow Melt chocolate podcast.

The podcast portion of this episode was produced by Sylvie Douglis.

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