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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/965623691/966305036" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript



Hey. Welcome to NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Simran Sethi, the author of the book "Bread, Wine, Chocolate" and the creator of the award-winning chocolate podcast "The Slow Melt." Why did I go deep on this particular food? Well, I think you know the answer to that. Chocolate has been my every birthday cake. It was my wedding cake, what got me through my divorce and what's helped me manage the pandemic. But until seven years ago, this sweetness I have cherished my whole life was largely a mystery. I mean, I knew about Willy Wonka, but none of the details on how chocolate was made or where it grew. Did it ooze from trees like sap or was it harvested from a bush like a berry? The answer is neither.

Today, we'll go to the place where cocoa is grown and learn from an expert on how Theobroma cacao, the fruit known as the food of the gods, becomes the stuff of our dreams.

DARIN SUKHA: I remember, as a child driving to school, I passed a huge cocoa estate.

SETHI: That's Dr. Darin Sukha, the man who oversees flavor and quality at the University of West Indies' Cocoa Research Centre, one of the world's most important chocolate research institutions.

SUKHA: I remember sitting in the back of my father's car. I was so small I would stand in the back. So those days, seat belts weren't mandatory, right? We'd be passing through this area that suddenly became cool and dark. I would see these red things hanging from the trees and thinking, wow, what are these things?

SETHI: His curiosity was pretty contained. And then his aunt came to visit and brought chocolate as a gift - Darin's first taste.

SUKHA: I think it was Cadbury or something. And I was like, wow, what is this thing?


SUKHA: And at that point in time, I never made the connection between those cocoa trees that I saw, that I drove past every morning, to the chocolate that my aunt brought.

SETHI: Darin's from Trinidad and Tobago, part of the equatorial region where cocoa grows, so he maybe could've made that connection. But for many of us chocolate lovers, that disconnect between something hanging off a tree and a chocolate bar isn't surprising.

Cacao, also known as cocoa, usually grows in lush, dense forest. It starts off as tiny blossoms about the size of your pinky fingernail and grows into these football-shaped pods that range in color from yellow to deep purple. Although those pods don't look, smell or taste anything like chocolate, the way they're grown and handled makes all the difference in what the end product will taste like. And that's why Darin works from pod to bar.

In his job at the Cocoa Research Centre, he's come full circle. He now works with farmers from the same cocoa estate that he used to pass by on his way to school. And the day that I spoke with him, his morning was off to a sweet start.

SUKHA: I woke up this morning at 3:30, and I started tasting chocolates. I tasted 40 different varieties of chocolates made from 40 different varieties of cocoa. So it sounds like a dream job, but it's hard work, believe it or not.

SETHI: What I've learned after years of studying chocolate is that to understand it's long story is to love it all the more.


SETHI: This LIFE KIT is all about helping you deepen your appreciation of chocolate. So even if you're just picking up a bar in the grocery aisle, we'll explain where chocolate comes from, what to look for on the label and how to taste chocolate like Darin, who does it for a living.


SUKHA: It feels very satisfying to open a cocoa pod, especially one that's freshly harvested, because the - it's still hard or turgid. It's not flaccid like an old orange. It has a crisp feel to it.

SETHI: The rind of a cocoa pod is thick, like a watermelon. You can open the fruit by bashing it against a tree or, if you want to be a little more precise, hacking it open with a machete. And once you do, you'll find this fragrant, pulpy mass - sticky and sweet.

SUKHA: And you see, like, strands of mucilage and pectin. When you open it, it looks like cobweb. And then you get this aroma. I'm smelling my own now, and it smells citrusy, like citrus flowers. It's like a subtle perfume.

SETHI: So at this point, you're probably wondering, where's the chocolate? It's in the seeds surrounded by that sweet pulp. But at this point, they're really bitter. It's only after the seeds have been scooped out, put in a box or piled under banana leaves to ferment and then spread out to dry that they start to become recognizable to us as cocoa beans with cocoa flavor or, to be more precise, flavors, plural.

You know, when I think of a chocolate bar, I think of kind of one flavor. But there's a lot more to the story than that.

SUKHA: It's really how the chocolate is made. And this is the difference between industrial chocolate and craft chocolate or bean-to-bar chocolate. One gives you chocolate that you eat and the other gives you chocolate that you experience, chocolate that you would share.


SUKHA: You would invite someone, have them try a piece and say, taste this chocolate, and you would sit down and close your eyes and savor it. And it all has to do with how the beans are sourced, where they are sourced from and the process by which the chocolate was made.

So how I look at it - right? - when a chocolate-maker gets a cocoa bean to make chocolate, that is like someone adopting a teenager. The personality is already set, and you just have to work with what you have.

But the farmer really has the biggest point of control in how he or she manipulates that initial processing of the bean. So when a farmer takes out a cocoa bean from a cocoa pod and starts the process of expressing that flavor, it's like adopting a baby. It's a blank slate, where how you treat that bean through the process that it has to go through - where it has to be fermented like wine; it has to be dried to lock in the flavors - that is where you get to write on a board with indelible ink of what that flavor profile is going to be like when the chocolate-maker gets it.

SETHI: You mentioned craft chocolate, bean-to-bar. What is this trajectory of deliciousness? Let's talk about, like, kind of what - how we would define craft.

SUKHA: OK. For me, craft chocolate or bean-to-bar chocolate celebrates the sense of place from where those beans came from to create an experience through chocolate to transport that person to the place where it came from. So you would hear these exotic words like Tanzania, Madagascar, and you would have in your mind certain mental imagery. And then you have the chocolate to go with that, which is actually very different to what you get when you consume, let's say, a Hershey bar. It's not less satisfaction. It's just a different kind of satisfaction you get. It's like snuggling with your very familiar blanket in your bed. That's your bed that's very familiar, warm and cozy. So you know what your Hershey bar tastes like. It tastes like this since you were a child, and you know it's going to taste like this next week, the week after, the month after.


SUKHA: But there's also the excitement of the craft chocolate segment or bean-to-bar chocolate segment, where you're looking for, OK, what's the new flavor next month? What's in your bar that you're going to come up with? What's the new flavor that we are going to experience? The same concept of terroir that you would apply for wine is, in fact, appropriate for cocoa and chocolate where the cocoa beans that comes from a particular place reflects that sense of place.

SETHI: And I'm just - oh, gosh. While we're - so many of us are not traveling right now. Like, it's - just to be able to taste the world is, like - it's such a beautiful thing.


SETHI: Before we get to tasting, tell me this, because I'm looking at a bar right now, and I see ingredients. I see percentage. I see the place. What clues am I getting there if I don't see tasting notes written on my bar? What is the percentage telling me, and what ingredients should I be looking for?

SUKHA: OK. So the first thing you are doing - you are going to look at is what's the percentage of cocoa solids in this chocolate? The higher percentage of cocoa solids is more bitter, more astringent, but also more intense. If you're going for the lower percentage, where cocoa - cocoa solids content, you get more sugar, so it goes into the sweeter end of the spectrum. The higher percentage of cocoa solids is where you get the intense flavors and different flavor notes in terms of your fruity, floral, spicy notes, et cetera.

So that is how much cocoa is present, but also how much cocoa butter is present. So for example, if you see 70% on that wrapper - right? - chances are it'll be 70% of actual cocoa solids, plus cocoa butter.

SETHI: So cocoa butter is part of the cocoa bean?


SETHI: It's not a separate dairy product. It's just the fatty part of cocoa, right?

SUKHA: Right. But in some recipes, they add extra cocoa butter to give that chocolate a more velvet-like mouth experience. So cocoa butter is actually good for you. It's not a bad fat. It's actually good for you. It's the base of many creams and ointments.

SETHI: And the fat is where the flavor kind of is.

SUKHA: Exactly.

SETHI: There are a lot of flavor compounds in chocolate (laughter). That's what makes it so glorious. When it starts to melt, like, all of this flavor starts to release.

SUKHA: Exactly so, yes.

SETHI: And this is a high - these - the percentages that we're talking about relative to, like, your average chocolate bar, this is a significantly higher percentage of cocoa.

SUKHA: Yes, correct. And one of the big selling points for dark chocolate is the documented health benefits - heart health benefits, improvements to circulatory health as well as cognitive function. I have many colleagues who, as part of their daily meal regimen - and this is not just for pleasure, but this is just part of their - like, a health supplement - they eat two pieces of dark chocolate.

SETHI: So you're suggesting we eat chocolate for health. This is a fruit that we can eat for health.

SUKHA: Of course, yes - dark chocolate.

SETHI: (Laughter) I want to thank you.


SETHI: I want to talk about one more thing that we'll find on the label before we get to tasting, and that's some of the certifications. What are those all about?

SUKHA: So basically, there's assurances that the chocolate that you're buying was produced in a certain way in terms of the sourcing of the beans. The production method was either environmentally sustainable. The label used to produce those beans was socially responsible. The process of engagement with the farmer or the cooperative was responsible in terms of the price paid for the beans or the relationship that the chocolate-maker or the bean sourcer would have had with the community or the farmer that would have produced those beans.

SETHI: This is really important because the majority of cocoa farmers live in poverty and earn less than a dollar a day.

SUKHA: And then you have organic certification, where it's supposed to denote the absence of certain chemical compounds and certain practices in the growing of the cocoa tree. So those are what the three types of certifications mean.

SETHI: So it's like recognizing a relationship all the way down, from the bar all the way back to the bean.

I mean, I'm going to say I feel a little - I don't know what - when you say this chocolate is meant to be shared because I don't like to share my chocolate, but I'll just go with that for a moment. And I would love to understand, like, how I should taste this kind of bar that would be so very different than what I'm sort of used to.

SUKHA: When we taste origin chocolate, we want to experience it. It's a sensory process where first, you use your sense of sight. You look at the bar. You unwrap your bar.

SETHI: I'm going to unwrap my bar, yeah. I saved it for this moment (laughter).

SUKHA: Right.

SETHI: I've been staring at it all day (laughter).

SUKHA: So when you unwrap your bar, the first thing that comes to you is the smell.

SETHI: Oh, yeah.

SUKHA: Right? That chocolatey aroma or fruity aroma or floral aroma. Then, you break the chocolate.

So I'm breaking my chocolate.

SETHI: I'm breaking.


SETHI: Mine's still a little bit in the wrapper. There we go.

SUKHA: Right.

SETHI: That's a nice soft - that's a nice snap.

SUKHA: And you hear the snap?

SETHI: Yeah.

SUKHA: If you don't get that snap, you think, oh, something's not quite right. And if you notice, when you hold it with your hand, it starts to melt. And if you...

SETHI: Oh, yeah.

SUKHA: Some of the chocolate is melting on your fingers, so that's your sense of touch. Now, if you rub your fingers together with the melted chocolate on it, you can see whether or not it's smooth. You can feel whether or not there's a texture to it or a grit or if it's smooth. And then you bring it to your mouth.

SETHI: (Laughter).

SUKHA: As it comes to your mouth, you smell it some more.

SETHI: This is the slowest chocolate I've ever tasted. Like, it's literally already in the mouth.

SUKHA: And then you bite it. And then this is where you have to have deferred gratification.

SETHI: Yeah.

SUKHA: You take about two or three chews of it - not swallow it.


SUKHA: But let it break up into smaller pieces.


SUKHA: Then, using your tongue and the roof of your mouth, rub the broken pieces of chocolate using the heat of your palate to melt it. And let it spread all over your palate.


SUKHA: So you have front notes, middle notes, end notes and after notes. So you have things that come at you very quickly, such as acidity. Then the acidity fades away. Then you get some fruit notes, probably, and then those start to die down. And then you get the more basal notes coming in where you get some woody notes. Sometimes you get some either dark fruit notes coming in. And then towards the end is where you start to perceive bitterness and astringency.

And now, just like a good piece of music, what makes a good piece of chocolate is what happens in the middle and what happens to the end. So when you listen to a piece of music, what you take away from that song is the chorus or the hook that is present in that song. A good piece of chocolate has a memorable flavor hook.


SUKHA: And then how the chocolate ends - just like a good piece of music, the song ends, and a good piece of chocolate ends. It does not hang around like an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend that keeps calling you or WhatsApping you - right? - or texting you. It ends.

SETHI: But this is like a slow fade. Like, I feel like my chocolate just sort of stepped away and disappeared, yeah.

SUKHA: Stepped away - so it gradually dropped the mic and left the room, right?

SETHI: Yeah.

SUKHA: Right.

SETHI: Yeah, sadly. I mean, I'm ready to revisit at any time, yeah.

SUKHA: Right. So that's the difference. Now, if you have a chocolate that has a clean finish, you will be inclined to take another piece, whereas if you have a chocolate that sort of hangs around on your palate, you will be less inclined to take another piece 'cause you're still feeling it on your palate. So a key element is - in a good piece of chocolate is to have a clean finish so that you will be inclined to take a next bite.

SETHI: And is it time to take another piece?


SETHI: I mean, practice makes perfect, I think.

SUKHA: Yeah, yeah. Sure, yes. Go right ahead.


SETHI: So for the rest of us, is there a way to, like, train ourselves to become more sensitized to the flavors that we might find?

SUKHA: I always say that we've been tasting since the day we were born. What makes a good taster is not having extra taste buds or - I don't know - a bigger tongue or whatever. It's really having an expansive mental library of taste experiences. So many times, you will taste something, and you say, oh, gosh, I don't know what this tastes like. It tastes - I don't know. It's right at the tip of my tongue. And then five minutes later, you're like, oh, right. You would remember what's the association. So a good taster has that snappy and very quick recall of what it tastes like. So it basically boils down to buy more chocolate and keep tasting it.

SETHI: There you go. I want to go back to one other thing that you said about relationship. You know, it's the time of year when people are sharing chocolate as an expression of care, and I wondered, like, is chocolate an aphrodisiac?

SUKHA: Well, it's been proven to show that chocolate consumption stimulates the part of your brain associated with pleasure. So chocolate does make you feel good. It feels good in your brain, but it also feels good to get a piece of chocolate, yeah.

SETHI: Absolutely (laughter). Absolutely.


SETHI: So let's recap. Chocolate comes from a colorful fruit lovingly tended by farmers from around the equator. We tend to think of it as one flavor, but as with wine, there are many smells and tastes to take in - that is, if you look toward more specialized craft chocolate made with the intention of celebrating the diverse places where cocoa grows and supporting the farmers who grow it.

Craft chocolate is meant to be savored, not scarfed. So take your time. Take it in with all your senses, and let it be your passport to the world.

If you'd like to learn more about the people, places and flavors behind chocolate, pick up my book "Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss Of Foods We Love," or tune into my chocolate podcast, "The Slow Melt." And for more LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. Now that you've upped your chocolate game, why not delve into the world of coffee? You can find that episode at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter.

And now, a completely random tip, this time from listener Olivia Joyner (ph).

OLIVIA JOYNER: My tip is to get a whole appointment book. And the reason for that is getting a list of things to do is one thing, but giving yourself time to actually do them and figuring out how long they will take is a totally separate task. Just skip the planner. Get a whole [expletive] appointment book.


SETHI: If you've got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us a voice memo at lifekit@npr.org

This episode was produced by Sylvie Douglis. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. Our digital editors are Beck Harlan and Clare Lombardo. And our editorial assistant is Clare Marie Schneider. I'm Simran Sethi. Thanks for listening.


Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.