The Times Tasting Panel met recently to evaluate chocolate -- with the aim of finding chocolate bars that would be great both for baking and eating. We picked up everything we could get our hands on (the one criterion was that the chocolate have 70% to 75% cacao content): stalwarts such as Valrhona and Scharffen Berger, organic chocolate such as Dagoba and Green & Black's, newer brands such as Chocovic and Theo, and supermarket stock such as Ghirardelli. Joining me on the panel were restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila, Food editor Leslie Brenner, columnist Russ Parsons and staff writers Amy Scattergood and Charles Perry.
In all, we tried 23 chocolate bars. Some have been excluded from the following list; if there were two different bars from the same chocolate maker (for example, Chocovic's "Ocumare" and "Guaranda"), the one that panelists preferred is listed. Prices are included, but they can vary widely from retailer to retailer.
The two highest overall scorers (but not by much) were what panelists considered their "desert island" chocolate, though no individual panelist gave either one his or her highest rating. The Michel Cluizel (the most expensive) and the Valrhona were rich, creamy and smooth, with pure chocolate flavor. But others showed more character, particularly some of the single-origin and organic chocolates; some hit higher notes of acidity or had an edgier bitterness or a pleasantly rough texture, or might have shown more earthiness than fruitiness.
The chocolates are listed in order of the panel's preference:
Michel Cluizel "Noir de Cacao" 72% cacao ($6 for 3.5 ounces). A deep, dark chocolate aroma with an espresso note. It's silky-smooth, melts quickly and feels sumptuous, and has pure dark chocolate flavor, with a hint of acidity and a hint of bitterness.
Valrhona "Le Noir Amer" 71% cacao ($3 for 3.5 ounces). This pastry chef favorite has a pretty sheen and a strong raisiny-chocolate aroma. Exceptionally balanced, it's smooth, satiny and creamy on the palate. Flavors of black cherry are edged with a pleasant bitterness.
Chocovic Unique Origin Varietal Chocolates "Ocumare" (Criollo from Venezuela) 71% cacao ($2 for 2.82 ounces). Spanish chocolate maker Chocovic makes three single-origin couvertures (chocolate used by confectioners). This one, purchased at Trader Joe's, was the best value of the tasting. It's dark, almost black, with aromas of tobacco and nuts. It's silky, and not fruity but earthy, with hints of coffee and peanuts and a nice finish.
El Rey "Apamate" Carnero Superior Dark Chocolate (Venezuelan single bean origin) 73.5% cacao ($3 for 2.8 ounces). Another earthy one, with a matte finish, it has aromas of sweet tobacco and almonds. It's slightly rough-textured but not unpleasantly so, and tastes of fresh, raw nuts with sweet raisin at the end.
Green & Black's Organic Dark 70% cacao ($3.50 for 3.5 ounces). Cocoa and cocoa butter aromas give way to big fruit flavors -- almost plummy -- that open up as soon as the chocolate starts to melt (almost cleanly); it also tastes slightly salty and finishes with a dusty, grassy note.
Dagoba Organic Chocolate "Conacado" (Dominican Republic) 73% cacao ($2 for 2 ounces). Not for the faint of heart; this organic chocolate is dark and deep, with dusty fruit aromas and complex, earthy, bitter-coffee flavors. It would make interesting chocolate sauce to play against sweet, floral vanilla ice cream.
Ghirardelli Chocolate Intense Dark "Twilight Delight" 72% cacao ($3.50 for 3.5 ounces). A grocery-store find that pleasantly surprised panelists: This chocolate has an interesting aroma of prunes, a soft, creamy texture, bright fruit flavors and nice acidity. "Sating," as one panelist put it.
Lindt "Excellence" Intense Dark 70% cacao ($3 for 3.5 ounces). Another tasting surprise: cocoa butter-vanilla aromas are followed by bright, citrusy (as well as green banana) flavors, with what one panelist described as "a nice round edge."
Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker Bittersweet 70% cacao ($4.50 for 3 ounces). Not so much chocolaty as fruity, this made-in-California chocolate tastes of fresh cherries and raspberries, with a citrusy finish, though a little flat. "Bright, but not much complexity," one panelist said.
Trader Joe's "Pound Plus" Dark Chocolate 72% cacao($4 for 17.6 ounces). Although it doesn't have much aroma, this chocolate has a good, straightforward chocolate flavor: dried fruit, a little earthy, with a long finish. Some thought it one-dimensional, though.
E. Guittard Bittersweet Chocolate 72% cacao ($12 for 1 pound of wafers). Having heard positive comments about E. Guittard from some pastry chefs, we were surprised to find this chocolate not as satisfying as some of the others. It has a classic baking chocolate aroma, but not much of it, with little flavor and a waxy texture. Perhaps its waxiness makes for good "fluidity" when baking or making chocolates.
Côte d'Or "Expériences" Noir 70% cacao ($4 for 3.52 ounces). A Belgian chocolate readily available in European supermarkets, it has a shale-like texture, some fruit flavor that dissipates quickly and a somewhat stale aftertaste.
Villars Swiss Dark Chocolate 72% cacao ($3 for 3.5 ounces). An odd, bitter aroma and too-sweet flavor. It tastes almost like milk chocolate, and the texture is grainy.
Chocolove Organic Dark Chocolate 73% cacao ($3 for 3.2 ounces). A "high-pitched" aroma; not much chocolate flavor or character, with a sort of blunt, cardboard finish.
Godiva Chocolatier Dark Chocolate 72% cacao ($4 for 3.5 ounces). This chocolate has a pleaant nutty aroma, but it's sweet and not intense, with a chalky texture and sulfury finish.
Santander Colombian Single Origin Dark Chocolate 70% cacao ($2 for 2.47 ounces). It doesn't have much aroma, has a chalky texture and tastes of sweet toasted corn -- curiously, like Cocoa Puffs.
Theo Ivory Coast 75% cacao ($6 for 3 ounces). A single-origin chocolate that smells a little of straw mats and has a flat, chalky texture; there's little chocolate flavor and no finish.
-- Betty Hallock