% on the chocolate label….what does it mean?

Pure, complete, chocolate going through final refinement process before being formed.

A frequently asked question with a relatively simple answer, but to those unfamiliar with the particulars of chocolate making, it can still seem mysterious. The percentages on straight chocolate bars refer to the total amount of cacao contained therein in the most basic terms. It’s just that simple. However, the percentage listed gives two numbers. The printed number tells us how much total cacao that that particular chocolate bar contains. A second number (which isn’t listed) is the total amount of other ingredients aside from the cacao. So a bar marked at 72% will contain 72% total cacao content, with the remaining 28% being the sum of the other ingredients. When put together, both numbers equal the total, that is, a plain chocolate bar. It’s really just that simple, however there is more to understand.

The beans are roasted, then cracked, and the thin shell is removed. At this stage, we have “nibs.”

What does “cacao content” mean, and what are the “other ingredients”? These are the real questions that we need to ask to understand what makes up our tasty chocolate bar. So let’s further clarify what “cacao content” means. In the most basic terms, it refers to the products obtained from the tree, Theobroma Cacao. The most important are cacao beans (seeds) and their three derivatives: cacao liquor, cacao butter, and cacao powder. The beans are roasted, then cracked, and the thin shell is removed. At this stage, we have “nibs.” These nibs are ground into a paste. This creates our first main product, cacao liquor. The liquor can then be sent off for further ingredient mixing and refinement, or it can be hydraulically pressed to obtain both the cacao powder and butter. The subsequent utilization of these three products is the definition behind the percentages on the chocolate label. For artisan manufacturers, this is usually narrowed to include primarily the liquor and frequently the butter. The powder is sometimes used as well, but this something typically found in larger industrial processing.

Nibs are ground into a paste. This creates our first main product, cacao liquor.

With that understanding, we can turn our attention to the “remaining” ingredients. In the vast majority of cases, the lion’s share is some type of sweetener, usually (but not exclusively) sugar. Depending on the manufacturer and the kind of chocolate made, non-cacao ingredients can also include vanilla, lecithin, fruit powders, salt, spices, milk powders (both dairy and non), and even alternative fats. If the ingredient is built into the chocolate and not merely sprinkled on top or mixed whole into finished chocolate, we can consider it as part of the bar’s percentage.

Within these few basic parameters, the whole of chocolate making and tasting is contained. A world of experiences can be achieved by diligent makers eager to explore the vast realm of chocolate’s potential. Hopefully, as consumers, we can take those journeys with them, appreciating the nuances and savoring the distinctiveness of one of nature’s tastiest gifts.

For more on flavor and the affects of % on it, stay tuned for future articles.

In the meantime, what are your percent preferences?

Contributing Writer: Damion Badalamenti, a New York City native, is a passionately dedicated chocolate and pastry professional. With over twenty years experience in the culinary field and expertise in both the luxury and artisanal sides of the chocolate and candy making markets, he has an intimate understanding and deep passion for both the technical and creative sides of the craft.

Consulting on a wide range of chocolate and confectionary projects. From bean to bar manufacturing to restaurant openings, he has traveled far and wide in search of all things chocolate and delicious. – follow Damion on Instagram: @dbdchocolate

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