Ask the Alchemist #164


Level:  Apprentice

Read time: 7 minutes

What is your opinion on the use of cocoa butter?  Can you suggest how much I should add?  I don’t want to add too much or too little.

It seems like if you have 4 chocolate makers in a room, you will have 6 opinions on its use.  And a little surprisingly to me, they are often very adamantly held opinions.  They run the full spectrum too, from loving it to thinking it is an abomination.  Or stuff like  “The best chocolate has only two ingredients”.   I don’t see that.  There is no best chocolate.  It is a matter of what you like.  Sometimes I think it is a type of machismo.  Drinking the hoppiest IPA, eating the hottest wings, only having the darkest or ‘purest’ chocolate.  Whatever.  Me?  I like chocolate with a little cocoa butter in it.

With that out of the way, let’s delve into cocoa butter.

First off, you don’t have to add extra cocoa butter to your chocolate.  Or at least some of the darker chocolates.  The reason being that cocoa beans as they come contain 50-55% cocoa butter naturally.  That is what makes cocoa liquor flow.  That is why I say extra, since it already contains some.

At the very basic level you need about 35% cocoa butter in any chocolate you make or it will be just too thick to refine.  That means any dark chocolate above roughly 70% additional cocoa butter is purely optional because it will flow.  For a  50% chocolate though, if you do the maths, you will find there is only about 25% cocoa butter in there, so you will need at add at least 10% extra just to get a workable chocolate.

But how about over and above what is strictly needed?

I add 5% cocoa butter to nearly all of my chocolates as a matter of routine.  Currently my standard evaluation chocolate consists of 75% cocoa nibs, 5% cocoa butter and 20% sugar.  I do it this way for the same reason many people add a couple drops of water to whisky when they are tasting it.  In a rather counter-intuitive way, it actually brings out more flavor instead of diluting the flavor as you might expect.

There seem to be two prevailing theories why this happens.  My thought is that it is probably some combination of the two.

The first goes like this.   Think about a piece of hard rock candy.  It dissolves very slowly in your mouth.  Sure, it is sweet, but not overwhelmingly so.  What happens on the other hand if you put a teaspoon of sugar in your mouth?  It is instantly and powerfully sweet.  But both are effectively pure sugar.  What is different?  It comes down to how quickly the sugar can dissolve and reach your taste buds.  The sugar granules have lots of surface area and dissolve very quickly giving you an intense punch of sensation.  The rock candy takes much longer.

In chocolate the cocoa butter is what carries the flavor to your taste buds.  The more there is of it, the faster it melts and you can get that punch of flavor.  The more the punch, the more flavor you perceive.

Of course, there is a limit.   At some point you are indeed diluting the amount of flavor in there, and even with the punch, there is nothing behind it.   I’ve found 5% is easy and makes a nice difference.  10% can really bring some extra flavor to the table.  And in some cases 15% can allow flavors that you initially could not perceive to become noticeable.

I just recently did a Ghana bar from 50% cocoa nib, 30% sugar, and 20% cocoa butter.  Technically a 70% bar, it was radically different from one without any cocoa butter.  Without any, it was pretty neutral.  There was a fine chocolate flavor, but not a whole lot else.  With the addition, the chocolate was more intense, and there were notes are caramel and vanilla and overall was actually a more memorable chocolate.

And this show the second  mechanism in play.

Ghana has a very intense chocolate flavor.  It can actually be too intense in that it pummels your taste buds.  The result is that they get saturated and you taste less.  This particularly shows up in something like whiskey.  You hardly ever see it at 55% ABV.  It’s just too strong.  And if you do, like in cask strength, it is very well known and accepted that if you add a bit of water to bring it down to 45% there are very noticeably more flavors and aromas.  I’ve tasted this myself with chocolate.  85, 90, 95%.  You are not macho for being able to handle it.  Hell, there is nothing to handle.  It’s just chocolate for goodness sake.    But you could well be blunting your taste buds from the overwhelming input.  Diluted down just a little bit allows you to taste things that otherwise might be lost.

Many a teenager blasted music to 11.  At that level I’ll grant it is a visceral experience.  And maybe you like it.  But if the music in question has anything else going on, it’s going to be lost.  Dial it back to 7-8 and suddenly there is more to notice and more to appreciate.  As we get older, we learn these things.  We mature.  We learn balance. We discover more is not, well, more.   Quite often, it’s less.

So I submit to you that there is no competition to eat the darkest, hard core chocolate.  If you really, truly enjoy it, then more power to you.  Hell, I love a good vindaloo  dialed to 11.  But maybe try dialing it back a little and see what other melodies and counter points come to light.

You might be surprised.

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