How to Read Confusing Chocolate Labels
I was amazed when, a couple years ago in pastry school, we were told what the percentage on a chocolate bar label actually meant. Though I can't remember anymore what I used to think it stood for, at the time it was a revelation.
Chocolate labels can be really confusing. This is mostly by design. Like it or not, marketing is a big part of moving these things off the shelves. Every year more terms are added, subtracted and manipulated to convince you, the consumer, that this is the chocolate you REALLY want to buy. Well, fret no more. The following terms (along with the glossary terms from the other week) will help you out the next time you're staring down an aisle's worth of chocolate.
artisanal: the word "artisanal" simply means "made by an artisan"—a skilled manual worker. This term doesn't really indicate much about the chocolate itself; chances are if they're claiming this, it comes from a small manufacturer as opposed to a factory, but there's no regulation on the term.
bittersweet/semisweet: for most purposes, these terms can be used interchangeably. Very strictly speaking, bittersweet is understood to mean somewhat more bitter than semisweet, but both contain roughly half cocoa mass and half sugar.
couverture: chocolate that contains at least 30% cocoa butter. This makes the tempered chocolate thinner, and easier to use for dipping and coating confections.
cuvée: chocolate created with a blend of beans, specifically tailored by the manufacturer to produce a certain flavor. This is mostly a wine term, but has been co-opted in recent years to apply to chocolate as well.
dark: in American parlance, chocolate that contains only cocoa mass (solids and cocoa butter) and sugar—sometimes a small amount of emulsifier. In Europe dark chocolate is required to have a minimum of 35% cocoa mass, which is actually relatively low; the majority of dark eating chocolate nowadays is between 50-70%, though many popular varieties top 80%.
dark milk: dark chocolate that contains milk solids. Dark milk chocolate is a relatively recent invention; Americans' growing taste for higher cocoa percentage has fueled creativity on the manufacturers' side. Dark milk chocolate can have anywhere from 40 to 60% cocoa mass, though the term isn't regulated.
fair trade: chocolate produced with ingredients from farmers who have been paid a higher price for their goods, with the added goals of supporting sustainability and preventing unfair labor practices. Several certifications exist for fair-trade products, though some find the efficacy and usefulness of the labeling dubious; its rising popularity has made it a subject of much debate.
milk: chocolate with a relatively low percentage (usually 20 to 40%) of cocoa mass that has milk solids or powdered milk added in addition to sugar.
percentage: the percentage on a chocolate label refers to the cocoa mass—cocoa solids and cocoa butter. For dark chocolate, everything not included in the percentage is sugar (sometimes with a small amount of lecithin as an emulsifier)—so a 72% bar is 28% sugar. Milk chocolate is a bit trickier; since there's no requirement to list the percentage of ALL the ingredients, there's no way to tell how much of the bar is milk solids and how much is sugar.
single estate: chocolate made with cacao beans that are all from the same farm or plantation.
single origin: chocolate made with cacao beans from the same "origin"—since this term is relatively vague, it's generally understood to mean a single country or major geographic area.
single varietal: chocolate made with cacao beans from the same variety of tree.
unsweetened: unadulterated chocolate liquor (solids and cocoa butter); can also be labeled as "100%" chocolate.
white: not actually chocolate, since it contains no cocoa solids, white chocolate is cocoa butter with milk solids, sugar, and usually some vanilla.
About the author: Liz Gutman co-owns the Brooklyn-based candy business Liddabit Sweets, which means she spends a lot of time around chocolate (and a lot of time eating it). She moved to New York in 2001 to go to, wait for it, acting school. But when the acting life wasn't for her, she wound up in the French Culinary Institute's pastry program while working at Roni-Sue's Chocolates in Manhattan's Lower East Side. She befriended Jen King, aka the other half of Liddabit, at FCI and founded Liddabit in May of 2009.