Dark Chocolate Chips
In the 1930s, Ruth Wakefield, owner of the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Mass., famously cut up a bar of Nestlé semisweet chocolate and mixed it into her batter for Butter Drop Do cookies. Soon newspapers around New England were printing her recipe for chocolate chip cookies, and sales of Nestlé semisweet chocolate bars soared. Nestlé made a deal with Wakefield: In exchange for permission to print what became known as the Toll House recipe on its candy bar wrappers, she would receive a lifetime supply of chocolate. By 1939, Nestlé had begun selling packages of small pieces of chocolate, named “Toll House morsels” after the inn where they were invented.
Decades later, Toll House morsels are synonymous with chocolate chips. But with other familiar chocolate names like Hershey’s and Baker’s in the chip game—along with upscale brands claiming to offer richer flavor and better texture—does Nestlé still deserve to be the nation’s best-selling morsel? In a recent tasting of dark chocolate bars, we found the complex flavor of gourmet brands trounced ordinary supermarket chocolate. To see if the same might hold true for chips, we rounded up eight high-end and middle-market brands (including two from Nestlé, the original morsels and semisweet chunks), all of which are widely available at supermarkets. We then sampled them plain and in cookies.
Chip or bar, chocolate has just three basic ingredients: cocoa butter, cocoa solids, and sugar. The “cacao percentage” you hear so much about in bar chocolate refers to the total amount of cocoa butter and cocoa solids contributed by ground-up cacao beans. Sugar accounts for the rest of the content, along with minute amounts (typically less than 2 percent) of emulsifiers, vanilla flavoring, salt, and sometimes milk fat.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that dark chocolate, whether labeled bittersweet, semisweet, or dark, must be at least 35 percent cacao. As a general rule, the higher the cacao percentage, the darker and more intense the chocolate. Since many chocolate makers are secretive about their proprietary methods and formulas, we sent the chips to an independent lab to analyze their cacao percentages. While bars of dark chocolate typically boast cacao amounts starting at about 60 percent, most of the chips we tasted contained far less, 42 to 47 percent.
Why are chips and bars so different? Less cacao means less cocoa butter, which means the chocolate will be less fluid when melted, making it easier for chips to hold that classic teardrop shape on the production line. More significantly, because cocoa butter is expensive, using less of it makes chips cheaper to produce than the average bar (ounce for ounce, the chips in our lineup cost about half as much as bar chocolate from the same brand).
The absence of cocoa butter was immediately clear when we tasted chips right out of the bag. With just one exception, tasters found the chips gritty and grainy instead of creamy and smooth like bar chocolate. The brand that stood apart distinguished itself further when we baked the chips in cookies. Unlike the other chips, which retained their morsel shape during baking, this chip melted into thin layers that spread throughout the cookie, ensuring gooey chocolate in every bite. Furthermore, when we examined its ingredient list, we found that this chip had the highest percentage of cacao in the lineup—60 percent, comparable to bar chocolate—and the most cocoa butter by far (44 percent, minus a tiny amount of milk fat). It was also wider and flatter than a standard chip, which enhanced its ability to melt into thin strata throughout the cookie.
Sugar was another consideration—and more wasn’t better. Our favorite chip had the least sugar in the lineup. By contrast, the chip with the most sugar was panned for tasting like “cheap Halloween candy.” But a relatively high sugar content wasn’t a deal-breaker, as we learned from our second-favorite contender.
This chip had us stumped. Even with a hefty 53 percent sugar (and just 45 percent cacao), its chocolate flavor was unexpectedly potent. The label revealed that this chip contained Dutch-processed cocoa powder (cocoa solids treated with an alkali to neutralize acidity). Chocolate makers grind shelled cacao beans, known as nibs, to create the thick paste called chocolate liquor, which contains both cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Manufacturers frequently bump up chocolate flavor by adding cocoa powder (often made from cheaper, poorly fermented cacao beans, which tend to be very acidic). In these chips, Dutch processing tamed the cocoa’s acidity, deepening its chocolate punch.
Quality Bean, Quality Chip
Still, good chocolate is not just about a high cacao percentage and plenty of cocoa butter. For complex flavor, a manufacturer must start with good-quality beans that have been grown and harvested under optimal conditions. The beans must then be properly fermented and roasted to bring out traces of flavors such as smoke, caramel, and fruit. Upscale chocolate makers claim that every detail is critical—and are loath to reveal their methods. Other manufacturers cut costs by using poorly fermented beans and then over-roasting and over-conching (a process of beating and turning the chocolate for 24 to 72 hours) to mask bitterness and off-flavors. The result may be acceptable but, as we found in many of the lower-ranking chips, the flavor is one-dimensional.
Only our winner delivered the intense, complex flavors we expect from superior chocolate (in fact, we found ourselves sneaking handfuls straight from the bag). This premium chip, it turns out, has the same cacao percentage as the brand’s dark chocolate bar, the runner-up in our dark chocolate tasting. It also has the same smoky, fruity, and winelike flavors. A company spokesperson confirmed that the chocolate is identical in the bar and the chips—the beans undergo the same harvesting, fermenting, and roasting processes for each. The only difference is in how they’re manufactured: The bar is tempered to deliver a smooth finish and crisp snap. Curious how the chip would fare against the significantly more expensive chopped-up bar in cookies, we held a side-by-side tasting. Tasters preferred the silkier texture of the bar, but were divided on which form of chocolate tasted better. Given that the bar costs 75 cents an ounce, and the chips cost just 30 cents an ounce (and need no chopping), we’ll stick with the chips for cookies—and maybe even for eating out of hand.
As for America’s favorite chip, Nestlé Toll House Real Semi-Sweet Chocolate Morsels? They landed in second-to-last place, alongside the brand’s semisweet chocolate chunks. With a low cacao percentage and the highest sugar level, these were the very same chips tasters likened to “cheap Halloween candy,” and they belong at the bottom of our lineup.
Our favorite premium extra-virgin olive oil from a previous tasting, Columela is composed of a blend of intense Picual, mild Hojiblanca, Ocal, and Arbequina olives. This oil took top honors for its fruity flavor and excellent balance. Tasters praised its “big olive aroma, big olive taste” with a “buttery” flavor that is “sweet” and “full,” with a “peppery finish.” One taster said: “It’s very green and fresh—like a squeezed olive.” Another simply wrote: “Fantastic.”
|Spain||$19 for 17 oz|
Tasters noted this oil’s flavor was “much deeper than the other samples,” describing it as “fruity, with a slight peppery finish,” “buttery undertones,” and a “clean, green taste” that was “aromatic, with a good balance.” “It has the flavor that some good EVOOs have,” said one admiring taster.
|Italy||$19.99 for 500 ml ($39.98 per liter)|
Virtually tied for second place, this oil was deemed “round and buttery,” with a “light body” and flavor that was “briny and fruity,” “very fine and smooth,” and “almost herbal,” with “great balance.” “Good olive flavor. I could smell it and taste it,” approved one taster. In a word, “pleasant.”
|Italy||$17.99 for 750 ml ($23.98 per liter)|
|Recommended with Reservations|
A clear step down from the top oils, tasters noted “overall mild” flavor and “very little aroma,” with only a “hint of green olive” and a “hint of spiciness at the end.” In pasta, it was initially “not complex,” but gradually “bloomed in your mouth.” Overall, it was “worthy of a second bite.”
|Italy, Greece, Spain, and Tunisia||$12.49 for 750 ml ($16.65 per liter)|
While some tasters found this oil “sweet” and “buttery” with “medium body” and “slight spice at the end,” others complained that it had “zero olive flavor” and was “so floral it’s almost like eating perfume”; still others noted a “bitter” aftertaste. In pasta, it was “extremely mild” to the point of being “boring.”
|Italy, Greece, Spain, and Tunisia||$10.99 for 750 ml ($14.65 per liter)|
Comments: The best comments tasters could muster were “mild” and “neutral.” Some liked it on pasta (though one called it “Snoozeville”), but complaints were myriad: “metallic,” “soapy,” “briny,” “hints of dirt.” Carped one taster, “I can’t imagine what is in here, but they have a nerve calling it EVOO.”
|Spain||$13.99 for 1 liter|
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