Let's get some basics out of the way: 100% dark chocolate is unique in the chocolate world because, by definition, it's unsweetened. Sometimes it's made with nothing but cacao beans, and sometimes it's made with a mix of cacao beans and added cacao butter (that's the fat portion of the cacao bean). Either version can be sold as 100% dark chocolate because it contains only cacao-based ingredients. Either version is a savory, rather than sweet, food.
So why the guide? When I introduce folks to 100% dark chocolate, expectations run something like "that must be really bitter!" or "that must be really chalky!" Most of our experiences with unsweetened chocolate have come via mass-market baking chocolate, which is indeed often bitter and dry above all else. But there's a new crop of 100% dark chocolate available, made by quality-driven producers--and it's worth embracing. Sure, it has bitterness, but it also has a suite of other flavors that make for a complex, entertaining eating experience. (Not to mention, it's usually creamy rather than dry.)
But the question remains: what do you do with 100% dark chocolate? Many of my customers have tried my 100% bar, been pleasantly surprised, and still wondered how they'd actually use it in their own culinary lives. It's a fair question, and one I've been thinking about more and more as my own appreciation for 100% has grown.
The guide that follows has the simple purpose of providing some ideas to answer that question. It's not a guide to tasting chocolate (there are plenty of those out there); instead, it's a guide to enjoying chocolate. The exact flavors you detect in the chocolate are always less important than whether or not you enjoy the eating experience, and this guide is all about enjoyment.
Tip #1: Invest in quality
I mentioned that for many of us, 100% conjures up memories of unsweetened “baking chocolate” from the grocery store, an overwhelmingly bitter product with a dry texture. The most important advice I can give for enjoying 100% dark chocolate is to avoid that kind of thing. There are tons of better options now, from chocolate makers focusing on quality. While 100% is still going to be intense, a good piece will have much more to its flavor profile than bitterness, not to mention a rich, creamy mouthfeel. Expect to spend $8-12 for a quality bar--interesting flavors and pleasant textures are unlikely to be found in the $3-4 per bar range, or from most bulk baking chocolate. This may sound expensive, but remember: a little bit goes a long way, and chances are you're supporting an ethical supply chain.
Tip #2: Resist your instinct to cook with it
When customers see my 100% bar, they often ask if it's for baking. This is a fair question, since most Americans' experiences with unsweetened chocolate happen in the context of recipes. And while you could certainly bake or cook with high-quality 100% chocolate (and with excellent results), it would not be the best way to enjoy its quality. That's because other ingredients tend to dilute and mask the chocolate's unique flavors, not to mention losing the textural pleasure wrapped up in the melt of a good piece of chocolate. What to do instead? I recommend pairing quality chocolate with other quality foods that enhance and complement, rather than mask, the chocolate. Read on for suggestions specific to 100% dark chocolate.
Tip #3: Add it to your next cheese plate
It’s hard to go wrong adding chocolate to a cheese plate, but 100% makes an especially good choice. After all, like much of what’s on the plate, it’s a savory food. (In fact, it can even have cheese-like flavors.) And that savory character makes it equally at home on the appetizer or dessert versions of the cheese plate. If you wish, balance the chocolate's intensity with a sweet accompaniment--on the plate, with honey or fruit preserves, or in your glass, with a sweeter wine (which is especially good with an after-meal spread).
Tip #4: Pair it with quality black coffee
Like wine and chocolate, coffee and chocolate are a match that everyone thinks would be great, but in fact takes some care to get right. Here's why. Sweetened chocolate tends to make plain coffee taste sour--especially some of the more interesting, acid-forward coffees offered by specialty roasters. Likewise, sweetened coffee is liable to make unsweetened chocolate taste more bitter than it really is. But when the sweetness levels are in alignment, it works. So, if you're starting with unsweetened chocolate, keep that coffee unsweetened too. Beyond that, pairing like with like is a good approach. Fruity chocolate with fruity coffee, nutty with nutty, etc. Besides tasting "really good" in the most basic sense, there's a bonus: you'll probably experience the flavors in each differently than you would when enjoying them isolation.
Tip #5: Sweeten it your way
Just because it comes to you unsweetened doesn't mean it has to stay that way--but this time, you get to control the sweetener. One of my customers who finds 100% a bit intense told me he adds a drop of honey to a square of 100% for a delicious snack. And with all the honey varietals available these days, there’s sure to be a perfect match for every chocolate. One of my personal favorite sweeteners is a drop of good balsamic vinegar, which has plenty of sweetness plus some acid to keep things interesting. Molasses is also very compatible with chocolate.
Tip #6: Enjoy it when you (or your family and friends) want chocolate but are avoiding added sweeteners
By definition, 100% contains no added sweeteners. A quality 100% bar will deliver that chocolate flavor you're craving (for which there really is no substitute), plus complex secondary flavors and a smooth texture--all without the sweetener.
Tip #7: Enjoy it when you’re trying to eat in moderation
Part of the idea behind quality chocolate is that you don’t need to eat a lot to feel satisfied, because the flavors are so real. 100% pushes this idea to the extreme. A single square should pack lots of flavor and above all, a long, lingering finish that helps you feel satiated. I know it sounds incredible, but I've eaten a square of 100% and noticed its flavor lingering in my mouth for a full half an hour.
Tip #8: Stash it at your desk or in your bag for a quick energy boost
Since it’s made from pure cacao, 100% chocolate has the highest concentration of cacao’s chemicals--including theobromine, cacao's main stimulant (contrary to popular belief, there's not actually much caffeine in chocolate). That makes it a natural, sweetener-free way to get an energy boost whenever you need it. Here's another tip: for maximum theobromine, choose a bar made from cocoa/cacao beans only, with no added cocoa butter. Theobromine content can vary by cacao origin.
Tip #9: Pair it with intense drinks
If you're into strong food and drink, few combinations are more lovely than a good glass of whiskey or dark rum and 100% dark chocolate. All it takes is a square or two to nibble on as you sip. Plus, the stimulant effect of the chocolate can keep you sharp while your drink does the opposite. As with all pairings, a reliable strategy is to pair like with like; there are simply too many options on both sides of the equation to cover here. That said, when in doubt, bourbon's rounded, slightly sweet flavors are a safe play with most 100% dark chocolates.
Tip #10: Pair it with wines that sweetened chocolate would ruin
I saved this tip for (almost) last because it really proves how versatile 100% dark chocolate can be. A little background: popular wisdom says that wine and chocolate are great together. In truth, their compatibility is a hotly debated topic among sommeliers, chefs, and other food professionals. My opinion is that they can work well together, but it's not automatic.
Here's the big issue: many wines don’t pair well with chocolates because the sweetness of the chocolate makes the wine taste sour. But that’s not going to be a problem with unsweetened 100%, so a whole new world of opportunities to enjoy wine with chocolate opens up. Every bar is different and it takes some experimentation to find the best match. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: pairing similar flavors and intensity levels is likely to pay off. And since 100% dark chocolate is going to lean towards intensity, it's best matched to drier wines with good structure. When in doubt, try a Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah.
Tip # 11: Make it a conversation piece
Deservedly or not, 100% dark has shock value--why not exploit that and have some fun with it? If you're part of a more adventurous food crowd, offer it to your guests the next time you're hosting a meal (or bring a bar along the next time you're the guest). Foodies love trying new things, having their expectations challenged, and talking about it! 100% dark chocolate can make all of that happen. And if you've been reading along, you already have plenty of approachable ideas for how to share it.