If you use a lot of chocolate when you bake, you’ll notice that it is the one ingredient that pastry chefs would recommend you use a specific brand or quality grade. For other ingredients, they will mostly just specify the size (one large egg), a basic type (unsalted butter), or a method of preparation (dessicated coconut). It’s different with chocolate. They insist you use high-quality variants, often mentioning brands like Valhrona, Scharffen Berger, Callebaut, and other names that sound both expensive and vaguely European.
The main problem with using nothing but the top-of-the-line brand names is the cost. Even mid-tier chocolate can be relatively expensive, especially when some recipes use up to a pound of the stuff. Upgrading to high-quality chocolate can really burn a hole in your pocket. It’s why I’ve mostly stuck with Hershey’s or Bakers’ chocolate when I bake. And since my stuff still always comes out delicious, it makes me wonder how big of an effect the expensive brands really have on the finished product.
Does the quality of the chocolate really impact your final baked product? Or is it all marketing, when your baking idol recommends that you use Guittard for your cupcakes? In the in the name of truth and chocolate, it’s time to find out.
I used a David Lebovitz recipe, Robert’s Absolute Best Brownies, from his book, Ready for Dessert. I chose this recipe for one simple reason: it had the highest chocolate content (half a pound!) and the least amount of flour among all the brownie recipes I’ve tried. If there’s a recipe where the quality of the chocolate would shine through, this is it.
I chose four dark chocolates to work with, all at different price points:
Goya Dark Chocolate Buttons – PHP 46 per 100gms
Locally, we don’t have an official definition for dark chocolate (the EU requires a minimum 35% cocoa solids), so it’s not surprising that these Goya buttons did not have an official estimate of cocoa content clearly printed on its packaging. Based on how it tastes, though, I would say it that it’s in the lower end of that spectrum. The buttons almost taste like milk chocolate. They are also on the softer side, with none of the snap of the more expensive options. The buttons also took longer to melt.
Hershey’s Special Dark Chocolate Chips – 45% cocoa solids – PHP 61 per 100g
It’s my favorite Hershey’s Miniature, in chip form! They taste the same as the bars, and yes, I will admit to popping a few into my mouth while baking. However, chocolate chips are not always recommended for anything other than chocolate chip cookies. This is because chips are usually made with less cocoa butter to help them keep their shape. Consequently, it takes longer to melt them down without ending up with a sludgy and lumpy mess. I had the same problem with the Special Dark chips, and they actually took the longest to melt smooth.
Callebaut Dark Chocolate – 53% cocoa solids – PHP 87 per 100g
Ina Garten insists on using only good ingredients, and Callebaut is her recommended chocolate. In its raw state, this Belgian chocolate is creamy and smooth on the tongue, with a surprisingly complex flavor. It also melted down quickly into a glossy, dark liquid you’d want to dip your finger in.
Icam Dark Chocolate Grand Cru Pachiza – 70% cocoa solids – PHP 136 per 100g
Icam is an Italian brand of chocolate, and Pachiza is a Peruvian couverture from their line of professional chocolates. Couverture chocolates have a higher percentage of cocoa butter than regular chocolates (30% or more), resulting in a firmer snap when it is broken, a creamier flavor, and a silkier texture. Pachiza has 40% cocoa butter and is made from grand cru cacao beans, the rarest and finest beans available. Having the highest percentage of cocoa among the four chocolates, it’s the least sweet of them all, with an almost coffee-like bitterness.
I made four batches of brownies using the four different chocolates. Everything else was the same: I used the same brand of flour, eggs from the same carton, and one baking pan. They were all baked within twenty four hours of each other. I then had groups of people (my family, colleagues, some of the Pepper team) taste the brownies without knowing which batch was made with which chocolate. I then asked them which one they liked the least and the most. I also asked them to guess which one was made from the cheapest and most expensive chocolate.
All the brownies looked the same for the most part. There were some differences in how smooth the tops of them were, but if I didn’t number each batch, I’m sure I would have interchanged them. The textures inside were also remarkably similar. All of them were moist, bordering on fudgy. The deciding factor was, in the end, taste.
It was a unanimous decision: the least liked brownies were the ones made from the Goya chocolate buttons. Everyone agreed that they were too sweet, one person even described the flavor as “one note.” A few people also pointed out that they were reminiscent of brownies you can buy from a certain nationwide bakeshop. The Goya brownies also domed slightly in the oven, but later flattened when it was taken out.
Things were less clear-cut when it came to which one people liked the most. Personal tastes came heavily into play and it was harder for people to agree on what they all liked versus what they didn’t. It’s also logical that most of my taste-testers associated the most delicious with the most expensive, with a few exceptions. More than half chose the Hershey’s Special Dark brownies, while three were undecided between those and my personal favorite, the Callebaut ones. One of my colleagues’ favorite was the Hershey’s brownies, but she chose the Callebaut as the most expensive, saying that its flavor was “well-balanced.” Only one person chose the most expensive and the strongest-tasting of the lot: the Icam Pachiza brownies.
So does the quality (and price) of a chocolate really matter when baking? The results of our test indicate yes and no. I guess it’s not surprising that the Goya brownies were the least-liked and the most affordable ones. Their chocolate has too little cocoa butter and solids, which explains the price and the lack of a rich, deep chocolate flavor.
After everyone agreed on which was the worst, personal taste ruled the roost. Although everyone else thought that the Icam Pachiza brownies were delicious in their own right, the chocolate was just too dark and bitter for a lot of people. Both the top and runner-up brownies, the Hershey’s and Callebaut, were better for the testers, who apparently prefer the middle ground when it comes to their chocolate.
So, what have we learned? When it comes to choosing the chocolate you’ll be baking with, don’t go for the cheapest stuff. They’re cheap because they probably aren’t that good. Beyond that, go with what you like. If you love a grand cru, organic, single-origin 68% chocolate, then go for it! If it’s the Tollhouse chips that you can’t get enough of, then bake away!
It’s all chocolate, anyway. You can hardly go wrong.
Robert’s Absolute Best Brownies (adapted from David Lebovitz)
Total Time: 45 minutes / Yield: 12-16 brownie slices
- 6 tablespoons (3 ounces) unsalted or salted butter, cut into pieces, plus more for the pan
- 8 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 cup walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, or pecans, toasted and coarsely chopped (note: I didn’t use nuts for my test, as I didn’t want them to distract from the chocolate)
- Preheat the oven to 350°F or 175°C
- Line an 8 inch square pan with two lengths of foil or parchment, crossing one over the other, allowing the excess to extend beyond the edges of the pan. This will make it easier to remove the brownies from the pan later. Lightly butter the foil or parchment.
- Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over low heat. Once all the butter is melted, add the chocolate. Stir until all the chocolate is melted and smooth.
- Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the vanilla and sugar until combined.
- Beat in the eggs by hand, one at a time.
- Add in the flour and gently fold in the flour with two or three motions only. This is only to prevent the flour from flying all over the place on the next step.
- Stir very vigorously for one full minute until the batter is smooth and glossy. When I say one full minute, I mean it: time yourself and do not stop until your timer goes off. And by “vigorously,” I mean you should be a little sweaty and your arm sore, after. This step is the difference between sad, crumbly brownies and brownies that deserve to be called the “absolute best.”
- Scrape the batter into the pan and bake for 25-30 minutes. The center should feel almost set when you take the pan out of the oven.
- Let the brownie cool completely in the pan. It won’t be easy, but your patience will be rewarded. Once cool, lift the brownies out of the pan and slice into squares.