Fannie’s Last Supper Now Airing On Public Television-Check Local Listings-Many Stations Are Airing It On Thanksgiving Day! This Film Brings My New Book, Fannie’s Last Supper, To Life Through The Generous Support Of Thermoworks, Kuhn Rikon And DCS By Fisher & Paykel.
list of products tested
The purest form of chocolate, with no sugar or other ingredients added, unsweetened chocolate is definitely not candy (as anyone who’s sampled it plain can tell you). Mayans mixed it with hot water and drank it as a bitter, stimulating beverage, the way we drink black coffee. Spanish explorers brought it home, and within the next century it was all the rage in Europe (though often with added sugar and milk). But for all its popularity, chocolate remained a luxury until the Industrial Revolution, when mass production made it cheap enough for mass consumption. One of the first food manufacturers in America was the James Baker Co. of Dorchester, Mass., which began making Baker’s brand unsweetened chocolate in 1765. Milton Hershey’s first chocolate was an unsweetened baking bar introduced in 1894 (the famous milk chocolate bar followed six years later).
Both of those pioneering American products are still sold in supermarkets. But like other forms of chocolate, the unsweetened kind has gone upscale these days, and basic brands share the shelves with far more expensive products billing themselves as “premium” or “artisan.” There are also myriad fancy unsweetened chocolates available through mail order. Could any of these top the originals? We rounded up seven other competing brands and baked all nine in classic brownies and then mixed them into chocolate sauce to find out.
We asked our tasters to rate the samples on the intensity and complexity of chocolate flavor—and right from the start it was clear that unsweetened chocolates are not all alike. From nutty to fruity, smoky, and coffeelike flavors, they brought a wide range of nuances to our tasting table. Since most of these chocolates contain nothing more than processed cacao beans, we could only assume that any flavor complexities derived from the beans themselves, which manufacturers roast and blend to further manipulate their product’s typical flavor profile.
When we tasted the brownies, though, we were surprised that some of the more exotic chocolates actually fell short. Tasters described brownies as “bland, not much in the way of complexity,” “mild,” and “nothing special.” Their comments on others echoed these sentiments: “pretty meek,” “dull,” and “one-dimensional.” Another chocolate fared no better, with tasters complaining, “Where’s the chocolate?”
The best-liked brownies came from three sources: a French brand that tasters praised for a “smoky” profile; another which was noted for being very sweet, with “raisin,” “raspberry,” and “coffee undertones”; and to our surprise, one of the everyday supermarket brands. Tasters raved about its “well-rounded, complex flavors,” including suggestions of “caramel and coffee,” with “rich, deep, bittersweet notes” and “big” chocolate flavor. However, our other classic American brand didn’t fare nearly as well. Some tasters liked the cherry tones this chocolate provided, but most found it underwhelming, tasting far more of sugar than of chocolate.
Intrigued but not yet convinced, we sampled all the entries again, this time in a simple chocolate sauce. The tasters’ scores and comments mirrored the brownie results almost exactly.
Secrets of Chocolate
Chocolate manufacturers closely guard their trade secrets, so discovering exactly what made the top-ranked chocolate brands stand out was not easy. We sent the chocolates to an independent laboratory to analyze their percentages of cocoa solids and cocoa butter—the two components that make up cacao beans. We also compared ingredient lists and evaluated tasters’ comments for clues.
While every unsweetened chocolate is made up of 100 percent cacao or very close to it (some brands contain trace amounts of other ingredients such as vanilla or lecithin), we found the chocolates varied in the amount of cocoa butter they contain. According to federal regulations, unsweetened chocolate must contain no less than 50 percent and no more than 60 percent cocoa butter. Our lab tests revealed that our winner had the lowest fat level of all of the chocolates, with just 50.3 percent. Most of the rest of the lineup contained between 52 and 55 percent fat, a typical amount that naturally occurs in cacao beans. With the least cocoa butter, the test kitchen favorite contains more cocoa solids than the rest of the lineup, which would explain its richer chocolate flavor.
But so far, all we had was a partial explanation, because some of the lowest-ranked chocolates also contained high levels of cocoa solids. So merely having more chocolate flavor isn’t enough: It has to be good chocolate flavor. Over-roasting may have been the downfall of a bottom-ranked brand: Tasters noticed burned flavors, “like licking charred bark,” “smoky,” and “unpleasant.” Baker’s shared that “burnt,” “earthy, soil-like” profile.
And then there are the beans themselves. Given that unsweetened chocolate is simply roasted ground cacao beans, usually not refined or conched (a process of grinding chocolate particles very finely while aerating the chocolate and mellowing the flavor), there’s no hiding mediocre beans and faulty roasting. But experts told us that the best beans generally are not used in unsweetened chocolate. “Since it is also called baking chocolate, and used in recipes with other ingredients, not usually eaten alone, you often find a wider variation in its quality,” said Gregory Ziegler, a professor of food science at Penn State University. “I’d think that these products would typically be a blend of average beans.” But our winner’s ingredient label also shows that it contains added cocoa (more cocoa solids with some fat), and one expert speculated that the company incorporates higher-quality cocoa into a base of cheaper beans to boost the flavor.
When all is said and done, do we still recommend using unsweetened chocolate? Yes. When we developed our recipe for Old-Fashioned Chocolate Layer Cake (March/April 2006), only unsweetened chocolate created the traditional tender, airy, open crumb that stood tall, not fudgy and dense like more modern cakes. We’ll also continue to use it as a way to pack more chocolate flavor into chocolate desserts while keeping the sweetness under control. Because overall scores in this testing were close for most of the top of the lineup, any of the higher-ranked unsweetened chocolates will do the job. Just avoid the bottom-ranked brands—they’ll only add weak chocolate flavor and possibly some unpleasant off-flavors, too.
From the desk of Christopher Kimball
Pre-order the 2010 Cook’s Illustrated Annual and Save 23%! Order Soups, Stews, & Chilis Cookbook and Save 30%! View Photos from my Annual Pig Roast Listen to and Download Pig Roast Orchestra Songs Look at Game-Camera Photo from Kimball Farm (Fox!) Watch Game-Camera Video from Kimball Farm (Bucks!) Watch a Funny Behind-the-Scenes Video from the Cook’s Country TV Show
Dear Home Cook,
I visited Axel yesterday (he appeared in the first season of Cook’s Country, stopping by the test kitchen for cooking advice), and he told me a fishing story—a whopper. In summers, trout often come up the Green River looking for colder water once the Battenkill warms up. If you know where to look, there are a few deep pools in the upper part of the river, and a few very large trout hang in there. Well, Axel had lost a huge trout last year in one of these pools, and he was determined to go back and get it. He caught a couple of fine trout but then hooked into the big one. He almost got it up on shore, but then the fish jumped and flopped off the hook. Well, that was it for Axel—he just wasn’t going to lose that fish a second time, so he did what any determined angler would do: He went crazy and jumped in after it, hands outstretched. He missed the fish but didn’t miss banging up his leg and ankle. And that’s a real Vermonter’s fish story for you!
The pig roast was a big success this year: The rain held off, the pigs were nicely cooked, the crowd was large, and the band had its best year ever, adding a sax player and a lead vocalist. You can listen to and download our set list on my blog and also see photos of the event. We have renamed our band in honor of the roast and are now called the Pig Roast Orchestra.
I have had game cameras out for the past few weeks (they automatically take photos when a large animal passes by) and got a couple of big surprises. The first was a night shot of a large fox—he’s the one who has been after our chickens. But when I loaded photos from the camera taken at the top of our summer pasture, I almost fell over. There was a video of a large buck—at least six points! Click here to see what else has been around the Kimball farm when nobody is looking.
We just published two new books. First, Soups, Stews & Chilis (order for just $24.50—a 30% discount) is now available, just in time for fall cooking. Among our discoveries when developing these recipes was that the best beef stock is made quickly from ground beef, not bones, and that cream of tomato soup is terrific without even one drop of cream. And we created dozens of recipes in which the oven does most of the work—not you, the cook. There’s also Sirloin Steak and Potato Stew, Asian Chicken Noodle Soup, and Baby Carrot Bisque. Enjoy! We also published the 2010 Cook’s Illustrated Annual (pre-order for $26.95—a 23% discount), which will be available in early November. It contains all six issues of Cook’s Illustrated from 2010, nicely hardbound with a stiff cloth cover. I still hang on to all of my back issues in these hardbound editions, arranged by year. It’s a handy, quick way to travel back to a recipe or technique that I want.
We just finished up two weeks of filming the 2011 season of Cook’s Country from America’s Test Kitchen. It was a glorious year. The crew went to the marble quarry almost every night to swim, we had movie nights with films projected on the side of the barn, and we made a funny behind-the-scenes video that we showed at the wrap party. The line of the year came from Bridget, who said, as I was making yummy noises while trying some of her Slow Cooker BBQ Beef Brisket, “You and that brisket ought to get a hotel room!” Well, it was funny at the time.
I was just given a book on Maine humor by Ken, one of the cameramen on the Cook’s Country shoot. This story is a variation on the classic Vermont story about getting directions.
A Boston couple bought a summer home in Maine and were told that a man named Ben Higby might be willing to undertake repairs at their cottage. About a mile down the road, they found a man working in a field.
“Excuse me, do you know where Ben Higby lives?” asked the husband.
“Ayuh,” said the man, looking the two over and volunteering no further information.
“Well, could you tell us where he lives?” asked the wife. The man pointed to a small house about a mile up the mountain.
“That’s quite a walk,” said the wife. “Do you suppose Mr. Higby is in?”
“Nope, he ain’t home,” said the man.
As the couple looked at each other, pondering their next move, the man in the field asked, “What do you want with him?”
Replied the husband, “We just bought the Varney cottage and we were told that Mr. Higby might be willing to do some repairs for us.”
The man regarded him for a moment, then said, “I’m Higby.”
Christopher Kimball Founder and Editor America’s Test Kitchen
These light-as-air pancakes are best served with maple syrup. Home stovetops vary, so you may need to adjust the burner setting between medium-low and medium. For maximum rise, allow the eggs and buttermilk to come up to room temperature before using them. Low-fat buttermilk works best in the recipe – if using fat-free buttermilk, reduce the amount to 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons. Although these pancakes are at their puffiest when served in batches, they may be kept warm on a cooling rack sprayed with vegetable oil cooking spray and placed over a sheet pan in a 200-degree oven for up to 20 minutes.
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups low-fat buttermilk (see headnote)
1/4 cup sour cream
2 large eggs, separated, plus 1 extra egg white
2 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled
1. Whisk flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt together in large bowl. Stir buttermilk and sour cream together in medium bowl until combined. Add egg yolks and butter to buttermilk mixture, and stir well to combine. With electric mixer or balloon whisk, beat egg whites in large bowl to soft peaks. Pour buttermilk mixture over dry ingredients and whisk together until just combined. (The batter should be lumpy with visible streaks of flour.) Using spatula, carefully fold whites into batter until just combined. Do not over-mix—a few streaks of whites should be visible.
2. Heat 2 teaspoons oil in large nonstick skillet over medium-low heat for 5 minutes. Using 1/4-cup measure or small ladle, spoon batter into pan. Cook until bottoms are evenly browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Flip pancakes and cook until golden brown on second side, 2 to 3 minutes longer. Serve, cooking remaining batter and using more vegetable oil as needed to grease pan.