I find most instructions on chocolate tasting to be lacking in detail and not particularly helpful, especially if you are new to it. There’s more to it than look, snap, smell, taste.
Tasting is about clearing your mind, removing distractions, and focusing on the sensations in your mouth and nose, then giving your mind free reign to associate them with gustatory and olfactory memories.
Fully tasting chocolate, or anything, requires an environment that allows you to feel relaxed and comfortable. My family finds my serious approach to tasting chocolate very amusing. I do not begrudge them humor at my expense, but I do find it distracting when I am trying to taste, so I try to taste when I have some quiet time by myself. I recommended finding a time and place where you feel relaxed and don’t have to worry about the time or surroundings.
Clear lingering flavors
Many of the flavors in chocolate are subtle and easily overwhelmed by lingering flavors in our mouths. I use a combination of strategies to cleanse my palette as much as possible beforehand. One approach is to taste before breakfast, when your palette is as fresh as possible. Brush your teeth as soon as you wake up, then eat a few slices of apple to clear away the toothpaste flavor, which can linger. You can also brush thoroughly without toothpaste. Drink some warm water, then wait 30-45 minutes before beginning your tasting.
If you have eaten a meal, wait at least an hour, preferably two, after eating before tasting chocolate. If the meal was light and not strongly flavored, one hour can be fine. If it was a heavy meal or one with strong flavors, such as spices, hot sauce, or garlic, it is preferable to wait at least two hours, or even to the following day! Either way, eat some fruit after the meal, as the fiber and acid help clear out fat soluble flavors in other foods that tend to linger. Then brush your teeth, drink plenty of warm water, and wait as long as possible before tasting chocolate.
Feeling full or hungry will influence how you perceive the chocolate. Ideally, you will feel the slightest bit hungry, but not at all uncomfortably so, when you begin your tasting. Feeling very full tends to make everything less appetizing and pleasant, but feeling ravenous makes it hard to eat slowly and pay attention to nuanced flavors.
Competing Aromas and Odors
Avoid confusing or marring the aroma of the chocolate with perfumes, cologne, scented lotions and soaps, candles, and air fresheners. These strong scents make it difficult to isolate and identify the complex aromas in chocolate. Avoid areas with noticeable smells of cooking, pets, paint, fireplaces, flowers, etc. Also wash your hands well to remove scents on your fingers that you will smell when holding the chocolate to your nose. If you can’t get perfume or garlic scents off your hands, hold the chocolate up to your nose with chopsticks or a fork.
Never eat cold chocolate. It ruins the experience of both the texture and flavor. Temperature has a huge effect. Do not underestimate this.
A fantastic chocolate that is way too cold with taste blander and have a waxy texture. Letting a chocolate that previously seemed mediocre come to room temperature and tasting it after a sip of hot water can open up entirely new levels of flavors.
I always taste with a cup of very hot water. It is useful for clearing the palette between tastings because it melts fats that carry flavor compounds and helps carry them out of your mouth, and also for warming your mouth such that you can experience maximal flavor release from the chocolate. Even when the chocolate is at room temperature, I have been amazed at how much more complexity was apparent when tasting was preceded by a sip of very hot water.
You can taste whichever and how every many chocolates as you want during a tasting session, although you might start to experience palette fatigue after 5 or 6. I have several suggestions for bars that would be interesting to try together on the Suggested Tastings page.
The order in which you taste matters. Start with darker bars first. If you start with milk or 60% bars and go to 70, 80 or 100%, they will taste quite bitter. Starting with the darkest lets you appreciate the flavor profile closest to pure cacao so you can accurately assess the relative sweetness of lighter bars.
Provide Palette Cleansers
Professional tasters sometimes use plain cold polenta (Italian corn pudding) as a palette cleanser. You can do the same or substitute bread or plain crackers. Some people like apple slices, since the acid and pectin help clear and refresh your mouth. Lemon water or sparkling water are also common choices, although some people think the carbonation affects flavor perception.
I favor several sips of plain hot water and a 5-10 minute pause between tastings. The hot water melts any remaining chocolate and helps remove it from your mouth without introducing any new flavors or bits of food that could get stuck in your teeth. A short pause gives your brain a rest. This is important since a lot of tasting is mental – letting your brain process the new flavors and associate them known flavors.
Once you have selected chocolate and palette cleansers and have a calm environment free of competing aromas and flavors, it’s time to experience the chocolate.
I don’t pay much attention to the appearance until I’ve tasted the bar, mostly because I’m more excited to taste it than see it and partly so any visual impressions I have don’t influence the tasting. The shine and color can tell you some things though. A smooth, shiny surface indicates good tempering and careful handling. A whitish dusty looking surface isn’t mold, it’s bloom. It can either be fat or sugar bloom, and both are completely safe to eat though they negatively affect the texture. Sugar bloom happens when the chocolate comes in contact with moisture, either directly or due to temperature fluctuations that resulted in moisture condensing on the surface. The sugar in the bar dissolves in the water and recrystallizes in a fine layer on the surface. This suggests poor handling at some point, which isn’t necessarily the manufacturer’s fault.
Fat bloom appears similarly, as whitish streaks on the surface or interior. Fat bloom happens when chocolate gets warm. The fat can melt and separate from the other components, rising to the surface and crystalizing again. It can also happen when the chocolate was not properly warmed and cooled before the bars were poured.
Note these things as you open the chocolate, but don’t read into the appearance too much.
Smell deeply as you open the package – often aromatic compounds will build up inside sealed foil or plastic. Break off a piece and smell the broken edge. If you don’t smell much, trying rubbing the surface of the chocolate to warm it up and help release the aromas. Breathe deeply through your nose, close your eyes to limit distracting visual input, and see what it reminds you of. Keep your mind open. You might smell things you expect, like brownies, a toasted aroma, or caramel. You might smell jasmine, cherries, cinnamon, orange peel, dried figs, or red wine. You might also smell something completely unexpected, like leather, cedar, celery, olive oil, or pepper.
Pay attention to unpleasant odors like smoke, burnt nuts, smoked meat, mold, chemical odors, or overripe fruit. These may indicate defects in the beans or poor processing. See What Determines Chocolate Flavor for more information on why these aromas can occur.
Take a bite about the size of a nickel. Let it warm up for a moment in your mouth, then chew it once or twice. Let it melt more and move it around your mouth with your tongue. There are a couple techniques you can try to taste the most flavor possible from the chocolate. You may feel silly trying them at first, but they work.
Once the chocolate is warmed, use the tip of your tongue to rub it against the top of your mouth, and kind of ‘chew’ the chocolate with your tongue. Open your mouth slightly as you do so to pull in a little air. This is important because air carries flavor molecules up to your nose, which is responsible for most of what we call flavor. Our mouth senses sweetness, bitterness, saltiness, sourness, protein-rich flavors, and possibly fat as well, but nothing more nuanced than that. The rest of the complexity comes from retronasal olfaction, which just means smelling from the back of your nose. Air, along with tiny volatile flavor molecules, can enter our noses from the front, through our nostrils, or the back, through our mouths and up. Our brain knows the difference, and when it senses molecules coming from our mouth, it registers them as flavors rather than smells. So, get plenty of air moving around your mouth as you are tasting. Try taking a breath in through your mouth and breathing out through your nose to help accentuate it.
Close your eyes to avoid visual distractions and let your mind wander through the flavors. Do your best to remove any preconceived notions of what it is supposed to taste like. Disregard the fanciness of the packaging, whatever the maker says you might taste, whatever I said you might taste, and whatever you think chocolate should or can’t taste like. Write it down, if you want. It’s fun to compare your notes from the same chocolates tasted a few days apart. Often I forget exactly what I wrote and have been surprised to see how consistent my notes are from day to day. If you want a guide to possible flavors, see my Chocolate Aroma and Flavor List.
There you go! The more you taste the easier it will be to identify and describe what you are tasting. The benefit of that is you will know exactly what you like most and will get more enjoyment from every bar you try.