20 Degrees of Flavor: Chocolate and Vanilla
Chocolate and vanilla have a long relationship with formulations sweet and savory
Chocolate and vanilla both grow about 20° from the equator, relying on rainforests to thrive. While chocolate comes from a pod grown on the Theobroma cacao tree, vanilla is derived from the pods of the only fruit-bearing Vanilla planifolia orchid. Both are grown in some of the poorest areas of the world and are directly affected by political conflict, harsh environment, and corruption. The methods of harvesting, drying, and fermenting these fundamental ingredients still require intense manual labor.
White, milk, and dark chocolates all have FDA Standards of Identity in the US, listed in Part 163 of CFR Title 21. It’s important to understand what ingredients are allowed while still legally calling the end result “chocolate.” Milk requires at least 10% chocolate liquor, 12% milk solids, and 3.39% milk fat. White chocolate requires a minimum of 20% cocoa butter, 14% milk solids, and no more than 55% sucrose.
“Dark” is not a legal term for chocolate; the product must be labeled under the sweet, bittersweet, or semisweet standards. Both bittersweet and semisweet meet the same standard: minimum of 35% chocolate liquor, and less than 12% milk solids.
Sweet is similar, but only requires 15% chocolate liquor. There is a complicated equation for calculating the amount of chocolate liquor, so chocolate developers should make themselves familiar with the aforementioned standards. Basically, only cocoa butter and milk fat may be used for the lipid phase, and nutritive carbohydrate sweeteners are the only allowable sugars.
Dark chocolate still reigns supreme on the premium market, and highlighting its expansive range of flavor and texture profiles has become the work of artisans and boutique chocolatiers. In these formulations, such small-shop chocolatiers, bean-to-bar makers, and high-end boxed chocolate companies typically focus on characteristics the various growing regions impart to the cacao beans.
Those processors aligned with mass markets utilize one or more proprietary blends of chocolate liquor or purchased chocolate to maintain in-house, whether developing a new item from chocolate, or creating a new product that uses chocolate. Often, developers use their “crayon box” of several chocolates regularly purchased to build a new item.
Flavor profiles not only differ greatly between milk, dark, and white chocolate, but the differences between the cocoa beans are as manifold as the differences between grapes and the wine they produce. Terroir, if you will.
Large chocolate manufacturers use blends of cocoa beans so flavor profiles and other parameters can be maintained from year to year. Repeat buyers of high-volume chocolate items want the product to taste the same no matter when or where they buy its primary components.
Whole-bean roasting adds a nutty flavor to the finished product, compared to roasting just the nib. Some chocolate utilizes an alkalizing step which can occur at different points. Where in the process in combination with the specific alkalizing ingredient, amount and time create additional notes.
Important, too, are the vanilla flavor characteristics, and the amount and type of sweetener. The dairy component, if added, can be dry whole or skim milk; condensed or evaporated; spray dried or roller/drum dried. Roller-dried milk provides more free milk fat than spray dried, so it provides functionality as well because less cocoa butter is needed.
The manufacturing process itself also plays into the eating experience. How long and at what temperature the beans or nibs are roasted affect the profile. Grinding affects the texture of chocolate, and a small fineness requires more cocoa butter to flow, affecting the flavor. Conching is a process of mixing the liquid chocolate for long periods of time, and the methods, temperatures, and times are proprietary to each manufacturer.
The conching step smooths flavors, calming sharp peaks of astringency and removing off-notes, while filling in gaps in the flavor profile. This rounds out the finished chocolate and balances the flavor into a smooth, rich experience.
Along with eating experience, functionality in production also is key. Functionality comes from particle fineness, viscosity, and yield. The human tongue can detect particle size down to approximately 20-30 microns, so a premium chocolate bar needs to have a small particle size.
Turn for the Worse
Some of the biggest issues to control when using chocolate are microbial growth, bloom, water addition, and environmental shock. If chocolate turns white or gray and no longer snaps, it has bloomed.
There are two types of bloom: fat and sugar. Sugar bloom occurs on the surface of chocolate when moisture—usually in the form of humidity—absorbs sugar in the top layer of chocolate. As the water evaporates, the sugar recrystallizes unevenly and leaves a rough, sandy texture.
This texture, with the bloom staying intact when rubbed with a finger, is a telltale sign of sugar bloom. Often, this occurs because manufacturers are cooking creams or caramel centers in the same room as the enrober.
Fat bloom is caused by cocoa butter that has migrated to the outside of the chocolate piece and hardened in uneven, large crystals, and causing a gray layer to form on the surface. When rubbed with a finger, the cocoa butter melts from the body temp and will return soon after. But fat bloom can be wiped off, and it doesn’t cause graininess.
Fat bloom occurs because the chocolate was not tempered properly, was shock-cooled, or was shocked with high heat in storage or during transfer. Other causes of fat bloom can be through eutectic or monotectic properties.
A eutectic state occurs in chocolate when it commingles with an incompatible fat. Palm and coconut fats both can cause the combined melting point to be lower than either the fat or the chocolate, leading to bloom. The science that explains the mechanism behind this bloom is still not completely understood, with one camp stating this lower melting point fat will migrate towards the surface of chocolate, carrying additional cocoa butter with it in a capillary action.
Another hypothesis states that the new fat phase simply provides an environment for cocoa butter crystals to grow at the surface, creating the sharp “mountain range” crystals of bloom. There is no solution to eutectic bloom, but it can be minimized. Chocolate generally will tolerate no more than 5% of a lauric fat by weight of cocoa butter without crossing the phase boundary.
Eutectic blooming can take months to appear, even if temperatures are controlled. Often this is just considered the end of shelflife. A heavy layer of chocolate on the outside is often used to extend the shelflife. This property is also used intentionally to make creamy truffle centers. Even though the product will eventually bloom, the shelf-life is much longer than with a cream-based truffle center.
Similar to, and often confused with, a eutectic is a monotectic. A monotectic forms when an oil is mixed with an incompatible fat. In confectionery, this can include using peanuts, nuts, or nut butters in combination with chocolate. Because these items have lipids that are liquid at ambient temperatures, when they are mixed with cocoa butter the melting point shifts to somewhere between the two.
Surrounding nuts by other material such as caramel or nougat, coating them with a gum and sugar barrier, or adding a stabilizing fat are options for reducing this effect. Also, simply creating a heavier chocolate layer can extend the shelf life.
The Milk Part
Milk chocolate continues to outsell dark and white chocolate (not considered a true chocolate due to its being comprised of only cocoa butter, sugar, and milk solids). In addition to source, variations are differentiated by both the cocoa liquor profile and the milk profile.
The cocoa to milk ratio can be developed to a “dark milk” or “light milk” chocolate to control intensity. Additionally, milk notes can range from fresh, fatty cream to caramel, sour cream, or even “cheesy.”
For confections, roller-dried milk imparts a rich caramel profile that complements buttery centers and those with a lighter flavor. White chocolate, too, can become nuanced by experimenting with the different milks. It is possible to use deodorized cocoa butter in white chocolates to bring out subtle flavors using the white chocolate as a carrier.
Warm brown spices and toasted butter notes work especially well with white chocolate, as the chocolate harmonizes without overtaking the other ingredients. On the other side of confectionary trends, matcha tea has become a popular ingredient to incorporate into white chocolate, creating a green tea version.
Milkfat, also known as butter oil, is compatible with cocoa butter. Added at 2-4%, it softens dark chocolate enough to make the cocoa butter less rigid without interfering with snap or shine. It can, in fact, improve these characteristics. It also provides flexibility in the chocolate to better withstand minor temperature fluctuations, or tolerate incompatible fats and oils.
Milk chocolate generally has enough milkfat to curtail fat bloom (unless using NFDM), although there is often too much to maintain the same snap. When using a milk chocolate with a high load of milkfat, the tempering curve needs to be lowered. Instead of the normal cooling to 84-86°F to start the crystal process, it could require dropping to as low as 76-78°F.
Since the discovery of cacao several thousand years ago in Mesoamerica, where it began as a bitter concoction typically drunk in rituals, it has been put to use in more than confectionary. As a sweet, next to confections, the most popular use of chocolate (and vanilla) is in baking.
“Chocolate will trigger various effects in formulations related to the form of chocolate used,” explains Bob Boutin, owner and CEO of confectionary manufacturer Knechtel Inc. Chocolate is typically incorporated into a formulation as cocoa powder, chocolate liquor, chocolate chips, or chocolate chunks. “Each reacts or performs differently in a product,” stresses Boutin.
“Generally, the easiest to work with, and lowest in cost, is cocoa powder. It will have minimal effect on a formula’s performance before, during, or after processing. In fact, its fiber portion can help hold in moisture and supply some structure.” Boutin stresses that the fat content of cocoa powder—which typically varies from 10-22%—needs to be considered, as it contributes to mouthfeel and richness.
“Chocolate liquor provides the biggest flavor impact,” continues Boutin, “but it is the most costly. It also has the highest impact on the product because of its high cocoa solids and fat content.” Chocolate liquor is commonly 55% cocoa solids and 45% cocoa butter fat.
Chocolate liquor, like cocoa powder, is available in natural and various “dutched” processed (treated with alkali) forms. “Darker dutched forms supply the most robust flavor profile and allow inclusion of a lower quantity in the mix,” adds Boutin. “And when using chocolate liquor, keep in mind the high fat level and very low melting point—only slightly higher than butter or butterfat. This contributes to a soft final product.”
Chip Off the Block
Chocolate chips or chunks provide both formulational and visual impact. But again, incorporation can be tricky. “In baked products, mixing chocolate pieces into still-warm dough will melt the chocolate and lead to dark smears rather than the characteristic and desired piece,” says Boutin. “In some cases specially, formulated chips or chunks, containing higher levels of dextrose will allow better post-bake qualities, such as improved stability and a softer final texture.”
Boutin cautions that most of the aforementioned changes occur in the pre-bake or bake steps, with minimal changes seen during storage or in aging. However, the high fat levels sometimes soften the products final texture and can give it a slightly undesirable, greasy feel.
Baking generally calls for lower fat levels so the chip or chunk doesn’t melt on belt. Recommended levels are 25% fat, and a particle size of 50-60 microns. Dextrose is often added in these chocolate formats as well, to help the piece retain its shape through baking and to minimize bloom.
Ice cream applications are always a hurdle for those processors preferring real chocolate. Cold temperatures make chocolate rock hard and unpleasant to eat. If thin flakes can be used, this can minimize the problem.
“In products meant to be consumed cold or frozen, special formulated chocolates should be used to lessen hardening of the chips and related brittleness,” says Boutin. “Chocolate for frozen products generally is reformulated with more oil and lower melting-point fats.”
Chocolate Within and Without
Yield is the viscosity factor of flowing chocolate. Viscosity is how well the chocolate flows when it’s already moving. With enrobing or dipping, this is important for full coverage. However, too much yield and a fragile center will crush. These factors affect white, milk, and dark chocolate, and are highly dependent on the center and the method of applying chocolate.
When adding toasted grains or a high load of crunchy nuts, use of super-premium chocolate might be necessary but will impact lose cost-effectiveness. More cocoa butter is needed to coat each particle so that the chocolate flows. Cocoa butter is the most expensive part of chocolate, so controlling the amount necessary can make or break a price point.
For enrobing, a crunchy pretzel or cookie won’t show the value of a fine chocolate, and it may be considered slimy. A particle size of 50-60 microns works well for coating a crunchy item, and reduces the cost of the chocolate. When coating a softer center, it is best to stay below 40 microns to maintain an acceptable eating quality.
Yield also is very important for enrobing, because if yield is too thin then edges won’t be covered. Too thick, and it might not flow over the whole piece. Again, chocolate suppliers understand these parameters and can adjust the chocolate to behave as needed.
Harking back to its origins, chocolate is being pushed beyond the sweet treat envelope by many chefs and product developers. Incorporating chocolate into savory applications or using savory inclusions in chocolate products is ramping up. Such envelope-pushing requires finesse, however.
“I focus first on three primary basics: flavor, texture, and if the product will appeal strongly enough to consumers that they will want to buy it,” notes Daniel Herskovic, chef and award-winning owner of Mayana Chocolate. “While dessert flavors have to be recognizable and nostalgic—such as chocolate covered pretzels—so, too, must chili peppers and savory flavors. One of Herskovic’s most popular Mayana products is the “Heavens to Bacon” chocolate bar containing bacon and potato chips.
With bonbons, the characteristics of a center must be considered against the available coating options. In creating a chocolate-coated lavender caramel infused with aged balsamic vinegar, Dave Owens, vice-president of taste and chief chocolatier for Bissinger’s Handcrafted Chocolatier Co. opted for a 60% dark chocolate. “I didn’t want the milkfat of our 38% milk with its caramel notes to get in the way of the delicate flavors. I wanted instead to let the chocolate round out those notes and give them a base from which to shine.”
“When I choose an ingredient, I review the various chocolates we make to pair appropriately,” says Katrina Markoff, founder and CEO of Vosges Haut-Chocolat. “I tend to use stronger or more intense spices, herbs, and roots in my chocolate, so I don’t want cacophony to arise. I use our fudgy-roasted-earthy cacao as the foundation for a more expressive spice. In my Taleggio cheese truffle, I want to reinforce the acidity, so I choose a fruity cacao with higher acidity.”
Savory applications most often work best with straight cocoa liquor, cocoa, or cocoa butter. Spaghetti sauce, chili, stew, and BBQ all benefit from an alkalized cocoa. The earthy brown notes increase the “volume” of the other components without occupying center stage.
In prepared foods—especially frozen dinners—complexity can cover warmed-over notes and a premium aura. For example, freeze-dried cocoa butter can be used to coat fish or chicken to seal in flavor and juice, while not being overpowering or oily. Cocoa liquor brushed on shrimp or salmon before grilling adds depth.
Glazing vegetables such as Brussels sprouts with balsamic vinegar and a touch of cocoa liquor can balance the bitter notes while adding complexity. Sweet potato tossed in honey, butter, and cocoa and quickly broiled enhances the subtle sweetness of the tuber.
John Abels, a chef and instructor at Le Cordon Bleu, designed a multi-award-winning savory chocolate dish for a World of Chocolate gala. An update of cocoa-crusted beef tenderloin, the entrée was served on a Hawaiian sea salt lavosh, with a chocolate-cherry demi-glacé, and a chocolate coated dried cherry for garnish. “I used cocoa powder in the rub, and dark chocolate in the sauce, and layering the chocolate flavors increased the overall flavor profile, making it a standout dish,” he explains.
“I developed espresso-crusted scallops with white chocolate and truffles to use fatty, rich white chocolate as a mimic for a heavy butter sauce,” says Rick Gresh, chef and owner of consultancy group RG Global LLC. “The bitterness of the espresso helped cut through the richness of the chocolate sauce.”
Another recipe Gresh created was his variation of cocoa and chili-crusted steak. “The properties of a good dark-chocolate cocoa powder combined with dried chili peppers and salt come through best when rubbed into the meat for a few hours before searing,” he notes.The cocoa adds a complex flavor and charred smoky crust to the meat with hints of spice from the chili.”
Lenny Ventura, executive chef for Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc., incorporates cacao nibs into goat cheese. The cheese is spread out and coated on the outside, made into a roll, chilled, and then sliced. “The contrasting flavors and textures make for an appealing flavor profile,” Ventura says.
Not So Plain Vanilla
The vanilla orchid belongs to the family Vanilla planifolia, and the orchid blooms one day a year for a few hours. “Vanilla is a subtle and deep flavor that can have fruity notes—as with Tahitian vanilla—or spicy notes, as are in vanilla from Mexico,” says Vosges’ Markoff. “It pairs well with cacao, but is not always necessary.” On the other hand, she points out that vanilla expressed in white chocolate makes the end product “really shine.”
The principal flavor component of vanilla is the volatile organic compound vanillin. In fact, it makes up to 2.5% of the 250+ compounds that give vanilla its unparalleled flavor. Vanillin is produced during the aging process. Although vanillin is the key component, it takes the combination of the other compounds to deliver the deeply complex flavor notes that make up a true vanilla.
The most common vanilla is Bourbon vanilla. The name comes from Reunion Island, a small island in the Indian Ocean off the east coast of Africa, originally called Bourbon Island. It is where the first vanilla was produced after bringing the flower from Mexico.
The nearby island of Madagascar is now the largest producer of Bourbon vanilla beans, and provides more than 85% of the world’s supply of vanilla. Other growing areas include India, Latin America, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Uganda, and Tahiti.
Madagascar vanilla beans have the highest vanillin content. The flavor is strong, rich, and creamy. Rum notes and dark fruit notes can also be detected. In frozen and dairy formulations, this vanilla stands up strongly to the cream and fatty notes, adding complexity. In cookies and chocolate, vanilla blends in and lifts the other strong flavors without standing out.
Some vanillas complement other flavors, especially other spices. Mexican vanilla is creamy and sweet, but with warm spice notes of cinnamon, clove, or nutmeg. Pair with salsas, molé, chili, cheese, or sweet BBQ sauce to enhance all the feel-good warm notes.
Tahitian vanilla is a variant of Madagascar, Mexican, and Indonesian beans. It provides a fruity, floral component. With grilled fruit or light sauce for chicken or white fish, this vanilla adds interesting but not overpowering depth.
In Papua New Guinea, the harvest method is to pick all the pods at once, even those that are too green. This vanilla’s flavor is light and fades into the background. Perhaps the best use is as a masker to cover minor off-notes in a product, or to round out other flavors.
Because vanilla grows in regions that regularly experience tsunamis and severe tropical storms, the market for vanilla is subject to stress. A cyclone devastated the vanilla region of Madagascar earlier this year. Loss of life and property was significant, and displacement has affected hundreds of thousands of people. It was estimated that at least 20-25% of the vanilla crop was damaged or destroyed. Vines that remained intact will produce next year, but new vines will require four years to produce.
Adding to the crisis is the degradation of quality that has been taking place over the last few years as prices for vanilla have increased. Rampant theft has driven farmers to pick beans too early, and a significant percentage of those green vanilla beans are submitted to quick curing.
Quick curing also takes advantage of the record-high vanilla prices by greatly accelerating the time to market. Early beans are also partially cured, then placed in vacuum bags which stop the curing process until the official pick dates for the region. Then, they are removed from the bags and cured.
Since little to no flavor development occurs until beans are properly ripened on the vine, slowly fermented, then dried, the above practices significantly reduce the quality of vanilla. The entire vanilla supply chain is negatively affected.
In theory, Madagascar’s plants and methods allow its vanilla to meet the definition of organic. But a rise in malaria in 2016 led to pesticide infused mosquito netting being provided. The netting was then used to collect the vanilla pods, transferring pesticides from the nets to the pods. None of that vanilla could be certified organic.
Suppliers have been able to weather the storm by diversifying sourcing and by working on new botanical sources of the vanillin compound. Artificial vanilla, too, is available although it cannot be used in a clean-label formulation. Enhancing vanilla with other flavors is a growing option. Flavor houses can work with processors to create customized clean-label vanilla enhancement systems.
Baking with Vanilla
As a volatile compound, the high heat of baking requires a careful hand to preserve vanilla’s profile. “The choice of vanilla will depend on whether it will be a primary, secondary, complementary or background support flavor,” says, Dan Moats, a certified master baker and business development manager for Swiss Colony Retail Brands Inc.
In cookies the quality of the flavor can effect the shelflife. Many times the flavor is left to carry a staling product that “extra day”.
“It can work better to begin a batter or dough with a less expensive vanilla, then finish the cream or icing with a more pleasing flavor, since that is what will hit the taste buds first,” he explains. “Cookies can be tricky; chocolate chip needs a nice, robust flavor, while peanut butter and snickerdoodle can get by with other natural flavors.”
“In icings, vanilla extract can affect the color of the cream,” says Moats. He points out that, if Alpine (“wedding white”) icing is required, a different format must be selected to control color.
As with chocolate, vanilla is seeing more application in savory products. Charlie Baggs, owner of Culinary Innovations Inc., adds vanilla to beef stew. When choosing both chocolate and vanilla, Baggs reviews cost, functional characteristics, desired color, taste, origin, and complexity of taste and flavors.
“The hint of vanilla works in harmony with the Maillard browning reactions of proteins and caramelization of sugars,” he explains. “In contrast to these reactions, it is best to add vanilla components toward the end of the cooking process to allow them to retain their complexity and avoid flash-off.”
Originally appeared in the July, 2017 issue of Prepared Foods as 20° of Flavor: Chocolate and Vanilla.
Politics sometimes drives the decision on chocolate choice, whether due to conflict in the volatile regions of Africa and South America or via various regulations regarding percentages of coca butter or other aspects of chocolate composition. “With the FDA changing labeling regulations to focus on sugar reduction, we could see consumers looking for less sweet and more dark chocolate products,” says Gwen Evenstad, R&D manager at Sweet Candy Co. “It really comes down to who your customer is. The ‘better for you and product seekers Baby Boomers currently are focusing on indulgence with less guilt.”
As an example of exogenous forces at work, Nestlé SA announced in 2015 that it would remove all artificial flavors and colors from its chocolate products by the end of that year. Other large CPG companies have followed suit.
Legislation has established that high-intensity sweeteners—including stevia and monkfruit—do not conform to the definition of nutritive sweetener and therefore chocolate-based items using these sweeteners cannot be labeled as “chocolate.”
Another concern is the presence of Salmonella. It is inherent in cacao and a serious health hazard. Cross-contamination of finished chocolate with beans or nibs containing salmonella has led to numerous recalls. The raw chocolate trend poses an increasing risk, although the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act requires such companies to implement a kill step to eliminate salmonella.