Chocolate making is more a science than an art: Once chocolate is melted — to be infused, blended, flavored, or shaped — the molecular bonds that give it its sheen, snap, and melt-on-your-tongue texture can only be brought together again by a skilled artisan. The process for melting and resetting chocolate is known as tempering, but there are a number of different ways in which chocolate can be melted and then reset, either on its own for a truffle coating or with another ingredient for a bonbon filling. Here, now, is a brief guide on how to tell good chocolates from great chocolates, organized by candy type.
Truffles, those sweet dark round orbs named for the expensive fungi, are made from chocolate that has been melted and then mixed with cream and sometimes a bit of butter. This is called ganache. The cream can be infused with a world of flavorings including tea leaves, coffee, fruit purées, nuts, herbs, and essences like vanilla, rosewater, or liquor. This process seems simple enough, but if the melted chocolate is not well emulsified into the cream, or if chemicals, waxes, or stabilizers are added — as is the case in mass market chocolates — the consumer will detect an unpleasant oiliness on the tongue.
Mass market truffles tend to be far sweeter than artisanal varieties made by hand because sugar is cheaper than chocolate, so it makes up the bulk of the final product. The wrong amount of flavoring can also negatively impact the emulsification, and therefore final texture of the product.
Once the mixture is cooled, the best truffles are rolled by hand. Classic technique dictates that they are then dipped into or briefly rolled in tempered chocolate. This makes them more exciting to eat — it’s fun feeling that chocolate shell crack or melt on your tongue; think about the candy coating on an M&M. As a bonus, that shell also works as a preservative. Ganache, because it’s made with a dairy product, can spoil rather quickly if the truffle is not encased in its own little air-tight seal. Refrigeration prolongs the lifespan of uncoated truffles, but not for as long.
The process for making bonbons, which are flavored chocolates that have been molded or shaped and then dipped, is even more complex. The molds must be coated with a thin layer of tempered chocolate; too thick and they might not release from the mold or the resulting chocolates will have an unpleasantly hard-to-bite-through shell. Like truffles, bonbon fillings must be completely coated in pure chocolate so as to preserve them. Pastry chefs and chocolatiers love coming up with fillings and flavor combinations. Bonbons can be filled with plain chocolate ganache and/or: liquid or chewy caramel; a boozy whole cherry; pistachio cream; raspberry purée; lemon curd; nougat; toffee; praline; and any combination or variation on these.
Aside from the technical know-how, a skilled chocolatier knows how to blend ingredients into chocolate so that both the added flavor and the chocolate is enhanced and one does not dominate the other. Floral flavors are especially tricky because too little of the floral essence will get lost in the chocolate’s own floral notes, and too much can make the final product taste like a cheap candle.
Filled chocolate bars, caramels, nougat, toffee, and other candies require the chocolatier to think like a confectioner and to understand the science of sugar and its properties and propensity for achieving pleasantly chewy or particularly brittle textures — depending upon desired usage.
So how to judge a box of chocolates? It’s like tasting anything: If you like it, it’s good! But, like wine, there is a method to discerning really fine chocolates. At international contests and large chocolate manufacturers around the world, experts sit around and judge individual chocolate varietals, debating the finer points of cacao and cocoa butter percentages. But for our purposes here, we’ll deal only with already-formed chocolate candies. Here’s how to tell the good from the bad as a consumer:
Appearance: The exterior should be shiny and not spotted, dusty, matte, or unevenly colored.
Exterior texture: The chocolate shell should be thin on a bonbon or truffle, but not too thin that it melts in your hand. Take a bite or crack a piece in half: It should make an audible snap — a sign that the chocolate was properly tempered.
Exterior flavor: A good chocolatier is going to use good-quality chocolate that is fresh, has no additives, and hasn’t been treated with preservatives or extra sugar. Chocolate for bonbons or truffles shouldn’t be overly sweet because that would take away from the balance of the filling.
Interior texture: Ganache, the most common truffle and bonbon filling, is at its most basic a mixture of cream and chocolate. Whether or not it contains other flavorings, it should be smooth on the tongue, with no granular bits. It should not leave an oily residue on the tongue. It should not have any off — burnt, musty, sour — flavors or aftertastes. Finally, it should not feel or taste waxy.
Interior flavor: Whether it’s a ganache, a fruit filling, a caramel, nougat, or nut-based filling, these creams and candies should be balanced, fresh, and pair well with the type of chocolate that coats them. The filling might be a mystery before you take a bite, but once it hits your tongue those flavors should scream out what they are: Cherry, caramel, coffee, or almond brittle should be clear and unmistakable.
Candy textures: Caramel should be liquid or chewy, but not too runny that it drips all over your hands, and not too chewy that it gets stuck in your teeth. Toffee should be brittle enough to bite through; nougat soft enough to chew without hurting your jaw. Fruit purées (liquid), gelées (gelatinous), and pates (a jam-like paste) should be fresh and not overly sweet so that the flavor of the fruit shines through. Pralines and nut butters shouldn’t taste rancid and should be smooth or have an obviously intentional crunch.