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Originally published Wednesday, October 11, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Unwrapping the mysteries of chocolates' cacao content

Chocolate used to be straightforward — dark or milk, sweet, semisweet and bittersweet. But today, sorting out which bar belongs in...

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Chocolate used to be straightforward — dark or milk, sweet, semisweet and bittersweet.

But today, sorting out which bar belongs in your brownies can seem overwhelming. Will it be 47 percent cacao, 61 percent or 73 percent? How about ultrapure 99 percent?

And what the heck is cacao, anyway?

With little fanfare, American chocolate companies have begun labeling their bars according to cacao (pronounced KA-cow) content, the blend of cocoa solids and cocoa butter that makes chocolate — and makes it so irresistible.

Already common in Europe, this system brings to the industry a uniformity praised by bakers and chocolate experts. But they also worry that too few people understand it and are being misled by marketers.

"Too much emphasis is being placed on the number," says Robert Steinberg, co-founder of Berkeley, Calif.-based Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker.

"It's as if people are saying the higher the number, the better the chocolate. There are so many factors that go into quality in chocolate that it's really misleading to just say, 'Oh, I have an 80 percent chocolate. That's better than a 70 percent chocolate.' "

So here's a guide to what cacao labeling can and can't tell you, and what it means for the home cook.

Solids and butter

Most chocolate is a simple confection, a blend of cacao products and sugar (and dairy, in the case of milk chocolate). The ratio of the blend affects taste, texture and how it reacts in baking. The new labeling indicates how much of that ratio is cacao.

But a higher percentage of cacao doesn't guarantee a more intense chocolate, says Jack Bishop, editorial director at Cook's Illustrated magazine.

That's because cacao percentages represent a tally of cocoa solids (from which chocolate gets its flavor) and cocoa butter (which imparts chocolate's lush mouth feel, but no real flavor).

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So while different chocolates may have the same percent of total cacao, they could contain different ratios of solids and butter, and that dramatically influences taste and texture, says Bishop.

Don't forget the beans

Higher cacao percentages also don't necessarily indicate higher quality. Taste is influenced more by the origin, blend and roasting of the beans. Better beans can produce better chocolate, even with lower cacao ratios.

So much so that Peter Greweling, a professor of baking and pastry at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., expects the next wave in chocolate marketing to focus on origin and variety of beans, much as coffee does now.

The able label

Despite these limitations, the new labels can provide savvy consumers with a better understanding of what they're buying than the more common designations of bittersweet and semisweet.

Conventional wisdom says bittersweet chocolate has less sugar than semisweet, and therefore the two have different uses in baking. Trouble is, the bittersweet and semisweet labels can be a distinction without a difference.

Vague federal guidelines mean both can contain around 35 percent cacao, depending on the blend. Without cacao labeling, consumers have little way of knowing what they are buying.

What works where

So what should you buy?

• For eating, stick to less than 70 percent cacao. Because sugar tempers and enhances the flavor and texture of chocolate, bars with higher ratios can taste bitter and chalky.

• For baking, chocolates between 40 percent and 70 percent will work best in most conventional recipes. Chocolates above 70 percent may have textural problems in some recipes.

• If you can't resist high cacao chocolate, use recipes specially formulated for it.

• Stick within the 40 percent to 50 percent range for a good all-purpose chocolate.

Of course, it ultimately all comes down to taste.

"No label can ever tell anybody whether a chocolate is good or not, or whether they will like it or not," says Greweling.

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