Serious Eats / Russell Kilgore
What makes a chocolate bar gourmet? Although it can be difficult to rank or review a food that’s usually evaluated subjectively, there are a few objective metrics by which we can judge high-end chocolate. For starters, “serious” chocolate bars are typically dark and made from at least 70% cacao. The higher the percentage of cacao a bar contains, the more bitter it will be. Generally, snacking chocolate bars aren’t higher than 85% (although exceptions exist), and unsweetened, unflavored chocolate is sometimes called “baker’s chocolate,” and is meant to be used in a recipe where additional sweetener will be present.
But it’s not just how much cacao is in a bar that matters: Where it comes from and how it’s been sourced makes a difference, too. Gourmet chocolate tends to be single-origin, meaning the cacao was sourced from a single country, which will be clearly indicated on the package. This can produce specific tasting notes, just as an Ethiopian coffee will have inherent flavors different from—generally speaking—a Brazilian coffee. (A few of the bars we tasted didn’t note the origin of the cacao, which leads us to believe they’re likely a blend.) Most high-end chocolate is now certified with a Fair Trade label, indicating that the growers have been compensated fairly and equitably for their product and labor: These prices are often passed on to consumers, although plenty of the bars we reviewed wore the certification and still came in at a reasonable cost.
Finally, there’s the processing of the cacao: How it’s ground, whether it’s been tempered, and the presence of sugar and cocoa fat all factor into the aroma, taste, and melt of a chocolate bar. Most dark chocolate contains vanilla as a flavoring agent, even if it’s not a “flavored” bar.
To evaluate the best gourmet chocolate, we rounded up 12 bars that were at least 70% cacao and had received accolades or awards for their quality. They ranged in cost from $3.99 per bar up to about $13, although, happily, price wasn’t always an indicator of quality.
The Winners, at a Glance
TCHO’s Dark Duo is a blend of Peruvian and Ghanaian cacao with a highly accessible balance of bitterness, fruitiness, and nuttiness. The higher percentage of fat gave this bar one of the most enjoyable, fudge-like textures and a truly smooth melt that wouldn’t quit.
This bar, found in many grocery stores, scored second-highest on flavor and mouthfeel, and first in the snappiness test. The bitterness was overwhelming for some testers, but fans of super dark chocolate found it well-balanced with bright, fruity flavors.
This gorgeously glossy bar had a great snap and an intensely earthy, woodsy flavor that mellowed pleasantly as it melted. At $10 per bar, it’s certainly not cheap.
Testers were stunned to discover the bar retails for less than $5. It has a “strangely perfect” gloss and a satisfying snap. We liked the toasty and “cozy” baking spice flavors. It’s certified vegan, non-GMO, kosher, organic, and gluten-free, which could give some consumers peace of mind.
Easily the most expensive bar on our list at about $13, Amano Artisan chocolate comes from the Dominican Republic and impressed us with its smooth melt and fruity notes that followed through on a long finish. The price point was, however, unforgivable for some of our testers.
Theo’s 85% dark chocolate bar retails for less than $6, a respectably restrained price compared to similar products. It received the highest score on our mouthfeel test, although we noted a dull, dusty appearance and there wasn’t much aroma to announce the very bitter flavors.
Serious Eats / Russell KilgoreAppearance Test: Before performing any taste tests, we removed the bars from their wrappers and scraped off any identifying marks or stamps on the bars. We then gave them to testers, who evaluated them on initial appearance, ranking them on a scale of 1-5 for glossiness and dustiness. We used a color chart to clearly identify the shade of brown (ranging from peanut to toffee to chocolate) and made additional notes about the bar’s aesthetics.Smell Test: We then ranked each bar on a scale of one to five in terms of fruitiness versus earthiness. While these indicators are more a matter of personal preference, they provided a helpful base to work from when we moved on to the taste test.Snap Test: We then snapped off a piece of each bar to determine how crumbly and/or snappy it was. Did it break cleanly? Did it separate into two pieces, or crumble into many? Was there any discernible grittiness? We ranked the bars on a scale of one to five for both crumbliness and snappiness.First Taste Test: We placed a square of chocolate on our tongues and let it sit for five to 10 seconds. We noted initial flavors, and whether they echoed the aromas. Here, we also ranked it for texture, indicating whether each bar had an inherent grittiness or smoothness. Lingering Flavor Test: As we finished the chocolate, we took note of additional flavors, and if/how they changed over time. We observed the aftertaste and mouthfeel of the chocolate, docking points for any that had a chemical or overly bitter or acrid flavor. In between bars, we cleared our palates with water and saltines.
What We Learned
A Bar’s Glossiness Can Tell You About the Chocolate’s Quality
Serious Eats / Russell Kilgore
Some of the chocolate bars we tested had glossy, lacquered appearances. Others looked a little dusty or dull. This is a result of the processing, rather than the quality or origin of the cacao itself. Although a dustier bar doesn’t automatically mean it will taste bad, a glossy appearance is a sign of high quality. Glossy chocolate is the result of proper tempering, and while well-tempered chocolate doesn’t taste any different, the appearance enhances the overall tasting experience.
Snap Was Also Important
Serious Eats / Russell Kilgore
There’s another sign of chocolate that’s been expertly tempered: A brisk, clean snap. If the bar crumbles, rather than snaps when broken, it’s a sign of poor tempering. Again, while this may not affect flavor, a crisp break is a clear indication of higher-quality craftsmanship.
The Best Chocolate Bars Were Balanced in Flavor
Serious Eats / Russell Kilgore
We evaluated the chocolate bars on their aromas and flavor, and while we noticed variation from fruity to earthy to nutty and bitter, there wasn’t one predominant taste or scent that marked a “good” chocolate bar. Instead, our favorites were well-balanced, with cacao’s bitterness being complemented by the other notes. Ideally, a dark chocolate bar should finish with a restrained bitterness, with no cloying sweetness.
Cacao Percentage Was a Matter of Preference
Serious Eats / Russell Kilgore
While all of the testers we assembled enjoyed dark chocolate, the acceptable range of cacao varied across our palates. Fans of bitter flavors will appreciate chocolate with 80% or higher cacao, but for folks with a soft spot for milk chocolate, the extra-dark bars will likely come across as overwhelmingly tannic. Dark chocolate on the low end of the cacao spectrum (70-75%) has a higher fat content, which tempers cacao’s bitter notes.
The Gritty Vs. Smooth Debate Was a Little Complicated
Serious Eats / Russell Kilgore
A smooth texture doesn’t always indicate a better bar. Some chocolate producers, like Taza, use special mills to grind the cacao, which results in a naturally gritty texture. However, a good chocolate bar should never be waxy or chalky. To determine whether a bar has a gritty, smooth, or chalky texture, let it sit on your tongue. Even gritty bars will melt smoothly, but waxy bars leave an unpleasant residue.
The Criteria: What to Look for in Gourmet Chocolate
Serious Eats / Russell Kilgore / Riddley Gemperlein-Schirm
The best gourmet chocolate bars are generally grouped into two categories: Chocolate made from 70 to 75% cacao, and, for a more bitter experience, chocolate that’s 80 to 85%. High-quality chocolate will have a glossy, almost lacquered appearance and should snap cleanly without crumbling. The flavor should be a well-rounded balance between bitter and earthy or fruity, with a smooth—never waxy—texture.
The Best Gourmet Chocolate Bars
What we liked: This bar is unique among the others we tested, in that it’s really two bars in one: The exterior is a fruity Ghanaian chocolate, which surrounds a creamy truffle made with cacao from Peru. An inviting fruity aroma was strongly present after unwrapping, and there was a very clean, bright snap when the bar was broken. Of course, the melting factor was intense, thanks to the truffle-like center: It reminded us of a ganache or mousse. This is a decadent, interesting bar for a very reasonable price.
What we didn’t like: Some of us noted astringent and sour notes in the flavor, especially toward the finish. Beyond that, there wasn’t much we didn’t love about this bar!
Cacao percentage: 75%Ounces: 2.5 ouncesCountry of origin: Ghana and PeruFair trade?: YesSerious Eats / Russell Kilgore
What we liked: Divine’s 85% bar is a real boon for extra dark chocolate lovers: It scored highest on our snappiness test with an extremely clean, satisfying break. The aroma is uniquely floral. It’s satisfyingly bitter with a slow, tongue-coating quality as it melts. It’s very fairly priced, and widely available, including at many grocery stores.
What we didn’t like: The finish was short and mild. Some testers noted a “burnt coffee” or “burnt marshmallow” flavor (although others identified, simply, “toasted marshmallow”). This bar may be too intense for some.
Cacao percentage: 85%Ounces: 3 ouncesCountry of origin: GhanaFair trade?: YesSerious Eats / Russell Kilgore
What we liked: This bar was pliant and flexible but still had a nice snap. The cacao beans lead the way, as most testers immediately detected a strong nib flavor and a tea-like bitterness. It mellows beautifully as it melts in the mouth, making this a fantastic bar to sit with and savor. It’s gorgeously smooth with an enjoyably viscous, melty texture.
What we didn’t like: The aroma was overwhelmingly earthy, with some testers detecting hints of tree bark and dirt. At just 1.9 ounces, it’s smaller than most bars we tasted. And at almost $10 per bar, it’s not a realistic buy for everyday snacking.
Cacao percentage: 85%Ounces: 1.9 ouncesCountry of origin: EcuadorFair trade?: No/not specifiedSerious Eats / Russell Kilgore
What we liked: Many of the bars we tested are vegan, but Pascha wears its dietary certifications on its sleeve: It’s also certified gluten-free, non-GMO, kosher, and organic. This bar is a lusciously deep brown color that looks enticing. It is a complex, fun bar to eat, with nutty, toasted notes that give way to fruitier undertones. At under $5, it’s an affordable option we’d feel good about tossing in our carts.
What we didn’t like: The initial aroma was a bit off-putting; many of us noted sharp, acidic notes during the smell test. It melted very quickly and left a slippery film in the mouth after finishing.
Cacao percentage: 85%Ounces: 2.82 ouncesCountry of origin: None givenFair trade?: YesSerious Eats / Russell Kilgore
What we liked: This bar scored high on the smoothness factor: It had a beautifully silky texture, thanks to the generous amount of high-quality cocoa butter. In terms of flavor, it’s riotously fruity with notes of raspberry and orange. The lingering flavor is elegantly bitter, with no cloying sweetness left behind.
What we didn’t like: The finish on this bar is quite matte, without the appealing glossiness we expect from high-end chocolate. More than one tester described the aroma as “flat.” It’s incredibly expensive.
Cacao percentage: 70%Ounces: 3 ouncesCountry of origin: Dominican RepublicFair trade?: Not certified; but ethical sourcing practices are described on the brand’s websiteSerious Eats / Russell Kilgore
What we liked: Theo’s 85% bar received a perfect five for smoothness across the board. It finished with a satisfyingly bitter flavor; a strong expression of the 85% cacao category. It mellows nicely as it melts with jammy, graham-cracker-y notes. The tannins are tame and subtle for such a dark bar.
What we didn’t like: The aroma was mild and dissipated quickly. The finish was matte, with some noting bloom on their bars. It was too bitter for some testers.
Cacao percentageacao: 85%Ounces: 3 ouncesCountry of origin: Democratic Republic of the CongoFair Trade?: YesSerious Eats / Russell Kilgore
Endangered Species Dark Chocolate Bold + Silky, 72%: Although this inexpensive bar had a very nice snap during testing, it fared poorly in the lingering flavor test. Tasters described it as “sickeningly sweet,” with an overly tannic aftertaste. Equal Exchange Organic Very Dark Chocolate, 71%: This ubiquitous brand can be found at many grocery stores and markets, but it didn’t stand out in our tests. The aroma was faint and weak, and the bitter notes were overwhelming during the taste portions of our test. Some testers noted a tacky texture, as well.K’UL Chocolate Bar Pure Dark Chocolate, 80%: This bar had an interesting yeasty-malty aroma and we liked the under-$5 price point, but the flavor was pithy and tannic, with a quick dropoff and little aftertaste.Beyond Good Organic Madagascar Dark Chocolate Bar, 70%: This bar had undeniably savory tasting notes, reminding us of bay leaves, smoke, and soy sauce. It’s inexpensive, but the flavors are not balanced enough to justify the cost.Raaka Philippines Classic Dark, 71%: This spendy bar didn’t impress us enough to shell out the $8; more than one tester likened it to eating straight cocoa powder, and there’s an overwhelmingly smoky note that’s hard to ignore.Taza Chocolate Bar Deliciously Dark, 70%: Rubber and wax were predominant aroma notes in this bar, and the stone-ground chocolate was overwhelmingly gritty; it was difficult to get past the texture in determining lingering flavors.
What is gourmet chocolate?
There are a few defining factors that give chocolate a “gourmet” label. (Here, we’re talking about bars, rather than confections or candies, like truffles.) Gourmet chocolate tends to be sourced ethically, and is usually single origin, meaning the cacao came from just one country. The processing matters, too: high-end chocolate will be tempered to a smooth, glossy finish. There’s typically a higher percentage of cacao as well ( at least 70%). The argument may be made that milk chocolate can also be gourmet, but it’s made with more sugar, which makes discerning the cacao’s inherent flavor difficult.
What’s the difference between chocolate and gourmet chocolate?
Well, price is certainly a factor. Gourmet chocolate costs more, in part because sourcing matters a lot here. Paying for ethical, fair-trade chocolate costs more, and that price is passed down to consumers. But it’s not just a marketing term: Gourmet chocolate that’s made from single-source cacao has a distinct sense of terroir, with expansive aromas and flavors that are meant to be savored.
What is high-quality chocolate?
These days, consumers place as much value on sourcing as processing and packaging. High-quality chocolate is clearly labeled with its country of origin and will typically make note that it’s sourced with ethical, fair trade practices. These bars often have less sugar and more cacao, for a robust, authentic expression of the cacao beans used.
Why We’re the Experts
For this review, we taste-tested 12 brands of chocolate that have received accolades and awards.We spent over 24 hours evaluating the chocolate bars, ranking them objectively according to appearance, aroma, flavor, and texture.Rochelle Bilow is the commerce editor at Serious Eats and a professional writer, former line cook, and graduate of the French Culinary Institute.She has been writing about food professionally for over a decade, and reviewing kitchen equipment since 2021.For more on what chocolate to use for baking, check out this guide.