Salt is a flavor enhancer; this is without question. Since time immemorial it has been used to render nutritious but unappetizing foods delicious, to make sustenance pleasurable. Even the Bible refers to it, and uses it as a metaphor for life’s challenges: “Can that which is unsavory be eaten without salt?/ Or is there any taste in the white of an egg?” (Job 6:6)
Salt has been showing up more and more in fine chocolate. It’s a little surprising because we associate salt with savory foods, but in the case of chocolate it doesn’t just enhance flavor. In a recent conversation, Dr. Danielle Reed, associate director of Philadelphia's Monell Chemical Senses Center, which researches taste and smell, explained, “The unexpected power of salt is to block bitterness, so one explanation for the popularity of the salt-chocolate combination is that the bitter notes in chocolate may be muted.”
As for the sweet and savory divide, she pointed out that “There is a common misperception that people have a sweet tooth or a salty tooth. But our data show that people who like high amounts of one often like high amounts of the other. So it may be that people who like salty in chocolate also like sweet. It may not be very mysterious.” Hello peanut butter cups.
Years ago I learned a trick of adding a pinch of salt to cocoa powder for hot chocolate and reducing the sugar. You don’t notice the salt but you do get a deeper chocolate flavor. Now I add salt, especially kosher or sea salt, to just about all chocolate dishes.
You can find a lot of bars using salt. Below is a very broad range of styles from milky and sweet to dark that take advantage of this magical combination. Taste through them and see if you can suss out which use salt to inhibit bitterness and which turn up the volume on salty and sweet.
Sabadi Tritone Fior di Sale Marino 85%
$8/1 .75 ounces
Chunky, even grainy, less-refined style typical of Modica in Sicily. With a high percentage of cacao, this one is on the leather end of the spectrum, with a little stewed fruit and a bright lift from the salt.
Sal de Ibiza a la Flor de Sal Organic 70%
$8/2 .75 ounces
As with the Sicilians, this bar uses local salt. It’s medium crisp, with slow gaining dark aromas and flavors turning to fruit and lightly prickling salt. The finish is fresh and clean.
Theo Organic Sea Salt Dark Chocolate 70%
This Seattle bar has a medium snap with direct chocolate flavors coming on strong, then taking floral and fruity notes as the salt perks up your palate. Textbook case of salt and chocolate in the middle of the scale.
Donna Elvira Salt 50%
Another in the Modica style; in other words, soft surface, chunky bite, grainy texture. It is frankly sweet, but the salt tones that down some, especially on the finish.
Askinosie Dark Milk Chocolate and Fleur de Sel 62%
A fantastic example of dark milk with dark caramel flavors woven into the chocolate, followed by tropical notes and vanilla picking up. The salt is felt more than tasted.