What is Couverture Chocolate?

What makes couverture special? What’s the difference between the average chocolate bar and couverture? That’s what this article explores.

What is couverture?

Couverture is the usual term for top-quality chocolate. Couverture is different from consumer grade chocolate because it contains extra cocoa butter — a higher percentage of cocoa butter relative to cocoa mass. This higher percentage of cocoa butter, when combined with proper tempering, is what gives the chocolate more sheen, firmer “snap” when broken, and a creamy mellow flavour.

Minimum Standards

Just because it’s brown doesn’t mean it’s chocolate. Did you know the word ‘chocolate’ is a legally regulated term? It’s true.

Throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s the quality of chocolate bars and treats quickly degraded as the price of cocoa products increased. In order to make a cheaper product, some manufacturers were taking out the two main ingredients that make chocolate — chocolate! Cocoa butter and cocoa solids were replaced with products like palm oil or vegetable oil to the point where some chocolate products didn’t actually contain any chocolate. Chocolate lovers grew disappointed in their favourite snacks because they tasted different and now offered a waxy consistency. Consumers demanded something be done. That’s when governing officials intervened.

Both the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) introduced new rules regarding labelling on chocolate products so consumers would know whether they were purchasing a product containing real chocolate or not.

New rules stated that for something to be called “chocolate” it cannot contain any vegetable fat other than cocoa butter — no coconut oil, no palm oil, no vegetable oil. If it does, then it can’t be labelled or be called real chocolate. This kind of substance is called “compound” and on the package it must read “candy”, “chocolate-flavoured” or “chocolatey”.

Couverture chocolate has similar but much higher standards. In order to be called “couverture” by European Union regulations, couverture must contain a minimum of 35% cocoa solids and not less than 31% cocoa butter. That’s why enjoying real couverture chocolate is such a decadent experience: more cocoa butter means more chocolate flavour and a creamier, smoother mouth feel.

Is Cocoa Butter Different From Normal Butter?

Cocoa butter is the fat from whole cocoa beans; normal butter is made from cow's milk. Cocoa butter has chocolate flavour as well as chocolate aroma, and it melts easily at body temperature (and in your mouth). Cocoa butter gives chocolate that creamy rich texture and extra cocoa flavour, and cocoa butter is why couverture tastes so delicious. 

Cocoa butter is amazing because it is the only vegetable fat that is solid at room temperature but liquid at body temperature, which is the reason why real chocolate literally melts in your mouth (and your oven). 

What's so special about cocoa butter?

As a vegetable fat, cocoa butter is amazing — it is solid at room temperature, melts at below body temperature, and it has a crystalline structure that is polymorphic. This means that  the fat crystals in the cocoa butter behave differently at different temperatures. Like steel, couverture chocolate must be tempered in order to harden to a shiny finish. Learn how to temper couverture chocolate.

Why does couverture cost more?

Cocoa butter is the most expensive ingredient in chocolate which is why couverture chocolate is generally more expensive than other types of chocolate: because it contains extra cocoa butter. 

Cocoa butter is an expensive commodity used in many industries for many products, not just for chocolate. It’s such a powerful ingredient that it is easy to tell the difference when chocolate doesn't contain cocoa butter - instead of feeling silky on the tongue and melting in the mouth, to having a waxy, squeakier, or grittier feel.

How is couverture made?

As we mentioned, cocoa butter is the fat from whole cocoa beans. After cocoa beans are harvested, they’re fermented and dried, then roasted and shelled to create cocoa nibs. The cocoa nibs are finely ground (conching) to form cocoa mass (also known as cocoa liquor, cocoa soliids, or chocolate liquor). Cocoa mass is 100% unsweetened chocolate.

Once cocoa mass has been made, there are two paths forward. One path forward is to add extra cocoa butter to the chocolate mass (plus other ingredients like sugar, milk powder, vanilla, lecithin) and grind it again to create smooth couverture chocolate.

The second path forward is create cocoa butter and cocoa powder. The cocoa mass is squeezed in huge hydraulic presses to separate the cocoa butter from the non-fat cocoa solids. Then the non-fat cocoa solids (called cocoa cake) are further ground down to create cocoa powder, which is acidic and bitter.

There are two types of cocoa powder. Dutch process cocoa powder has had the acid neutralized by an alkaline which makes it better for dissolving in liquids. Natural cocoa powder is simply that – the ground cocoa solids with no additives, and it has a deeper more intense cocoa flavour. You’ll probably be happy to know that cocoa powder is full of minerals and nutrients including zinc, iron, magnesium and more, with 20% protein.

The Couverture Process

High quality chocolate (couverture) isn’t just made with better ingredients, it’s also made differently.

Couverture is very high-quality chocolate that contains extra cocoa butter. After the cocoa beans have been fermented, dried, roasted, shelled, and ground into cocoa mass (cocoa liquor), then extra cocoa butter is added as well as other ingredients depending on what kind of chocolate is being made:

  • Dark chocolate: cocoa mass, cocoa butter, sugar, vanilla, lecithin.
  • Milk chocolate: cocoa mass, cocoa butter, milk powder, sugar,  vanilla, lecithin.
  • White chocolate: sugar, milk powder, cocoa butter, vanilla, lecithin.

The mixture is ground (conched) again to further refine the flavours and textures. The conching process affects the size of the particles in the chocolate when finished, as well as the chemical structure of the chocolate, which ultimately affects the flavour of the finished product. Before conching, chocolate has an uneven and gritty texture. The conching process produces cocoa and sugar particles smaller than the tongue can detect, which results in a smooth feel in the mouth. The longer the conching, the smoother (and more expensive because it takes longer to make) the couverture is.

The other thing that makes couverture smoother and more expensive is the added cocoa butter. The higher percentage of fat means that it needs to be treated differently; it needs to tempered in order to perform well. Couverture is like steel in this way, the material is heated and cooled until its internal structure can be made strong, stable, and temperature resistant. Tempering gives couverture chocolate more sheen, a firm “snap” when broken, and a creamy mellow flavour. Dark, milk, white and ruby chocolate can all be made as couvertures. This will also typically be more expensive because cocoa butter is more expensive than cocoa mass.

When chocolate has that smooth, glossy sheen and firm ‘snap’, you know because it has been tempered properly. Time, temperature, and motion have been used to transform and structure the fat crystals in the couverture chocolate. It’s a slow process but the difference can be seen, felt, and tasted.

It is possible to temper your own chocolate at home with a microwave. Just remember to be patient, using low heat, and to keep your kitchen room temperature at 20℃ . This is important to ensure the couverture sets properly.

Using Couverture

You can bake with couverture, it certainly creates a delicious dessert. Keep in mind though, because of the higher percentage of cocoa butter, it’s likely the couverture will behave differently in the oven than other chocolate.

Making your own chocolate confections by coating, dipping, or drizzling is when couverture is truly appreciated. The texture and consistency are perfect, adding the rich taste, and providing that healthy “snap” you feel as you bite into a treat. Think chocolate dipped strawberries, chocolate truffles, or holiday bark.