Think of your favorite chocolate; just humor me. Is it a smooth milk chocolate? Or a dark bar with whole almonds on the back? Oh, or maybe a sweet white chocolate with bits of dried fruit?
Whatever your fare of choice is, I’m sure you’ve run into some variants of those bars. The last two chocolates I mentioned actually feature inclusions, an industry term for any substance added to chocolate beyond the widely accepted ingredients (cacao, cocoa butter, sugar, milk powder, vanilla, and lecithin). In this article we’ll dig into what constitutes an inclusion and what types of inclusions are out there, from coffee and cacao nibs to passion fruit pulp. Should you be using inclusions in your chocolate?
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What are Inclusions in Chocolate?
Inclusions are extra ingredients added to chocolate, intended to improve the chocolate’s overall impact, either flavor-wise or aesthetically.
Sometimes a maker or chocolatier adds inclusions for both flavor and visual appeal, much more common these days considering that we “eat with our eyes.” One of the most common inclusions is vanilla. However, vanilla is so ubiquitous that it has become somewhat neutral territory in chocolate, and therefore is not generally considered a part of the “inclusion” category. In fact, to be considered as a contender in the Good Food Awards‘ Chocolate “Inclusion” category, a bar must include a flavoring ingredient other than vanilla. General categories for inclusions are as follows, with examples in parentheses:
- Fruit (sun-dried cranberries, freeze-dried strawberries, apple bits)
- Extracts (spearmint flavoring, bitter orange extract, ginger oil)
- Herbs & Spices (peppermint leaves, ground cardamom, peppercorns)
- Salt (sea salt, flake salt, salt crystals)
- Nuts & Nibs (roasted or raw nibs, whole nuts, praline)
- Miscellaneous (olive oil, caramel, rose petals)
You may think it’s obvious how these ingredients affect the chocolate’s final flavor— they make the chocolate taste like the inclusions, right? But this isn’t always the case. Any chocolate reviewer can humbly impart this truth. Each ingredient, down to the added cocoa butter, affects the final experience for the chocoholic in question. The state of the ingredient, and when & where they’re added during the chocolate making process also affect flavor & texture.
Jose of Mindo Chocolate in Ecuador actually has a very unique approach to inclusions— he is experimenting with adding them to fermenting cacao. In one batch of beans I tried, he had added guava to the fermenting trough, imparting guava flavor to the beans without adding guava to the final product.
Inclusion Categories, Demystified
Bar example: Ginger Milk Chocolate by Alluvia
Fruits of any kind are almost always added at the end of processing, to the back of a newly tempered chocolate bar. Sometimes, however, they are added during cacao’s fermentation (see above) or mixed in at the end in the form of puree. They tend to add a less strong flavor than extracts, and a pointedly chewy or blatantly crunchy texture. Sometimes a dash of salt or a sprinkle of nibs are added to emphasize the fruity sweetness, but in general, fruit clashes with other inclusions.
Bar example: Rose Lychee Nibs by Fuwan Chocolate
Always blended throughout the chocolate, extracts are added at the end of processing due to their fragility. Natural extracts such as ginger oil have the tendency to lose their flavor potency if heated, as would happen several times during the refining stage of the chocolate making process. Note that most bars will not include more than one flavor extract, due to their tendency to overwhelm in high quantities.
Bar example: Strawberry Basil by Raaka
Treated similarly by makers in terms of when and where they are added, herbs and spices are more popular with chocolatiers than with chocolate makers. Like extracts, herbs & spices such as peppermint leaves tend to lose their potency if exposed to too much heat, so they’re always added at the end. Most of the time they are sprinkled delicately onto the back of the bar, just enough to stick in the chocolate, while still appearing to have mobility. Only the most finely-ground herbs and spices are blended into the chocolate, and this is still done at the end of the process.
Bar example: Sea Salt 70% by French Broad
It seems like a straight-forward addition to any well-meaning chocolate bar, but this is likely the most common inclusion, as well as the most flexible. Though chemically the same, each salt behaves differently in the presence of chocolate, depending on crystal size, source, when it was added, and paired inclusions. The most common form is large sea salt crystals, possibly because it sounds fancier, added to the back of a bar.
The sea, to be fair, is one of the most pure and aesthetically striking sources of salt available. If it is mixed into the bar, it can get so lost as to seem like a flavor note, and this is not an uncommon occurrence. That is why craft chocolate bars usually feature big crystals added to the back of a bar by hand. In this way, the taster can experience the pointed contrast between the sweet bar and the salt, each enhancing and complementing the other for a longer period.
Bar example: The Breakfast Bar by Manoa
They come from similar places, both finding their origin hanging off of a branch, but they are vastly different in result. Nuts add a crunchiness, or a chewiness if they’re old, and they tend to taste sweeter and earthier when raw. Macadamias add a sweet creaminess and nibs a brownie-like crunch, while peanuts lend a Reese’s vibe. But nibs are usually from the same origin as the cacao used to make the chocolate, so they have a reputation for emphasizing the sweetness in a bar by being not-sweet & often bitter, themselves.
These inclusions are pretty powerful flavors, so like extracts, they used to be added to lower-quality chocolate. Thankfully this is changing, as makers play around with the ingredients in their single-origin bars. But beware of imitators. Even craft chocolate with inclusions should still mention an origin for their beans, and not use any preservatives or strange-sounding chemicals. Nuts and/or nibs are usually paired with salt, if combined with any other inclusions.
Bar example: HSU Special Edition Bar by Dick Taylor
This is the catch-all category, and as such it’s hard to make generalizations about these inclusions. However, unlike more traditional inclusions, these are usually more expensive & harder-to-find or local ingredients. Fruits, nuts, spices; all of these can be found in varying quantities in all corners of the world, and it makes sense that makers might want to showcase them. Thus, bars which include an off-the-wall ingredient are usually a limited edition bar or a chocofied version of a local dish.
Some examples are rose petals on Ecuadorian bars, dulce de leche swirls in Argentinian chocolate, and olive oil & rosemary truffles in Italy, each of which adds textural depth as well as a contrast to the chocolate. Not all of these craft chocolate, but they certainly could be. The quality of base chocolate used with such inclusions varies by maker, but if you like their single-origin bars, I’d take the leap and try one of their local specialties.
Why are Inclusions Significant to Experience?
At first glance, the idea of inclusions seems to be to make the chocolate taste like something less rich, or more familiar. But this ignores the fact that many makers add one thing in order to emphasize another. Often inclusions are meant to complement or cover the inherent flavors of cacao beans. They trick your palate by using both your nose and eyes to steer your brain in one direction or another.
By creating expectations through both sight and smell, added flavorings potentially do no more than help you realize what was already there. Salt is usually used to make a bar taste sweeter, and fruit to bring out bright citrus or berry notes already present in the bar. Nibs are added to emphasize the flavor value of processing them into chocolate; no new ingredients are added, yet the same cacao can taste like a whole different food group.
My words are not the be-all, end-all on inclusions— there are exceptions to every rule. However this should serve as a guide to all those curious about how their taste buds and nose are affecting their level of contentment, both with their new favorites and the old stand-bys.
If you’re a chocolate maker, one way to appeal to a wider audience is to experiment with inclusions in bars. Adding inclusions to chocolate is a simple way to widen your customer base, especially when people see unique creations that they’d love to gift. Again, the eyes are the window to the soul AND the stomach. So why not let some interesting inclusions in the next time you’re looking for a breath of fresh air?
What are your favorite inclusions in chocolate? Or do you stick to the pure bars, no questions asked?