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Michael Brandy, Deseret Morning News

Buying your sweetheart the most expensive chocolates you can find for Valentine's Day may not be the best investment.

In a blind taste test of dipped chocolates, there was no clear consensus on which local chocolatier makes the best. Culinary experts and Deseret Morning News staffers rated the cheapest caramels — Hershey's Pot of Gold at $12 per pound — as the worst.

But the most expensive, $26-per-pound Xocolate candies, were near the bottom. The experts rated caramels from Cummings Studio Chocolates as tops; staffers ranked them at the bottom, in a tie with Hershey's.

The experts also rated the $8-per-pound Cella's cherry cordials above C. Kay Cummings' $18.99-per-pound version. One expert even rated Cella's as best, praising the "good, all-around flavor." Another expert declared Xocolate's cherry cordial "My favorite!" but other tasters rated it low.

Although Mrs. Cavanaugh's and Cummings tied for first place for their raspberry cream chocolates among staffers, one expert docked Mrs. Cavanaugh's for a "fake vanilla" and "dark roast" flavor. Another said Cummings had a "low-grade chocolate" that "tastes fake."

So what did the taste test prove? That individual tastes in candy can vary dramatically. And that sometimes even the experts can't tell the expensive from the cheap brands. As one confused taster wrote, "They're all kind of same-tasting."

The results also speak to the idea that a fancy box or brand name may influence the perception of what a "good" chocolate is.

"I've always found that with chocolate, price and packaging say very little about the quality of the ingredients," said Matt Caputo, manager of Caputo's market and self-proclaimed "chocolate snob." (As one of the "expert" panelists, Caputo was able to take one sniff of the Hershey's caramel and identify it as " grocery-store quality — two thumbs down.")

Some types of chocolate may be more of an "acquired" taste, since those who mentioned they usually ate inexpensive candy tended to rate the Hershey's and Cella's products higher, and the premium chocolates lower.

So what's a shopper to do? Buy what you know your sweetheart likes. And for good measure, put it in a fancy box.

To keep things simple and consistent, we went to local chocolatiers and bought three types of chocolates likely to be bought on Valentine's Day: caramels enrobed in milk chocolate, raspberry creams in dark chocolate and cherry cordials in milk chocolate. (In some cases, certain companies didn't carry all three of these.)

We added an inexpensive national brand to the caramel and cherry-cordial categories to see if panelists could tell the difference. (To those of you poised to send an angry e-mail, we already know there are some companies out there that we didn't try. But we had to draw the line somewhere.)

The candy was cut in pieces and displayed in white bowls or plates, so there were no labels, boxes or identifying marks that might have influenced tasters. Each station was stocked with soda crackers, water and carrots, so panelists could "cleanse their palates" after each bite.

Panelists rated the candy from one to three points on:

• The chocolate's flavor and smoothness

• The filling's flavor and texture

• How well the chocolate and filling complemented each other

These numbers were added together for a total score, which determined how the candy was ranked.

Our experts were:

• Marguerite Henderson, cookbook author and cooking instructor

• Brenda Hopkin, Lion House pastry chef

• Virginia Rainey, freelance food writer

• David Prows, executive chef of Costa Vida restaurants

• Cindy Prows, who dips homemade chocolates

• Becky Low, home economist with the Utah Dairy Association

• Sara Oldroyd, Utah State University Extension, Salt Lake County

• Matt Caputo, manager of Tony Caputo's Market & Deli

• Heidi Van Valkenburg, cooking instructor

We also had a separate panel of 10 "non-expert" Deseret Morning News staffers (some of whom were sorry that they didn't eat lunch before the taste test). Their opinions represented the general consumer, who may not notice all the subtle nuances in chocolates. Indeed.

So what factors might differentiate one brand of candy from another?

The more expensive confections are usually made with a higher grade of chocolate. Better chocolate has a creamy mouth-feel, and the texture isn't waxy or grainy when you rub it with your tongue against the roof of your mouth.

Chocolate comes from cacao beans, and the beans' flavors can vary with the soil and climate conditions where they're grown. Large companies, such as Hershey's, often blend a variety of cacao beans so the chocolate is always uniform-tasting from batch to batch. However, chocolate connoisseurs say these uniform "grocery-store" chocolates lack distinctive flavor characteristics.

When you buy dipped chocolates, ask the proprietor about the type of chocolate used. Hatch Family Chocolates and Xocolate both use Guittard, which is made in San Francisco, as does the national See's Candies. The staffs of Cummings and Cavanaugh's said they use Merckens, another reputable chocolate brand that's owned by the Archer Daniels Midland conglomerate. C. Kay Cummings uses both Merckens and Guittard.

Fillings can also vary in color, texture and flavor. Testers noted that the raspberry cream centers varied wildly in color, from beige-pink to garish red fillings; and from very stiff to runny and sticky in consistency. Some tasters praised the softness and buttery flavor of V's caramels, although one noted that it was skimpy on chocolate.

Several people noticed the stiffness of the Hershey's caramel filling: "It sticks to my fillings," noted one staffer.

And, the "whole" piece of candy is another factor. A super-sweet filing might be perfect when paired with a dark chocolate, for instance.

But maybe trying to analyze chocolate is like trying to catch the wind.

"Candy doesn't have to have a point; that's why it's candy," says Charlie Bucket in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

In the end, any brand of chocolate can be satisfying, depending on the taste of the person who's eating it.

E-mail: vphillips@desnews.com