Whether it’s a delicious 80% Ghanan dark chocolate, a vanilla-infused Peruvian chocolate bonbon, or even a specialty hot cocoa, your favorite sweet treat begins life looking very different.
In fact, if someone didn’t tell you what it was, you might not even recognize the colorful cacao pods that get turned into chocolatey goodness.
Chocolatiers follow a meticulous process to create chocolate bars out of cacao, carefully manipulating the flavors, textures, and more. Let’s take a look at what they do!
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What Is Chocolate Made From?
Look at the ingredients list of any chocolate bar, and you’ll see three things:
- Cacao beans
- Cacao butter (called cocoa butter in some countries)
You may also see:
- Lecithin – a yellow-brown fat, often made from soybeans, that can extend shelf life at high temperatures, reduce viscosity, and substitute cacao butter
Depending on your chocolate bar, you may see some additional ingredients. Generally speaking, the higher the quality of the chocolate, the fewer ingredients used.
Chocolate bars, shaving, and cacao powder.
Starting With The Raw Ingredients: Cacao
So let’s begin with the first – and most important! – ingredient on the list: the cacao beans. To find out more about them, I reached out to Arcelia Gallardo, Owner and Chocolatier at Mission Chocolate.
The cacao pods must be harvested when ripe and cut in half to collect the cacao beans. Then, the processing can begin: the beans will be fermented and then dried. And when all this has been done, the chocolate-maker’s role begins.
“We visit the cacao farm, get to know the producer and bring the beans back with us,” Arcelia explains.
Yet it’s not just about collecting any old cacao beans: just like with coffee, the beans you use will dictate the quality and flavors of your chocolate.
Once the chocolate-maker has their high-quality cacao beans, they are then ready to begin.
A cacao producer on Hacienda La Luz demonstrates how cacao beans sit inside the white pulp in cacao pods. Credit: Héctor Frappé, Ruta Origen
Step 1: Cacao Roasting
Roasting is key to developing the flavor and aroma of your cacao, as well as the chocolate color consumers expect. Just like in coffee, roasting is a complex craft that’s challenging to learn – but worth the effort required to master it.
As a younger industry, cacao roasting equipment and information aren’t always as developed as in coffee. However, as the fine chocolate industry grows, no doubt it will catch up. Bruno Lasevicius, Owner and Chocolatier at Casa Lasevicius, Brazil, tells me, “We don’t have equipment for small batch roasting in cacao, so after manually selecting the beans, we use a convection oven to roast them.”
The roast time can vary greatly but it’s generally longer than with coffee – and at a lower temperature. Arcelia, says, “My basic roasting time and temperature is 140°C for around 30 minutes. After roasting, I usually let the cacao beans rest for six hours.”
Step 2: Winnowing
Even though the producers spent so long obtaining the cacao beans from the pods, chocolatiers still need to keep separating the beans.
“The cacao almond or bean comes with a shell, then we use suction to separate the almond and we are left with two parts: the shell and the nib,” Bruno explains. “The nib is the part we use to make the chocolate.”
The shell, or husk, isn’t wasted though. There’s an emerging market for cacao shell tea – although it’s still early days.
Roasted cacao beans before winnowing.
Step 3: Pre-Grinding (optional)
Eventually, the cacao nibs are going to have to be ground. Yet as always, when grinding or reducing matter, the smaller the particles are, the easier it is. And so cacao nibs can be pre-ground. “We use an electric machine to facilitate the pre-grind of the nibs,” Bruno tells me.
Step 4: Refining
Now that the nibs have been separated and, in some cases pre-ground, they’re ready to be reduced into even smaller particles and turned into liquid.
There are a few different machines that can be used to do this and, in some cases, they might be re-purposed from other industries (such as spice grinders). The main objective of refining is to have small, malleable particles that finally become smooth, consistent chocolate liquor (something that is very different from a chocolate liqueur!).
So how does this happen? Well, as the grinding continues, chocolatiers will end up with both chocolate paste and cacao butter, which is the natural fat inside the beans. Both of these ingredients are important for the final product.
Then, it’s time to refine it. This can take several hours, and some chocolatiers combine the refining process with conching (our next stage!) in a tool called a melanger.
Freshly ground cacao in a traditional mortar.
Step 5: Conching
Conching is a key stage in the chocolate-making process. It affects mouthfeel and texture and is also when all your other ingredients are added. And when it comes to conching, there are three key words: mixing, agitating, and cooking.
The chocolatier will add all their other ingredients to the mix: sugar, cocoa butter, and – if they’re using them – vanilla and lecithin. Then they will agitate the mix, constantly moving it and creating a small amount of heat through friction (which is why it’s sometimes called cooking).
So how does this affect the chocolate bar itself? Well, first you have to consider the mix of ingredients used. Arcelia advises, “In one kilogram of total substance, for example, 700 grams of cacao and 300 grams of sugar should be a starting point. [It’s] enough to taste the cacao but not the sugar itself.”
Secondly, there’s the actual conching process. The prolonged mixing and aerating can improve flavors and textures – or damage them. “[Through] conching for a long time, you can get rid of unwanted qualities,” Bruno says. “This will lead you to have a more homogeneous chocolate. However, if you overdo it, you can lose quality.”
Chocolate conching in progress on Hacienda La Luz. Credit: Héctor Frappé, Ruta Origen
Step 6: Tempering
We’re at the stage where chocolate finally looks something like what consumers are used to eating and drinking – but there are still a couple more things to be done! And one of these is tempering, which is important for structure. The crystals in cacao butter tend to be unstable, but through manipulating heat, movement, and time, this can be improved.
“Here is where you get your shiny, snappy, and smooth characteristics,” Arcelia explains.
Tempering is a must for artisan chocolate; however, there are different ways of doing it. Arcelia tells me, “One of the most common methods is the seeding method. Let’s say that I use one kilogram of chocolate, I melt it and bring up the temperature at 44°C, then I add 20 percent of chocolate made yesterday. This will bring down my temperature to 27°C and stabilize my chocolate crystals correctly.” Later, she’ll increase the heat to 30°C for the next stage, molding – but more on this to come.
You might hear chocolatiers talk about a tempering curve. Much like with coffee roasting, the ideal curve will vary between chocolates. But you know chocolate was adequately tempered when it has a glossy, uniform color.
Smooth, glossy, well-tempered chocolate ready to be enjoyed.
Step 7: Molding and Packaging
And now the chocolatier can finally turn their chocolate liquor into the bars we love to eat. This stage is called molding and the process is just like it sounds. The chocolate is poured into the mold and cooled – Arcelia tells me it could take anything from ten minutes to an hour – before being packaged and transported.
Voilà! After many, many hours of hard work by chocolatiers – not to mention the months and years of labor by cacao producers – our chocolate bar is ready to be eaten.
Chocolate liquor in molds, ready for cooling.
Making chocolate is far more than just manufacturing. It’s an art. An experience.
“Making chocolate is easy. Making good chocolate is difficult,” Arcelia tells me. “Chocolate bars are only about 200 years old, whilst drinking cacao is thousands of years old, so the ‘eating’ chocolate industry is very young and still has a lot of room for evolution.”
So next time you try a piece of fine chocolate, I encourage you to pay attention to how it smells, its texture, the way it “snaps” or melts in the mouth – all of which is influenced by the chocolate-making process. But don’t just stop there! Try different cacao origins and varieties, be inquisitive, and take your palate on a culinary adventure through the wonderful world of chocolate.
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Written by Julio Guevara.
Perfect Daily Grind
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