Chocolate is the product of a long, complicated refining process that begins with the bean pods of the Theobroma cacao tree. The cacao tree can only be found within ten degrees latitude of the equator and grows only 75m above the sea level and needs plenty of moisture a rich soil and shade. The cacao tree starts bearing fruit in its third year. A small pink flower takes about six months to develop into cocoa pods after pollination. The cacao tree produces pods all year long, so a typical tree would have pods in every stage of ripeness, from the earliest flowering bud to the most mature pod ready to be harvested.
The main cacao-producing countries are the Ivory Coast and Ghana, although there are numerous smaller markets in South America and Africa. There are 3 types of cacao trees: the Forastero, the most common and robust variety with the least remarkable flavour, the Criollo, the most delicate and rare tree, with a heavily perfumed fruit, and the Trinitario, a hybrid of the Forastero and the Criollo that displays having an average yield of moderately aromatic beans.
Harvesting takes place from May to December in most countries. Because the pods grow in all degrees of ripeness and at any location on the tree, most harvesting is done by hand with machetes. Highly skilled pickers gauge the colour, the sound when tapped and the weight to determine when the pod is ripe.
First, the pods are split open to reveal the cocoa beans surrounded by the fruity pulp of the pod. This pulp is sometimes used to make drinks or desserts, as it has a pleasant fruity taste with subtle chocolate flavour. The beans and pulp are scraped from the pods and the beans are left to ferment in baskets or wrapped in Banana leaves for two to eight days. This process allows for the development of colour, taste and smell.
This step is crucial, as the fermentation process mellows the flavor of the beans and imparts the fruity undertones of the pulp. Without fermentation, the beans would be too astringent and bitter to enjoy. Many high-quality chocolates undergo a long fermentation process, which can be tasted in the floral, fruity notes of the final product. Cheaper commercial chocolates are usually fermented for only a short time – 2-3 days.
The beans are spread out and allowed to dry naturally in the sun for 10-20 days.
It is only after the beans are fully fermented and dried that they are packaged and shipped to chocolate manufacturers around the world.
The beans arrive at the factories ready to be cleaned and sorted. This process enables the removal of any foreign matter or shriveled beans.
It is the roasting of the cocoa beans that gives its distinctive flavour, aroma and colour. Beans are roasted at approximately 130°C which also aids in the removal of the husk. The time and temperature of the roasting depends on the type of beans and their relative moisture levels.
After roasting, the beans are transferred to a winnower that removes the shells or husks of the beans and leaves the “nibs”. The nib is the edible part of the bean and is the essence of the cocoa bean that’s full of cocoa solids and cocoa butter. It is ready to be blended and ground.
The careful selection of different varieties of cocoa nibs will result in different varieties of blends that will result in a distinctive taste.
The nibs are ground to a thick, rich paste called chocolate mass or chocolate liquor (the product contains no alcohol). This liquor is the foundation for all chocolate products, and at last begins to resemble and smell like chocolate. The liquor is pressed to remove the cocoa butter, which leaves a powdery disc known as “cocoa presscake.” Presscake, when pulverized, becomes common cocoa powder.
At this point, the chocolate process differs depending on the recipe and formulation of the manufacturer. If the chocolate is low quality, the cocoa powder will be mixed with vegetable fats, sugar, and flavorings to become compound chocolate. If the chocolate is going to be higher quality, cocoa butter will be re-added to the chocolate liquor, along with other ingredients like sugar, vanilla, and milk. White chocolate undergoes a similar process, except it does not contain chocolate liquor or cocoa powder. The newly mixed chocolate travels through a series of rollers to smooth out the texture before traveling to the conching machine.
A conch is a machine designed to reduce particle size and mix continuously in order to achieve a smooth texture. The conching machine, so-called because the original designs resembled seashells, kneads and massages the chocolate mixture for a period of time ranging from several hours to several days. The speed, temperature, and length of the conching process determines the final texture and flavour of the chocolate, as conching smooths the chocolate and mellows any remaining acidic tones. After conching, the chocolate is tempered in large machines that cool the chocolate to precise temperatures in order to produce shiny, smooth bars. Finally, the chocolate is poured into moulds, wrapped, and ready for shipping to eager consumers.
What sorts of chocolates are there? So many different types
The main ingredients for chocolate are cocoa liquor (aka cocoa mass), cocoa butter and sugar. The differences in chocolates arises when these ingredients are used in different quantities and also the processing times are varied as mentioned above. Shorter processing times means cheaper ingredients – less tasty and grainier chocolate. Companies also use less cocoa and increase the amount of sugar and milk to make a cheaper chocolate.
A fine quality, richly flavoured chocolate which is high in cocoa butter and cocoa liquor (referred to as cocoa solids). If used for coating or dipping it needs tempering, but not if it is being used for fillings, baking or mousse.
Often known as a bitter or luxury chocolate it has a high percentage of cocoa solids and has little or no added sugar. It can be used as is for baking but will require tempering if it is required for dipping or coating. Its rich flavour makes it an ideal chocolate to use in desserts and cakes. A good quality one would have a minimum of 54% cocoa solids.
This is one of the most popular eating chocolates as it is mild and sweet. Milk chocolate has the same ingredients as dark chocolate with milk powder added. Min 34% cocoa solids for quality.
There are no cocoa solids in this chocolate, however, its sweet flavour comes from the cocoa butter. As this chocolate is sensitive to heat it is not a very suitable chocolate for cooking. Some dispute whether it is chocolate but it generally has about 30% cocoa butter so it is still cocoa.
Compound Chocolate This chocolate is a very good cooking chocolate as it doesn’t need tempering and it sets at room temperature. The cocoa butter in this chocolate is substituted with vegetable fat. Generally it is made with cocoa powder as this is much cheaper.