This is a topic that comes up frequently when I discuss that I make chocolate. I think it’s best to go over all of the equipment that’s used first and why it’s used. This will help explain some of the chocolate-specific vocabulary that I use here on this blog. However, some backstory for context is required.
Chocolate starts it’s life out on a tree. Specifically the Theobroma cacao tree. Pods about the size of a small melon grow on the tree and inside these pods are the cocoa beans.
These pods are then harvested by the farmers and gathered into a large pile. The pods are split and beans scoopped out and added to a fermentation pit. This is an open pit that is monitored by workers and is stirred and flipped throughout the fermentation process. After 24-96 hours, depending on the cocoa plantation, the fermentation is stopped and the beans are gathered on screens to dry in the sun.
The dried cocoa beans are then packaged up and shipped wherever the orders take them. That’s where most of us small-batch chocolate makers come in.
The first step, as a chocolate maker, is to roast the beans. The beans are dried at this point, but still contain some moisture. The fermentation products also need to be converted through heat to develop the rich and familiar chocolate flavor we all know and love. This is also a crucial sanitization step. The beans are fermented out in the jungle floor using wild bacteria. Some of which is beneficial, some of which is pathogenic and can make you quite ill.
If you were to taste these “raw” fermented beans, there’s generally a sharp acid taste and a deep bitterness followed by a soft fruity floral that is barely, and I mean just barely, reminiscent of cocoa. I have taken the chance of getting ill and tasted the raw bean, however it is not advised.
The roast can be done in one of two ways, either with a drum roaster or a pan roaster. The drum roaster uses a drum that is loaded with the beans and is constantly turning throughout the roast. The advantages are that the beans are constantly moving and have no chance to heat unevenly.
The caveat to drum roasing is the size of the drum. Most drums can only support about 2-5lbs of cocoa beans before they begin to lose efficiency.
The pan roasters use some sort of pan, usually a full sheet or half-sheet baking pan. The beans are poured onto the pan and care is made that they’re sitting in a single layer to ensure even heating. Throughout the roast the roaster needs to stir the beans on the pan to help flip them and ensure an even roast. Several of the larger roasters can take several sheet pans at a time, allowing for a much greater volume of beans for the roast.
The roasting process helps to drive off acids, convert some bittering compounds, and most importantly converts fermentation byproducts into developing the chocolate flavor desirable for our end result.
The next step after the beans have been roasted and cooled to a workable temperature is to crack the beans. We’re essentially just crushing the beans so that the outter husk of the bean is broken and the actual cocoa beans are broken into pieces. The husk is a very thin papery husk that reminds me of the shell of a peanut inside the harder protective shell.
This step is called Cracking, and is usually performed with a specialized grain mill. The Cracker I use is a specialized grain mill that was designed for the larger size of cocoa beans. I can generally crack a few pounds of cocoa beans in just a few minutes by hand.
Following the Cracking process is Winnowing. Winnowing is the process of removing those paper husks from the now cracked cocoa nibs. The paper husks only contain bittering compounds and are not desirable in the finished chocolate.
In the beginning I would do this by hand using a hairdryer and a deep bowl. The husks are very light and the cocoa nibs are a bit heavier, so the goal was to just use the hair dryer and mix the nibs until all the husks were outside the bowl. It was very messy.
These days, I have built an automatic Winnower, which can take up to about 10lbs per minute and automatically separates the husks and nibs into different buckets. This is much cleaner and much, much more efficient.
Many makers will go to a pre-grinding step at this point. Pre-grinding is the process of taking the cracked and winnowed cocoa nibs and putting them through a grinder of some sort. This produces a very thick paste of chocolate liquor. Chocolate liquor is the pure liquid resulting from grinding the cocoa nibs. This can also be called 100% cocoa, or unsweetened baking chocolate. Although many baking chocolates have at least some added cocoa butter to help smooth the texture some. The primary benefit here is to limit the wear and tear on the melangeur during the refining process and can save some time - up to about 12 hours of time depending on processes.
I typically do not pregrind. The reason being is there is too much loss during the pre-grinding process. My small batches would loose too much to the grinder. No matter how much you scrape you’ll just leave behind some chocolate. It’s also an extra piece of equipment needing a washing, so for efficiency’s sake, I skip the pre-grind and add the nibs directly to the melanguer.
The Melanguer is a piece of equipment that is generally a bowl with a stone bottom that rotates under some stone rollers. There’s pressure springs and tension arms that will determine how much pressure the stone rollers have against the stone bottom of the bowl. The weight of the stone as well as tension applied to the stone rollers will break down materials that are placed in the melangeur.
In this particular instance, that would be the cocoa nibs, sugar, vanilla, or any other ingredients that the chocoalte calls for. The process repeats until the particles of the solids are tiny enough that the refining process is stopped by removing the tension on the rollers. This process is the refining process, where the cocoa solids are broken down to tiny pieces. The ideal size of those particles is between 20-24 microns.
Usually done inside the melanguer, Conching is the final stage of turning cocoa benas into chocolate. While there’s a lot of debate about what actually is going on during the conching process, it is required in order to help develop and balance the flavor of the final chocolate.
From my own observations and understanding, it appears that this is an oxidizing process that exposes the chocoalte particles to oxygen and aerates the chocoalte some. If you’re familiar with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory; The Chocolate Waterfall would be a conching process.
The refining process can take anywhere from 12-24 hours, however, the conching process can take anywhere from 24-72 hours depending on the maker and desired flavor of the finished chocolate.
Once Conching has completed, the chocolate is cooled to a working temperature and tempered. Tempering is required for chocolate to hold it’s shine and snap when you bite into it. Without tempering, the chocolate would look streaky or splotchy, have a gritty texture, and just look awful. Once tempered, the chocoolate can be used to dip items, line chocolate molds, or fill chocolate molds.
Once molded or dipped, the chocolate is usually aged for a time prior to being packaged. This is sometimes referred to as a resting period. Aged chocolate as advertised by some makers are generally not tempered first. They pour the untempered chocolate directly into a molding block and allow it to cool, and they place it in an aging chamber where they will age it acording to thier own processes and temper and package at a later time.
In a future post I will go over the Desert Indulgence processes in more detail.