Going from bean to bar (Bean-to-bar basics, Part II)


Once cocoa beans are grown, harvested, fermented, and dried, the actual chocolate producer, or chocolate maker steps in. The following are several of the steps crucial to producing edible chocolate:

Roasting not only helps to kill any bacteria that may linger on fermented and dried beans, but it helps reduce the moisture content of the dried bean. Perhaps most importantly, the roasting step is crucial to develop the flavors that will eventually constitute the profile of the finished chocolate. Roasting varies greatly in temperature and length of time, depending on the varietal of the bean and what flavor notes the producer might want to elicit; typical roasting parameters range from 300-350 degrees F, for 30 to 60 minutes.

Cracking and winnowing
Once they’re roasted, cocoa beans need to be cracked and winnowed. In their natural state, the beans have a papery hull (similar to, but a little thicker and stiffer than the dark, papery skin on peanuts fresh out of the shell). To separate these shells from the roasted bean, chocolate makers crack the roasted beans into small pieces, then send the pieces through a strong fan, which blows the light shells away. The resulting small, cracked pieces of roasted cocoa bean are called “cocoa nibs,” which you can sometimes find for sale on their own.

To make chocolate out of cocoa nibs, the first step is to grind them. Chocolate makers use stone or metal mills to pulverize the nibs until, after a period in the range of one to two days, a thick, gritty paste or liquid results. This paste is referred to as cocoa mass, or cocoa liquor, and consists of cocoa particles suspended in cocoa butter.

Conching is a fancy word that encompasses the often-lengthy process of heating, mixing, and aerating chocolate to release undesirable volatiles and acids, and to get the silky smooth texture that can be poured into molds for bars. This process can take from hours to days (!) to complete; standard formulas remain elusive, as makers vary their processes depending on the type of beans they start with, and what kind of chocolate they’re aiming to produce in the end.

Tempering is needed to make the cocoa butter (the natural fat from the cocoa bean) solidify in a stable way. Cocoa butter is made of a few different glycerides that solidify at different temperatures; tempering is a process of repeated heating and cooling, while constantly moving and stirring the chocolate. The result: a smooth, evenly textured mixture that is ready to be poured into molds, cooled, and eaten!

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