Chocolate as we know it is the product of a long and complicated refining process that begins with the bean pods of the Theobroma cocoa tree. Theobroma cocoa literally means “food of the Gods,” and this name reflects both the heavenly taste of chocolate and the reverence Mayan and Aztec cultures had for this divine food.
1. The making of chocolate begins with the harvest of the cocoa pods. The pods are first split open to reveal the cocoa beans surrounded by a fruity pulp. 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 left to ferment in baskets for two to eight days. Without fermentation, the beans would be too astringent and bitter to enjoy.
2. Once the beans are fermented, they are spread out in a single layer and left to dry completely, usually in direct sunlight. After the beans are fully dried, they are packaged and shipped to chocolate manufacturers around the world.
3. At the manufacturing facility, they are roasted to bring out the most intense chocolate flavours and colours. 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 of the beans and leaves the “nibs” which is the essence of the cocoa bean that is full of cocoa solids and cocoa butter.
4. The nibs are then ground to a thick, rich paste called chocolate liquor (a misleading term, since the product contains no alcohol). This liquor is the foundation for all chocolate products, and at last begins to resemble and smell like conventional 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.
5. At this point, the chocolate process varies depending on the recipe and formulation of the manufacturer. If the chocolate is low quality, the pulverized “presscake” will be mixed with vegetable fats, sugar and flavourings to become substandard 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 mixture then travels through a series of rollers to smoothen out the texture before travelling to the conching machine.
6. Conching is the final step. The speed, temperature and length of the conching process determines the final texture and flavour of the chocolate, as conching smoothens 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.
Components of the cocoa bean
The two main components of the cocoa bean are basically the ‘fats’ or the ‘cocoa butter’ and constitutes about 50-55% of the whole bean. The rest of the bean is composed of ‘non-fat solids’ and together, both these components make the ‘cocoa mass’ or ‘cocoa solids.’
Cocoa butter (fats) is colourless, the flavour carrier and is responsible for giving the texture and mouth-feel to the chocolate. On the other hand, non-fat solids are the flavouring component and gives taste in the chocolate.
The more preferred category of chocolate, i.e., the ‘Couverture’ chocolate, is made by combining the ‘cocoa mass’ with sugar, vanilla and the emulsifier lecithin (usually extracted from soya) where as the inexpensive category of chocolate, i.e., the ‘Coating/Glaze’ chocolate is derived by combining the ‘non-fat solids’ with vegetable fat, sugar, vanilla and emulsifier lecithin.
The separation of the ‘non-fat solids’ from the cocoa bean results in what is commonly known as ‘cocoa powder’ with some variable fat content. The higher the percentage of fat content in the ‘cocoa powder’, the superior is the quality. Also, this powder is acidic in nature, so it is treated with an alkali, in a process called Dutch Process, to make it richer, darker, less acidic and has less tendency to settle out when combined with liquids. This way it is also made suitable for dishes that call for baking powder.