Making chocolate is a fascinating process that involves a lot of steps. Here’s a general overview of how a cacao bean becomes a finished chocolate bar.
Obviously, the first step in chocolate-making process is the beans. I won’t go into the whole process of bean-farming, but suffice it say that the growing conditions and processing of the beans at the cacao farm have a huge impact on the final flavor of the chocolate. In particular, how and for how long the just-harvested beans are fermented plays a major role in flavor development. But other things such as rainfall, temperature and soil composition, as well as how the beans are dried affect their flavor as well.
Chocolate makers generally don’t have much control over this process–especially small-scale artisan chocolate makers. Our role, then, is to understand this process so that we can find and use only the best beans.
Roasting the cacao beans is one of the major ways in which chocolate makers can craft their chocolate. Our goal in roasting, as with every step of the process, is to bring out the best flavors of the bean. Beans that are roasted too lightly can be bitter with under-developed flavors. Too dark and the more delicate flavors can disappear or they can taste burnt.
Roasting can be done using whole beans, nibs (small chunks of the bean), or even liquefied cacao mass. While roasting nibs or liquefied mass is quicker and use less energy, the best flavors are developed when roasting the whole bean.
Cracking & Winnowing
After the beans are roasted and cooled, they need to be cracked and winnowed. Cracking involves running the beans through a mill that cracks the beans into small pieces and separates the nib from the husk.
Winnowing is the process of removing the husks, leaving only nibs behind. Since husks are lighter than nibs, winnowing generally involves blowing air through the husk/nib mixture, blowing the husks away.
The next step is to grind and refine the nibs. As the nibs are ground, they release cocoa butter that is trapped within their cells, turning the nibs into a liquid called chocolate liquor (literally: liquid chocolate). Some chocolate makers separate these two steps using two different machines, while others, including us, grind and refine in one step. Also, other ingredients including cocoa butter and sugar can be added during the refining process or as part of the next step: conching.
Refining is one of the main steps that affects the texture of the chocolate, although conching also plays a role. A poorly refined bar can feel a little gritty or sandy on the tongue, while a well refined bar will feel nice and smooth.
There are a lot of machines that are used to refine chocolate, including huge industrial roller machines to the small melangers that grind and refine using stone rollers like we use.
Conching is one of the most misunderstood steps in the chocolate making process. This is probably because there is a lot happening during conching. Traditionally, conching was done using a conch-shaped (thus, the name) machine that had large rollers that slowly churned the heated chocolate. These days it is done many different ways, including using traditional conches, modern conching machines of various design, modified industrial mixers and again, melangers. At least one chocolate maker that I know of makes some chocolate that isn’t conched at all.
Like I mentioned, a lot is going on during the conching process. One of the main things that is happening is that all of the solid particles (cacao and sugar) are being rounded out and encapsulated in cocoa butter. This contributes to the smoothness of the final chocolate. Another thing that happens during conching is a general smoothing out of the flavor. This is due to some of the more volatile chemicals evaporating, although some of the more subtle flavors can also be lost if chocolate is over-conched.
The last step before the chocolate is molded into bars is tempering. Tempering involves manipulating the chocolate’s temperature to affect the growth of the correct cocoa butter crystals. A properly tempered chocolate bar will have a nice shine and a good snap. A poorly tempered bar, one that has too many of the wrong crystals will be soft and dull and will melt too easily as you hold it.
As with most of the steps in the chocolate making process, there are a lot of ways to temper including large industrial machines that temper on demand, small-scale table-top tempering machines and a lot of more hands-on techniques including using double-boilers and marble slabs to bring the temperature up and down.