How Chocolate Works
Chocolate is a favorite for kids and adults alike. Chocolate bars, chocolate fudge, chocolate cake, chocolate chip cookies, chocolate ice cream, chocolate milk, chocolate cereal, hot chocolate, chocolate sauce... There is something special about this substance -- so special that the average person in the United States eats 10 pounds (4.5 kg) of chocolate every year!
Have you ever wondered where chocolate comes from? In this article, we'll enter the amazing world of chocolate so you can understand exactly what you're eating!
The Cocoa Bean
Chocolate starts with a tree called the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao). This tree grows in equatorial regions, especially in places such as South America, Africa and Indonesia.
This cacao tree seedling grows into the tree that will yield the cocoa beans.
The cacao tree produces a fruit about the size of a small pineapple. Inside the fruit are the tree's seeds, also known as cocoa beans.
The ripe fruit of the cacao tree is about the size of a small pineapple.
Inside the ripe pods are the cacao tree's seeds: the cocoa beans.
The beans are fermented for about a week, dried in the sun and then shipped to the chocolate maker. In the next sections, we'll look at how the chocolate maker turns these raw beans into luscious chocolate.
Roasting Cocoa Beans
The chocolate maker starts by roasting the beans to bring out the flavor. Different beans from different places have different qualities and flavors, so they are often sorted and blended to produce a distinctive mix. Next, the roasted beans are winnowed. Winnowing removes the meat (also known as the nib) of the cocoa bean from its shell.
Seeds are fermented (above) and dried (below) before they are roasted.
Once roasted, winnowed and blended, the nibs are ground, and the ground nibs form a viscous liquid called chocolate liquor (the word liquor has nothing to do with alcohol -- that's just what it's called). All seeds contain some amount of fat, and cocoa beans are no different. However, cocoa beans are half fat, which is why the ground nibs form a liquid. If you have ever ground up peanuts to make real peanut butter, that is similar -- real peanut butter is a thick liquid. The difference between peanut oil and cocoa oil is that peanut oil is liquid at room temperature while cocoa oil is a solid up to about 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius).
Chocolate liquor is pure, unsweetened chocolate. Eaten in this state, it's pretty nasty because it is bitter, but it's possible to acquire a taste for it.
You can do two different things with chocolate liquor. You can pour it into a mold and let it cool and solidify. This is unsweetened chocolate. Or you can press it in a hydraulic press to squeeze out the fat. When you do that, what you are left with is a dry cake of the ground cocoa bean solids and cocoa butter (useful in everything from tanning products to white chocolate). If you grind up the cake, you have cocoa powder. You can buy both unsweetened chocolate (baking chocolate) and pure cocoa powder at the grocery store. What you are buying is ground cocoa beans, either with or without the cocoa butter.
So far, we've taken the seeds of a tree, roasted them and ground them up. Now the process of making the chocolate we eat can begin, and it takes a lot of talent.
Discs of dark chocolate can be used for baking or can be eaten just as they are.
There are three basic things that must be done by the chocolate maker to make a chocolate bar:
* Adding ingredients - The chocolate that we eat contains sugar, other flavors (like vanilla) and often milk (in milk chocolate). The chocolate maker adds these ingredients according to his or her secret recipe.
* Conching - A special machine is used to massage the chocolate in order to blend the ingredients together and smooth it out. Conching can take anywhere from two to six days.
* Tempering - Tempering is a carefully controlled heating process. According to this Chocolate FAQ, tempering is "a process where the chocolate is slowly heated, then slowly cooled, allowing the cocoa butter molecules to solidify in an orderly fashion." Without tempering, the chocolate does not harden properly or the cocoa butter separates out (as cream separates from milk).
The chocolate in this cake tastes very different from pure, unsweetened chocolate.
These three steps, along with the blend of cocoa beans chosen at the start and the way they are roasted, are the art of chocolate making. The steps control the quality, taste and texture of the chocolate produced, and are often closely guarded secrets!