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Chocolate and Cocoa both come from the fruit of Theobroma cacao. The cacao tree is a tropical plant that has fruits with pods that can grow to 12 inches (30 cm) long and contain 20 - 30 white seeds.

The cacao beans are harvested, cleaned and roasted to bring out their full aroma and flavour. The outer shells are removed, leaving the cacao nibs, the edible part of the bean. The cacao nibs are then processed by a machine that crushes and exposes the fat, adding enough heat and force to turn the nibs into chocolate liquor.

This chocolate liquor is the base material for all chocolate products, including: cocoa butter, cocoa powder, drinking chocolate, and dark, milk and white chocolate.

Growing Cacao Beans

Around 80% of the world's cacao is grown on small 1 - 2 hectare estates. That's why it's perfect for Fairtrade and ethical production, because cacao is not a big agribusiness. The cacao tree is a delicate plant that needs a consistent temperature and humidity level, as well as protection from direct sunlight. Shade is often provided by larger mother trees. Cacao's high demands mean that cocoa can only be grown in the 20 degrees (approximately) either side of the equator.

Cocoa trees produce fruits after 4 years, but it takes 10 years before the best mature fruits are developed.

Preparing the Cacao Beans

Once the cacao pods are opened and the white beans removed, they must be fermented. How this is done depends on which country you are in - on smaller plantations, the cocoa beans are often fermented under banana leaves to let the cocoa develop its flavour. Once fermented and dried in the sun, the cocoa beans are cleaned before roasting.

After roasting, the cocoa beans are shelled, or winnowed to reveal the nibs, from which the Chocolate is made. The roasted nibs ate ready to be ground down to a paste that will eventually become Chocolate.

The first stage of grinding produces the Cocoa Liquor from the nibs. Cocoa liquor is a thick paste rather than a liquid - perhaps more like peanut butter than a free-flowing liquid. This liquor, or paste, has a fat content of over 50%, so at room temperature the solid cocoa butter suspends the other cocoa particles, which becomes important when starting to work with the chocolate, and attempt melting and tempering. Cocoa (both cacao and cocoa powders) is created by removing the cocoa butter from the liquor, which is then ground.

The next stage is to knead and mix the cocoa liquor and cocoa butter with other ingredients to make the various types of chocolate. For milk chocolate, sugar and powdered milk are added; for dark chocolate, no milk is needed, but sugar; for white chocolate cocoa butter without the other cocoa particles is added to milk and sugar. Often vanilla is added to all the types of chocolate to give it a richer flavour profile.

Further Reading

  • Dowell, P., Bailey, A. (1980) The Book of Ingredients, Dorling Kindersley. ISBN 0718119150.