How is chocolate made?

Cacao

The original source of chocolate is the cacao tree, which grows in tropical climates between 20° north and south of the Equator. Orange pods, growing from the trunk and branches of these trees, are harvested twice a year (October– November and March–April); each contain about 35 cocoa beans.

The pods are split open and the beans are left to ferment and turn brown for about a week, to allow their distinctive flavour to emerge. At this stage they are bitter and unpalatable. Once separated from the pods, they are dried. For good-quality chocolate, the beans are dried in the sun for about a week. For standard-quality chocolate, the beans are artificially dried. The dried beans are then shipped to the chocolate manufacturers.

Cocoa

Their first task is to roast the beans, the slower the better –  again, to enhance the flavours. The roasted beans are then crushed into gritty pieces called nibs, and separated from their shells by winnowing. Then the nibs are finely ground to form the oily, semi-liquid 'cocoa mass' (or 'chocolate liquor'); it is kept warm by friction but solidifies on cooling. Some 53% of this is fat called 'cocoa butter'; if all of it is extracted, the result is cocoa powder. The cocoa butter –  a precious commodity –  is filtered and purified.

Chocolate

Alternatively, the semi-liquid cocoa mass can be turned directly into chocolate. Sugar is added, as well as refined cocoa butter to give the chocolate a creamy flavour and lustrous finish. For milk chocolate, milk is also added at this stage, in the form of powdered or condensed milk. The mix is then blended to form a smoother liquid.

In the last and most important phase of the refining process, the chocolate mix is 'conched' –  massaged with metal rollers for several hours (or, for supreme chocolate, up to four days) to create a silky-smooth and consistent liquid. The size of the particles is an important factor in the eventual quality of the chocolate, so the amount of conching has a direct bearing on quality.

Finally, the chocolate has to be carefully cooled to ensure that the particles remain evenly distributed, a process called 'tempering', which involves lowering the temperature, then raising it again, before allowing the chocolate to solidify. The end-product should be a chocolate that looks glossy, has a crisp 'snap' when broken, and melts gently in the mouth.

This chocolate can then be made into bars, or moulded into shapes. High-quality, cocoa-butter-rich chocolate known as 'couverture' is used to form the cases of filled chocolates.

The basic ingredients of the main three types of chocolate are:

  • Plain dark chocolate: cocoa mass + sugar + cocoa butter
  • Milk chocolate: cocoa mass + milk + sugar + cocoa butter
  • White chocolate: sugar + cocoa butter + milk

Other common ingredients are vanilla, and an emulsifier, such as lecithin (to prevent the chocolate and cocoa butter from separating).

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