Whether it`s looked at as an aphrodisiac or a potentially heart-healthy treat, chocolate has fascinated people for thousands of years. The Aztecs drank chocolate beverages as part of their religious ceremonies. Europeans adopted chocolate and added sugar and fat to make it into the sweet treat people enjoy today.
Over the centuries, various types of chocolate have been developed, including dark chocolate, milk chocolate and white chocolate. As interesting as many people find chocolate to be, few know the ins and outs of chocolate production.
Chocolate is a product of the Theobroma cacao tree. Originating in South America, the cacao has found a home in the Caribbean and Africa. Currently, the countries that produce the most cocoa are Cote d`Ivoire, Indonesia and Ghana. Three varieties of cacao provide the cocoa beans used in chocolate production. The criollo variety is the oldest known cacao variety. While it has the best flavor, it produces less fruit than the other varieties. The forastero variety produces bulk cocoa beans, the type used in most cocoa production. The trinitario variety is a combination of criollo and forastero varieties first bred in Trinidad. It produces a better tasting bean than the forestaro, but with a better production rate than criollo.
Cacao trees grow large oval pods that are similar in size to a football. These pods hold seeds embedded in pulp. The seeds, once processed, become chocolate. Once the cacao seeds, or beans, are harvested, they are fermented and dried. At this point, they can be processed in one of two ways. To produce chocolate, different varieties of beans are mixed to produce different flavors. These beans are roasted and then shelled, giving them a greater range of flavor than beans shelled before they are roasted.
To produce cocoa, the beans are shelled first and the inside contents, called nibs, are roasted. Whether the nib is roasted in the shell or out, once it is done it gets ground into a paste. This paste, once it has been refined, can be sold as unsweetened baking chocolate. Cocoa liquor is produced during this process when the heat of grinding melts the cocoa butter.
This liquor can be made into cocoa cake or powder, or it can be used for chocolate production. If the liquor or the nib is treated with an alkaline solution, a process called dutching, the powder produced is darker and has a fuller chocolate flavor. Dutching makes cocoa powder blend better into liquids such as milk.
To make chocolate, the cocoa liquor must be blended with different ingredients to produce various kinds of chocolate. To make dark chocolate, cocoa liquor is combined with sugar and cocoa butter. The higher the amount of cocoa that is added, the lower the amount of sugar that is needed. Milk chocolate is a combination of cocoa butter, sugar, vanilla, and milk or milk powder. White chocolate is a blend of cocoa butter, milk or milk powder, sugar and vanilla. It gets its white color due to the lack of chocolate solids, which give chocolate its traditional brown color. Once the ingredients are combined, the conching process begins. A conche is a machine with large agitators that stirs the chocolate blend while keeping it heated. The longer the chocolate is conched, the smoother it will be. This process can last from a few hours to a few days, with finer chocolates being conched longer.
The next step in chocolate production is tempering. When it is being heated, chocolate forms different kinds of crystals. Some of these crystals cause a mottled, easily crumbled chocolate. Other crystals make a smooth chocolate that snaps when broken. Tempering is the process of heating, cooling, and then reheating chocolate to precise temperatures to make sure that the desirable crystals are the ones that are formed.
The final stage of chocolate production is storage. Chocolate is finicky and needs careful temperature and humidity controls. When chocolate isn`t stored at the correct temperatures, a process called blooming can occur. Blooming appears as white spots on the chocolate. It indicates that fat or sugar has separated from the other chocolate ingredients. While not harmful, blooming doesn`t look appetizing and is avoided by chocolate manufacturers as much as possible.
The differences in the process of chocolate production result in a variety of flavors and textures of chocolate. The mixture of beans, length of fermentation, amount of sugar or other ingredients added and length of conching all affect the end product. Whether the end result is a block of baker`s chocolate or the finest truffle, chocolate continues to delight consumers as it has for centuries.
To learn more about chocolate production, consult the following links:
All About Chocolate: From Chicago`s Field Museum comes this online exhibit that discusses the history of chocolate, how it is made, and a children`s section with educational activities.
Chocolate and Cocoa: An overview of the history of the cacao plant and how its fruit is turned into chocolate.
NIH News in Health: Claims About Cocoa: The National Institutes of Health examine claims about the health benefits of cocoa and chocolate.
Microbiology of Chocolate: A scientific look at the microbiology of the cacao plant and how its beans can be turned into chocolate.
Neuroscience for Kids: Sweet Mysteries of Chocolate: This site aimed at children gives a brief overview of the history of chocolate and a more in-depth discussion of the effects of chocolate on the brain.
Differentiating Fine Chocolate: An explanation of the production of fine chocolate from the cacao plant to the store.
History of Chocolate: Chocolate in the American Colonies: An overview of chocolate in the Americas from Mesoamerica to the modern day, produced by The Colonial Williamsburg Official History Site.
Growing Cocoa: A discussion of the origins, biology, and varieties of cocoa found throughout the world.
Cocoa Processing: An examination of cocoa processing methods, including a section on the life of a cocoa farmer.
The Story of Chocolate: A discussion of the origins of chocolate, what chocolate is, and its impact on various world communities.