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My life has really changed since becoming the Serious Eats chocolate correspondent. Private jet to fly me on weekend jaunts to Paris, cadre of personal assistants catering to my every whim, invitations to exclusive chocolate events—yes, it's all so different than a week ago. OK, maybe those first two are kind of made up.
But I was able to attend a bean-to-bar tutorial and chocolate tasting led by none other than Jacques Torres, master chocolatier and dean of pastry arts at my alma mater, the French Culinary Institute.
As someone who works around chocolate all the time, I sometimes forget how amazing and magical it really is; not to mention how much time, effort and care goes into the production. This little bean-to-bar tutorial will help you understand the basics better.
Chocolate is made from the seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree ("theobroma" is actually Greek for "food of the gods." No foolin'.) The seeds (beans), covered in fruity pulp, are nestled inside football-shaped pods, which grow on the trunks as well as the branches of the trees. Cacao trees grow only 20 degrees north and south of the equator, so you may as well give up that dream of a cacao plantation in your backyard.
Harvesting and Fermenting
Cacao pods are harvested by hand when they're ripe, indicated by their reddish-brown color. The pods are broken open and the beans (still covered in pulp) are placed in bins or piles to ferment.
The fermentation of the beans is key in developing the final chocolatey flavor and removing some of their inherent astringency. Kind of makes you wonder what absentminded genius first left a pile of cacao beans lying around for a week before remembering to dry them, huh?
Drying, Roasting, and Cracking
The fermented beans are quickly dried to prevent mold formation, which is usually done by spreading them out in the sun, though inclement weather can require machine-aided drying.
The dried beans are then roasted to develop the flavors that were first formed during the fermentation process. After roasting, the beans are cracked and winnowed to remove the shells and other debris.
What you have now are referred to as cocoa nibs, sometimes available at high-end grocery or specialty stores. The nibs themselves taste chocolatey at this point (and delicious, to me), but aren't at all sweet, so nibs probably aren't what you'd reach for while in the middle of a cripplingly intense chocolate craving.
Grinding and Mixing
The nibs are ground finely, resulting in a paste of cocoa butter and cocoa solids called cocoa liquor (no, Drunky, it's not alcoholic). At this point, the liquor can be processed through a hydraulic press that removes much of the cocoa butter and leaves a hard disc of solids—pulverize this, and you get cocoa powder.
But if you're going to make a bar of chocolate, you'd add sugar to make dark chocolate. Add some milk powder to that and, presto! You've got milk chocolate.
The chocolate-sugar-milk mixture is now put into a special kind of agitator called a conching machine, which further grinds the mixture to break down the cocoa and sugar into 20-micron-or-smaller particles. Since the tongue can't recognize anything this minute, the finished chocolate will feel smooth and creamy in your mouth. Conching can go on for as few as six hours; high-end chocolates will conch for up to 72.
This deserves its own post (anyone interested?), but basically it's a process of heating and cooling the chocolate to specific temperatures to stabilize the fat crystals. Once the chocolate is tempered, it's formed into bars, chips, and so on, packaged for transport.
There you have it—the basics. Do keep in mind this is a very rudimentary explanation of how most chocolate bars are made. Different companies have different procedures, and there are an infinite amount of small variations within the basic processes.
But hopefully, this gives you an appreciation of how much work goes into your humble snacking chocolate, and how far it traveled to get to your pantry. We're incredibly lucky to have such an exotic treat so readily available—something to ponder the next time you're trying to decide between the 72% Venezuelan and 65% Ecuadorian bars next to the checkout counter.
Some Bean-to-Bar Chocolate Operations
Jacques Torres' bean-to-bar operation is based in his downtown Manhattan location (350 Hudson Street). There are many other fantastic American artisan bean-to-bar operations, including The Mast Brothers in Brooklyn; Taza in Somerville, Massachusetts; Patric in Columbia, Missouri; Theo in Seattle; Amano in Orem, Utah; Askinosie in Springfield, Missouri, and many more I don't know about yet. Road trip, anyone?