Making Chocolate

Making Chocolate is fun, but the real fun is in the eating, right?

Where does chocolate come from? How is chocolate made? We love it, but, most of us don't really know anything about how chocolate is made. Of course, unless you're planning to start your own chocolate company, you probably don't really want to know how to make chocolate.

Chocolate making is a complex process. But, for you homeschool families and the super curious, the following is a short version of the whole process from tree to candy...or bean to bar.

Chocolate originates with the cacao tree, a native of South and Central America as well as many of the Caribbean islands. There are three main varieties: criollo, forastero, and trinitario. Criollo cacao is a rather sensitive tree, vulnerable to a variety of environmental threats. It is also a low-yield producer making it a rarer and, therefore, more expensive type of cacao. Its flavor is milder than the typical chocolate we are most familiar with.

Forastero cacao is far hardier than the criollo and a more vigorous producer. Most of the cacao plantations operating today grow forastero cacao. Forastero cacao gives us that classic chocolate flavor when processed into cocoa. Trinitario cacao is a naturally occurring hybrid of criollo and forastero varieties, however, it has been found to be of a lesser grade than either of its components.

The fruit of the cacao tree is encased in pods which are knocked from the tree using a machete or a stick. The pods are opened and the beans with their surrounding pulp are placed in piles or bins for fermenting. It's this fermentation process which brings out the chocolate flavor we all know and love. After fermenting, the cacao beans are dried, cleaned, and roasted. At this time, the seed casing or shell is removed exposing the cacao nibs. These nibs are ground and liquified resulting in chocolate liquor.

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Chocolate liquor is then processed into two components: cocoa butter and cocoa solids. Pure, unsweetened chocolate contains primarily cocoa solids and cocoa butter in varying proportions. There are two main jobs associated with creating candy from this wonderful substance: chocolate makers and chocolatiers. Companies making chocolate in the form known as couverture are combining cocoa with other ingredients. The flavor and texture will be different from maker to maker depending on the ratios of the ingredients and the process used.

Chocolatiers purchase couverture from chocolate makers, then shape or mould the finished couverture into fine candies, sometimes coating some sort of filling with a variety of decorative chocolate finishes.

Sweet or dark chocolate is the name used for pure chocolate with sugar and fat added. Semi-sweet would have less sugar. Milk chocolate would, then, be sweet chocolate with milk powder or condensed milk added. White chocolate contains cocoa butter, sugar, milk, and vanilla but no cocoa solids and so does not qualify to be considered true chocolate.

Dark chocolate has recently been promoted for its health benefits, including high levels of antioxidants which serve to eliminate or reduce the formation of free radicals. Some manufacturers use natural sweeteners in their dark varieties making chocolate safe for diabetics.

Alkaloids such as theobromine and phenethylamine which have been linked to elevated serotonin levels in the brain occur naturally in chocolate. It's possible that these higher serotonin levels in the pleasure center of the brain may account for the positive physiological effects noted by researchers, such as lower blood pressure, a lower risk for heart attack, or more energy. Of course, to realize these benefits, one must consume small amounts of dark chocolate regularly. Theobromine, while beneficial to humans, makes chocolate toxic to some animals such as horses, dogs, and cats. In spite of its risk to our pets, chocolate has become one of the most popular flavors in the world.

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White chocolate is formed from a mixture of sugar, cocoa butter, and milk solids. Although its texture is similar to milk and dark versions of the confection, it does not contain any cocoa solids. Due to the absence of cocoa solids, white chocolate does not contain any theobromine so it is not toxic to animals. However, it is not recommended that we share sweet treats with our animal friends.

One form of processing is called conching. A conche is a kind of tumbler filled with metal beads which act as grinders. Prior to conching, chocolate has a gritty and uneven texture. Conching breaks the cocoa and sugar down into particles so small that they feel smooth to the tongue. The quality of the final product is, then, determined by how long the chocolate is conched. A fine chocolate may be processed for 72 hours, while a lesser grade may only receive four to six hours.

During processing, the chocolate mass is maintained in a liquid state by frictional heat. After conching, it is stored in heated tanks while awaiting the finishing process known as tempering.

Tempering is a heating and cooling of the chocolate to produce a uniform sheen and crisp bite in the finished product. The temperature varies depending on the desired end result.

The majority of chocolate making today is manufactured using some form of heat processing. It is thought that heating chocolate may destroy the natural anti-oxidants found in the raw cacao rendering is less than beneficial for health. Xocai chocolate is cold processed in order to preserve the maximum healthful ingredients.

Making chocolate as you have seen can be a very complex process. But making chocolate can be fun too.