Chocolate isn’t just an essential ingredient in so many baked goods and confections; it is also the preferred sweet treat of many people around the world. It is universally beloved and even comes along with a supposed list of anecdotal health benefits, ranging from claims that it contains high flavonoids along with plenty of nutrients. Yet, unbeknownst to many, there’s much more to chocolate than is commonly touted. You may hear people speaking about ‘baker’s chocolate,’ ‘dark chocolate,’ ‘milk chocolate,’ and ‘white chocolate,’ but when it comes to the production of this delicacy, much more can be said on the matter. Chocolate is not simply chocolate, as it turns out. The crop has not only a rich history of production and consumption but is subject to rigorous processes of production to ensure that standards, grades, and consistency are met.
A Quick History
Modern chocolates are a confection made from the beans of a tree known as the cacao tree, which is native to the new world, specifically to Mesoamerica. The beans of the tree have been propagated, traded, and consumed in some form or other for hundreds of years, for so long, in fact, that the precise origins are unknown.
What is known is that the cacao tree has been immensely important, culturally, and culinarily in Mesoamerica for well over 2,000 years. The trees were so highly regarded that some indigenous cultures considered them sacred and believed that the fruit of the trees was the provender of their local god of wisdom.
Early on in the history of its use and cultivation, chocolate was not consumed in the form by which it is universally known today. Originally, a drink was produced from the cacao beans that was drunk by native peoples and was believed to confer strength and virulence. Interestingly, the origin of the modern English word ‘chocolate’ is a derivative of a Nahuatl word ‘xocolatl’ which contains morphological elements connoting the bitterness of the drink. Cultures from all over the area, including Olmec, Pueblo, and Aztec peoples consumed drinks produced from the beans of the cacao tree. Because of its significance, the trees were cultivated to make growing and harvesting easier, and the beans were traded throughout much of Central America, including the Southern and Northern reaches of North and South America, respectively.
The Europeans, who have since been largely responsible for the global trade in chocolate, were introduced to it when the Spaniards came to the new world over 500 years ago. At the time of their introduction to cacao beans, chocolate was still widely consumed as a drink. Over the course of the centuries, improvements in technology made it possible to mill the beans more quickly; over the years a new form of chocolate emerged which more closely resembled the forms of chocolate which we eat and with which we bake today, a solid form. By the late 1800s, processes had been developed to remove the cacao butter from the rest of the components of the cacao beans, enabling the production of solid chocolate which is widespread today.
Harvesting and Processing
Chocolate can be a fairly picky plant, and as it naturally occurs in South America, it requires a fairly warm, somewhat tropical environment. It flourishes best when growing in a warm area with some good direct sunlight and without exposure to cold temperatures. It also requires a well-balanced fertilizer and does not feed too heavily off of one imbalance nutrient. Originally, wild trees could grow to heights of around 60 feet, but cultivars are typically around 20 feet or shorter, which facilitates growing, harvesting, and processing.
Cacao beans are harvested from the pods that grow on the cacao trees, and even today are sometimes harvested by hand. The pods, when opened, contain a white pulp and the beans. The pods should be allowed to ripen fully before harvesting because if they are not allowed to properly ripen a few critical issues could arise. In the first place, unripe pods typically do not have a sufficient cacao butter content in their beans, and may not contain enough sugar for the necessary fermentation to occur in order to enhance their natural flavor.
After being harvested, the beans are allowed to remain with their pulp attached to allow for the natural fermentation to occur that improves and strengthens their flavor. After fermentation, the beans must be removed from the pulp and then allowed to dry. After they are dry they are roasted and ground into a liquid form known as chocolate liquor, which contains cacao butter and other cacao solids.
To produce the forms of chocolate that are widely recognized, the chocolate liquor must be blended. Depending upon the type and grade of chocolate, it is customary to include a blend of chocolate liquor, cacao butter, sugar, and if the chocolate is to become milk or white chocolate, then milk will be added. Dark chocolate has the highest concentration of cacao butter and cacao solids of these three different types of chocolate, typically making it the most expensive to produce.
In order to produce a smoothly blended chocolate with a consistent and satisfying texture, then chocolate blenders will add an emulsifier to the mix that helps the solids and the oils bind to each other. There are two more processes, however, that the chocolate must undergo which will affect their overall texture and smoothness, which will be explained below.
Before the process known as conching, the chocolate is a coarse blend of cacao butter and solids along with any other ingredients that it contains, such as sugar, milk, emulsifiers, and potentially other ingredients. Conching is performed to smooth out the consistency and to improve the texture of the chocolate, so-called because the containers in which this portion of refining was performed were shaped like the shells of conches.
The process itself is fairly simple. Basically, conching is a process by which the chocolate blend is heated and remains at a temperature threshold in order to convert any crystals contained into the mixture in liquids so that they can be smoothly blended.
Conching doesn’t only improve the texture and consistency of chocolate, though. If you have ever had very dark chocolate or raw cacao powder, you may have noticed that it can be almost unbearably bitter. Conching also helps to reduce the bitterness and acidity of the cacao while at the same time diminishing the moisture content so that the finished chocolate is smoother and creamier.
Tempering is the final process that chocolate manufacturers go through when finishing their chocolate production. To keep things simple, tempering chocolate is a process of melting and then reconstituting chocolate, often slowly and under control, so that the finished chocolate has a reliable consistency, is smooth and shiny, and does not melt or separate too easily. If you have ever melted a perfect chocolate bar and allowed it to reform, you may have noticed that the reformed chocolate was either brittle, chalky, or remelted too easily. Without tempering, this is often how chocolate ends up, and tempering processes result in chocolate with much more pleasant visual, tactile, and gustatory properties.
Different Types of Chocolate Products and Their Uses
That is a very basic explanation of the manner in which chocolate is produced and refined, but there are several types and grades of chocolate and chocolate-based products that have specific properties that make them suitable for different uses.
Plain or Regular Chocolate
Plain or regular chocolate refers to a grade of chocolate that has a relatively high amount of cacao solids by apportionment and a low percentage of cocoa butter, making it very thick. It does not melt well and is commonly used in baking. Some types of plain or regular chocolate are not tempered because they are typically used in baking applications where they will be incorporated with other ingredients and their native texture will not be as noticeable.
Some would say that compound chocolate is not real chocolate because it does not contain cacao butter, but contains vegetable oil instead. This has a few effects; one effect is that this type of chocolate is typically much cheaper than alternatives. It also melts easily and does not require tempering. If you were wondering, the purpose of producing this type of chocolate lies in the latter fact and not in the former.
Because this type of chocolate does not require tempering and can be easily melted and remelted, it is often the chocolate of choice for some amateur confectioners looking to try their hand at melting and casting their own chocolates in molds, or in dipping fruits and other sweets and treats.
Although compound chocolates are easier to work with and do not require tempering, many have said that this comes at the expense of the quality and flavor of the chocolate. If you’re looking for some more information on the virtues of compound chocolate and its uses, reach out to our team and we’ll fill you in on some high-quality options as well as good uses for them.
Couverture chocolate connotes the highest grade of professional quality chocolate, with a very fine texture and smooth, even shiny finish. This grade of high-quality chocolate contains a high percentage of cocoa butter. It is easy to melt, providing smooth chocolate that maintains its shape well when set and offers a sharp, crisp, satisfying snap when broken.
There are precise standards for what can be marketed and sold as couverture chocolate in the United States. Our standards for couverture chocolate specify that the chocolate in question must contain at least 35% cocoa solids and 31% cocoa butter, although some couverture contains significantly higher amounts of cocoa butter. As this can vary according to the brand, if you would like some more information on the uses and compositions of our couverture blends, please give our team a call.
Cocoa solids, also sometimes called cacao or cocoa powder, are the solids that can be separated from chocolate liquor along with the butter that we will investigate shortly. The main reason that cocoa solids are so important is for their use in making chocolate. Some confectioners produce their own chocolate with their own cocoa solids. At the same time, there are plenty of bakers out there who do their baking with cocoa powder as well. Cocoa solids or powder can also be used to make real hot chocolate and as a flavoring additive in certain dishes.
Cocoa butter is the collection of fats that are separated from cacao or chocolate liquor during processing and have their own uses in baking and confectionery. Cocoa butter is used in the making of chocolate, but it has plenty of other culinary uses as well, including in many baking recipes. It is prized for its powerful scent that reminds one of chocolate as well as for its luscious, smooth texture.
Find It All Here!
Whether you’re looking for cocoa solids or couverture chocolate, you can find them all right here at Stover & Company, and with our vast inventory of goods for baking and confectionery come our many years of experience and our stellar customer service.
If you’re not sure about some terminology that we’ve used or would like some more in-depth information on the history behind and the usage of these wonderful products, please feel free to reach out to us to learn more! You can reach our customer service team at 724-274-6314. We value each and every one of our customers and would love to get the chance to furnish you with more information and to learn more about your processes.
On that note, we understand that quality ingredients are the hallmark of a quality finished product, and whether your passion for baking and confections is a personal one or a professional one, we aim to provide you with the highest quality ingredients at the best possible prices. By all means, reach out to us for more information, but feel free to contact us about pricing as well so that we can come up with a structure that works for both of us.