Everything You Don’t Know About Chocolate
You probably think you already know everything you need to know about chocolate.
For instance: The higher the percentage of cacao, the more bitter the chocolate, right? The term “single origin” on the label indicates that the chocolate expresses a particular terroir. And wasn’t the whole bean-to-bar movement started by a couple of bearded guys in Brooklyn?
Americans spend $21 billion on chocolate every year, but just because we eat a lot of it doesn’t mean we know what we’re eating. And misunderstandings at the store can make it especially hard for chocolate lovers to figure out which of the myriad, jauntily wrapped bars crowding the shelves are the best to buy, in terms of both taste and ethics.
All chocolate, even white chocolate, starts with the fruit of the cacao tree, an equatorial, Seussian-looking plant with plump, bumpy, ovoid pods that grow directly from the trunk.
The cacao beans (also called cocoa beans) are the seeds that grow inside the pod, surrounded by fleshy, juicy fruit that tastes a little like a mango crossed with a pear that was carrying a lychee. After harvesting, the beans are fermented for up to a week to develop their flavors, and dried.
To make chocolate, the dried beans are roasted, then cracked to separate the outer husks from the inner nibs, which have a nutty, earthy flavor and crunchy texture — and are excellent added to baked goods. The nibs are about half cocoa solids and half cocoa butter.
Chocolate makers grind the nibs into what’s called chocolate liquor, or chocolate paste. This liquor is ground again, along with sugar and other ingredients that might include milk powder to make milk chocolate, lecithin to smooth the texture, or vanilla for flavor. Sometimes extra cocoa butter is mixed in to give creaminess to dark chocolate, or to mellow the flavor of extra-bittersweet chocolates without much added sugar.
The goal of this second grinding, called conching, is to reduce the size of the sugar and cacao particles until they feel like satin on the tongue, a process that can take anywhere from 24 to 72 hours. Then the chocolate is tempered (heated and cooled to specific temperatures) so that it sets with that characteristic glossy look and snappy texture. After that, it’s ready to savor.