How Chocolate Is Made


Modern manufacturing processes allow chocolate makers to create many varieties of the popular confection.
Modern manufacturing processes allow chocolate makers to create many varieties of the popular confection.
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Although people have been enjoying chocolate for thousands of years, there have been many changes to how chocolate is made.

The way that cacao is grown and harvested today is little-changed from the days of the ancient Maya and Aztec. But modern technological advances have made it possible to process those beans into a rich assortment of affordable, flavorful chocolate treats that the original chocolate-makers could never have dreamed of.

Once chocolate arrived in Europe, its popularity only grew, as did the demand for the exotic beans from which it is made. Eventually, the craving for chocolate outgrew the ability of Mesoamerican sources to supply enough beans. So, to guarantee a sufficient, steady, inexpensive supply of cacao, the Europeans began establishing their own cacao-tree plantations in their colonies in the tropics: the British in Ceylon; the Dutch in Venezuela, Sumatra, and Java; and the French in the West Indies.

Today, very few of those large cacao plantations survive, mainly because chocolate-growers discovered that cacao trees are far more productive and hardy (without the use of expensive pesticides and chemical fertilizers) when grown in more natural surroundings and on a smaller scale that allows for more careful, hands-on tending. That's not really surprising, however, because cacao trees are quite delicate. They do well only under very specific temperature and moisture conditions (the cacao tree can only be grown in consistently hot and rainy areas within 20 degrees north or south of the equator), they require intensive cultivation, and their pods must be harvested by hand.

It is only when the cacao beans arrive at chocolate factories that technology can take over. Modern machinery and production methods, developed in the past 200 years, allow cacao beans to be processed into cocoa powder and all the other forms of baking, eating, or decorating chocolates that are available today.

Chocolate production begins on the farm. Keep reading to learn how chocolate is grown.

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How Chocolate Is Grown

Today, most cacao beans come from small, independent cacao farms in tropical regions in Africa and Indonesia. On these small farms, the cacao trees are planted among taller trees, such as banana, rubber, and coconut. The taller "mother trees" shelter the cacao trees from harsh sunlight and wind, help limit the spread of diseases and pests, and ensure a steady supply of decaying leaves and other plant matter that naturally enrich the soil.

That natural ground cover also provides habitat for the midges (tiny insects) that pollinate the cacao plants. The native farmers provide the intensive cultivation and diligent care necessary for the cacao trees to thrive and have the skill, experience, and patience required to handpick the beans and prepare them for market.

Growing and Harvesting Cacao Beans

Farmers raise cacao trees by first setting out cacao seeds in fiber baskets or plastic bags. It takes only a few months for the seeds to sprout and grow into seedlings that are then transplanted among the mother trees. In time, each seedling grows into a magnificent tree with large, glossy red leaves that gradually turn green as the tree matures.

Although wild cacao trees can grow to a height of more than 50 feet, cultivated trees are usually in the 15- to 25-foot range. It usually takes a new cacao tree about five years to begin producing the fruit that holds the valuable cacao seeds.

Unlike most fruit trees in the United States, the cacao tree sprouts flowers and seed pods from its trunk and main branches. A typical cacao tree sprouts thousands of small, waxy, pink or white blossoms, although only 3 to 10 percent of these will eventually produce fully mature fruit. A healthy, productive tree can yield up to 2,000 pods a year. Another feature of the evergreen cacao tree is that it produces fruit year-round, so it is typically host to blossoms, unripened fruit, and fully mature seed pods all at the same time. The blossoms sprout from "cushions" that are clustered together on the trunk and main branches.

There are many varieties of cacao, and the trees cross-pollinate freely, but they fall into three basic types:

  • Criollo. The cacao considered to produce the best chocolate, criollo pods are soft and thin-skinned, with a light color and a pleasant aroma.
  • Forastero. The most common and easiest-to-cultivate variety, forastero cacao trees produce the most pods, which are thick-walled, have a pungent aroma, and produce a more bitter chocolate.
  • Trinitario. A natural cross of criollo and forastero, trinitario cacao blends the greater hardiness of the forastero tree with the milder and more aromatic flavor of the criollo beans.

The vast majority of chocolate today is made from the more bitter forastero variety, because forastero trees are hardier and produce more pods (making forastero beans cheaper) than the other two types. In recent years, however, cacao growers have been working on developing cacao hybrids to improve the quality and flavor of the beans while making the trees hardier and more resistant to disease. And recent interest in "gourmet" foods -- especially among people who can afford to pay higher prices -- has begun to increase demand for chocolates made from the rarer and more flavorful criollo beans.

Although cacao pods continually ripen on the trees, there are usually only two major harvests -- sometimes with a third minor one in between -- each year. It takes an experienced farmer to tell when cacao pods are ready for picking, and as in ages past, it takes careful manual labor to harvest them. Machines would simply cause too much damage to the trees.

Ripe cacao pods must be individually handpicked to avoid harming the younger pods, tender blossoms, and delicate flower cushions (which will give rise to future pods) that are clustered with them on the trunk and main branches. In fact, the cacao tree is so easily damaged and its roots are so shallow that farmers don't dare climb it to harvest the ripe pods growing higher in the tree. Instead, the harvesters stay on the ground and use special long-handled cutting tools to snip off the higher pods. They deftly wield machetes to remove those closer to the ground.

The next step in making chocolate includes fermenting and drying. Learn about this step in the next section.

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How Chocolate Is Prepared

Growing the cocoa beans is only part of the story of making chocolate. The next step in preparing chocolate is fermenting and drying.

Fermenting Chocolate

Once the pods have been harvested and collected, they have to be opened -- a task that itself requires skill and care to be done efficiently and without injury. Using a machete, an experienced cacao-farm worker can open up to 500 of the woody pods every hour without damaging the beans inside (or lopping off a body part). Once a pod is open, the whitish pulp, containing anywhere from 20 to 50 cacao beans, must be scooped out. (The edible pulp tastes sweet and lemony, but the cream-colored beans are far too hard and bitter to eat at this stage.)

The workers then pile up the pulp-coated beans and cover them with banana leaves or spread them out in long, shallow, covered wooden boxes to encourage fermentation to begin. Fermentation is a natural chemical process in which yeast, bacteria, or other microorganisms break down the sugar in the pulp into acidic compounds such as vinegar. The fermentation process is vital to the creation of chocolate, because it triggers chemical changes that help the beans develop their chocolate flavor.

Fermentation generates heat, causing the temperature within the pile of cacao beans to reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit or more. The heat, in turn, kills the germ of the bean (the part that would sprout and develop into a new plant) and liquefies the pulpy residue, which then just drains away.

The heat also activates certain enzymes in the beans that tame their bitterness, form compounds that contribute to the chocolate flavor, and give the beans a brown color. Milder beans (such as the criollo variety) typically need to be fermented for only about three days, while more bitter beans (including forasteros) may require six to nine days of fermentation. Inadequate or interrupted fermentation prevents the development of true chocolate flavor. When the cacao beans finally turn brown, they are ready to be dried.

Drying Chocolate

At this point, the fully fermented beans are typically spread out on bamboo mats or special trays and left in the sun to dry -- a process that takes a few days to weeks. They are turned occasionally to help the process along and prevent mold from growing.

At night, the beans are covered or brought indoors to keep dew from settling on them. If the weather is too damp during the day, the beans may be kept indoors and dried with hot-air blowers. Faster methods, such as drying the beans using the heat of a fire, are usually avoided because they can add unwanted flavors to the beans.

The drying step reduces the moisture in the beans, which decreases the risk of mold growth as the beans make their way to chocolate factories. But it is also during the drying stage that additional chemical changes occur that are essential to the development of the chocolate flavor of the beans. In addition, while the beans are laid out for drying, the farmer can pick through them to remove foreign particles and flat, broken, or germinated beans. By the end of the drying step, the beans have lost most of their moisture (usually at least 92 percent of it) and more than half their weight.

After drying, the beans are packed in sacks for shipment to the warehouses of commodity brokers. If the crop is approved, the buyers pay the farmer the current market price as set by cocoa exchanges (similar to stock exchanges) in New York, London, Hamburg, and Amsterdam. From the brokers' warehouses, the cacao beans are shipped to chocolate manufacturers around the world.

The next steps in making chocolate takes place in the factory. Keep reading to learn about how chocolate is processed.

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How Chocolate Is Processed

In this step of chocolate production, technology plays a big role in how chocolate is processed. Once the beans arrive at the factory, they go through a fairly standard set of processing steps, with the number of steps dependent in part on whether the beans are destined to become cocoa powder or chocolate.

Throughout this part of the journey from inedible bean to tasty treat, technology rules. In some manufacturing plants, computers are even used to run the machines and monitor the results to ensure the consistency and quality of the final products.

Yet the modern machines and manufacturing processes have done more than make chocolate production faster and easier than in centuries past. They have actually redefined chocolate for the modern world, transforming the bitter, grainy, liquid chocolate of the ancients into the wide variety of rich, smooth candies, bars, cocoas, fillings, toppings, sauces, and flavorings that we know as chocolate today.

Chocolate manufacturers have their own proprietary recipes for making their various chocolate products. The vast majority of those products are made from specific blends of different types of beans. The secret recipes dictate exactly which types of beans, from which sources, and in what amounts, to use for each product. By following those recipes to the letter, the manufacturer can maintain quality and consistency in its final products.

When cacao beans arrive at the factory, therefore, they are carefully sorted and tracked according to type of cacao and plantation of origin. The beans are then cleaned by a machine that removes any remaining pod fragments, dried pulp, and other debris.

Next comes the all-important roasting stage. The future quality of the chocolate (or cocoa) -- in terms of flavor, aroma, and appearance -- depends on careful roasting. The beans are roasted as they tumble around in large, heated, rotating cylinders. Depending on the variety of bean and the desired result, the beans may be roasted anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours at temperatures of 250 degrees Fahrenheit or above. During roasting, their moisture content drops even further, their color deepens to a rich brown, and the characteristic aroma of chocolate develops.

After roasting, the beans are quickly cooled, leaving their thin shells dry, brittle, and easy to remove. The beans are then fed into a winnowing machine, where rollers crack the shells and fans blow away the shell fragments. What remain are pieces of cacao called "nibs."

At this stage, nibs from various types and sources of cacao are weighed and carefully combined (blended) according to each manufacturer's unique recipe. The specific blend used plays a major role in determining the flavor of the chocolate or cocoa that will result.

The blended nibs are next fed into mills, where they are ground into a paste. The process of crushing the nibs between large grinding stones or heavy steel discs produces heat, which liquefies the fat within the nibs. The fat in cacao is called cocoa butter, and the nibs consist of 54 percent cocoa butter.

The resulting mash of liquefied cocoa butter and ground cocoa solids is known commercially as "chocolate liquor." (The name is a bit of a misnomer, though, because "liquor" here means liquid, not alcohol, yet the substance itself is actually more of a paste than a liquid.) All cocoa powder and chocolate products are made from this chocolate liquor. And it is at this point that the process for making cocoa powder and the process for making chocolate diverge.

Keep reading to learn how cocoa powder is made.

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How Cocoa Powder Is Made

The beverage we call cocoa, or hot chocolate, in the United States is not the same as the hot cacao liquid consumed throughout most of history. The original "hot cacao" was made by combining water with ground cacao beans, which still contained all their natural cocoa butter. Since oil and water don't mix, the cocoa butter in the ground beans prevented the cacao from dispersing evenly in the water. The result was a thick, gritty beverage with a layer of oily fat floating on its surface -- a far cry from the smooth and creamy cocoa we enjoy today.

Modern hot chocolate was born in 1828 in Holland. That's when chemist Coenraad Johannes Van Houten patented a process for removing much of the cocoa butter from ground cacao beans and then treating the resulting powder with an alkali substance such as baking soda to make it mix better with water. The alkali treatment is referred to as "Dutching," in recognition of its origins, and the darker-colored, lighter-flavored cocoa that results is called Dutch cocoa.

To make Dutched cocoa powder, chocolate liquor is pumped into giant hydraulic presses, where about half of the cocoa butter is squeezed out. Baking soda is added to the remaining material, which is called "press cake." The treated press cake is then cooled, pulverized, and sifted to form cocoa powder. The cocoa powder is then packaged for sale in grocery stores as hot-chocolate mix or sold in bulk for use as a flavoring by dairies, bakeries, and candy manufacturers (the Dutching process makes the cocoa powder far more useful as a flavoring for other foods, as well).

The yellowish, liquid cocoa butter pressed out of the chocolate liquor does not go to waste. It is actually a very valuable commodity that is vital for manufacturing chocolate. Cocoa butter can also be sold -- at high prices -- to other manufacturers for use in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.

Although their origins are the same, the process of making chocolate is different than the process of making cocoa. Move on to the next section to learn how chocolate is made.

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How Chocolate Is Made

While making cocoa powder is about removing much of the cocoa butter from chocolate liquor, making chocolate (the common eating varieties, at least) is about adding extra cocoa butter, as well as other ingredients, to the chocolate liquor.

Cocoa butter is an absolutely essential component of chocolate. Indeed, it accounts for about 25 percent of the weight of most chocolate bars.

Cocoa butter has such enormous importance in the making of chocolate because of its unique qualities (which also make it valuable in pharmaceutical and cosmetic manufacturing). It is the only vegetable fat that is solid at room temperature, allowing for the production of chocolate "bars" and other molded chocolate candies.

Cocoa butter is also unusual in that it melts at 89 to 93 degrees Fahrenheit -- just below body temperature -- and so is responsible for giving chocolate its melt-in-your-mouth appeal. Last but not least, cocoa butter resists oxidation and rancidity very well, allowing it to be stored at room temperature for years without spoiling.

To make eating chocolate, then, additional cocoa butter is blended into chocolate liquor; depending on the type of chocolate being made and the manufacturer's recipe, sugar and other ingredients may be added, as well. The amounts of cocoa butter, chocolate liquor, and other ingredients are strictly dictated by the manufacturer's proprietary formula. The ingredients are thoroughly mixed together, in some cases for hours. The mixture is then refined by being passed between heavy rollers (multiple times for the finest chocolates) to smooth out grittiness.

Next, the chocolate mixture is poured into a special shell-shape machine for a process called "conching." Conching was invented in 1879 by Swiss chocolate-maker Rodolphe Lindt and helped usher in the age of modern, velvety-smooth chocolate.

Conching is a mechanical kneading process in which heavy rollers move back and forth through the chocolate mixture. The rollers agitate and aerate the chocolate, developing the chocolate flavor and further breaking down the chocolate and sugar molecules to make the chocolate silkier and more pliable. By carefully adjusting the speed of the rollers and level of aeration, the manufacturer can alter the chocolate's flavor and texture. In general, the longer chocolate is conched, the smoother it will be.

Conching may be performed for as little as a few hours, although a high-quality chocolate may be conched for as long as three days. Additional cocoa butter may be added at this stage for a richer chocolate. A fat called lecithin, derived from soy, is often added as a stabilizer at this stage, too. And any additional flavoring ingredients, such as vanilla, that were not added earlier may be included at the conching stage.

Some manufacturers supplant or supplement the conching phase with a step called emulsifying. In this process, a sort of giant eggbeater breaks up the sugar crystals in the chocolate, resulting in a more velvety texture.

Before the chocolate can be poured into molds, dripped over fillings, or shipped off in liquid form to other food manufacturers, it needs to go through one more step, called tempering. Friction during the conching process naturally heats up the chocolate. During tempering, the chocolate is slowly, carefully, and repeatedly cooled and heated while being stirred continuously.

Tempering is a stabilizing process that helps to keep the chocolate crystals from clumping together, which would give the chocolate a grainy or crumbly texture. It also gives the final product a smooth, glossy appearance and prevents the cocoa butter from separating out and causing a dull, grayish "bloom" on the surface of the chocolate. It's a complicated process that, done improperly, can seriously affect the quality of the final chocolate product.

Thanks to modern chocolate-making processes, fans of chocolate have many varieties to choose from. Keep reading to learn about one of these varieties, dark chocolate.

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Dark Chocolate

"Dark chocolate" is the general term used for chocolate that contains chocolate liquor -- and usually additional cocoa butter, sugar, lecithin (as an emulsifier), and flavorings -- but little or no milk. While there is general agreement that this term refers to chocolate that contains less than 12 percent milk solids, there seems little consensus on the minimum chocolate-liquor content required of the dark-chocolate category as a whole or of the individual varieties of chocolate within that category.

In Europe, for example, dark chocolate must contain at least 35 percent chocolate liquor and have a cacao content of at least 43 percent. In the United States, on the other hand, the government requires a minimum of only 15 percent chocolate liquor for this category. But here are some rough guidelines for understanding the varieties of dark chocolate that are available in the United States:

  • Sweet dark chocolate. This is the U.S. government's name for dark chocolate, and by legal definition, it must contain at least 15 percent chocolate liquor. The mildest dark chocolates typically have a cacao content of 15 percent to 34 percent.
  • Semisweet dark chocolate. This sweetened dark chocolate is often sold as "morsels" or "chips" for use in chocolate-chip cookies and other baked goods, although it can also be found in bar form. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, semisweet chocolate must contain a minimum of 35 percent chocolate liquor. Its cacao content is typically in the 35 percent to 49 percent range. Technically, semisweet chocolate contains a higher percentage of sugar (and therefore a lower percentage of cacao) than bittersweet chocolate does, but the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, and semisweet chocolate can be substituted when a recipe calls for bittersweet.
  • Bittersweet dark chocolate. Bittersweet chocolate is sweetened dark chocolate that, according to the U.S. government, must contain a minimum of 35 percent chocolate liquor. Most bittersweet chocolate bars have a cacao content of at least 50 percent, and some have a cacao content approaching 100 percent. As the "darkest" of the sweetened dark chocolates -- the variety that has the highest cacao content -- bittersweet chocolate has the most intense chocolate flavor.

Keep reading to learn about another popular type of chocolate -- milk chocolate.

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Milk Chocolate

Milk chocolate, the most common eating chocolate in the United States today, actually arrived on the scene fairly late in the history of chocolate.

Milk chocolate's development was made possible with the invention of powdered milk by Swiss chemist Henri Nestlé in 1867. Previous attempts at mixing whole (liquid) milk and chocolate liquor didn't turn out well. But in 1879, a Swiss chocolate manufacturer and neighbor of Nestlé by the name of Daniel Peter decided to try combining the newly invented powdered milk with chocolate liquor -- and true milk chocolate was born.

Milk chocolate is made by combining chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, sugar, flavorings, and sweetened condensed or powdered whole milk (which one is used depends on the individual manufacturer's formula and production methods). The sugar and milk are first blended together, then they're mixed with chocolate liquor and flavorings and dried to create a substance called "milk chocolate crumb." Next, additional cocoa butter is blended with the crumb, and the mixture is sent through the standard conching and refining processes.

All milk chocolate made in the United States must contain at least 10 percent chocolate liquor and at least 12 percent milk solids. Bars of fine milk chocolate typically have a cacao content of between 30 percent and 45 percent, while less-expensive products may have considerably less. Milk chocolate has a sweeter and far more mellow chocolate flavor than dark chocolate, and since a higher cacao content gives a chocolate bar more "snap," milk chocolate tends to be less crisp than dark chocolate.

Dark Milk Chocolate

This newer variety of milk chocolate has a higher-than-usual percentage of cacao, giving it the deeper chocolate flavor of a semisweet bar along with the creamy smoothness of milk chocolate. The cacao content of dark milk chocolate is in the 45 percent to 70 percent range.

Move on to the final section to learn about other varieties of chocolate.

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Other Types of Chocolate

Of course dark and milk chocolate are not the only varieties that are enjoyed worldwide. On this page, you will learn about some of the more minor players in the chocolate world. 

White Chocolate

Although white chocolate was introduced by the Nestlé company in the 1930s, the U.S. government did not create standards to define this category until 2002. In that year, the government required a product to contain a minimum 20 percent cocoa butter, at least 14 percent milk powder, and no more than 55 percent sugar to legally be termed "white chocolate" rather than a "confection."

Despite this new "definition of identity" from the government, white chocolate is not technically chocolate at all, because according to the established definition, a "chocolate" must contain chocolate liquor. Certainly, most chocolate connoisseurs, aficionados, and purists refuse to recognize it as anything but a candy or confection. (While it is sometimes referred to as "white milk chocolate," which is perhaps closer to the mark, even milk chocolate must contain at least some chocolate liquor.) And the lack of cacao solids (the nonfat part of the cacao bean) means that white chocolate is not likely to provide the health benefits of true chocolates.

The labels of some white chocolate bars do list a percentage, much the way the labels on true chocolates do, but this percentage does not refer to the percentage of cacao in the bar. Instead, it refers to the amount of cocoa butter. The higher the percentage of cocoa butter, the richer and creamier the bar and the more likely it is to have at least a hint of chocolate flavor.

Couverture, or Coating, Chocolate

This type of chocolate is a professional-quality product used for coating. It's made with higher-quality beans that are ground to a finer particle size and has a higher cocoa-butter content (usually 36 percent to 39 percent) than do chocolate bars for eating, giving it a texture and consistency better suited for use as a coating for candies. Couverture is specially tempered so it will form a thin, smooth, shiny coating on hand-dipped candies. The extra cocoa butter makes it easier for the artisan to use and allows the chocolatier to produce a more delicate coating, or shell, than would be possible with noncouverture chocolate.

Couverture chocolate is usually sold in 2.2-pound to 10-pound blocks for professional chocolatiers and chefs, but some companies also produce smaller-size blocks and wafers for use by the at-home candy maker.

Chocolate lovers now enjoy a great variety of higher-quality chocolate. Keep reading to learn about qualities of chocolate.

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Qualites of Chocolate

As many Americans have lately begun to refine their palates, they have started searching for higher qualities of chocolates, too. In response, gourmet chocolatiers have stepped up to meet the demand.

Like the other gourmet agricultural products, chocolate benefits from intensive and careful cultivation but is vulnerable to variables such as weather and soil conditions. There are good years and bad for cacao-bean crops just as there are for the grapes used to make wine. Different producers in different regions can produce chocolates with startlingly different characteristics.

The emphasis of this new crop of gourmet chocolatiers is on producing smaller quantities of chocolate that contain extremely high-quality ingredients. Many pride themselves on the higher cacao contents of their products and/or the lack of pesticides and other chemicals used in the cultivation of their beans. While this flight to quality -- to cacao-rich and responsibly grown chocolates -- is certainly a happy trend for those who value gourmet goods, it is also a promising sign for people seeking to garner chocolate's health benefits.

The high-quality chocolates from these gourmet chocolatiers tend to be sold in small shops, farmers' markets, and other off-the-beaten-path locations, as well as -- increasingly -- over the Internet. In another positive trend, however, the mass manufacturers of chocolate have been paying attention to consumers' shifting tastes and have themselves begun to create more affordable, higher-quality chocolates.

More and more, even the lowliest grocery-store shelves are playing host to chocolates rich in the natural ingredients that may benefit our bodies as they tantalize our taste buds.

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Written by Carol Turkington