You've been invited over to a friend's house because he wants to show you "something really special" that he's been making. With foodie friends, you never know what you might encounter. Is he smoking and curing his own bacon? Making his own duck confit? Some kind of pickle?
When you step inside, there's a distinctive chocolaty smell. Entering the kitchen, you expect to see mixing bowls, maybe some racks of chocolate-chip cookies or a pan of brownies cooling on the counter...but instead, there are some odd-looking appliances you've never seen before. Your friend is holding a baking sheet full of ... coffee beans?
Nope, they're cocoa beans that he just finished roasting in the oven. And then he presents you with a bar of chocolate to taste and proudly proclaims that he made it himself. Is it really possible to make your own chocolate from scratch? Until recently, it wasn't -- it could be tough to find the ingredients as well as the equipment necessary to create a smooth, silky bar of chocolate as good or better than any produced in a factory. Even now, it's a significant investment of both time and money. But you could be that guy. How impressive would it be to give the gift of chocolate not from a grocery store or a chocolate shop but from your own kitchen? Very.
You can learn how to make chocolate, starting from cocoa beans and going all the way to a finished bar or piece of candy. It won't be easy, but few worthwhile things are. We'll delve into choosing the bean, then look at gathering your other ingredients and equipment before the real step-by-step process begins. It'll be a fun ride, full of highs, lows and experimentation -- culminating in your very own chocolate.
The Bean's the Thing
You just need a few simple ingredients to make chocolate: cocoa beans, cocoa butter, sugar, lecithin, and any flavorings you'd like to add, such as vanilla beans. If you want to make milk chocolate, you'll also need some non-fat dry milk powder. Technically, chocolate making doesn't require anything but cocoa beans -- in fact, there are chocolatiers who make 100 percent cacao chocolate bars. But that's some very bitter chocolate, and it's not going to have a very smooth texture.
Additional cocoa butter gives chocolate a creamy, milder flavor, and lecithin is an emulsifier that helps make the chocolate smooth. Hopefully the presence of sugar and flavorings are self-explanatory -- even dark chocolate has some sugar. Thanks to the Internet, you can easily buy cocoa beans, cocoa butter and lecithin (the latter two ingredients can often be found at health food stores as well; just be sure they're food grade).
A cocoa bean is a cocoa bean, right? Sure, just like the type of coffee bean or wine grape doesn't matter. Connoisseurs discuss beans as having floral or fruity notes, or having a "good year," much like wines do. The very first and, some would argue, the most important step in making chocolate is choosing your beans. Years of cross-pollination have resulted in numerous variations depending on where they're grown, but there are three main types of cocoa beans: Forastero, Criollo and Trinitario.
Forastero is by far the most commonly used bean and the most widely available. It's the most disease-resistant cocoa bean, with a strong taste. On the other end of the spectrum, Criollo has a more delicate chocolate flavor and isn't as hardy. It's used by many boutique chocolatiers and is thought by many to be the finest bean, but it's not as widely produced. Trinitario is a hybrid of Forastero and Criollo and was cultivated in an attempt to marry the best of both worlds. But even the same bean can vary depending on where it's grown.
When you purchase cocoa beans, you'll probably see a country of origin listed, and you may also end up with more than one type of bean. Organic and fair-trade beans, and those that are primarily Criollo, tend to cost more. Prices will vary widely, ranging anywhere from $8 to $20 per pound. You can also just buy the nibs -- the split pieces of bean inside the hull -- and save yourself the trouble of cracking the whole bean.
Buying ingredients is easy -- and inexpensive -- compared to the equipment necessary for making chocolate. Find out next why making chocolate means making some investments.
Equipping the Chocolate Maker's Kitchen
How committed are you to making your own chocolate? Once you have the ingredients for making your chocolate, you'll need to figure out ways to roast the beans, crack them and winnow (remove) the hulls to get to the nibs, grind the nibs, conch and refine the chocolate, temper it, and mold it into bars or other shapes.
The easiest way to roast cocoa beans is to use your oven. If you want to roast a huge batch of beans it's not the best way to go because you'll have difficulty getting a consistently roasted batch, but otherwise, it works just fine. Some home chocolate makers prefer using a roasting drum. These are metal cylinders fitted onto a gas grill (usually with a rotisserie). Drums can handle large batches of beans, and the rotation makes for an even roast. They can cost upward of $100 depending on the capacity.
Some people roast their coffee beans at home using an electric coffee roaster, and you can use these for cocoa beans too. They also have a rotating drum inside. Typically, they're designed for up to one pound of coffee beans, but since cocoa beans need lower temperatures and slower roasting times, you can load a few pounds of beans inside. You'll have to play with the settings since they're set up for coffee, and expect to spend at least a few hundred dollars.
You can crack each cocoa bean by hand and remove the hull, but that can be some tedious work. Many chocolate makers use a special mill that cracks the beans without crushing them --- another investment of at least $200. To grind the nibs, you can use a coffee or spice grinder or a mortar and pestle for a very small batch. For larger batches, try a high-quality meat grinder or mixer. A juicer with a filter will give you the finest grind and separate all of the liquor from the nibs (a must). Some even use a juicer to do the cracking, too.
The priciest part of chocolate making is conching and refining. Currently, there are machines available called melangeurs (also known as a stone grinder or a wet grinder) that do both. They also cost upward of $500. You can try food processors, blenders, et cetera, but you'll probably get slightly gritty chocolate. It'll still be special because it's yours, but if you're trying to get high-quality chocolate, you have to go all out. These stone grinders use granite rollers to exert extreme force on those fine particles of cocoa and sugar as they're pressed against a granite slab, processing them into a smooth paste.
Next comes tempering. It takes some careful attention, but you can do this on the stove with a thermometer. Having a marble countertop or board for cooling is also useful. Or you can buy a handy tempering machine for about $400 that takes all the guesswork out of the process. Finding molds, at least, is easily and cheaply done at any baking supply shop.
Assuming that you've bought all the equipment (instead of skipping some steps or jerry-rigging some of it, like most home chocolate makers do), you're over a thousand bucks in the hole. Let's make some chocolate!
Boasting About Roasting
Now you're all set to make your chocolate. But if you thought that you could just spend a few hours after work whipping up a batch, you'd be wrong. It's at least a weekend project -- the grinding and conching process alone takes at least 12 hours. And for your first try, you may have a few missteps along the way and need to start over. So give yourself plenty of time and enjoy the process; that's part of the fun.
If you really want to skip the whole roasting rigmarole, you can buy pre-roasted cocoa beans from many suppliers. Roasting is one of the easiest parts of the process, though. Notice I said easiest, not easy. There's no one temperature or length of time to use when roasting those beans. Some beans benefit from a longer roast. Criollo beans, however, might lose their delicate flavor if you toast them too long. Generally, you'll want to roast your beans until your kitchen has a nice chocolaty aroma but without that burned smell. You'll hear hissing and popping as moisture escapes and the hulls crack. You should be able to remove the hull easily from properly roasted cocoa beans.
With oven roasting, most people start at a high temperature, slowly lower it over time and then hold the beans at that lower temperature for awhile. For example, you might start one pound of beans out at 300 degrees Fahrenheit and slowly lower it down to 300 degrees over a period of 15 minutes, then keep it at 300 for another 10 minutes. If you decide to use a drum roaster, you'll want to pre-heat your gas grill to about 500 degrees, put the filled drum on the rotisserie and let it roast for 15 minutes.
Coffee roasters vary, so it's hard to give an example -- you'll have to judge by smell and check carefully. But that's the case with any roasting method; it's a trial-and-error process. Unless you outright burn the beans, though, they'll probably still make tasty chocolate. You may want to start with a very small sampling of beans and see where it takes you. Take notes and find out which temperatures and times work best for each batch.
Let's Get Crackin' and Grindin'
Your roasted beans need to cool completely before you crack the hulls and winnow. If you started out with nibs instead of whole beans, you get to skip this process entirely (although they still need to be roasted, they just won't take as long and can be done at 250 degrees for about 15 minutes).
But if you chose to truly go bean-to-bar, it's time to start turning the mill -- or pounding the pestle, if you're going that route. The set gap cocoa mill favored by many home chocolate makers can be modified to turn using a drill bit instead, and you might want to consider that if you're cranking out a big batch. However, these mills can generally crack about four pounds of cocoa beans per minute, making it a quick process.
You'll need a bucket to catch the cracked beans, and you may want to do this step outside as hulls might fly. Once you put all of your beans through, you're left with a mixture of nibs and hulls. To remove the lighter hulls, a process known as winnowing, just aim a hair dryer at the bucket and blow them away. Don't worry if there are a few left; they'll be caught in the grinding process.
Time to grind your nibs. If you plan to use a really high-end juicer for the job, you can try using it to crack the beans, too. Just feed them into the juicer without any kind of screen or plate, and use a large bowl to catch the nibs and hulls as they'll probably go everywhere as they shoot out of the spout. Making chocolate is a messy process. Then you can winnow. If you use a mill to crack, though, put the finest mesh screen or plate on your juicer and start feeding in the nibs a few at a time to avoid overtaxing the machine. You'll need to put a bowl underneath to catch the cocoa liquor; the solids should come out of the spout. Keep feeding the solids back through the juicer -- you really want to extract as much of the liqueur as possible.
Yum, chocolate liquor (not liqueur; that would be a different article). Actually, it's probably not that tasty -- yet. Next, you get to play with how sweet and creamy you want your chocolate to be and experiment with some of the most mysterious aspects of chocolate making -- refining and conching.
Mixing and the Waiting Game
Your chocolate liquor is your blank slate -- pure cocoa goodness. Now you get to really decide what kind of chocolate you'd like to make and play with some kitchen science. You can always use the liqueur in lieu of unsweetened chocolate in recipes, but if you want to make chocolate bars, soldier on.
Bittersweet chocolate is usually 15 to 20 percent sugar, while the sweetest milk chocolate can be as much as 75 or 80 percent sugar. A kitchen scale would be helpful in figuring out the proportions that you'd like to use. You can add cocoa butter (up to 20 percent is probably the most you'd want to use) to make a creamier chocolate and a tiny bit of lecithin. For milk chocolate, try an amount of nonfat milk powder equal to or slightly less than the amount of chocolate liqueur. Why not actual milk? Simply put, you don't need the extra liquid or fat. If you'd like to add a flavoring such as vanilla or almond extract, toss it into the cocoa butter (search online for actual recipes if you like).
You can mix all of your ingredients in a bowl before putting them into a melangeur or stone grinder. However, you might also consider putting the whole mixture back into your juicer. Not only will it kick-start the refining process, it will also help get the last of the husks out of the juicer.
Now it's time to refine and conch. Commercial establishments use large-scale machines to separately do these processes, and the conching process involves heating as well. The home machines available today do both at the same time, just due to the heat generated by friction during the process. Refining simply means that you're grinding the sugar and cocoa particles down to a fine, uniform texture. It removes all of the grittiness. Conching is a chemical change that takes place within the chocolate due to the repeated mixing -- it reduces acidity, evenly distributes the cocoa butter within the chocolate and makes it smooth and viscous. Before putting it into your melangeur, melt the chocolate liqueur and cocoa butter (or the whole mixture if you've already mixed it and put it through your juicer) to about 120 degrees Fahrenheit. It will have a gritty, grainy texture.
Turn on the machine and let it go -- this is the longest part of the process. You're looking for no grit left whatsoever and a nice shiny appearance. Most people can't just let their machine run for 10 hours, but you can stop and start it as necessary without any problems. If the mixture solidifies, just re-melt in a very low oven. Some people go as long as three days when refining. Much like roasting, however, you'll want to consider the bean and the ingredients. A dark chocolate made from Forastero can stand up to longer processing, for example.
Finally, chocolate. Right? Not quite yet. If you skip the next step, you might end up with some crumbly, melty, spotty chocolate, all your hard work gone to waste.
Hold Your Temper and Fill
No doubt, after all this hard work, you're salivating at the idea of biting into your own chocolate bar. However, you're not quite there yet. Tempering is what makes chocolate shiny and gives it that distinctive snap when you take a bite. It also keeps the chocolate from melting as easily. To make a long story short, tempering reduces the cocoa butter crystals to an even, uniform size. You'll either need to put your chocolate mixture in the oven at a very low temperature or use a double boiler. Make sure to keep everything dry, because water is the enemy of chocolate. It will cause it to crystallize in big, uneven chunks.
Heat the chocolate to about 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and then allow the temperature to cool down to 100 degrees. Keep the batch at that temperature, but remove about a third of it and place it on your marble slab. This will allow the chocolate to cool quickly. Mix it with a spatula by folding it over onto itself several times. The chocolate should thicken up and drop down to about 85 degrees. This part is called the "seed chocolate" because the cooling process allows it to form even crystals. Add some of the 100-degree chocolate to the seed batch until it has thinned and you can easily work it again, and then mix the entire thing back into the whole batch of chocolate. At this point, check the temperature of the batch. It should be around 90 degrees. If it's much higher, the seed chocolate part will probably melt. It will probably take a few tries to get it just right; the great thing is that you can just re-melt and try it again if your first go at tempering doesn't work. Poorly-tempered chocolate can still taste good, but it might not have all of the qualities of chocolate that you're used to experiencing.
Once your chocolate is tempered, it's (finally) time to mold. Pour the chocolate into the molds you've chosen, and then tap them lightly on your countertop to remove any bubbles. If you want to toss in some toasted nuts, dried fruit or other add-ins, now's the time. Cool the chocolate at room temperature -- the fridge or freezer can introduce moisture. When correctly tempered, the chocolate should be easy to unmold and will be nice and shiny. If you didn't get it right (and if you didn't put in any nuts, of course), you can always try to temper it again.
It's been a long and arduous process, but you finally have your own personal chocolates. Expect the accolades to roll in -- and for people to start putting in special requests.
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