from cacao pods to cocoa nibs – and beyond

Not too long ago, I wrote that I would have posted online my real-time mind-maps: or, my outline of any conference that I attended.

Well, I discovered yesterday that today is an holiday in Belgium.

And yesterday evening I attended a conference on the science of chocolate.

First and foremost- thanks to the RSC for organizing it, the BSB for being the guest, UGent Cocoalab for the presentation and… Molitor for the dégustation (and also the providers of the “liquid” side of the dégustation)

This article is not a mindmap- but, as I share a passion for chocolate with many of my online friends, I had promised before and after to post a short article.

I must say- it is always nice when I discover how much I did not know about something that I have been used to for a long time.

I will get into the details later on, but let’s just first confess my weakness: I like dark, bitter chocolate, but until yesterday, I did not know that chocolate is really a crystal.

It makes sense- once in a while, I managed by chance to prepare a decent solid bit of chocolate, by mixing my usual paraphernalia (ranging from lemon to curry to whatever comes through my mind).

Once in a while, I melted commercial chocolate, and then added my own concoction, and, again, by chance, sometimes I got again something solid.

But go online and read about crystals on wikipedia, if you are interested in learning more.

My knowledge of chemistry is really limited to what I learned in high school and then in the Army (crazy- I went to the Faculty of Chemistry to study what in Italian is called “tensione superficiale dei gas” and write a computer program to replace some tables that we were using).

And I would never had imagined that chocolate comes out of a fermentation process, gets through a gazillion of steps, and before you get the nice, glossy chocolate, you need really to obtain a solid crystalline structure.

But what are the basic steps?

First, let’s start with the excuses- and I do apologize if there are any mistakes. Using my netbook to jot down the mindmap didn’t seem appropriate, so I have to rely on my (fallible) memory.

But do not take this article too seriously: my memory is certainly distorted by my (personal) interest in chocolate!

Phase one: from cacao pods to cocoa nibs

First bit that I learned: you talk about cacao (the Latin name) while you are talking about the source, and cocoa after the initial processing phase.

It all begins with cacao pods, fermented and then dried.

The fermentation and drying is the most critical phase, affecting the quality of the final product- and that’s why companies nowadays do what they do with other crops: they buy the production and move quality control upstream, to the source.

Also, as it is difficult to ensure an homogeneous result, different qualities could be mixed, to obtain the desired, reliable, stable mix.

After cleaning, the cacao beans are shipped, and then roasted, with a process similar to the one used for coffee, followed by winnowing to remove the shells etc, so that you get the cocoa nibs- the basic ingredient for all the chocolate and powder.

Let the magic begin: getting chocolate

When you learn the mechanics of something you eat… often you are not that much interested in eating anymore!

As a professor in London told us- don’t ask what’s inside the sausages served in the canteen

With chocolate, frankly, it is the opposite.

Through a mechanical and physical process, the cocoa nibs are “split” between the cocoa butter (the fat) and the cake, this then converted into powder.

To produce chocolate, cocoa nibs get through a longer process, where cocoa butter plays again a role, before, along with 0.4/0.5% lecitine, entering the conching process, and then being tempered, to produce the glossy finish chocolate.

With chocolate, one step (conching) is where each producer delivers a specific result.

The common part is anyway the conversion from a liquid to a solid form, using a temperature range, say 50c to melt, then cooled to 34 and then 28, to start generating the crystals, and then to 32 again, to allow some unstable crystals to be melted, and finally allow the stable crystals to “seed” the final consolidation (with external addition if needed).

So, it is just a matter of building a crystalline structure? yes and no.

There are crystals and crystals

I must frankly confess that, after seeing the crystalline structure of chocolate, I was lost for long enough to get some details fade away- it was akin to a picture of a distant planet!

Two interesting side-effects: you can check the quality of the crystalline structure of a chocolate with external ingredients (say, nuts) by turning it upside down, and see if it retained its usual “glossy finish”.

And if you like pralines… eat them as soon as you can, as the filling is affecting the crystalline structure of the shell.

If you ask… is there a classification? Of course.

Moving from gamma (highly unstable), to alpha (unstable), to beta first, beta V, and finally beta VI.

The last three are where commercial products are hovering.

A simpler way to describe the difference between the last three is to use your hands and you mouth.

A beta first will melt fast in your hands, while a beta V will require a longer time- or the temperature that is typically available in your mouth.

And a beta VI? Too crystalline for your own good- sometime also too hard not just to melt, but also to crack.

My conclusions

Well, I learned more about chocolate in 40 minutes than by reading few books on cooking.

And I learned some basic rules to select chocolate: funny, isn’t it? It is so simple.

Finally, I got inspired for my next cooking tricks- more about that on my personal online profiles.

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