by Amelia Levin
Chef Michael Laiskonis, director of the Chocolate Lab at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City and a pastry chef enjoys teaching other pastry chefs about the complex, bean-to-bar process behind how chocolate is made as a way to further connect with the favorite ingredient.
Growing and Harvest
Despite its Amazonian origins, 70% of the cacao bean supply today comes from Africa (mostly Ghana and the Ivory Coast), followed by Indonesia and South and Central American countries, according to the International Cocoa Organization. That figure could change in time, as Hawaii, parts of India and Vietnam are investing in growing the crop and even producing chocolate products domestically, rather just than exporting beans, Chef Laiskonis says. At press time, he had just returned from a trip to Trinidad to learn more about the region’s burgeoning chocolate production.
The cocoa plant grows year-round, but there are typically two harvests: a primary harvest in the fall and a secondary one in late spring or early summer. “When you split open a cocoa bean, you’ll find anywhere from about 30 to 50 cocoa beans encased in thick white pulp,” Chef Laiskonis says. “The beans and pulp are scooped out, and it’s on to fermentation.”
Farmers can get more for their product if they handle fermentation themselves, Chef Laiskonis says, but because a good deal of cacao is grown by rural farmers who farm only a few acres, many growers lack the resources to do so. Farmers instead ship the wet beans to a processor for fermentation. Chef Laiskonis notes that most farmer income hovers around the poverty level, and that’s a topic of conversation that needs to be addressed.
During the fermentation process, the pulp and beans are loaded into big wooden boxes and left to sit out in the heat and humidity of the tropical environment in which cacao beans grow. The sugary element of the pulp will naturally begin to ferment, a process that can last four to seven days and is controlled by the fermenter knowing when there’s just enough vinegary smell but not too much to be overly acidic.
“Fermentation is so important because all of the potential of that bean lies in that process,” Chef Laiskonis says. “Part of the flavor comes from genetics, but mostly from growing conditions and fermentation. Just like grapes in wine making, not every cacao bean wants to be fermented the same way.”
After fermentation, the beans are dried to prevent mold growth. The process often takes place in direct sunlight over the course of five to seven days. Larger processors use commercial dryers to achieve the same effect faster. After drying, the beans will be sorted and cleaned and then shipped to chocolate companies.
“Other than genetics, terroir and fermentation, roasting is where individual chocolate makers can put their own personal imprint,” says Chef Laiskonis. “Whereas coffee likes to be roasted hot and fast, cacao beans like low and slow.”
While most larger producers have big barrel drums to roast beans, Chef Laiskonis uses a smaller, tabletop coffee roaster to roast about a kilo at a time. “Some varieties want a lighter treatment because they have subtle flavors, where others want to be roasted big and bold for more intense chocolate flavor.”
During the first grinding process, the cacao beans are ground down from a solid to a semi-liquid paste referred to as “liquor,” although there is no alcohol involved. At his lab, Chef Laiskonis uses a small hammer mill to produce the liquor, but larger processors might use a more highly technical roller. During this step, he’ll also take a portion of the liquor to extract some of the cocoa butter with a cocoa butter press to add back to the chocolate at a later step.
The secondary grinding is called refining and is done in another machine. “The beans are ground so small that you can’t perceive them on your palette,” Chef Laiskonis says. At this point the cacao beans become cocoa powder, essentially. During this step, sugar can be added, as well as that additional cocoa butter to achieve the desired mouthfeel. For milk chocolate, milk powder is added.
This step was invented by Rudolph Lindt in the 1880s when he used a curved trough that resembled a conch shell to further refine the chocolate. During the conching stage, flavor is developed further through mixing with added heat. Any residual acidity as a result of the fermentation stage is burned off during this time. The process can take a few hours or even up to a few days. While there are no small-scale conching machines on the market, Chef Laiskonsis can achieve a similar effect at his lab by running the processed chocolate once more through the ball mill to naturally create heat and allow the acids extra time to evaporate. After conching, the chocolate is tempered and molded into bars. And then it’s off to the end-user (or produced by the artisan chocolate maker into specialty chocolates for sale).