Chocolate is the greatest gift the Earth has given us. The dessert table would be a sad sight without it. It’s so beloved, so appreciated, that the Swedish scientist who named the cocoa plant that gives us chocolate called it Theobroma cacao, which means “food of the gods.”
Anyone who loves chocolate knows this is absolutely fitting, mostly because it is the most delicious stuff on earth, but also because of the incredible process and long journey it has to undergo to become the sweet confection we adore.
Chocolate starts off as cocoa pods growing in the tropics, typically in a belt around the equator, long before showing up at a local grocery store near you. Here it is in its humble beginnings as a pod on the tree:
Cocoa pods grow in a variety of colors ― red, green or purple ― but they all ripen into the yellowish color shown below. They grow directly off of the branch of the tree, which makes them easy to harvest because they’re easy to reach. Unlike cherries or peaches, cocoa pods don’t necessarily ripen all at once on many farms and can be harvested at regular intervals.
According to the International Cocoa Organization, cocoa pods must be harvested manually with care so as not to damage the junction of the stem to the tree; keeping this joint intact by using a curved knife during harvesting ensures the growth of more fruit.
Each tree can yield about 20-30 pods per year, and it takes one tree’s entire annual harvest to make roughly a pound of chocolate.
Once harvested, the cocoa pod is cracked open and the rind is discarded; the pulp and seed pods are what farmers are after. There are about 30-50 seeds per pod, and these are responsible for making the chocolate we love. It’s hard to imagine from the way they look in their raw form.
Next, the seeds and pulp are left to ferment. Amano Chocolate, a gourmet chocolatier, explains that fermentation helps bring out the desired flavors of the cocoa, and it adds a body and richness that unfermented beans lack. It also tames the cocoa seed’s bitterness by reducing the amount of tannins found in the beans thanks to cellular changes that occur during the process.
Fermentation often happens in sweatboxes and takes about two to eight days. During fermentation the pulp is converted into alcohol, which according to Ecole Chocolat turns into lactic and acetic acid when mixed with air. This essentially ensures that the beans will not germinate, which would make the bean unusable. During fermentation, the sticky pulp turns to liquid and drains off on its own, and just the bean is left behind and ready to be dried.
According to the ICCO, the best way to dry the beans is in the sun, though artificial drying does occur in places where the climate makes it necessary. It is important that they are properly dried ― bringing them from 60 percent moisture to under 10 percent ― to ensure the beans don’t rot. Drying takes on average five to six days.
Once dried, the cocoa beans that were once wet, sticky and purple-white-ish in tone have become a beautiful red-brown color. They are then packed and ready to ship to chocolate manufacturers all over the world.
Just like with coffee beans, cocoa has to be roasted before being used. Armano Chocolate explains that roasting further brings out the flavor of chocolate from the bean. The time and temperature of roasting depends on the flavors the chocolate manufacturer wants to extract. It’s during roasting that the beans are cracked, the hulls discarded and the “meat of the cocoa” is crushed and taken aside to be made into chocolate.
At this point, we have cocoa nibs, which are sometimes used “as is” in baking and other culinary uses.
But if they continue on the chocolate journey, the cocoa nibs must be pressed into what’s known as cocoa liquor, even though there is no alcohol in it. This liquid can be turned into many different chocolate confections with the addition of sugar and other ingredients. It can also be further processed into two components: cocoa solids and cocoa butter, which you can see below.
One reason the liquor is turned into either solids or butter or is to create chocolate beverages with solids ground into cocoa powder, which benefits from a lower fat content. Another is to make white chocolate ― which actually uses no chocolate liquor ― with the cocoa butter. The cocoa butter is also reserved to be put back into chocolate. It’s what gives chocolate its smooth mouthfeel. But some chocolate producers sell the cocoa butter to be used in cosmetics and other applications, replacing it in chocolate with vegetable oils. Unfortunately, this produces inferior chocolate.
Some chocolate producers will make chocolate from cocoa solids, cocoa butter, sugar and an emulsifier like soy lecithin. When done right, it looks like this beautiful sight below.
That dreamy liquid chocolate is then molded, packaged and shipped to stores near you.