Chocolate surrounds us. We treat ourselves with it. We use it to express our devotion to the ones we love. We crave it, we adore it—but how often do we think about where it comes from?
Like many of our everyday foods, chocolate starts with a plant. The evergreen cacao tree grows in the warm, humid understory of tropical rainforests between 10 degrees north and 10 degrees south of the equator. South America is its original home, where the beans of the cacao pod were a sacred (and high-status) food for many indigenous cultures, most notably the Mayans and the Aztecs. Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus gave the plant its scientific name, Theobroma cacao, about this historical reverence. Theobroma is Latin for “food of the gods.”
Cacao beans reached Europe in the mid-16th century with the explorer Hernan Cortes, who explained how the Aztecs ground their beans into xocoatl, a cold, unsweetened, and highly spiced drink—the precursor to today’s popular cinnamon-and-chile spiced “Aztec” or “Mexican” chocolates. Not surprisingly, the bitter, fiery xocoatl didn’t catch on, but hot chocolate—sweetened rather than spiced, melted into hot milk, and whisked to a creamy froth—did. (Coffee, another import from the New World, wouldn’t arrive until some 75 years later.)
From Bean to Bar
A mature cacao tree produces dozens of ridged, reddish-brown, roughly football-sized pods. Inside the pod is a long, oval cluster of seeds surrounded by a sticky, fibrous, edible white pulp. At harvest time, the pods are hacked open and the seeds, still covered in the pulp, are laid out on wooden racks or layers of banana leaves. As the sugars in the pulp ferment, the chemistry of the seeds changes, starting the flavorful journey towards chocolate.
Once the pulp has fermented and dissolved, the seeds are laid out to dry. After drying, the now-brown beans are ready for shipping. Cacao beans are typically exported for processing; the majority of chocolate production happens many thousands of miles from where the beans initially grow.
Roasting is the next step. While there is a niche market for “raw” chocolate made with unroasted beans, the vast majority of cacao beans get roasted before processing. Roasting reduces the beans’ acidity and, as with coffee, dramatically expands the complexity of the flavor profile.
Once roasted, the beans finally start to smell and taste like the chocolate we know. But first, the hulls—thin, hard shells covering the beans—must be cracked and winnowed off. (Look for bags of cacao hulls at your local garden center, where they’re sold as a delicious-smelling garden mulch.)
The beans are ground, rolled, and mixed with varying levels of sugar, sometimes along with lecithin (an emulsifier) and vanilla. Next comes conching, a slow, methodical kneading process that integrates the bean’s natural fats—known as cocoa butter—with its flavorful “cocoa mass” or “cocoa solids.” The longer the conching goes on, the smoother the final product will be.
Some chocolate makers add extra cocoa butter for richness; others might separate the valuable cocoa butter for sale to beauty-product manufacturers, replacing it with cheaper tropical oils, such as palm or cottonseed oils. If all of the cocoa butter is removed, the resulting cocoa solids can be ground into aromatic, dark-brown cocoa powder.
The final step from cacao to chocolate is tempering, a careful process of heating and cooling the melted chocolate to a specific set of temperatures to stabilize it. Without tempering, cocoa butter will rise or “bloom” on the surface in white or grayish streaks—edible, but less appealing than the smooth, glossy surface we have come to expect.
The percentages found on many chocolate labels—typically between 55 and 70 percent for local dark chocolate bars—refer to the amount of pure chocolate in the bar, and thus to its level of intensity. A 60 percent bar will contain 60 percent chocolate; the remaining 40 percent is mostly sugar. As the cocoa percentages go up, the sweetness decreases, and the intensity and bitterness of the bar increases. If you’re looking for that special chocolate “buzz,” as well as its purported antioxidant percent and other health benefits, a bar of high-percentage dark chocolate is your best bet. Love milk chocolate? Skip the checkout-line candy bars; by law, only 10 percent of a milk chocolate bar has to be actual chocolate. Instead, look for higher quality milk bars made with 35 to 45 percent real chocolate, along with sugar and milk solids.
Recipe: Fruit and Nut Chocolate Treat
Adding nuts and dried fruit turns a plain chocolate bar into a delectable (and high-energy) treat. Mix and match nuts and fruit to your taste. If you like a little salt with your sweet, you can top the fruit and nuts with a few pinches of flaky sea salt (like Maldon salt).
Chocolate Fruit and Nut Bark
Recipe by Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen
- ½ cup toasted nuts, such as hazelnuts, almonds, pistachios, or pecans
- ¾ cup dried apricots or other dried fruits, such as prunes, dried cherries, dried cranberries, or dried blueberries, cut into small bite-sized pieces if necessary
- 8 ounces bittersweet dark chocolate, chopped
- Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.
- In a double boiler over medium-low heat, melt 6 ounces of chocolate until smooth. Remove from heat. Stir in the remaining 2 ounces of chocolate, quickly until melted.
- Pour the chocolate onto the baking sheet and spread to an even thickness.
- Sprinkle the nuts and fruits over the surface.
- Transfer to the refrigerator to harden. When hard, break into chunks to serve.
Milk Chocolate Variation
Replace the bittersweet chocolate with milk chocolate. Add lightly toasted coconut chips, peanuts, and/or dried banana chips.
Serves 4. Prep time, 10 minutes; cook time, 15 minutes.
Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen is the author of six books, including Honey from Flower to Table (Chronicle Books) and Fun Food: Kids in the Kitchen (Williams-Sonoma). She frequently writes about seasonal cooking and holds a certificate in ecological horticulture from the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at UC Santa Cruz.