It wasn't until the end of the 19th century that solid chocolate was invented and produced on a large scale. Cocoa however, the main component of chocolate, has been enjoyed for thousands of years. Cocoa is derived from the seeds of the tropical Theobroma cocoa tree and has been cultivated for 3000 years in South and Central America. The Aztecs used it to make a bitter drink called xocolatl, or bitter water. And it was first introduced to Europe after Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, but due to its high price it remained a luxury reserved only for the wealthiest Europeans. Below you can learn more about cocoa, chocolate, and what to look for in selecting the best chocolate!
Cultivation and Production
Approximately two-thirds of the world’s cocoa is produced and supplied by Western Africa, especially Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana with Indonesia being the second highest producer outside of Africa. To produce chocolate, the beans are harvested and along with the pulp are removed from the pods and left to ferment. It takes 400-500 cocoa beans to make 1lb of chocolate, with each cocoa pod containing about 40-50 seeds. Farmers must be careful to harvest only beans that are fully ripe as unripe beans may not have the sugars or pulp needed for fermentation.
After fermentation the beans are dried and shipped to chocolate manufacturers where they are cleaned, roasted, and graded. The beans are then opened and the so called nib is extracted, which is ground and liquefied to produce chocolate liquor. The liquor is combined with cocoa butter and an emulsifying agent and undergoes a process called conching. During this process, the mixture is ground in large containers to achieve a smooth texture. The length of the conching process varies depending on the desired level of smoothness – high end chocolate may be chonched for as much as 72 hours, whereas lesser grade chocolate may be chonched for as little as four hours.
In a final step, the conched chocolate is being tempered, or heated and then cooled while being stirred, and then reheated. Tempering melts cocoa butter crystals that formed during earlier production stages, resulting in solid chocolate’s characteristic “snapping” rather than crumbling when broken. After tempering, the chocolate is poured into molds and cooled to harden.
Theobroma cocoa trees are native to tropical regions in South and Central America, but are nowadays cultivated in tropical climates around the world. There are three different types of cocoa beans that are commonly used for making chocolate: Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario. Criollo is the rarest and naturally the most expensive one as well. It is found in Central and South America and produces just a few cocoa beans per year.
Forastero is the most popular bean and the only one being cultivated in Africa. It is much easier to grow than Criollo and yields a much higher harvest of beans. Trinitario is a natural hybrid of Criollo and Forastero orginiating from Trinidad.
Types of Chocolate
Chocolate can be classified based on the amounts of chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, cocoa powder, sugar, and milk used, with some labeling such as “dark” or “bittersweet” designated by government regulations. Single source chocolate from one type of bean is always preferable to mixed bean content, especially from small plantations with ideal growing conditions.
Generally, chocolate can be divided into three major categories:
Dark chocolate contains cocoa butter, chocolate liquor, sugar, and no milk. It may contain vanilla. The higher the percentage of cocoa, the “darker” the chocolate. Chocolate gourmands typically prefer high cocoa percentage chocolate due to its unadulterated taste, ranging from very earthy and slightly acidic (99%) to more mellow and “chocolaty”. Typically, chocolate needs to contain at least 70% cocoa to be considered dark.
Milk chocolate, which is by far the most widely sold type of chocolate, contains cocoa butter, chocolate liquor, sugar, vanilla, and milk. It is much sweeter than dark chocolate and usually contains up to 50% cocoa, with inferior products containing as little as 10% cocoa.
White chocolate contains cocoa butter, sugar, vanilla, and milk, but no chocolate liquor, which is why it is not considered as chocolate by some people. It is much sweeter than dark chocolate and has a distinct “milky” taste.
What to Look For
The finest quality chocolates are typically made from a single bean, preferably from one plantation, and with a high cocoa content, ensuring an unsurpassed taste, smell, and texture. Good dark chocolate has a characteristic “snap” when being broken and should melt slowly in the mouth. Make sure the surface is free of blemishes or streaks, which could be a sign that the chocolate was improperly stored and has melted and the hardened again. Quality chocolates always display the cocoa content, and have a characteristic smell and flavor, depending on the bean and geographic origin.
Chocolate should be stored in a dry, dark place at room temperature. It should never be stored in the refrigerator, and never be exposed to heat. When melting chocolate, make sure to always use a double boiler and heat gently so as not to burn. Avoid contact with steam or hot water as it will curdle the chocolate and render it unusable.