Picking the Right Beans
Cacao beans come from a wide range of countries around the world, growing anywhere within 10 degrees of the Equator. While cacao is often associated with South America, almost 70% of the world’s cacao is grown in Africa. You may think cacao is all the same but there’s actually three main types: Forastero, Criollo and Trinitario.
Forastero is by far the most common and cheapest type of cacao. It’s found in Indonesia, Malaysia, Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Brazil, Central America and New Guinea and makes up 85% of all cacao produced in the world.
Trinitario cacao is much less common and is the result of cross-pollination between the common Forastero pods and the much more rare Criollo pods by farmers in Trinidad in the 1700s.
Criollo makes up only 3% of the world’s cacao production and is becoming more and more rare, making it the most expensive of the three cacao varieties.
Harvesting cacao pods is still done by hand, since damaging the sensitive stem could ruin the fruit. Thus, it has to be hand-harvested using a machete to carefully chop the pod from the tree. Once it’s been harvested, it’s time to prepare the beans for use in making chocolate.
Preparing the Beans
Once the pods have been harvested and the beans removed from the pods they’re left to ferment. This process can take from a few days to over a week and changes the flavour and chemical composition of the beans into something that more closely resembles the chocolate you’re used to. This process also melts away the citrus-like, white, chewy pulp that encapsulates the beans.
Once the beans are fermented, it’s on to drying. The beans are left out in the sun for days to reduce their moisture level. Some suppliers dry their beans over a fire, but this produces a smokier, less chocolatey flavour.
Once the beans are dried they get roasted. One of the most important steps in the process, the exact temperature and length of the roast depends on the type of bean.
Next, the beans are cracked and winnowed. This process breaks the outer shell and blows the husk away, leaving the insides of the cacao beans, known as nibs. These nibs are the edible part of the cacao beans and the key ingredient in chocolate making.
Making the Chocolate
These nibs are then ground into a thick paste called cocoa liquor. There’s no alcohol in this liquor, it’s just a pure cacao paste. This paste gets split into two parts; one half is set aside and the other is squished with a hydraulic press to separate the liquor into its two constituent parts: cocoa butter and cocoa powder. The cocoa powder isn’t of much use in chocolate making, but it’s great for other things, like making hot chocolate. The cocoa butter is mixed back into the cocoa liquor, along with other ingredients such as sugar, soy lecithin, etc.
At this point, the chocolate is still too grainy to be used in making the smooth, creamy chocolate you’re used to. That’s why the chocolate is then run through a conching machine. The conching process can last up to a week and involves continually mixing, crushing and grinding the chocolate mixture until each individual particle is smaller than a grain of powdered sugar.
Once the chocolate is conched, it’s ready to be tempered. Tempering is the process that makes the chocolate shiny, solid and crisp. The tempering process involves melting the chocolate down and then allowing it to cool in a controlled environment that forces the chocolate to reform in a precise crystal formation. This type of forced crystal formation ensures the chocolate is at its most stable form, solid at room temperature but melt in your mouth. Big, industrial tempering machines are used by all the large chocolate producers but we still choose to do it by hand, making sure every batch is absolutely perfect.
Now that the chocolate is perfectly tempered it’s time to pour it into moulds. First, the chocolate is poured into polished moulds and then dumped right back out. This leaves a thin layer of chocolate that quickly hardens into the exterior shell of the praline. Once this layer has hardened, the pralines can be filled. Once they’re filled another layer of chocolate is poured in to seal in the filling. As the pralines cool, the tempered chocolate will contract away from the mould, allowing it to fall right out of the mould when it’s flipped over. Now it’s time to add any decorative flourishes to go that extra mile.