How Cacao is Processed into Chocolate

Once cacao beans are harvested, it's still quite a journey before they're converted into "the food of the gods." In this article, we'll lead you through the basic process.

Once the sacred cacao bean is harvested, fermented, and packed, a process we've already detailed in these pages, it's ready to be put through the complex process by which it's converted into that combination of nectar and ambrosia we call chocolate.

Entire books have been constructed around the processing of chocolate ( there's an idea), but we've only got a few hundred words here -- so you're about to get a high-level, whirlwind view of the process.

Artful roasting and grinding

In almost every case, the cacao beans processed and packaged at the plantation are sent to chocolate production factories in other countries, where they're first roasted at 200-250˚ F in large ovens for 1-2 hours. The roasting process helps develop and mature the bean's flavor, just as it does with coffee.

The roasted beans, which are now brown and crumbly, are broken down in special machines and the remnants of the shells, or chaff, are winnowed away. The kernel fragments are called nibs, and contain up to 400 different flavorful chemicals. Next up is grinding, which reduces the nibs to a dark brown liquor.

I believe in miracles!

While the ground cacao liquor can be molded into unsweetened chocolate, it's more likely to be further processed by pressing. This yields a creamy material called cocoa butter, which is basically what's used to make white chocolate. The dry powder left over is called, surprisingly enough, cocoa powder.

Cocoa powder is about 6% fat by content, and it's generally what's used to make breakfast cocoa, a.k.a. hot chocolate. Cocoa butter is used for everything from skin care to foodstuffs. When it's recombined with cocoa powder, sugar, milk, and such flavorings as vanilla and cinnamon, it becomes candy chocolate.

Just the facts, ma'am

Although they're not all used as such, nearly all the products of cacao processing can be used as food. Even the shells of the seedpods, or pochas, can be ground into meal, though they have to be diluted with other materials because of their bitter theobromine content. They work best as livestock feed.

Until 1848, chocolate was almost exclusively consumed as a beverage. That year, a way to extract the cocoa butter was invented by C.J. van Houten (a name that should go down in history). Soon thereafter, it was discovered that cocoa butter could be mixed with other items to form solid chocolate. Heaven!

Like many complicated food-related processes, it's amazing that the chocolate process was ever discovered at all. So we salute those who invented chocolate: thank you, Mayans, for your diligence! You might have been a little bloodthirsty by modern standards, but you sure had a way with the cacao bean.