How To Make Chocolate (From Bean To Bar)

This is a guest post by Prudence Tippins about how to make chocolate.
When people visit us in Costa Rica, especially those with winter cabin fever, they like to get out and active. Some like zip-lining, some like bird watching, some want to head to the beach. But no one escapes a visit to our home without a trip to the Rainforest Chocolate Tour in La Fortuna.  There, the Costa Rican guides give a thorough explanation of the bean-to-bar journey of cacao, which is what I’ll share here, along with unlimited melted chocolate with all the natural goodness that makes everyone so happy. It’s a day well-spent.
Making chocolate bean-to-bar.
Making chocolate bean-to-bar.
 The guides, having seen me witness their process so often, encouraged me to try making chocolate myself, and I encourage you to try it too so you can reap those bean-to-bar benefits. Even without making a batch, though, you’ll gain a deeper appreciation for that 70% cacao organic chocolate bar you see for $4.00 or more at the food co-op. (I’ll tell you the secret up front: It’s worth the money.)

So, here’s how it goes…
How to Make Chocolate
Raw cacao beans are encased by sweet fruit.
Raw cacao beans are encased by sweet fruit.
Step One: Pick the cacao pod from the tree.  Cacao trees are often grown in the shade of banana trees. They prefer the shade, and the bananas are fast producers, giving the farmer a steady (if small) income while waiting the three years for the cacao plants to mature.
The cacao pods grow right from the trunk of the tree (like papayas) and are very hard. Squirrels are able to gnaw and scratch their way through the tough skin, but few other animals seek out cacao: just too much trouble.  We humans like to pick and then smash the pod down on a table to open them.
Drying cacao beans in the sun using a simple structure that slides in to protect the beans from rain.
Drying cacao beans in the sun using a simple structure that slides in to protect the beans from rain.
Step Two: Ferment and dry the beans. The fruit around the cacao seeds (or “beans”) is rather sweet, but nothing like chocolate. This sweet fruit was probably the first way cacao was eaten — and the reason it spread from South America to Central America. Travelers would suck the white flesh off the seeds, then spit the bitter seeds out along their route.
We know now, though, the value of the bean, so we save it and allow the bacteria in the air to ferment it, usually for seven days. You can create a simple drying rack for this process using a mesh screen and a wooden frame.  At that point, any sprouted seeds are tossed out or replanted, while the unsprouted beans go on to the drying phase. For this, you can simply put the fermented beans in a wooden box in the sun to dry, making sure you’re around to cover the box if it starts to rain.
Roasted cacao beans
Roasted cacao beans
Step Three: Roast the fermented beans. While the ones we have at the Rainforest Chocolate Tour are always toasted over a wood stove (leña), we’ve done it at home in a convection oven. Twenty minutes at 350 worked for some beans, but others required a bit longer. A higher temp and shorter time might work, as well. Toasting takes the moisture out of the bean, which is essential for good-tasting, mold-free chocolate. It also allows the husks to be removed, which brings us to our next step.
Women using a pilon to grind cacao beans
Women using a pilon to grind cacao beans.
Step Four: Smash the beans. Before we remove those husks, we need to crack these now-hard beans into smaller chunks called “nibs.” At the Rainforest Chocolate Tour, they use a giant pilon, explaining that young men coming courting would once be required by fathers to do this job before taking their daughters out on a date. My home method varies, but my current favorite is putting the roasted beans in a plastic sandwich bag and smashing them with a hammer. The dry Vita-Mix container is another option, but be sure not to blend it too long. You’re looking for large chunks at this stage.
A roasted cacao bean with its papery husk removed.
A roasted cacao bean with its papery husk removed.
Step Five: Blow away the husks. This is done by holding the nibs in one bowl at eye level, then allowing them to drop to a second bowl held at the chest, blowing gently as the nibs go past your mouth. You could use a fan or the wind. Best to do this outside!
Grinding cacao on a metate. Using a hot stone turns it into cacao liqueur.
Grinding cacao on a metate. Using a hot stone turns it into cacao liqueur.
Step Six: Grind the nibs. Once your nibs have been de-husked, it’s time to grind. The Chocolate Tour demonstrates two methods: the metate (hot stone) grinding, and the metal hand grinder. You could also use a Vitamix or food processor, stopping the machine occasionally to prevent overheating, or even a juicer like the Champion. What you’ll get from this process is called “cocoa liqueur,” the defining characteristic being that it still contains all of the components of cacao, including the cacao butter. If you were to make a cacao powder, the cacao butter would have to be removed. Some chocolate bars are made from cacao powder mixed with inferior oils, such as palm oil. The full benefits of cacao, however, come from this chocolate liqueur.
Raw cane sugar to mix with the cocoa liqueur.
Raw cane sugar to mix with the cocoa liqueur.
Step Seven: Add sugar. You get to choose how much. My favorite chocolate is 85% cacao, 15% natural cane sugar. At the Rainforest Chocolate Tour they use 70% cacao and 30% cane sugar, which is also very good! Once you’ve added sugar to the chocolate liqueur, you can legitimately say you’ve made chocolate.
You can melt the cacao liqueur in a double broiler to get a consistency you can work with. (Photo by Amy Stephenson.)
You can melt the cacao liqueur and sugar in a double broiler to get a consistency you can work with. (Photo by Amy Stephenson.)
Step Eight: Gently melt the chocolate in a double boiler and make your creation. At the Rainforest Chocolate Tour, they give us spoonful after spoonful of this decadence and offer a wide variety of topping options, like cardamom, peanuts, sea salt, shredded coconut, vanilla, cinnamon, etc. You might enjoy replicating that process, spoon by decadent spoon, or you could try pouring the liquid chocolate into molds and refrigerating them to make bars or kisses or the like, even going so far as to fill them with raspberry jam. Adding lecithin to this mixture will make it a more stable product, but for home consumption, you can do without. You could also spoon some of the liquid chocolate into mugs and mix with warm almond milk, or whatever milk you fancy.
A few examples of fairly traded chocolate. (Photo by Hajime Nakano.
A few examples of fairly traded chocolate.
(Photo by Hajime Nakano.)
An alternative to the above eight steps is to find an organic, fair trade chocolate bar that is made of at least 70% cacao, plus cane sugar with no additional ingredients, other than real vanilla and the good additions you swoon for (almonds, coconut, cacao nibs, etc, but no palm oil!).
Enjoying your creation.
Enjoying your chocolate creation.
Step Nine: Enjoy. I mean, really savor this treat. This is the good stuff, and your body will enjoy it thoroughly.
We’ve got several cacao plants growing on our land here in Nuevo Arenal, and we’re rolling up our sleeves to start this process at home. The Rainforest Chocolate Tour has nothing to fear from us, though. We’ll still be taking our visitors to see the professionals at work and taste a little bit of heaven one spoonful at a time.
Prudence Tippins

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