Everyone loves chocolate. Chocolate gift baskets are always at the top of the list for creative gifts and are the perfect gifts for foodies for a reason.
There’s nothing quite as satisfying as opening a new box of chocolates. Except maybe choosing whether to sample a piece of milk chocolate or dark chocolate first—and of course, that initial, decadent bite.
As it slowly melts in your mouth and the cocoa’s natural bitterness mixes with sugary sweetness and creamy goodness, you think, how is chocolate actually made?
Did you know that every mouth-watering chocolate bar actually starts from the cocoa tree? From harvesting cacao beans to tempering chocolate, read on to unwrap the entire process of chocolate making, from branch to delicious bite.
The Chocolate-Making Process: A Guide
You’re certainly not the first person to wake up one morning and wonder, how is chocolate made?
It’s a question that all chocolate lovers ask at some point in their lives—and it’s a good one!
While you might assume that chocolates have always been sweet, creamy, and shaped like Valentine’s hearts, that isn’t quite the case. Although the concept of chocolate wasn’t the same 2,000 years ago, the cacao plant was growing in Central and South America at that time.1
The Aztecs created a concoction called xocoatl, a bitter drink made with raw cacao beans. It’s nothing like drinking a hot cup of cocoa, but it was revered as a specialty beverage.
It wasn’t until much later when the Europeans arrived in the Americas with their chocolate discoveries. According to our Chocolate Historian, Dave Borghesani, “The first appearance of chocolate in North America was in 1641 when a Spanish ship, the Nuestra Senora del Rosario y el Carmen, was damaged in a storm when leaving Puerto Rico and had to make port in St. Augustine, Florida. On board, there were 1167 pounds of chocolate along with 75 small boxes of gifting chocolate.” It was shortly after that chocolatiers in America started whipping up that sweet chocolate you know and love.
Now, you might be wondering, what is a chocolatier? A chocolatier works on perfecting the art of crafting chocolate. But chocolate making doesn’t start in the kitchen. It begins with the cultivation of cacao trees.
Step 1: Cultivating the Cacao
Cacao trees thrive in warm and moist environments, which is why they grow naturally in regions near the equator. It takes approximately three to five years to mature and begin producing fruit pods once planted.2 Each cocoa bean pod contains 20 to 50 seeds that chocolate makers eventually use to create chocolate.3
Once the cacao tree begins making pods, farmers wait a few months for the pods to ripen. When they turn a yellow-orange color, they’re ready for harvesting.
Step 2: Harvesting the Cacao Beans
When a cacao tree reaches 15 to 25 feet, it’s usually mature and harvest-ready.2 Once farmers have picked all the ripe pods from the surrounding trees, they transport them to the next location to split them open.
One or two solid strikes of a machete are typically enough to open the pod’s exterior (the husk), where a careful hand will gently scoop out the seeds. But how many seeds do you need to make chocolate? For every 500 harvested cocoa beans, you can create approximately one pound of bittersweet chocolate.2
Step 3: Fermenting the Beans
Fermentation is a critical step in the chocolate-making process. Without it, chocolate wouldn’t have the distinct flavor characteristics we know and love. Cacao, without fermentation, is very bitter, tasting more like the xocoatl from the past than a chocolate heart.
Fermenting cacao beans is a multi-day process, usually taking anywhere from two to eight days. There are two ways to ferment the seeds:6
- Fermenting on the ground – Traditionally, growers ferment their seeds on the flat surface of the ground. They pile the seeds in large heaps and cover them with banana leaves, stirring them as needed until fermentation is complete.
- Fermenting in boxes – Nowadays, many growers prefer to ferment their seeds in a box with holes in the bottom. They place the box on supports so the juices released during fermentation have an easy exit point. Every two days, they stir the seeds and transfer them to a new box to continue fermenting.
Step 4: Drying and Manufacturing the Beans
The beans are ready to be dried once they’re fermented. Machines can be used, but the most natural and popular drying option is to simply lay them out in the sun.
Smaller cacao farms lay the beans on large slabs of wood, bamboo mats, or on tables to dry for five to ten days, stirring them often to ensure they dry evenly. Larger farms sometimes use the assistance of electric dryers, especially when the environment is too moist for them to dry properly on their own.
When it’s time to package the seeds, they’re inspected, packed, and shipped to their next location. The beans are then shipped to the location where they will be carefully roasted to perfection, producing the final flavor of the beans.
Step 5: Roasting the Seeds
From the United States to Switzerland and everywhere in between, cacao seeds are shipped and ready for the next phase of the chocolate making process: roasting.
In addition to bringing out the euphoric and unforgettable scent of chocolate, roasting serves a few other purposes as well, including:
- Killing any unwanted organisms like bacteria from the fermentation process
- Separating the outer shell from the inner bean in a process called winnowing
Step 6: Grinding the Cocoa Beans into a Cocoa Liquor
After roasting the seeds, the resulting product is called cacao nibs. The nibs are then ground into a cocoa liquor.
At first glance, cocoa liquor might sound delicious. But in reality, it’s less like chocolate fondue and more like the most bitter dark chocolate you’ve ever tasted (without the sugar or cocoa butter). But it is an essential component in the final chocolate.
Once the nibs become a cocoa mass (also known as cocoa liquor), you can press it under extremely high pressure until it turns into two distinct forms:
- Cocoa butter – Cocoa butter is the fat from the cacao nibs. It gives chocolate its unmistakable smoothness. It also has a very low melting point and is the reason chocolate melts in your mouth so quickly.
- Cocoa powder – Yes, we’re talking about the very same dusty brown powder you use to give your baked goods a chocolatey essence, which is made during the grinding process.
While you can separate cocoa liquor into cocoa butter and cocoa powder, you can also use it in its original cocoa liquor form to create chocolate bars.
Step 7: Conching the Cocoa Mass
From dark chocolate bars to white chocolate bars and everything in between, this is when the magic happens to create each distinct chocolate flavor. Using cocoa liquor, you’ll mix in and grind other common chocolate-making ingredients, like:
- Cocoa butter
- Milk powder
Conching takes as little as a few hours, but it can extend for days at a time, depending on the chocolate maker’s preference and the desired flavor and aroma for each batch of chocolate. In addition, the longer you conch the ingredients, the smoother and creamier the final product.
Step 8: Tempering the Chocolate
When the chocolate maker has given their expert approval to the quality and taste of the chocolate mixture, it’s time to temper the chocolate. This involves heating the mixture to a specific temperature unique to the type of chocolate being made.
If the tempering is done correctly, it gives a typical batch of chocolate trademark qualities, like:
- Lending it a glossy shine
- Hearing that satisfying snap when you break it to share
While tempering may sound simple, it requires a keen eye and meticulous concentration to ensure you’re heating your chocolate to the appropriate temperature. A few degrees under or over, and the finished tempered chocolate won’t be as visually pleasing or as tasty as it could be.
Step 9: Molding the Chocolate
The last step in the chocolate-making process is carefully placing the chocolate in the chosen molds. From ovals to squares, the sky’s the limit. For basic chocolates, a chocolate maker simply fills each cavity with liquid chocolate, scrapes off the excess from the top of the mold, and allows them to cool in a chilly room on a flat surface or in the refrigerator.
Cream-filled chocolates require more patience and skill. You can create a shell using a mold and chocolate mixture. Once it hardens, the filling can be added. The same concept can be applied to caramel, mint, or any other kind of scrumptious filling.
Once you add your final layer of chocolate on top of the filling, you can let the mold cool and carefully pop them out once they’ve hardened.
Experience Chocolate-Making At Its Finest at Ethel M Chocolates
From plucking the pods off of the cacao tree to filling each mold with newly conched chocolate, crafting mouthwatering chocolate is a delicate and time-consuming process. But for those passionate about chocolate excellency, like the chocolate makers at Ethel M Chocolates, it’s time well spent.
At Ethel M Chocolates, all of our chocolates are made in small batches with high-quality ingredients. At our Las Vegas chocolate factory, we grind our own nuts, mix in our own unique flavors, and pack every piece of chocolate by hand to ensure each one is perfect.
Whether you’re shopping for a box of dark chocolates as a special anniversary treat, an assortment of chocolate covered nuts, or treating yourself to an exquisite milk chocolate assortment, we’re sure you’ll find a special box of chocolates just for you.
- Smithsonian Magazine. A Brief History of Chocolate. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-brief-history-of-chocolate-21860917/
- Science of Cooking. How is Chocolate Made. https://www.scienceofcooking.com/chocolate/how-is-chocolate-made.htm
- The Spruce. How to Grow Cacao. https://www.thespruce.com/how-to-grow-cacao-1902612
- FAO. How Is Chocolate Made? https://www.fao.org/3/ad220e/AD220E06.htm