When people think about chocolate making, they often overlook one important step—the winnowing process. Each cocoa bean is surrounded by a fibrous husk. When the cocoa pod is on the tree, this husk serves to protect the interior of the bean from animals that may break into the pods to eat the sweet pulp that surrounds each bean. When moist, this husk is soft and pliable, but once dry, the husk forms an almost impenetrable barrier—and one that must be removed in order to make a smooth chocolate at peak flavor.

After the beans have been harvested, they are fermented, dried, then shipped to the chocolate maker. When the chocolate maker receives the cocoa beans to make into chocolate, they are very hard, and the husk adheres to the bean with an iron-tight grip.

If the husk is not removed, the remains of the fermented pulp will end up being integrated into the final chocolate, creating an “off” flavor that is not easily removed from the finished chocolate without damaging its flavor.

Unfortunately, a few chocolate makers still integrate significant amounts of husk into their final chocolate. This occurs in one of two ways. First, there are those that integrate significant amounts of chaff and hope that nobody notices. In order to cover up the off-flavors imparted by the remains of the fermented pulp as well as the husk itself, a very heavy roast is used. This helps to disguise the flavor of the pulp, but unfortunately, it also destroys many of the more subtle flavors that are part of the cocoa bean itself.

Second, since government regulations on chocolate still allow for the presence of some husk (up to 1.75%), some chocolate makers will work to ensure that the maximum allowable amount of husk remains present. While this may only be fractions of a percent, when large amounts of chocolate are concerned, the fractions of a percent add up quickly. Since the husk is essentially free, this small percentage of savings adds up, creating an enormous cost savings.

For fine chocolate, however, adulteration with cocoa husk should not even be considered. The impact on flavor is too great. Furthermore, if shortcuts are taken in this very crucial step, it is highly likely that shortcuts will also be taken on other important aspects of the chocolate making process. The result is an inferior product.

Roasting is Key

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Roasted Cocoa Beans

When cocoa beans are roasted, several things happen. First, the fats in the cocoa bean husk melt. The fat that is in the husk of the cocoa bean is not the same as the cocoa butter contained in the bean, but it is closely related. After the fat in the husk melts, the cocoa butter in the bean begins to melt. The melting of the fat in the husk, as well as that in the bean, helps to loosen the husk from the bean itself. The dried cocoa beans contain about 10 percent water and this involves the final step needed to separate the husk from the bean. As the water heats, it turns to steam, and the steam rushes to the surface of the bean, blowing up the husk like a small balloon, separating the husk from the bean.

If the chocolate maker chooses whole-bean roasting, the roasting for flavor development and winnowing is one and the same. However, if the chocolate maker prefers nib-roasting for the cocoa beans, then the roasting for winnowing occurs first and is a separate process from the roasting used for flavor development. In this case, the roast for winnowing occurs at a high temperature for a short period of time. This blast of heat is enough to melt the fats in the husk and bean and to cause the water in the bean to vaporize quickly, separating the husk from the bean. The roast is not for a long enough period to start the Maillard and other reactions that are important for flavor development.

Breaking the Beans

After the roasting, the cocoa husk has separated from the bean, or at the least, it has been significantly loosened. Even so, the husk still surrounds the bean. In order to remove it, the beans must be broken. This may be done by using a series of rollers through which the beans pass. The rollers crush the beans, breaking them into pieces, along with the now brittle husk. The distance between the rollers must be tuned to allow for different sizes of beans.

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Crushed cocoa beans with husks

The primary alternative to this procedure is to drop the beans into a series of rotating blades. The blades hit the beans, breaking them, then propelling them against a steel plate, further breaking the beans into pieces. These pieces are called cocoa bean nibs. No matter which method is employed, the end result is pieces of bean mixed with pieces of broken husk. Now that the husk that once surrounded the bean been removed, the bits of husk now can be separated from the bits of bean.

Next: Winnowing the Wheat from the Tares

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