The Ultimate Chocolate Glossary: Co


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Cacao “beans” are the seeds from the pod, or fruit, of the Theobroma cacao tree. At the center of the bean is the nib, and it is the nib from which chocolate is made. There are eight distinct genetic groups of beans and thousands of subgroups. “Cocoa” is a corruption of the original word and is often attributed to a misspelling of “cacao”.


Cocoa can refer to a powder of very fine consistency. Once cacao nibs have been roasted and ground to make chocolate liquor, the liquor can be subject to enormous mechanical pressure. This pressure removes much of the cocoa butter in the chocolate liquor, leaving what’s called a press cake. The press cake is pulverized and sifted to produce cocoa powder. Cocoa powder can range from 10% to 24% fat, depending upon the type being produced. The two principle types are natural (also called non-alkalized) and Dutch process (alkalized). There’s also black cocoa (a very dark, very rich, Dutch process variety) and Cocoa Rouge, or red cocoa, named for its deep reddish-brown hue. This latter is a Dutch process cocoa with a fudgy flavor and a deeply bittersweet nature.

Cocoa can also refer to a beverage, commonly called hot cocoa. Typically, hot cocoa is made from cocoa powder, often with milk as the liquid, and served sweetened; it is frequently flavored, as well, with everything from liqueurs to extracts. Many people refer to all chocolate beverages as cocoa or hot cocoa, but technically, drinking chocolate is different. Hot cocoa is made with cocoa powder. In theory, drinking chocolate should be made with actual chocolate (though cocoa powder can be used in addition) and will be richer because of the extra cocoa butter contained in the chocolate. Because there is no legal definition for drinking chocolate in the US, the terms are often confused.


The Theobroma cacao tree grows in a narrow band up to 20 degrees of latitude north and south of the equator. This band is referred to as the Cocoa Belt or Chocolate Belt. These areas have tropical, humid climates with consistent rainfall and a very brief dry season. Despite the relative narrowness of this “belt”, it includes many countries (or specific regions within countries), ranging from Mexico, Grenada, and Brazil in the Americas to Ghana and Papua New Guinea.


The naturally-occurring vegetable fat present in all cacao beans. Despite the name, cocoa butter is not a dairy product and contains no cholesterol. Depending upon the species or subspecies, cacao beans contain just above 50% cocoa butter by weight. Cocoa butter, while a solid at room temperature, has a melting point a few degrees below below human body temperature; that’s why chocolate melts so delightfully in your mouth. While cocoa butter is technically a saturated fat, it does not act as one in the human system; it has no effect on cholesterol levels.

After cacao beans are roasted and finely ground, the resulting chocolate liquor, hot from grinding, is in a liquid state due to its high cocoa butter content (and cocoa butter’s low melting point). Tremendous pressure is then applied via a mechanical(hydraulic) press. The liquor is pressed through fine-mesh screens that permit the cocoa butter to run off. Most manufacturers deodorize the cocoa butter (remove the flavor and aroma) to prevent bitterness in the finished product. The cocoa butter is deodorized by injecting it into a jet of steam; the steam carries away the natural odors of the cocoa butter leaving the now deodorized butter behind. The deodorized cocoa butter is added it back to the chocolate,

increasing the smoothness and ensuring a good mouthfeel. A small percentage of cocoa butter is used in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. Once deodorized, cocoa butter is resistant to rancidity and oxidation, so it can be kept for long periods of time under normal storage conditions.


A man-made fat that is similar to cocoa butter but is not chemically identical. Because cocoa butter replacements are not identical to cocoa butter, they can only be used in limited quantities before the quality of the chocolate begins to suffer.  Cocoa butter replacements cannot legally be used in chocolate though they can be used in candies as well as “chocolate flavored” confections.


A technique used to decorate chocolate bonbons. A plastic sheet with edible, usually colorful, cocoa butter designs is laid across the surface of enrobed bonbons before the chocolate has set. Once the chocolate exterior has set and hardened, the plastic sheet is carefully pulled away, leaving the edible designs on the finished chocolates.


See Press Cake


The percentage (by weight) of a chocolate bar that is made from cacao beans. This percentage can include the beans themselves, nibs, chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, and/or cacao powder. The higher the cocoa content, the darker the chocolate and, usually, the more intense the flavor. Chocolate with a higher cocoa content will also be more costly, because cacao beans are many times more expensive than sugar.


A ritual dance, performed semi-annually after each harvest by women in some cacao growing regions of Central America. The beans are spread out to dry after fermentation, and the women shuffle through them to ensure the beans are turned frequently, which helps them to dry evenly.


See Chocolate Liquor

This glossary would not have been possible without the kind assistance of my good friend Karen Hochman who runs the website: The Nibble. Karen gave us permission to base our chocolate glossary on hers. TheNibble is one of the Internet’s greatest resources for food articles, reviews, history, and just about anything when it comes to quality food. Please, if you have a few moments, visit my friend Karen’s website and you’ll be amazed at what a valuable resource it is. Thanks for all your help Karen!

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