Ask the Alchemist #165

Level: Novice

Read time: 3 minutes

I am confused about the issue of “burning” or “scorching” chocolate. It is widely advised that when melting chocolate for tempering, one should not let it get above 120º F or else the chocolate will be irreparably damaged and will not be able to be tempered.  However, while grinding in the melanger the chocolate gets up to 140º F to 160º F (the hotter being advised as a conching temperature). How come it is not damaged at this point but it will be if reheated/remelted later? I see some people talk about tempering straight from the melanger – which means essentially cooling from >140º F straight down to 84º F or so. Is there something about the chocolate cooling and “curing” after grinding, after which point it should not be brought above 120º but if tempered from these higher temperatures right away (without cooling first) it is OK?  Any insight into this discrepancy would be appreciated.  Thanks.

Nice observations.  When faced with contradictory facts, the key is to tease apart which fact actually isn’t one.

In short this is a false fact from the days before home chocolate melting when people really didn’t know or believe they should gently heat chocolate.   And what exactly it meant to heat chocolate gently.  It seems like many people would put the chocolate in a pan, put the pan on the stove (on low of course) and proceed to burn the chocolate.  How?

The issue wasn’t so much that the chocolate got to 120 F or 140 F or even 180 F, it was that the surface of the pan got much hotter.  As in 400-500 F.  And that is more than hot enough to burn chocolate.  Now, if you constantly stirred, and mixed and kept that heat distributed, there wouldn’t be an issue.  But people don’t tend to do that.  They let it set….and burn that layer of chocolate that is setting on the bottom of the pan.

This is why it is pretty universally suggested that you melt chocolate in a double boiler.  There is nothing magical here.  It’s just that 212 F, the boiling point of water, is below the temperature at which chocolate will burn.

So feel free to heat your chocolate up.  You can go beyond 120 F….if you do with properly.  In a water bath.  A warm oven does well too since the warm air has so little heat capacity.  I often set my oven to 150-170 F and put much chocolate in there.  It never burns and I don’t have to fret over water being near my chocolate.

That said, a variation of this is that you MUST heat your chocolate up to 120 F when tempering.  This too is also untrue.  It won’t hurt anything but it isn’t necessary.  The though is that you have to take it that hot to destroy all the crystals in the chocolate do you get a good temper.  As anyone who has messed up tempering by going to the mid 90’s know, all your crystals are fully melted at 100 F. Anything above that is just wasting time and energy.

Organic Belize 2016

We have a lone bag of 2016 Organic Belize in.  At this point, given how the supplier is handling distribution, I’m not confident we will be seeing any more available any time soon.

For those unfamiliar with it, the raw beans have an odor of old school juicy fruit hard candy.  While roasting there is toasted macadamia nuts, warm proofing spelt bread and a lovely savory quality with a touch of tang from fermentation.  Once in chocolate form (75% for my tests) there is sweet caramel……go read about it.

Ask the Alchemist #164

Level:  Apprentice

Read time: 7 minutes

What is your opinion on the use of cocoa butter?  Can you suggest how much I should add?  I don’t want to add too much or too little.

It seems like if you have 4 chocolate makers in a room, you will have 6 opinions on its use.  And a little surprisingly to me, they are often very adamantly held opinions.  They run the full spectrum too, from loving it to thinking it is an abomination.  Or stuff like  “The best chocolate has only two ingredients”.   I don’t see that.  There is no best chocolate.  It is a matter of what you like.  Sometimes I think it is a type of machismo.  Drinking the hoppiest IPA, eating the hottest wings, only having the darkest or ‘purest’ chocolate.  Whatever.  Me?  I like chocolate with a little cocoa butter in it.

With that out of the way, let’s delve into cocoa butter.

First off, you don’t have to add extra cocoa butter to your chocolate.  Or at least some of the darker chocolates.  The reason being that cocoa beans as they come contain 50-55% cocoa butter naturally.  That is what makes cocoa liquor flow.  That is why I say extra, since it already contains some.

At the very basic level you need about 35% cocoa butter in any chocolate you make or it will be just too thick to refine.  That means any dark chocolate above roughly 70% additional cocoa butter is purely optional because it will flow.  For a  50% chocolate though, if you do the maths, you will find there is only about 25% cocoa butter in there, so you will need at add at least 10% extra just to get a workable chocolate.

But how about over and above what is strictly needed?

I add 5% cocoa butter to nearly all of my chocolates as a matter of routine.  Currently my standard evaluation chocolate consists of 75% cocoa nibs, 5% cocoa butter and 20% sugar.  I do it this way for the same reason many people add a couple drops of water to whisky when they are tasting it.  In a rather counter-intuitive way, it actually brings out more flavor instead of diluting the flavor as you might expect.

There seem to be two prevailing theories why this happens.  My thought is that it is probably some combination of the two.

The first goes like this.   Think about a piece of hard rock candy.  It dissolves very slowly in your mouth.  Sure, it is sweet, but not overwhelmingly so.  What happens on the other hand if you put a teaspoon of sugar in your mouth?  It is instantly and powerfully sweet.  But both are effectively pure sugar.  What is different?  It comes down to how quickly the sugar can dissolve and reach your taste buds.  The sugar granules have lots of surface area and dissolve very quickly giving you an intense punch of sensation.  The rock candy takes much longer.

In chocolate the cocoa butter is what carries the flavor to your taste buds.  The more there is of it, the faster it melts and you can get that punch of flavor.  The more the punch, the more flavor you perceive.

Of course, there is a limit.   At some point you are indeed diluting the amount of flavor in there, and even with the punch, there is nothing behind it.   I’ve found 5% is easy and makes a nice difference.  10% can really bring some extra flavor to the table.  And in some cases 15% can allow flavors that you initially could not perceive to become noticeable.

I just recently did a Ghana bar from 50% cocoa nib, 30% sugar, and 20% cocoa butter.  Technically a 70% bar, it was radically different from one without any cocoa butter.  Without any, it was pretty neutral.  There was a fine chocolate flavor, but not a whole lot else.  With the addition, the chocolate was more intense, and there were notes are caramel and vanilla and overall was actually a more memorable chocolate.

And this show the second  mechanism in play.

Ghana has a very intense chocolate flavor.  It can actually be too intense in that it pummels your taste buds.  The result is that they get saturated and you taste less.  This particularly shows up in something like whiskey.  You hardly ever see it at 55% ABV.  It’s just too strong.  And if you do, like in cask strength, it is very well known and accepted that if you add a bit of water to bring it down to 45% there are very noticeably more flavors and aromas.  I’ve tasted this myself with chocolate.  85, 90, 95%.  You are not macho for being able to handle it.  Hell, there is nothing to handle.  It’s just chocolate for goodness sake.    But you could well be blunting your taste buds from the overwhelming input.  Diluted down just a little bit allows you to taste things that otherwise might be lost.

Many a teenager blasted music to 11.  At that level I’ll grant it is a visceral experience.  And maybe you like it.  But if the music in question has anything else going on, it’s going to be lost.  Dial it back to 7-8 and suddenly there is more to notice and more to appreciate.  As we get older, we learn these things.  We mature.  We learn balance. We discover more is not, well, more.   Quite often, it’s less.

So I submit to you that there is no competition to eat the darkest, hard core chocolate.  If you really, truly enjoy it, then more power to you.  Hell, I love a good vindaloo  dialed to 11.  But maybe try dialing it back a little and see what other melodies and counter points come to light.

You might be surprised.

Ask the Alchemist #163

Level: Alchemist

Read time: 9 minutes

We roast 300g (10 oz or so) in our Genecafe.

We are trying a new batch at 350 F for 15 minutes, and one for 20 minutes. The beans start to pop really quickly after we start (around 3 minutes) though, is this unusual? Also, after roasting, some beans have their skin cracked open, and others don’t. Should they all be cracked open, or maybe it does not matter at all?

We get a chocolate cake/brownie smell quickly as well, which we’ve heard is a good sign during roasting. 

Regarding the 30 minutes at 300F , we decided on that from what we read online and what we saw in various videos… 

You are bringing back memories of me using the Genecafe.  I too seem to recall popping really, really early on.  3 minutes in is the sign that the heat is quite a bit high.  And that does not correlate with 300 F unless the beans are that hot.

Let’s get a couple simple things out of the way.  You don’t have to have pops or cracks in a roast, but can.  You absolutely don’t and won’t ever have them all pop like popcorn.  At most I don’t think you will ever get more than 2% popping. And maybe only 0.1%.  That said, I personally have found I like chocolate made from cocoa that has popped.  But that is comparing against the same beans that did not pop and are vetted beans that I know are good.

So it looks like we are talking roasting again. That is good. In my opinion, it can be the make or break step after fermentation.  And it seems to be the hardest to grasp in it’s totality.

Let’s see if we can make some connections.  Have a look at this graph.  It is a version of the oven profiles I put up a few weeks ago.  We will talk about it in a moment.


Here is the thing with what you are finding for roasting profiles and what you are using.  300 for 30 minutes sounds like oven roasting.  Not drum roasting with forced air, which is basically what the Genecafe is. You have control over heat and profiles and should be trying to use them if you can.  That means not using one temperature for a set amount of time.  I like to call that baking, not roasting.

At first I thought you were under roasting with a 30 minute 300 F roast.  I am going to back up and say that it may indeed be that you are/were over roasting.

Why?  The key here is understanding how the heat is applied and absorbed by the beans.  In an oven (even convection) the heat transfer is very slow.  Only the top of bean on the top layer of beans is really getting heat.  It means most are not in contact with heat so they can’t heat up quickly.  It’s why it can take 40 minutes at 400 F to get the beans to 250 F.  In a drum roaster, and even more so in one with blowing hot air, the heat transfer is MUCH faster.  And that is what you are seeing in your roaster.

I recall having trouble stretching roasts out in the Genecafe (one reason I never pursued it or recommend it).  Actually, if your bean temperature was indeed 300 F then you over roasted.  250-260 if as hot as you want for  a bean temperature.

Keeping in mind I’ve not used this roaster in nearly 13 years, here is where I would start.

I would first start at looking at that graph.  I’m going to decide I want about a 15-18 minute roast and find the curve/line that corresponds to it.  The 400 F OVEN temperature looks good.  We picked a line.  Now forget the 400 part.  It is for an oven.  We don’t care.  It is immaterial.  What is important is the bean temperature and the time it takes.

Shoot for this profile. I’m mostly just taking numbers off the chart.  Meaning adjust your temperature knob as you go, keeping an eye on your bean vs set point.

65 C/150 F for 5 minutes
80 C/175 F  4 minutes
96 C/205 F 3 min
110C/230 F 2 min
120C/250 F 2 min

In general, those are the set point and I’m trying to estimate where the beans will be at those time points.  So, in this case, if everything goes right, those are also the bean temperatures.  Or to give it its technical name, that is my “roasting profile”.  To say it again, a roasting profile is the plot of bean temperature vs time.  NOT  ambient temperature vs time.  Yes, sometimes you will be given an ‘oven profile’ because it is easier, but as you can see it isn’t that useful whereas a bean profile is.  It is transferable to ANY method of roasting if you can get bean surface temperatures.

And that is where you went wrong.  I mistook an oven temperature profile for a bean profile.  The later is transferable to any roaster, the prior almost never so.

So what is going on up there in my suggested profile is that I hope to hit those bean temperature markers in that allotted time.  I’m not just putting the ambient temperature at 300 F because this roaster transfers heat to quickly and you can indeed burn or scorch the beans.  I’m effectively assuming heat transfer is going to be very fast and so I keep the difference between my target (say 150 F in the first step) and the initial temperature (ambient in this case) pretty small (only about 80 F).  I stretch it out to 5 minutes so there is plenty of time for the heat to soak into the beans before I start my next step or ramp.

A couple final things.  This roaster has a bean temperature thermocouple also.  You get actual feedback.  If at 5 minutes the temperature is at 120 F, then I want to increase my temperature set point to something a little higher.  Press on the gas pedal more as it were to go faster.  If they hit 150 in 2 minutes, the I need to back off the temperature a bit so they are not just hanging out at 150 so long.

I realize this may be way more that many people want or can use, but I also rather hope that if you read it enough, look at the situation different ways, that eventually there is be a click or ah-ha moment where you get it.  With that, see if these make sense, and if not, give them some thought.

  • The more your beans move, the quicker the beans will heat up.
  • The faster beans heat up, the smaller the difference ambient temperature has to be to the bean surface temperature. This can be as little as 50 F in a good drum roaster or as much as 300 F in the oven
  • The faster your beans move, the cooler you can keep your ambient temperature.
  • You can only heat up beans so fast before the outside scorches.
  • If your cocoa beans are not moving much you have to have a higher ambient temperature to keep the heat transfer moving at a reasonable pace.  Make it as big as you can without scorching the beans.
  • Cocoa beans can scorch if the difference in temperatures is more than about 300 F.  A 200 F difference is safer.

Give that a try and report back.

Oh, and one last thing.  I don’t sell or really suggest the Genecafe roaster. It’s not because it can’t do a good job.  It’s because I find it expensive to the amount of beans you can roast.  It’s kind of off putting to my mind and my goal is all about approachability and affordability wherever possible.  If you have one, go ahead and use it, but otherwise don’t go out and get one just for cocoa.


Ask the Alchemist #162

Level: Alchemist

Read time: 6 minutes

I really want to make chocolate with honey. I’ve seen it out there so it must be possible.  How can I do it?

Not really.  Every chocolate with honey out there I have found has turned out to only seem like chocolate.  What I mean by that is that upon talking to the makers, I’ve learned that none are really tempered and have a tendency to separate after a short amount of time.  In addition, they stir the honey in at the very end, very, very gently.  Too vigorous and it would seize.

That all said, it got me thinking.  I went down the rabbit hole of research and came up with a  couple ideas I thought might stand a chance.   My goal here was a real tempered chocolate, using honey refined in the melanger.

The issue here is of course the water.  My thought of course was to remove the water.

I came up with the brilliant idea of making a caramelized honey not unlike the caramelized sugar used to make praline.   Boosted by someone else’s success, I tried it myself.

Sadly, it didn’t work.  You do end up with a hard honey candy, but it is so hygroscopic it was impossible to work with. By the time it was cool enough to work with, it was so tacky that it was unusable.  Within  a couple hours it was flexing and the next day it was trying to flow.

The next  thing I tried was dehydrating the honey.  Past experience told me I could not just dry it in the oven.  It becomes a solid, sticky mass that holds too much moisture.  Did I mention it was hygroscopic?  So instead I coated my roasted nibs with the honey and put that into the oven for 12 hours.   I weighted the entire mass before it went into the oven, noted the approximate percentage of water in honey  (18%) and kept weighing the nib/honey mixture until I was below that amount and stable for a couple hours.

By the end the nibs were dry….but just slightly tacky.  That didn’t bode well.

To try and help the process along I pre-ground the mixture.  Something I never do, but every little bit of help seemed prudent here.  My thought was if I could spread out the honey enough, then powder it, I could keep the moisture away from the honey.

I proceeded to put the mix, little by little into the melanger.  It all went in, and started to fluidize and flow.  I really thought I had it.  Did you catch the past tense there?  Yeah.  It failed.  I came back about 12 hours later to a complete mess.  It was still running, but it looked really strange.  I can’t even begin to describe it.  It was kind of coarse, but still flowing.  And chunky.  But not really sweet either.

Upon turning it off and inspecting it I found this thick, gooey, kind of nasty ring of what I guess was wax around the center shaft.  Apparently there is quite a bit more to honey than just sugar.  Wax.  Propolis.  Higher sugars.  Basically a whole bunch of stuff that didn’t play well at all with the cocoa butter.

At that point I stopped.  This was not the way to go.

So, I don’t have any good answers for you.  You can try stirring it in at the end, and attempt to temper, but frankly I would not hold my breath on this.

Regardless, learn from my failures.  You can’t win them all and failure is always an option.

If anyone has any other ideas, I am more than happy to try.

Ask the Alchemist #161

Level: Apprentice

Read time: 7 minutes

I have been making a batch of chocolate over and over.  It is sharp and astringent.  I think I keep over roasting it but nothing works.  I have tried roasting from 250 to 300 degrees for 15-30 minutes.  What am I doing wrong?


Somewhere along the line the trend has been to roast cocoa lighter and lighter for fears of not over roasting it.  That is an admirable goal.  You don’t want to over roast your cocoa.  Unfortunately this is the classic result that I am seeing every single week.  Effectively under roasted beans or possibly even raw beans that are sharp, astringent and lacking in chocolate flavor.

Before we going any further, I want to define who I am talking to.  If you like your chocolate and how you are roasting, then this article isn’t aimed at you.

If there is that little voice in the back of your head wondering why you chocolate isn’t quite right and you are fearful of over roasting because all the experts (self proclaimed?)  out there who have never roasted a cocoa bean in their life warn against over roasting, then maybe you should read on.

I’ve tried to over roast.  It is REALLY hard.  I’m talking  you have to try to over roast and you still might fail.  I’m not joking here.  I am kind of dumbfounded where the idea came from that it is easy to over roast cocoa let alone that it burns easily.

Let’s talk about roasting.  As in really what is happening.  To do that I need you to put away what you think you know about roasting cocoa and instead engage what you know about cooking and baking in general.  Because the rules are the same.  There is nothing special or magic about roasting cocoa beans.

Ok.  Agreed?  Great, let’s begin.

What has to happen when you roast?  You need to take a cocoa bean that is around 70 F and take the whole thing, all the way to the center, to somewhere in the range of 230 to 260 F.  From experience, I have learned that I personally like it best when that can happen in 15-30 minutes.  And anecdotal evidence suggests so do most people.  So that is what we are going to talk about.

I said this is like any other cooking or baking.  So instead of a cocoa bean, let’s talk about roasting a hunk of meat.  Or loaf of bread.  Either works fine.  I’m picking those because they are usually 2-3 lbs, start at room temperature and come to some higher final temperature.

What is the classic way to roast these?  350 F oven for an hour is not uncommon for either one.

You put your loaf/roast into a 350 F oven.  Here is the first important thing.  The surface does not immediately become hot.  After 10 minutes, the surface is probably only 100 F and the interior is still room temperature.  And you are not surprised, right?  As time progresses, the heat sinks in.  Two inches in becomes 90 degrees, 1 inch in is 100 degrees and the surface is 110.

Notice the gradient?  That is how the whole roast is going to proceed.  At 30 minutes in the surface might finally be starting to get hot to the touch.  150-160 F.  But If you put in a thermometer to the center you will find the very center is still under 100 F.  Raw.

Not until nearly an hour later is the center getting to 150-160 F for a small roast and maybe 200 F for the bread. The meat has more water so it heats more slowly if you were wondering.

Roasting cocoa is the same.

But cocoa beans are not a loaf of bread I hear you saying.  Well, they kind of are.  They are a solid like mass in the pile they are in.  You can speed the roast along by stirring.  Distributing the heat.   This is exactly why I suggest stirring every 5 minutes.

And let’s look at a few other common things you bake.

Muffins or cup cakes.  350-375 F for 15-20 minutes.

Biscuits 400-425 for  12-15 minutes

What would have happened to either of those things if you had put them in at 250-300 F?  Totally under baked,  right?  Yep.

It’s all the same thing.  Cocoa behaves exactly the same.  Why wouldn’t it?  They are not magical.  It takes quite a bit of heat and time to heat them all the way to the center.

You are worried about burning them at 350-400 F I hear you say.  You notice that gradient I talked about?  That is why they don’t burn.  The oven can be 450 F even at the start.  The only way for the bean (or you bread) to burn is if the whole entire thing is that hot.  But it isn’t.  The heat is continuously sinking in, in effect keeping the surface from burning.

I know many of you are shaking your head in disbelief.  This isn’t just my theory.  I spend a few weeks recently testing just this.  Look a little of the data.

Temperature plot

Those are actual surface temperatures.  From everything we have seen the interior has to be cooler.  They don’t have a choice.  Absolutely none of those beans were even close to burned, let alone even over roasted.

What that means, even at 300 degrees for 30 minutes, your beans probably never made over 150 F on the surface.  Which means 100-115 F inside.  Raw by any definition for the majority of the bean.

That is why they were so sharp and astringent.  They were massively under roasted.  They were still raw.

It’s really that simple.  It takes a lot of heat to roast cocoa beans in any reasonable amount of time.  And to keep it to a reasonable time, you have to have a hot environment.  Heat flows and how fast it flows is proportional to how big the difference is between your beans and the oven.  At 300 F, although it seems hot, it  isn’t that different from your target of 250 F.  The consequence is it takes a long time to get there.

Just think about baking bread or a roast of beast and go from there.   Be fearless.

So get the beans in the hot oven.  Stir them often to help the heat distribute.  Take temperature readings (I use this IR thermometer) and stop worrying you are going to burn the beans.

Be fearless.  It’s only chocolate.



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