Ask the Alchemist #38

Don’t you make chocolate out of cocoa powder? Can’t I just heat it with sugar and cocoa butter to dissolve the sugar?

No.

No.

There. Are we done? I didn’t think so.

To the best of my understanding, no one makes chocolate from cocoa powder commercially. I’m not sure where the idea has surfaced. Maybe just that it’s from a desire to make the chocolate making process seem simpler or more approachable. Mind you, I’ve seen lots of recipes all over the internet about making homemade chocolate from cocoa powder, sugar and often butter (or Crisco – shudder). My response is that is nasty. I won’t sugar coat it (no pun intended). Aside from that, I just can’t bring myself to call that chocolate. And really, this question came in after someone tried one of those recipes, it turned out terrible (and nasty – their word, not mine) and wanted to know from me what they had done wrong. Oh, and why I posted the recipe in the first place if it was so bad – I delicately and politely suggested that maybe they mixed up websites as I would never post such as recipe as anything other than an example of what not to do.

You simply can’t dissolve sugar in cocoa butter. Just because the cocoa butter (or shortening or dairy butter) is melted and in a liquid state does not make it equivalent to water. Sure, they are both liquids, but one is an oil and one is, well, water. Sugar is not soluble in oil (I’m not going to go into why, but if someone really wants to know, submit the question and maybe I’ll geek out on you from a chemistry standpoint) just as water is not soluble in oil. Gasoline is a liquid but you can’t drink it and you can’t run your car on water. And no, it does not matter if you heat it. Sure, at some point the sugar will melt (366.8 F), at which point you will have molten sugar in hot oil – and when you add your cocoa powder it is going to burn. And if you try cooling it to a point where it won’t burn the cocoa powder, it will solidify. It is a no win situation. Been there, tried it, failed!

But cocoa powder is fine, and I can use powdered sugar, and there, presto, whamo, smooth chocolate – right? And you wrote me and asked this question why? Because what you got was nasty and gritty. You may think both those ingredients are fine, and compared to granular sugar or salt and the like, sure, they are fine – but from the standpoint of your tongue and modern expectations, those are like 100 times coarser than you need or want. When all is said and done, you still need to refine it in a Melanger.

Next we come to flavor. To my understanding cocoa powder was and mostly is a by-product of cocoa butter. Cocoa butter being the important commodity, great heat and pressure are generally applied to the cocoa pressing. The cocoa butter comes out unharmed but the cocoa solids are pretty well hammered from a flavor standpoint. Sure, it’s ok for baking (but I’d still rather use cocoa mass in my baking recipes) but that is about it. Now, to be fair, there are some not bad cocoa powders out there. When I do use it (it’s great for dusting cake and torte pans with) I’ve used Dagoba’s.

At some point a few years ago I put this to the test. 30% Dagoba cocoa powder, 35% cocoa butter, 45% sugar, and I refined it in the Melanger for 12 hours. The result looked like chocolate and behaved like chocolate, but that’s really where it ended. It was flat and one dimensional tasting, had virtually no aroma, and there was this really odd aftertaste that made me not want to eat any more. I’ve since tried it with two other cocoa powders and tasted half a dozen that people have sent me and all of them have me not wanting to eat more than one bite.

Now, I won’t discount the fun factor, and if you want to create something in the kitchen, with your son or daughter, great. Have fun. But know that it’s just not going to be high end, or even low end, chocolate. It’s going to be a kitchen chemistry experiment to show there is more to making chocolate than mixing cocoa powder, butter and sugar together.

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