Ask the Alchemist #78

How long can raw beans keep prior to roasting? After roasting ? Is the bean roasted, at its most vulnerable stage? How stable is chocolate tempered and non tempered? After removing finished chocolate from the melanger , can or should chocolate be tempered first or can it be put in ziplock bags straight from melanger ?

I for one was blown away by my first hand made chocolate. To this day I think it was due to the freshness. It had a vitality and liveliness to it that I just had never tasted in any other chocolate. But there are so many stages. And clearly some are more important than others. What I had was still months old, so absolute age is not always an indicator of ‘freshness’. Let’s break it down and have a brief look at each potential stage and where you should be careful, and where it isn’t quite as important.

When it comes down to it, staleness (the opposite of freshness) is caused by the beans, nibs or chocolate reacting wit air, or more specifically oxygen. As a good rule of thumb, the cooler you have the beans/nibs/chocolate, the slower the reaction. But I can hear you now “but we roast! That’s really hot”…yep, and I will get to that. Not all heat is bad. It’s a matter of application, length of time and form. Hang tight.

Raw beans are by far the most stable. They are sealed up in the shell/husk/covering. They are basically sealed away from oxygen. Like this, kept cool (let’s just call cool, anything you can comfortably live in), most beans will easily keep 1 year. Most will keep two years. And some will keep 3 years. How do you know? Really, you don’t, but between throwing out 3 year old beans and taking a chance and making chocolate, I’m going to make chocolate. What is there to lose?

Next, a quick side note on temperatures. There is a running joke about this. What do you get if you put your cocoa in the freezer? Cold beans. Ok, it’s not really funny, but the point is is that once you are below a certain temperature, the oxidation reactions are so slow, that they are basically stopped. My experience is around 50 F for cocoa. Below that, are you are doing is making cold beans. Think of it like falling. Once you are within 12 inches of the ground, it really doesn’t matter if you are closer. You simply are not going to be ‘hurt less’ by falling 6 or 3 or 1 inch. You’ve passed the level of ‘hurt’ at 12 inches. Below that you are just closer to the ground. And a quicker side note to the side note. It is even possible that if you freeze your beans, you may even damage them via ice crystals in the cells and such. I don’t know, but think of freezing fresh fruit. It’s great refergerated, but not good frozen and thawed. Such, it’s still ‘not bad’ but that does NOT mean it is good. It’s just not spoiled. Moving on. Next, let’s move to nibs.

At this point, you have exposed the interior to oxygen. Also, they could either have been roasted or raw.

In the case of raw nibs, I find that over the span of about a week, they will lighten in color around the edges. I don’t know for sure what this is, but it seems to be a good enough indication something is going on….but it also stops. So, basically, you have about a week for raw nibs, but the good news is that it’s just a little staling, and not ‘they are only good for a week’. But then they are stable as raw beans. 1-3 years. But since there is more surface area per volume, let’s just be safe and call it 1-2 years.

In the case of roasted beans and nibs, we have introduced heat. Quite a bit of it. But lucky for use, this level of heat does not promote instantaneous staling. It’s way beyond that level and other chemical reactions are happening. But what it does do is give us a new host of chemicals that are in higher energy states that are just ready and waiting for ‘cooler’ chemical reactions, i.e. staling. Analogy time. You have a slab of meat. Or vegetable. Or toast. Toast is a really good one. Toast is a great one. Bread it good (i.e. not stale) for about a week. Fresh toast is not stale right out of the toaster. It’s got this great….toasty goodness going on. And it’s still ‘good’ toast for a couple hours even if it’s cold. But let it sit out all day and by bed time….and it’s gone stale….but then it just kind stops. It continues to dry out, but doesn’t really get any worse. Basically like roasted beans….except I’d give roasted beans a couple weeks. But if we break up the toast into bit, we get croutons. The stale quicker. Why? More surface area. Same with nibs. I’d give roasted nibs about a week.

Now before you all go off panicking that you have been using bad, stale, roasted nibs, keep in mind a few things. First, I was talking about leaving your bread/toast/beans/nibs out in the air. What happens if you seal up your croutons? They keep longer. Much longer. You have excluded oxygen and so you have limited the chemical reactions. And lucky for you and me, I keep everything sealed here, and ship in ziplock bags….for a reason. In a good sealed bag, I’d give roasted beans 1-2 months, and roasted nibs just a little less. 4-6 weeks off the top of my head. But if you were to store roasted beans at 95-100 F instead of 70 F (I’ve done this, so it’s not empirical but experimental) they go stale much faster. As in maybe a week for roasted beans and a few days for nibs.

Are you noticing a pattern here? The less surface area, and the less heat input, the longer they will keep. It’s really that simple. To explicitly answer your question, yes, your roasted nibs are the most ‘vulnerable’…but still not all that vulnerable.

But this is a good place to re-iterate something I’ve said before. Let your roasted beans fully and completely cool before cracking and winnowing. This is why. If you have freshly roasted beans, even if they are cool to the touch after one hour, they are still teaming with chemical reactions and the best way to introduce staling reactions is to break them open into nibs and give them a bunch more surface area. Relax. Let them rest a good 6 hours to tie off those reactions and ‘calm down’.

So, to review. Assuming ‘cool and dry’ and seal in an air tight bag.

  • Whole raw cocoa beans – 1-3 years
  • Raw cocoa nibs 1-2 years with very minor staling
  • Whole roasted cocoa beans – 1-2 months with a little more staling
  • Roasted cocoa nibs 4-6 weeks with just a touch more staling.

Ok, that’s enough for this one. There were a lot of questions in that one questions, so consider this Part 1 of 2. I’ll talk about chocolate next week. Same choc time, same choc station.

One Response to “Ask the Alchemist #78”

  1. Can’t imagine why someone would want to keep beans around for one to three years. Your shipping is so prompt that novices like me can just order beans a week in advance. They never last more than two weeks in my house because they keep calling me to make them into chocolate. Only reason to keep them longer, I guess, is if you get a shipment of some rare beans that you know you might not get for awhile again.

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