Ask the Alchemist #113

I do not do the “Champion juicer” step - I take the roasted nibs (purchased from the Alchemist himself) and slowly add them directly to the santha. I’m sure there’s more husk included than some purists would like. This got me thinking…Since the santha pulverizes everything, what is the effect of skipping the cracking / winnowing step all together and refining the whole bean (husk and all)?

The simple part first. I have had this same thought myself, so I tried it a couple different times. The results were less than stellar. Although the Melanger was more than capable of making the chocolate smooth, there were odd, and not very pleasant defect flavors present. For lack of better terms, the chocolate tasted dusty, musty and bitterishly astringent. And given the science background I have, that was of course in direct comparison to chocolate that had been fully winnowed of husk. A control in effect.

So overall, it is not a good idea to make chocolate from the whole unwinnowed bean.

You also mentioned that you made chocolate from nibs that had more husk than some purists would like. And that you received those nibs from me. That brings up a good point. In this same set of tests (years ago now) I set up a set of chocolates with varying amounts of husk remaining (based on initial weight of whole beans). 0, 1%, 2%, 5%, 10%, 15% and ~20% (unwinnowed). This was specifically to test at what the threshold point was for tasting the husk contribution.

What I found was that I was completely unable to discern the first three chocolate apart. Which frankly surprised me. I was pretty sure 5% would easily be discernible. But it was much more subtle than I expected. It left me mostly with a 'meh' impression. Not a great chocolate, but not bad either. Just not something I had a desire to keep eating. Upwards to 10% it was clear something was not right, and by 15% it was clear there was way to much husk. It basically tasted like the unwinnowed chocolate. But back to the lower levels. Try as I might I could not tell the 0, 1% and 2% chocolates apart. Which is the point of experimenting.

I've watched and listened to chocolate makers obsess about getting every little piece of husk out. It often goes hand in hand with those who sort their beans from a visual standpoint (which as a reminder, I don't find a need for) and use it as a platform to boost about the care they use in making the best chocolate. And in theory, I am all for removing as much husk as you reasonably can. It's just your basic responsibility of making chocolate. But I find it a bit disingenuous to brag about something that should be a given. More to the point, I find it kind of silly to pick through your nibs to remove every single piece of husk when it simply won't make a difference in the resulting chocolate. It is almost kind of superstitious and ritualistic. And mostly a time wasting event. Given my actual tasting results. Please keep that in mind.

To me, it's like any other project that has hidden pieces. A wall. The interior studs. You don't use 2x4's that have been planed, sanded to a smooth finish and oiled to a high gloss only to cover them with dry wall. It is just wasting time and money. It adds nothing at all to the value, quality or longevity of the wall. You would laugh (or at least walk away) from a contractor that bid your house out if he told you his houses were better if he painstakingly sanded and finished every single interior stud, wouldn't you? It is the same thing.

Don't waste time and effort where it isn't warranted. That is all I am saying. And please, don't take my word for it. Try it yourself. Winnow your beans. Not necessarily half hearted, but don't be obsessive. Then split the batch, and REALLY winnow the other half. Make two batches of chocolate and taste them blind. If you have done a reasonable job with that first winnowing, I'd put money down you can't tell them apart. And if you can? Great! You have learned something and now you know what level of husk is acceptable. But you then making an informed decision. You aren't just following a blind ritual.

One other point. The amount of husk can be deceiving. I've yet to find a person who has not actually weighted out husk who can accurately determine by looking how much husk is remaining in a batch of nibs. It's often over estimated by 10 fold I have found. Husk is just so much less dense than nibs, and your eye (partly because you are looking for it) estimates high. It was mentioned that sometimes there is husk in the nibs that I produce. Yep. I own that. But it is well under 1%, and often well under 0.5%. A totally acceptable amount (based own my own tests and tastes of many others) to have in your chocolate. And one other item to consider. Being less dense, husk has a tendency to rise to the surface of a pile of nibs, so what you see isn't homogenous. It's weighted toward showing a weighted distribution of husk. i.e. it looks like more than there is because you assume it's homogenous when it isn't.

Finally, just a few photos to demonstrate what I am talking about.

25-combined.jpg 5-combined.jpg 2-combined.jpg

1-combined.jpg 1-vs-nibs1.jpg Rather deceiving, isn't it?

It'a all about balance folks. There is nothing wrong with being thorough, and wanting to make the best chocolate you can. Just be smart and put the work in where it matters and not where it doesn't. There's no need for finish carpentry work on the inside of a wall.

Happy chocolate making!