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Ask the Alchemist #98

Valrhona chocolate shows heating the chocolate up to 131F at first… not just 120 or so. I would think would be plenty hot enough. Why so hot? Is that aimed at large batches? I would like to know how Valrhona is able to melt their chocolate at 131F without burning it. On the tempering curve, they show melting at that temp in stage 1, then dropping to 82 then back up to 88-89. Is their chocolate a difficult one to melt out all the crystal formations before tempering/re-tempering?

The answer that jumps to mind is "there are many ways to skin a cat"…. and that is not super helpful. What I really mean is that there are lots of ways you can melt and temper chocolate, but many ways have extra steps or go way beyond what is needed to get the job done. 131 F to melt. This is one of those nearly unanswerable "why"questions. I’d have to be inside the person’s head that wrote it to know. It does convert exactly to 55 C. That’s a nice whole number.

Maybe it was initially 50 C and someone keyed it in wrong for the conversation. That would have been 122 F.

Maybe their process is such that they have to pump it and lost too much heat, so they needed a hotter starting point to prevent it solidifying in the pumps.

Maybe it’s purple and ice cream has no bones. I really don’t know.

What I do know is that it isn’t needed in general. You don’t even need 122 F. I just tempered a batch of chocolate yesterday and I used 102 F. Why 102 F and not 100 F? Well, it certainly was not because it had to be 102 F. It’s simply that when I pulled it out of the over it was 102 F so I went with it. My chocolate was no easier nor harder than their chocolate to "melt out all the crystal formations". Chocolate and chemistry of this sort just doesn’t work that way. You have six basic forms of crystal formation in chocolate and they all melt the same and act the same…because they are the same. You know, quack quack, feathers, must be a duck and all.

Finally, there is this odd (to me) notion about burning chocolate at these low temperatures. Let’s clear that up. You can’t burn chocolate if ALL of the chocolate is under 451 F. That said, you can overheat it at less than that. I found some claims that you can overheat it as low as 120-130…but my major issue with these snippets of data is that I’ve routinely had chocolate well into the 140’s in the Melanger, and the ‘delicate’ milk chocolates that should be kept lower I’ve had into the 160’s…..and none burned and none even separated. The latter being the supposed danger of over heating.

Personally I think it is just a persistent myth perpetuated from the disasters of directly heating chocolate in a pan on a stove top. Someone tries to melt chocolate via direct heat on a stove top and it ends up stuck to the bottom, scorches (burns), they note the temperature and its 135 F.and Bob’s your uncle. Chocolate burns at 135 F – NOT! The surface where the chocolate was touching was WELL over 135F. Doing a very fast test in my kitchen, with my gas range, I show over 500 F on the outside of the pan…with solid chocolate in the pan. That’s why they recommend heating and melting chocolate over a bowl of boiling water. It can only get to 212 F...a temperature that won’t burn chocolate. That’s how and why you can heat chocolate to 130 F and not burn it…because chocolate doesn’t burn at that temperature.

While researching this I did find a number of notes that chocolate can separate if overheated.but I personally, in over 40 years of working with chocolate, and over 10 making it, have never, ever, once separated chocolate. I won’t say it can’t be done, but I feel pretty good in saying you aren’t going to causally do it. While melting 50 lbs of chocolate for truffles this year, I tossed the whole lot into my oven at 350 F (a mistake actually) and came back to the entire lot over 170 F…..and guess what? No burned chocolate. No separated chocolate. No change in flavor. Just hot chocolate. Maybe others have done it. Maybe it was with chocolate with other ingredients. Maybe purple, because ice cream has no bones. All I know is that there is a LOT of information out there on the web that directly contradicts what I’ve seen first-hand, therefore I have to discount it as rumor, myth or incomplete information. The only other option I can come up with is to think my chocolate and my technique is so much better or special than everyone else's and I just don’t believe that. I’m just me and it’s just chocolate.

Happy holidays everyone. I’m off to make a steamed English pudding…maybe with chocolate. I wonder how a Chocolate Spotted Dick would be?

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Ask the Alchemist #97 - And holiday schedule


Ask the Alchemist #97 - And holiday schedule

Before we get to this week's Ask the Alchemist; a few announcements.  First, the Holidays.  We will be closed:

12/24/14 - 1/4/15.  Basically Christmas Eve through the New Year's weekend.

I'll be answering e-mail off and on, but no shipping in this time.  It is family time!

You have until 9 am PST 12/23/14 to get orders in if you want them to ship before we close.

With that in mind, I would not advise waiting until the new year if you want any of the Peru Maranon.  It was well over half gone (hundreds of pounds) in two days.  The last bag is opened and going fast. You have been warned.

On to this week's question.

Do you have any tales to tell about additional ingredients you’ve added to the chocolate during the refining process (nuts, toasted coconut, coffee, salt, etc.). Other than water content, anything to watch-out for?

Well, er, um…..if I can’t talk about water to watch out for, then I can’t think of a whole lot. That seems to be the place where all issues start. So instead I will just talk about things I’ve tried via free association.

Praline. 50/50 hazelnuts/sugar. You can make it either with granulated sugar or sugar you have caramelized. I’ve tried it both ways and as pretty as the sheets of burnt umber sugar glass were, they loved to suck up moisture, and in the end, I liked the flavor of the granular better.

Nutella. This is easy. Just roast up your hazelnuts as you would the cocoa and mix in anywhere from 1/4 – 3/4 in with your chocolate. It really depends on what you are after. It takes a bit of a balance if you want it just solid or just spreadable but it’s not all that hard. Start 50/50 and go from there.

Nut butters. Same. If you can do chocolate, then you can make nut butters. And they are actually easier. Do keep an eye out if you try it raw. The moisture can cause shearing against the oil, and can still seize.

And remember for all those, dry sugars. No honey, agave, etc. unless you stir it in by had at the end. Just not in the Melanger.

From a request by my daughter, we have made unsweetened milk chocolate more than once. At 20-30% milk powder, there is plenty of residual sweetness from lactose to make a great chocolate.

And from there, if you toss in roasted coffee (2-6 oz / lb) then you can end up with a really interesting ‘mocha’ bar. The coffee will refine right down.

On the same coffee rift, if you start with white chocolate, and add coffee, you have what I call a latte bar. And of course you could add coffee to any dark chocolate.

Spices for me come to mind next. Nutmeg. Cinnamon. Cardamom. The all grind up just find and add some great flavor options. And of course, peppers are hot right now (yes, that was on purpose). You can add any selection of dried peppers right to the Melanger. I do like to pre-powder these, but if you do, be REALLY careful. You do not want to be breathing in hot pepper dust. Chipotle chocolate? Damn straight!

That leads me kitchen spices. The most fun I have had was with one that had parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. It’s amazing how many people could not suss out the flavors. It was very familiar but so out of context it stumped nearly everyone. Basil chocolate anyone? How about tarragon? Lavender?

What else is herb like? Friendly chocolate? Sure, if that is your thing. It would certainly be aromatic. More to my taste would be something else aromatic. How about hops! Hopped chocolate! Just remove the stems and in it goes. And 5-10 % malt (dry) and suddenly you have ‘beer’ chocolate.

Finally, if you really have to indulge your wet ingredients, there might I suggest truffles? The centers and coatings just spiral out of control. I’ve worked out this year that you don’t need cream at all for a truffle filling. Any liquid will do. Just keep the proportions 2:1 chocolate to liquid and you are there. This year I and friends made over 1300 truffles out of the 50+ pounds of various evaluation chocolate I had laying around. Just look at what you can do.

Cherry/rum. Just blend rum pot cherries in a blender and strain. That’s your liquid.

Pear liquor


Rose water

Orange water

Chai (just steep any number of teas in your cream and away you go)

Earl Grey (for my daughter)

Eggnog (my personal favorite)

And the filling does not have to start with dark chocolate. Grab one of those variations above. Chipotle? Mocha?

And then coatings!!!!

Sure, anyone can roll them in cocoa powder. But how about powdered rose petals? Or nutmeg. Coffee. Cinnamon. Cardamom? Yes!!! For all those you really need to ‘cut’ them with a bit of sugar. It’s amazing how strong they are. 1:5 – 1:10. But it is up to you. Remember that earl grey center? Earl Grey and sugar makes a great coating! You have that interesting blueberry tea. Sure! Raspberry? That works! It’s really up to your imagination.

I’ll leave you with this as the height of our 2014 truffle fest experimentation.

Chai/eggnog center with a Hot ginger/curry/cardamom coating on a tiny 1/4 oz truffle ‘shooter’. So intense but gone in a flash.


Happy Holidays everyone.



Ask the Alchemist #96

How can you recommend lecithin? It is toxic from being a refinery waste and full of chemicals.

Well, when you put it like that, it sounds like pretty awful stuff. Unfortunately it’s also written (maybe not on purpose) to sound very much worse than it is and inflammatory to boot.

Let’s get the first part out of the way. I can recommend it because I don’t see any supporting data backing up that it is toxic nor ‘full of chemicals’. Basically I disagree with the assertion.

Now let’s get into the whys. This quote seems to sum up what you are talking about:

“Soybean lecithin comes from sludge left after crude soy oil goes through a ‘degumming’ process. It is a waste product containing solvents and pesticides and has a consistency ranging from a gummy fluid to a plastic solid. Before being bleached to a more appealing light yellow, the color of lecithin ranges from a dirty tan to reddish brown. The hexane extraction process commonly used in soybean oil manufacture today yields less lecithin than the older ethanol-benzol process, but produces a more marketable lecithin with better color, reduced odor and less bitter flavor.”

First off, let’s cut through the hot button words. “Sludge”. It makes one think of nasty stuff at the bottom of a pond, outhouse or sewage treatment plant, doesn’t it. I’d say that is the intent. To make you think it is ‘contaminated’. How about we consult Webster?

Sludge “a muddy or slushy mass, deposit, or sediment”. Personally, I don’t find that nearly as hot button. It just means it’s a mixture of solids and water. And to that I say, so? Or think of it this way. Gravy. That luscious, yummy, flavor packed concoction that is made from the ‘sludge’ of roasting or frying meat. It’s all in the spin.

Next. the assertion it comes from the ‘waste’ of a process. Well…yeah. The whole point initially was that you are cleaning up something. Therefore, sort of by definition, you have what you want (product), and what you are trying to get rid of (waste). But that is arbitrary. It’s like the definition of a weed. It’s just a plant you don’t want in your garden. But again (and I’m pulling from others I’ve talked to about this) the take on the word "waste" is that it is tantamount to "body waste" or fecal matter.

But it’s no more that form of "waste" than using onion skins to dye Easter eggs. This is bad how? Sounds frugal to me.

Now the "gummy fluid…and solid plastic". Err? So? It’s a gummy solid because it contains a bunch of emulsifiers!!! And saying it’s of the consistency of a plastic solid doesn’t make it a plastic solid. It just means there is less water in it. After that we have ”bleaching” and the implication that it’s done only for the appealing color. What’s missed is the chemistry behind an alkaline wash as a clean up step. It’s just a way to separate impurities (waste) from the new product (the lecithin) we want.

As for the hexane extraction producing a better product (less color, odor and better tasting) with a lower yield, how is this bad? Seems you want (at least I do) quality over quantity. Don’t you?

Finally, I’m going to circle back to the "waste product containing solvents and pesticides”. This does NOT say the lecithin contains solvents and pesticides. It says the "muddy mixture we are starting with, that we want to clean up” contains solvents and pesticides…that we are going to remove in our hexane extraction and alkaline clean up procedure.

But what about hexane and pesticides in the lecithin that aren’t removed? I am so glad you asked! It took me a bit of research, and frankly the numbers are all over the board, and the calculation are a bit heavy to get into here without totally losing you, but this is what I found.

Standard lecithin can contain 100-500 ppm of hexane and pesticides (the later being 3-5 orders of magnitude smaller)…..BUT you don’t eat lecithin!! You add it in very small amounts to chocolate. And the amount you end up eating is TINY!!! I could toss a number out to you , but it would have so many zeros in it as to be basically incomprehensible. So I took another common activity where you are exposed to hexane. Driving in a car. Day in, day out you are exposed to hexane fumes from driving around. Ready for this? Based on lung capacity, monitored hexane levels in a variety of locations and standard breathing patterns, on average you take 3 times more hexane in EVERY MINUTE of driving than eating 2 oz of chocolate with 1% lecithin in it. And for "full disclosure", the spread of data is wide. It goes from 15 times more hexane per minute to 10 minutes driving equaling 2 oz chocolate. So even at worst case, I don’t see what there is to be up in arms about.

Here is an article that has a good discussion on chemical exposure in a similar vein.

If anything, I find it laudable that someone found a way to take the waste product of one procedure and turn it into the starting material of another process, thereby increasing the overall use of the original product. Sounds down right ecologically responsible and frugal to me.

With all of that though, and with no implication, I don’t believe every bit of it. I have also researched and brought in a new 100% organic lecithin. You’ll note it’s quite a bit more expensive, as there are quite the technological obstacles to overcome in its production, but in this case you still have quality.




New Origin in stock

For the first time in 10 years I have a Brazilian cocoa that doesn't taste like dirt.  In this case, it smells like the State Fair.  At least when it's roasting and you associate deep fried donuts with the State Fair.  Really.  Crazy I know. Brazil Organic 2014

".... character comes through with dry leather and leaf (not smoke) Tabaco and wood oak tannins.  There is this really interesting hint of white peppercorn and spicy fruit....."

And look for Fair Trade Ivory coast (the ONLY way I will offer Ivory Coast), a delightful Venezuelan Cuyagua and a third Peru in the next week or so.


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Ask the Alchemist #95

What do you have against rough Mexican style chocolate?

I find it kind of amusing how often I’ve heard this. And actually all of its variations. What do you have against this, that or the other thing. It’s amusing because in all but one case, I have nothing against really anything chocolate related that I can think of. But it does give me a few weeks of Ask the Alchemist. So this will be the first in a subset; “What do you have against…..?”

With that out of the way, the answer (drum roll please) is that I don’t have anything against rough Mexican style chocolate. More to the point, rough Mexican style chocolate is what started me on this entire journey and the reason Chocolate Alchemy is in existence at all. If you have not read it, it was the very first thing I ever wrote here. Go check it out.

After that experience, I wanted to make my own chocolate. But what can I say. I love a challenge and the most challenging thing I could come up with is what they said could not be done. To make smooth, modern, chocolate at home. (A small side note, Simone Blake wrote to me a few years later, totally amazed as what I had accomplished and apologized for basically calling it impossible. And to his credit, at the time, it was impossible at home. Hence the challenge. But do go read it. It’s really quite amusing in a sad scary kind of way. Husks flammable? Alkalizing? Throwing the cocoa butter away?)

And not to insult anyone, I found it pretty trivial once I found a source for beans. It just isn’t what I had set my mind upon. Stone ground was sort of just a stepping stone for me. Something to check off as I progressed from raw bean to smooth chocolate. And honestly, it doesn't excite me a whole lot.  But like so many things, if you like it, by all means make it and eat it and enjoy it.  That diversity is what makes the world so fantastic. So that is really it. Short and sweet.

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Equipment updates

Sylph winnower - We have been having an issue finding certain parts, but have a small production run started. They should be available at the beginning of December. Behmor 1600+ - These are now in stock but going very fast. Premier Grinder - I am no longer offering these units.  But it has nothing at all to do with their suitability for chocolate making.  They continue to work just fine.  And I am also offering parts and warranty support for them.   Feel free to contact me if you are not sure where to find one.  Or check the forum.



Ask the Alchemist #94

How much does voltage variation in a house affect roasting in a Behmor? Could it be as much as 2 additional minutes? I try roasting at 18 minutes but with most beans I don’t hear any beans pop at 18, and keep adding time on the fly at the end. It typically takes about 20 minutes with most beans to hear any pop, and I have gone as long as 22 without burning the beans. This seems to be the case with most of the non-Venezuelan beans I have used—Dominican, Ghana, Belize, Ecuador. Will all beans pop when properly roasted? You say that 16 minutes is the sweet spot for most beans but I never hear any of them pop that early in the roast. (I am always using 1 lb, program 2 as recommended)

First off, not all cocoa beans pop or crack. And I find that they tend to pop a little less in the Behmor compared to my own sample roaster or my production roaster.

Although there is not a 100% correlation, popping has to do with how fast heat is applied. The faster you apply heat, generally speaking, the more pops you will have. But you should keep in mind that pops or the lack thereof don’t correlate to a good or bad roast. The Behmor tends to apply heat a little more gently, so there are less pops. The same is true when you oven roast. It’s difficult to apply the heat fast enough.

Moisture also has an effect on popping. Sort of like puffed rice or wheat or popcorn. It’s that explosive release of water that you are hearing. So some drier beans like Nicaragua and Guatemala have a lower popping rate.

Humans it seems like definitive markers. Color. Sounds. Time. Temperature. But unfortunately cocoa isn’t cooperative that way most of the time. They don’t really change color when roasted. The time can vary greatly on your circumstances and it’s pretty hard to measure or know what the bean temperature is based on your ambient temperature. And cracks/pops don’t always happen. So what is one to do when roasting? Basically, use them all, plus aroma. With that last one being to me, the most critical in determining when you roast is done. And you have to back correlate.

What does that mean? It means roast 12-25 minutes, at 300-400 F (ambient), reducing the temperature as the roasts progresses (so you don’t scorch the beans) and listen for pops. Somewhere around 16-20 minutes, should you happen to hear pops, great, it means you are almost done. Go another 2-4 minutes until they smell like you want (not acrid) or pull them when they do smell acrid. And if they don’t crack, don’t sweat it. STILL go by aroma. And how do you know the aroma is right? You make a decision, try to remember the smell (and you have recorded the pertinent data, right? Origin,weight, time, temp) and make it into chocolate. Then…taste the chocolate and determine if you like it. If you do, well, where you picked to stop the roast was great. If it was a touch sharp or astringent, maybe roast a little more, if it was sharply bitter, maybe you need to go a little less. And one BIG thing. We are not talking about variations in 15 seconds or 30 seconds or even 1 minute. Cocoa just isn’t that sensitive. Often 3 minutes won’t make a huge difference. As you note. I say 16 minutes but you go 22 without burning. Very true. 4 minutes!

In some ways roasting can seem very mystical. Sort of like using the Force. But it’s just a matter of using ALL the data coming in, and mentally comparing it to what you know and have experienced on other roasts. And adjusting accordingly. Of course, the only way to get that experience is to jump in, take notes, don’t worry too much, and just do it. Yeah, it’s a bit scary, but that’s the reality. There is no one perfect way to tell you how to roast. Your equipment isn’t mine. I can’t tell you what I am smelling or what you will smell. I can only try to give you the tools to learn and gain your own experience. And I am always happy to do that.



Upgrades 11/18 - 11/25

Hey everyone.  We are doing a major server and database update and as my illustrious CTO puts it, 'sh!t may get weird' so if it does, we are aware, and just carry on.  Stores will be unaffected. Thanks!


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Ask the Alchemist #93

Why not add the cocoa butter toward the end of the process, after you have conched the chocolate to thin it down instead of at the beginning?

It will probably have a little “wang” from the added cocoa butter, but I have conched bad cocoa butter with some sugar for a few days by itself to tone down the flavor and it worked out for me. Extra work to conch and reconch the stuff(and extra math to get the right amount of sugar in your final product) but it does tame the bad flavors from poor cocoa butter.

So in the end I would try to cook your cocoa at 160 without cocoa butter(if your refiner can handle that) and then add preconched cocoa butter/sugar at the end and see how that comes out.

That is a very common scheme of things when using a separate refiner and conche. Many milk chocolates especially are refined with a 3 or 5 roller mill as a crumb (cocoa, sugar, milk powder) and only then is cocoa butter added and the temperature raised.

You ask why? The main reason is small scale chocolate makers don’t have access to the two separate machines. There is only the Melanger that refines and conches at the same time. And in order to do that you need a specific fluidity to the mixture. That is the reason to add it first. So you can have a working fluid. Also, if you happen to be grinding nibs in the Melanger, the extra fluid of adding the cocoa butter first makes that job much faster and more efficient.

The current melangers also have a 150 F temperature limit. That is the other practical reason.

Back at you. Why in all that is great about making chocolate would you purposely and knowingly add inferior or bad ingredients???? I can’t wrap my head around that. I shudder at the thought.

Even if you can make the resulting chocolate good, I have very little belief it will be exceptional, and if you are going to the time, expense and trouble to make chocolate at home or from scratch, why would you aim for only good or acceptable. I’ve seen many of the beans and butter that numerous ‘large’ companies use to make their chocolate….and there is a reason I don’t eat their chocolate and why I started down this path to making superior chocolate at home.

So many of the published procedures for industrial chocolate I have seen are like you have up there. Ways to make mediocre (or bad!) ingredients into something that is OK. I guess if you want to do that, it is of course, your prerogative, but with so many great beans available, and really great cocoa butter out there, why settle for less, let alone bad?

So, why don’t I try it?

  • I don’t have bad cocoa butter (please do NOT send me any)
  • The Melanger can only handle 150 F
  • I don’t actually see the advantage with only a Melanger.

That said, maybe I will give it a try with good cocoa butter, add 10% at the end, and compare it to a batch where I add the 10% at the beginning. I honestly don’t expect a lot of difference if any. But I’ve been wrong before and will certainly be wrong again. In this case though I just don’t expect it. If you want to do it though, feel free. I certainly don’t see any harm at all.

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Beans and Blends

Three new offerings: First I want to introduce a new Alchemist's Chocolate Blend Series.  As the Inspiration Muse strikes me, expect a new blend.  Occasionally, they may even contain beans not sold individually! Alchemist's Chocolate Blend #1 "Balance" - Nuanced, structured and satisfying.


Guatemalan 2014:  There are nuts (walnut), dry spice (like cinnamon and nutmeg), and a delicate bitterness and tangy fruitiness (like tamarind), bringing it all together.

Alchemist Blend #4 - "Fire and Brimstone" - Brewing cocoa.  Deep, rich, smokey with an aggressive pungency that let's you know it's there to combat the chill outside.




Ask the Alchemist #92

We realized as we were making the chocolate that we weren't sure when or how to add lecithin. This is where I found it. When do you think is best?  http://www.thechocolatelife.com/forum/topics/at-what-stage-to-add-lecithin And Is it possible or how is it possible to add flavor oils to chocolate? And when does that happen?

Being a lazy sod (LOL), I add it to my cocoa butter at the beginning. Part of the reason also stems from the fact that I was not noticing a radical viscosity reduction when I added it later. As many point out, it's a matter of your process. I'm a big fan of 'don't fix it if it isn't broken' and much of my chocolate I bake with. And it 100% behaves better, truly lending it's emulsification properties at that stage. I add it to most since I'm in both a humid climate and mix it with water based ingredients once I'm done taste testing. And when I didn't have it in the chocolate I would often get oil breaks.

There are some good points people make though. With it in, you may bind water that would normally evaporate. But if it does not give you trouble, then why fix it? Also, (per the thread mentioned) it does act as an emulsifier…just with ingredients you don’t expect. Most people think of oil and water, but having two functional groups (a positive and negative if you like to think of it that way), allows it to form ‘bubble’ encapsulations called micelles, but instead of water being in them, they have a sugar molecule in the center and triglycerides (the cocoa butter) on the outside. In a way it is ‘removing’ some of the free solids in the chocolate, and the result is a more fluid, less viscous chocolate. So, it IS an emulsifier. Just not a water emulsifier.

You can certainly add flavored oil. Since you are adding it for it's flavor, I would personally add it at the last 1/2 or so of refining. Just enough to incorporate without driving off flavors And two words of warning. Not all 'essential oils' are oils. Hell, most aren't. They are ketones and aldehydes. But those will still play nice with chocolate. Most of the time. They just need to be lipid soluble. That ‘most’ back there is key. Some can seize chocolate, so test them first on a small amount of chocolate. Second is that some can inhibit tempering. And only trial and error will reveal that.

I hope that helps.



USPS tracking no longer available

USPS made a quantum leap backwards in customer service yesterday and I've been informed that I can no longer assign tracking numbers to shipments.  They must be created by a USPS representative or on-line. Due to the way we process orders, there is now no way for me to give you tracking numbers if you have anything shipped by USPS.

I'm really sorry.

Stay tuned for Ask the Alchemist tomorrow......it's just one of those days.



Ask the Alchemist #91

A few of your Venezuela beans (Carupano Corona and Canoabo) are described as "no bitterness to speak of". Do they work for a higher than normal cocoa bean/ lower sugar (over 70%) without getting into baking chocolate flavor? My main goal with that is to make a dark chocolate that my mother in law (who doesn't like the bitterness of dark chocolate) would like. She tried a dark cocoa (55% cocoa bean, 7.5% cocoa butter) chocolate that had too many bitter notes for her. (She’s a super taster).

This question has so many things going on I hardly know where to start, so I guess it will just be the top.

I personally do not consider 70% ‘higher than normal’. Day in, day out, my everyday testing bar (that I use to evaluate cocoa samples) is 75% and it is noticeably sweet, but not distractingly so. I really don’t consider it higher than ‘normal’ until you hit the mid 80’s. But even then, it is just a number (and I've seen a somewhat snobbish attitude toward eating higher percentage bars, like it is some kind of great accomplishment that I don't understand).  As for the two beans you mention, my taste evaluation is based both off the roasted bean and that 70% chocolate sample. So would they work? Yes….but no, I am afraid. It has to do with your other goal. Making a chocolate that your super tasting MIL would like and not find bitter or ‘like baking chocolate’.

Well, I have to say that in all my years I’ve only tasted beans a couple times that made liquor that tasted like baking chocolate….and I rejected the samples. In my experience, the beans used to make that ‘baking chocolate’ are inferior, often with defects, and bear no relation to the specialty cocoa I carry. They are just worlds apart.

There is a ‘magic trick’ I like to do when I have a group of random people. Every year I show the 8th grade of my daughter’s school how to make chocolate. At the beginning I pass around some roasted nibs, count up the number in the class, and written another number down hidden from view. I then have everyone taste the nibs and raise their hands if they find the beans REALLY bitter (and not just ‘not sweet’). I then reveal the number and in most cases, that is the number of hands up. 6 out of 8 years in a row, I have predicted the number of hands, and the other two years I was only one off (both small classes). How? I just divide the number in class by 10.

I have found that about 10% of the population has a gene that tastes a compound in chocolate that the rest of us do not taste. No matter how 'not bitter' it is to us, it is horridly bitter to them.

There are 30 genes that are responsible for bitter taste perception, one of them being TAS2R32. Different variations of this gene affect ability to detect bitter compounds, like for example feniltiocarbamids and glucosinolates. About 25% of people lack ability to detect these compounds due to gene mutations. A classic way of testing for this case is tasting 6-N-propylthiouracl (PROP). To some people very low concentrations of PROP are very bitter, while others do not detect it or detection is very weak. In general, the data saying that 75% of all people taste PROP and the other 25% do not holds true. Apparently (to me) there is a variation one of those 30 genes causes about 10% of the population to ‘super taste’ the bitterness in chocolate. And generally speaking, none of them like dark chocolate, and ‘only like milk chocolate’ and when pushed, seem to only eat it due to peer pressure and don’t really like it either. Yep, it seems 10% of the population doesn’t like chocolate!

So, with that in mind, and while I am not saying your MIL is not also a super taster, it sounds to me that she is one of the 10%. And that no matter what bean you pick, no matter how ‘not bitter’ she will never like it. It’s not your chocolate making ability. It’s just genetic. And to be clear. She is just using the terms (like baking chocolate) that she thinks fits what she is tasting. But to her and the 10% they are tasting a different bitterness than of which we speak when we talk about a bean with no bitterness to speak of. The 'no bitterness to speak of' phrase does not to apply to them.


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Ask the Alchemist #90

I notice that you have always advocated a minimum 35% of cocoa butter... yeah, I know about the basic 50% pre-existent in the cacao! However, my 62% is an easy pour, - enjoy this - easier than the 60% that I've tried.

Would I be right in thinking that the bean I'm using, a 3-day dry, Trinitario hybrid in Fiji, has enabled me to get that wee bit of 'extra' cocoa butter that makes the 62% a nice pour, but the 60% that little bit too much of a bother without added cocoa butter.

Your musings, please...

As nice as it might be, I would not say you are getting any ‘extra’ cocoa butter. I believe your thinking is flawed based on the assumption my advocation of 35% is the absolute, bare minimum you need and it is a scientifically rigorous number. Thank you for the potential pedestal placing, but in reality it is actually a rather carefully crafted number, padded enough to reduce the number of problems people have during formulation.

What that means is that given that the percentage of cocoa butter can range from 45-55%, and we ball park 50%, we don’t actually know how much we are using. We also don’t know how well you roast, what other ingredients you use, how much they absorb moisture (which requires more cocoa butter) or if you use lecithin (which requires less cocoa butter).

When using cocoa beans roasted well and protected from moisture, sugar that has been dried right before I use it and a little lecithin, and a cocoa bean of know ‘high’ cocoa butter percentage, I have been able to make a chocolate with a calculated cocoa butter percentage of 26%. On the other hand, using another bean, and a milk chocolate recipe without lecithin, just tossing cool ingredients in here and there (but recording of course), my percentage of cocoa butter showed a whopping 42%. The average? 34%. But look at that spread. 14%!! So for the easy of a neat and tidy number, and hedging my bets a little, I bumped my recommendation 1% to 35%. My goal for a ‘minimum’ being that 99% of the people that try it will succeed. That’s all.

So, your 62%? That’s somewhere in the 31% cocoa butter level. Yep, that’s between 26% and 42%. Totally in the realm of ‘normal’.

Most of my suggestions and advocations (I like my new word) are just that. They are starting points to ease you into success. After that, you SHOULD move to your tastes and circumstances. That’s the real Alchemy part.

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Ask the Alchemist #89

I am having a terrible time tempering my chocolate (no surprise!). I can’t mold it all up before it starts to thicken and most of the bars have these funny swirls on top. What am I doing wrong? I am bowl tempering and using your hobby grade molds. First off, you are doing nothing at all wrong really. It’s just about your technique and equipment.

Those swirls are not bloom (based on the photo you sent). If you notice, they really are not discolored as bloomed chocolate would be. Instead they just catch the light and you can see something ‘odd’. That is caused by the mold you are using. Namely the semi-flexible ‘hobby’ grade mold. This is why they are considered hobby grade. They don’t give a professional look. As tempered chocolate hardens, it contracts slightly, pulling away from the mold. In a mold that can flex, it pulls away in parts and the result is the unevenness you see. That is why professional molds are usually many times thicker. They resist that motion and flexing and you get a smooth, more even appearance. And it is why so called commercial molds are very heavy, rather expensive and totally rigid.

What can you do about it? Nothing really. No amount of support will change the fact that the mold flexs. It is worse the larger the mold is, so about the only thing I can really suggest is staying with small molds or molds that don’t have a lot of flat surfaces that show this distortion effect.


(click to embiggen) As for the issues you are having with your bowl tempering, it sounds like you don’t have it insulated and you are trying to beat the clock as it were. When I bowl temper, which is most of the time, I simulate a tempering machine as well as I can. I put my bowl of chocolate that is ready to go into molds into a larger, but shallower bowl filled with warm water at 90 F. The specifics here that are important is that because the outer bowl that holds the water is more shallow, there is no way for the water to over flow into your inner bowl containing your chocolate. And water is a fantastic insulator. Having that mass of water surrounding your bowl of chocolate keeps it at 88-90 F with very little effort. And if I am doing a lot of chocolate I usually keep a bowl of 95-100 F water around. If near the end of tempering it starts to thicken, I just move my chocolate bowl to the warmer bowl. And finally, I stir my chocolate after each and every ladle full of chocolate I removed that goes into a mold. It helps keep the chocolate temperature nice and even, and helps inhibit the chocolate from thickening faster than it should. And I find I slow down and relax if I have the rote procedure. Ladle, pour, rap the mold, stir, ladle, pour, rap the mold, stir…..soothing.

Basically set yourself up NOT to rush. The above works for me.



Ask the Alchemist #88

I am intrigued with the different bean varieties and constantly like to experiment, I am intrigued by things like the Arriba Nacional bean and especially the porcelano one I have read so much about. Do you ever get beans that are at least close to what people would call true Nacional or beans with a mostly porcelano heritage? Which of the Venezuelan beans you sell are closest to porcelano? Or do you ever get any small quantities of true porcelano beans?

So funny about Porcelano. Please smile with me....you have been taken in by marketing and hype!! What I mean by this is that I have had Porcelano a few times....and in all cases but one it was BORING! Somehow, being rare makes people want it, and when people want it they start to justify why they want it, and determine it must be because it is fantastic when instead it is simply hard to grow and keep pure. Same with Nacional. I've found nothing any more or less special about it than they are hybrids.

In both cases they can be very good....but genetics is ONLY the starting point, and I've found, if anything, just means the fermenter has to know their business even better or they can ruin the potential that MIGHT be there. It's just like various bowyers looking for the holy grail of wood for their bow. English Yew. Because it was traditional. And was used to make the famous English longbow...and because it is R A R E. It's rare now because it is a slow growing, gnarly tree that often warps, and is native to one small area. It was common at the time when we didn't have a global market. Now it is. Supply vs. demand. And price is high because demand is high and supply is low. And the rub is this; if the person cutting it does not take care to dry it right, it's ruined. If it is not stored right, it is ruined. And if the bowyer doesn't know how to handle it, they can make a bow that will break in a few pulls. Now if each person in the line knows what they are doing, a strong, resilient bow can be made....but a strong, resilient bow can be made from LOTS of other much more common woods that are much more forgiving and won't break the bank if you mess up. Sounding at all familiar?

At the end of the day, trust your tastes and/or the tastes of the person you buy from.  Never buy or trust only on a what someone says a beans is or what piece of paper it has, as you very well might end up with a bean that tastes like that piece of paper!  I am going to go out on a limb here, and hope to not offend anyone.  I was told once by a cocoa supplier that Porcelano is like pieces of the cross or Noah's arc.  If every piece that was claimed to come from one of those was gathered together you could build 100 or 1000 of each.  Each and every person who has a piece might well believe it with all their heart what they are telling your is the truth, but that does make what they say the truth.  It only means they are not intentionally lying to you.  The same is true of Porcelano.  Just because someone says it is Porcelano does not make it true.  There is just too much out there if you see what I mean.  From what I've researched, the ONLY way to verify if it is Porcelano is with a DNA sequencing.  Yes, in that case it is a piece of paper, but it is paper based on defensible data.

So, yes. I've had it. Once it was good. Very good as a matter of fact. It tasted of cedar and sex. Seriously. And it was $30/lb. My cost. Every other time it was as bland as cardboard. And over $100/lb!!!! Sorry, no bean is worth that in my most humble opinion.



Ask the Alchemist #87

I am an avid home brewer. I am about to brew a chocolate porter and want to you cocoa nibs. Can you give me advice on what techniques to use?

Disclaimer: This is going to be aimed at home brewers and not really chocolate makers at all. With that, there may be a bit of home brew speak going on that I’m not going to explain for the non-brewer. Google is your friend and you are never too old to learn something new.

I am an avid home brewer also. I have a smoked chocolate pumpkin Imperial stout in the works. What I did is add 1 lb of dark roasted (a new blend I’m working on) Brewing cocoa into the mash. I treated it as I would any other moderately flavored specialty malt. But I came by that number by taste testing different levels of infusions of nibs and brewing cocoa. My thought process was that if the resulting infusion did not have substantial enough character in just plain water, how could I expect it to contribute in any meaningful way to an complex grain bill.

While I was in the homebrew shop getting my grains, I noticed little 2 oz bags of ‘cacao nibs’. These were in the same section as the spices. Unfortunately cocoa nibs are not spices and don’t extract the same way. Take a tablespoon of cinnamon or coriander and put it into a quart of boiling water. The result will be a nicely perfumed quart of spice. It’s there. You can smell it and taste it. Do the same thing with cocoa nibs….and you get nothing. Do it with 10 tablespoons of cocoa nibs and you get tinted water. Trying to treat nibs as spices just does not work. They are water insoluble. They are 50% oil and that ‘oil and water don’t mix’ thing is fighting you the entire way. And even if you grind them up, it’s basically the same.

That said, LOTS of brewers that I sell to put nibs into the secondary. Generally I roast pretty heavy for them. And they add a bit. On average, between 50-100 lbs per 5 barrel batch. At 150 gallons per batch, that is between 5 and 10 ounces per gallon, or 1.5-3.0 lbs per 5 gallon batch (the home brewer average). That is WAY higher than those 2 oz ‘spice’ packs. And they usually set for 4-8 weeks in the brew. And I’ll be honest. It does not contribute a huge amount. Some, sure, but certainly not ‘wow, that’s chocolate milk’ flavor. It’s more subtle.

But there are other options. And it’s basically a variation of a problem that has already been sussed out. That answer is Brewing cocoa. And the question is ‘how do you water extract cocoa?’. You roast cocoa beans a bit heavier, grind them husk and all pretty fine (1000 fold increase in surface area after all), and use proportionally, a LOT!. 4 T per 8 oz of water is my recommended dose, based purely on taste tests. Scaling that up to gallons, you are talking about one pound of brewing cocoa per 5 gallon batch. Interestingly very close to what you would use for a crystal or brown malt.

So that is what I added and what I would recommend as a starting point. 16 oz of dark roasted brewing cocoa into the mash for 5 gallons. The result has some chocolate character. And personally, I think 1.5 lbs or even 2 lbs would not be too much. I’m thinking that a good test would be a nice chocolate ESB to really test the contribution of the cocoa.

One final note. Even fully roasted, when I tried adding brewing cocoa to some finished ale as you would do in a secondary I ended up with contamination. So cold side addition is not something I would recommend.

Relax. Don’t worry. Have a chocolate homebrew!



Ask the Alchemist #86

Unbeknownst to me, I had made my own brewing cocoa recently, calling it "chocolatea" and shared it with my office-mates. (I used a 1/12" sieve prior to winnowing to remove the fines. I brewed the fines in my tea brewing basket.) It was really tasty!! However, I threw it away after having a discussion with a chocolate maker. He mentioned that he heard most beans coming into the country get sprayed for bugs at the port of entry and that I should use caution. I didn't want to accidentally slow-poison my coworkers. What can you tell me about beans being spray at US ports of entry? Is this stuff actually safe to drink?

First and foremost, yes it is safe to drink. Now for the why.

If a bean is not labeled Organic, it is indeed 'sprayed'. That is in quotes as technically it is not sprayed. It is gassed. Usually by methyl bromide. And although that is rather toxic (it's why they are using it after all), it is also very, very, very volatile (it boils away at 3.6 C and has a very low vapor pressure) and goes away with no detectable residue.

In my prior life I was an organic analytical chemist and methyl bromide is something I analyzed for. I tested beans I knew had been gassed and could never find any. And that is down to 5 mg/kg. That was in raw beans. After roasting at 300-400 F it is simply not going to be there. It has no way to be there. Methyl bromide does not stick to surfaces as it is a gas a room temperature. While trying to look up toxicity data, I kept running into the issue that there is only inhalation data. Why? Because it is that volatile and it just does not apply to solids. Even in water, where it is regulated, the toxicity level is so much above the solubility level that in reality, it is a moot point.

This should give you an idea how much this stuff does not want to stay around. In order to analyze for a compound, you need something to compare against. A Standard. My Methyl Bromide Standard was in methanol, which it is pretty soluble in (unlike water). I kept it in a sealed vial, at -20 C, opening it 1 or 2 times a week. And never letting it get above -10 C. With that limited and careful handling the methyl bromide would be gone within a month. From a sealed, sub-frozen vial!!

I hope that convinces you there is simply no residue or danger from this gassing.

So fear not. You can use cocoa beans that have been gassed and not poison yourself in the least.



Ask the Alchemist #85

This is a follow up to Ask the Alchemist 83. Is this why it is so difficult to temper in the summer? I have had very little success as I started with my house around 77°F. I am able to get the slab chocolate down to 82-83°F, but I either don’t get any chocolate to be in temper, or just portions of a few trays.

I think you are asking if you are not forming Type V crystals when you can only get to 82 F. And is this why you can’t get a good temper?

The answer to this is no. That is not the issue. I’ve been doing a lot of tempering tests (I’ve not forgotten all of you who responded about helping me test, I’m almost done designing what I want you to test). And one thing I found out during many of the tests was just how critical the ambient temperature is while the chocolate is setting up.

It’s actually a pretty complicated reason, but I found it interesting…but NOT when I was trying to confirm a result from a previous test. The short answer is that you can’t let your chocolate take too long to set up or it won’t. It will bloom. You can do everything absolutely perfect, have lots of Type V seed, bring it right to 88 F and if you let it set up at 77 F, you have a good chance of failure, but if you are at 65 F, it turns out perfect.

From a bit a research, what I think is happening is that as the Type V crystal structure starts to form, heat is given off. Crystallization in this case is a exothermic reaction. If you can follow, it is why when you add salt to ice (like to make ice cream) it gets colder. That is the opposite, so it is endothermic. You are destroying the salt crystals and that takes energy, so it cools off. If the ambient temperature is too warm then the heat that is given off has no reason to go anywhere, so it stays in the chocolate….and heats it up…and destroys your crystals. Eventually, the V is all gone, or at least disrupted, so Type IV starts to form again, and your chocolate blooms. When the ambient is cooler, heat is carried away, and your Type V crystals can condense (form) into their proper structure.

The solution? Refrigeration. It is really the only way to go in the summer. But…(you knew that was coming), it is possible to cool too fast. If you cool too fast, then the Type V don’t have time to propagate fast enough, any old crystal will form, and again you have bloom. I wish I had an exact method I could give you, but I don’t (yet). But suffice to say that in regards to ambient temperatures, if your chocolate is not starting to harden in 10-15 minutes, you are in trouble. It just isn’t cool enough. What you should do then is put your chocolate into the refrigerator (after resting 10 minutes at room temperature) for 10-15 minutes, then pulling them back out (assuming your ambient is below 80 F) and letting them set. If it’s above 80, either leave them in the refrigerator or just wait for another day when it is cooler. This is why most professional chocolate makers and chocolatiers have cooling boxes where it is 50-60 F. It’s the baby bear zone, as it were. Not too hot, not too cold, but just right.

Although this may not help you temper on hot days, hopefully it will at least help you determine whether or not you should try.