Ask the Alchemist #141

What did you do this year?


Wow, where to start?   2015 has been busy.  Well, clearly I can’t list everything, but let’s see what kind of chocolate related metrics I can pull up.  As Tom (my social marketer – he runs the Instagram page) has been known to say, I’ve been as busy as a one armed wall paper hanger.  After looking at some of these numbers I am wont to agree.

I put out 43 Ask the Alchemist articles.

I received and read 10362 emails.

I replied to 3953 emails.

I made 59 test batches of chocolate

We (I include Mackenzie (of Map Chocolate in here as she works here) winnowed 6619 pounds of cocoa beans

I roasted 6720 pounds of cocoa beans in my Royal #5

I wrote X words – I tried to work this out and failed.  From what I can tell, it is in excess of 100,000 words, but that’s as good as it gets.  Not too bad for someone who really disliked writing in school.

Made 158 lbs of test chocolate for experimentation and bean evaluation

I helped make 3785 truffles for school fund raising.

We shipped (and received – moving every bag by hand) 28950 pounds of beans from here in Oregon  and 63272 lbs beans total.

We built and shipped 33 Aether Winnowers this year worldwide.

61 Sylph winnowers were also built and shipped out.

There were 81176 unique visitors to the store sites (Retail and Wholesale) and in excess of 1 million total page hits total.

In order to keep myself fit to do these things I also did the following.

Ran 436 miles

Lifted 1445180 lbs working out (I lift 3 times a week)

For mental health I read 75 books

To fuel all that I

Drank 1500 cups (8 oz) of coffee from beans I roasted myself.

Consumed approximately 750,000 calories

And last buy certainly I hugged my daughter over 1000 times




Last minute details

No Ask the Alchemist this week as the queue is empty. And we are packing like crazy for getting your packages out for the holidays.  As a reminder, yesterday was the last day for Ground deliveries to easily make it for Christmas.  But we are accepting orders through Sunday night for Monday shipping. Dominican Republic Rizek is back in stock.

Finally, I had REALLY hoped to be able to tie something into Worldbuilders foundation and their current donation run.  They are raising money for Heifer International.  Really positive, concrete support. They say it best:

"We empower families to turn hunger and poverty into hope and prosperity – but our approach is more than just giving them a handout. Heifer links communities and helps brings sustainable agriculture and commerce to areas with a long history of poverty. Our animals provide partners with both food and reliable income, as agricultural products such as milk, eggs and honey can be traded or sold at market. "

I personally donated. Two goats get new homes and help a people and community.  If you can help this season, please do.  You will have to follow the up coming link to get the reference, but Bilbo it up!

bilboitupsm.jpg Happy Holidays all.



Ask the Alchemist #140

Before we get to this week's question, a number of people have told me about this article.  I'll just let it speak for itself, except to say I'm gratified to be mentioned.

HELP! You have totally inspired me to make truffles for gifts this year. But I’ve tried four times and they keep failing. I get this hard crust of something all over the top and they are all grainy. What am I doing wrong? HELP!

Note – this too a little emailing back and forth to find out where the issue was since it was not obvious in the question.

I actually had this happen this year also during a particularly large batch. In my case, and coincidentally this case, the causes were exactly the same.

In the past I too have struggled with some of my batches separating. That is what that hard crust is. The cream/chocolate emulsion has ‘broken’ and the cocoa butter has risen to the top and solidified. If you are desperate you can just remove the cocoa butter and move forward, but as noted, the texture may be a bit off. Grainy is a good description. In some cases, if you heat the ganache back up until it is about 100 F, you can stir the cocoa butter back in, sometime with the addition of a little cream at 100 F, and the emulsion will re-form and the texture will smooth out. If it is a really bad break, the best you can hope for is it simply not separating again.

But how do you keep it from happening? I have previously mentioned lecithin in your chocolate. In this case it acts as an emulsifier and can assist in keeping your ganache from breaking. But I can attest to the fact that it can still break. Stirring gently will also help. I have heard too if you add a small amount of alcohol then that will keep it from breaking….but I must be very special as I have done that and still broken the emulsion. So what to do? Those are all fine and good, but have the feel to me of urban (kitchen?) myth and susperstition.

Well, I think and hope I have a 100% full proof method now, and know what the culprit in all these cases has been.


There are basically two ways to make a ganache.

1) Heat your cream and pour it over chopped or grated chocolate

2) Heat your cream and melt your chocolate and mix them together.

In either case, if you get your mixture over some moving target temperature your ganche WILL break. The crux of the matter is that that temperature changes depending on a bunch of other factors (lecithin, technique, fat content, batch size).

So I took an afternoon and made WAY too many test batches of truffle filling. Here is the short of it related to the final temperature, making the ganache with one of the two methods above. >105 F 100% success

110 – 120 F 80% success

125-135 F 60% success

140 – 155 F 20% success rate

Pretty obvious huh? If you are not carefully tracking temperature it can seem downright random. But there IS a solid pattern. Given that, here are my two recommended ‘fool proof’ methods.

1) Heat your cream to 100 F. Melt your chocolate to 100 F. Stir together until smooth. Let set up.

That’s my favorite method. So very easy and straight forward.

The next way has you doing less heating but I found is more prone to user error. In theory it should react the same every time, but the reality is that depending on your ambient temperature, the fat content (and bloom state) of your chocolate and your exact recipe proportions, your final temperature can vary. It is directly related to the chemistry and the amount of heat it actually takes to melt different crystal structures of cocoa butter.

With that caveat out of the way, here you go. It is predicated on my ratio of 60% chocolate, 40% cream, by weight.

2) Heat your cream to 145 F

Finely chop or grate your chocolate.

Pour the cream over the chocolate and let it set 10 minutes covered.

Stir until smooth.

About 50% of the time I had unmelted chocolate. Sometimes the termperature was pushing 110 F. When there were chunks left, I heated the mixture further by putting it on top of a pot of boiling water. It worked well enough but it is more fussy in my opinion. But it works if it suits you.

Give it a try and let me know how it goes.



Holiday schedule, moving and other things that affect our time and your scheduling.

With the amazing response (orders went up an order of magnitude) to the first ever Thanksgiving appreciate ‘Thing’ I was not able to keep up with a current Ask the Alchemist. We will see how this week goes. From the Appreciation Thing you can see we are moving some time soon. To be able to manage that (permits, holiday rush, contractors, the holidays and certification inspections) we are going to close down a little longer than usual. As always I’m going to keep the on-line stores open, but there will be no shipping for a couple weeks.

The last day we will be shipping is Monday December 21. And hopefully if you need anything by that Friday (December 25 – Christmas) you will have ordered well in advance. It would of course be in your best interest to have your last orders in Wednesday December 16. That will allow us processing and packing time to get it out by that Friday. We will do our complete best to get any order out on Monday December 21 if you have your order in by midnight the day before (Sunday the 20th). To summarize:

December 16 – recommended ‘polite’ last order date for shipping.

December 20 – Last day we will guarantee shipping before closing.

December 21 – Last day of shipping.

December 22 – January 3 – Closed for moving and holidays – no orders will ship out but the online stores will remain active.

One final item. When you are choosing your shipping method for the holidays, it is best to add in 3 WORKING days for processing, packing and general mayhem. So if your estimated transit time is 5-7 days (sorry, my software won’t tell you this, you will need to look it up on either UPS or USPS), then you would be well advised to order 10 days before you need it. i.e. December 14 for delivery by Christmas if you live across the country (we are in Oregon). That means, if it isn’t clear, if you order something Monday December 21, Next day Air (or ground or anything) it will NOT make it for Christmas. It will be held until 2016 when we re-open.



Thanksgiving schedule

We will be closed for Thanksgiving and the following Friday. If you would like your order to go out before the holiday, please have it in by midnight Tuesday.  Any orders after that will not go out until the following Tuesday.

Thank you everyone!  I hope your Thanksgiving is fantastic.


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Ask the Alchemist #139

Here is my experience with Nicaragua.

• Last summer. Roasted at P3, 18 minutes, may or may not have been before the afterburner crapped out but it should not have made this much difference. It was exactly as you described it and I loved it: As a chocolate, the nuttiness stays on, along with the richness of medjool dates, molasses and interesting tobacco (leaf not smoke) notes. A good full, balanced chocolate flavor wends it's way all through the taste and aroma, with not one aspect dominating the profile.

• Recently, P2, 16 minutes: Fruit bomb. Like the older Peru beans or even Madagascar

• Recently, P4, 20 minutes. Just slightly less of a fruit bomb. No nuttiness and not a hint of the tastes you describe.

• Recently, P2 for 23.5 minutes. A burnt fruit bomb

I don’t think any permutation of roasting is going to give me the flavor you describe, and I had before. The next time you are testing a roaster or grinder, will you humor me and make some of this and see what you think? I swear to you it is a different bean. Do you mind if I send you samples to taste? I have a bar left from last summer and some of the more recent ones so you can taste for yourself.

This week isn’t quite so much a question as a story. A mystery as it were. Who killed who where and with what. The above was part of a dialogue trying to work out what was going on with a recent change in flavor of a chocolate. It was a matter of deduction and clues and a bit of sleuthing.

As you can see the bean in question was from Nicaragua. From the time of the good chocolate and the bad chocolate I had received in multiple shipments. But the container lots were identical. In theory the beans were the same beans.

I both tasted some of the bars in question, and it was amazing just how radically different they were. I suggested different roasts to no avail. We made a little headway determining the afterburner in the Behmor had burned out, so the roasts were not identical But after fixing it, it still was not right.

I made chocolate here from the new (bad?) beans….and it was like the good chocolate. It was a real head scratcher.

I had basically proved the beans were the same by being able to replicate the chocolate here. And chocolate may have lots of variables, but it doesn’t change in flavor just randomly. The key was finding out what was different. Recipe? Sugar? Cocoa butter? Check, check, check.

I really wish I had the ability to write this up as a big, draw you in mystery scenario…but alas, I am not that good. Suffice it to say we found out the issue. Winter!

The new chocolate had been made during the winter….and the key was noting that it was changing as the seasons go cooler. The melanger had been being run in an unheated room on the floor. The refining chocolate was much cooler during the winter than when it was made in the summer. The key was noticing that my setup here was not affected by the climate (they were in the bitter wasteland of rural Vermont). Basically, different temperatures caused different chemistries. Some of the more aromatic fruity compounds were not driven off. Likewise the nuttiness was not able to develop.

The solution was to put the Melanger into an unsealed cardboard box. The motor generates quite a bit of heat and was able to create an environment that mimicked summer conditions. A new batch was roasted up with the old profiles. Refined in a box….and just like magic, the bad chocolate was good again.

So, there you go. We are coming into the winter months. If you have been refining ‘au natural’ and want your chocolate to stay the same, maybe look at a little supplemental heat. The melanger in a box (make sure it’s not sealed up, it can get too hot) can create just the right environment.

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Two new offerings

Two new bean offerings.Tanzania - Direct Trade Kokoa Kamili Cooperative.  There is a clean earthiness and up front chocolate aroma.  There are deep base fruits, dried prune and damson plum in the nose. The chocolate has dark flavors of brown sugar, toffee,  coffee  and a fully balanced citrus (lemon?) acidity

The next is #2 in the Alchemist Blend Series.  May I present the whimsical and dynamic:

Alchemist Blend #2 - Floor Sweeper -

Let's get this out of the way first and foremost.  No beans in this blend were actually swept up off the floor.  Okay?  Good.

That said, this blend was totally inspired by the end of day sweepings.  It scary/sad how much cocoa gets dropped while packing, even when we are very careful (it doesn't go to wasite, I use it for my own in house tests).  But it got me thinking.

This is the result.  And I'll tell you the secret recipe.....equal parts of everything in stock at the time.  The result?  Read on...


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Ask the Alchemist #138

Hi! I’ve only done chocolate from bean to bar twice but i noticed that the chocolate/cocoa liquor were too thick to make a nice mold. I have thought of shortening the conching time but the length I have done it was the best time i thought i had the right flavor. How do I ensure that the viscosity is just right next time?

This is really (nay impossible) to answer without more information. But there are only so many possibilities, so let’s just lay them out.

The most obvious to check is that the beans used are roasted, the sugar is granular and no other ingredients that have been added contain water. Very lightly roasted cocoa (5 minutes at 200 F) with brown sugar and ‘just a drop’ of vanilla extract was one that taught me no to take this part for granted. All of those items will introduce moisture into the chocolate that may or may not be enough to seize it but almost certainly will cause the viscosity to be higher than you want it.

You can use very lightly roasted cocoa but you still need to dry it for some time if you want the resulting chocolate to handle well. The same with any sugar. If it is clumpy and/or crawls it is too moist. Even my granulated sugar I heat to 150 F for 20-30 minutes to help drive off the last traces of moisture.

And vanilla extract. Everyone I have found is in alcohol which at the very minimum contains 3% water, and often much more. You have to use vanilla beans or powder (ground beans) if y want to add vanilla favor.

The next is to verify the recipe. My rule of thumb is at least 35% fat. And I estimate cocoa beans being 50% cocoa butter. The content can actually vary from as low as 45% on up to nearly 60%. What this means is that a 70% chocolate is about as low as you can go without thinking about adding extra cocoa butter and still hitting that estimated 35% fat (70% chocolate times 50% fat equals 35% in the bar). If you happen to have a low fat bean (fat content has ROUGH correlation Criollo content) like Cuyagua you might only be able to make it to an 75% chocolate before needing extra cocoa butter. On the other hand, many African beans(Ghana and Ivory Coast) and CCN-51 (Ecuador Pinchicha) have higher cocoa butter contents and allow you to go down to a 60% bar. Plus the more equatorially grown the beans are, the less viscous the cocoa butter will tend to be (all cocoa butter is not created equally).

Now we get to a little subtlety. I note I start getting these kind of trouble shooting questions this time of year…just as the tempering questions taper off. The pattern? Yep, the weather. In the summer, many people are molding up in the high 70’s (if not low 80’s), but now it is more often the low 70’s or high 60’s. The chocolate is cooling faster. It’s often going into cooler molds. The equipment is cooler too. Try and account for this. Work in a warmer room if you can. Warm up your molds and equipment (noting you don’t get them too hot) and just be aware. It might be that simple.

So you have done and checked all those things and everything seems to be in line. In that case, it’s time to just get the theory out of it and work on what works in practice. Bench top problem solving as it is sometimes called. Basically that means that we don’t know what is actually causing the problem but we are going to at least fix the symptom. I only have two things in my bag of tricks in this regard and both involve adding something to your chocolate that will reduce the viscosity. It’s really your choice which you choose.

You can try adding either more cocoa butter and/or lecithin. I like starting with lecithin. It will help bind any moisture in the chocolate, and if that is the issue, then you have learned something. Namely that something in your process needs to be examined to discover moisture is making it in. A teaspoon in a couple pounds of chocolate is a good start. If for some reason you don’t want to add lecithin (I rather hope it isn’t because you think it is ‘industrial waste’ – it’s not) due to soy allergies or something, then try the cocoa butter solution. I have yet to have it fail. Start with 5%, and see how that is. Then increase it 3-5% until it is the viscosity you want. At some point it WILL thin out. The flavor? Yeah, it may be a little different, but it may not. And at this point it is damage control, so you take what you can get. It’s the other reason I like lecithin first. It might fix it and won’t change the flavor at all.

Finally, I want to talk about ‘conching’ too much. There is good and bad here.

First off, good. You worked out you don’t want to continue the time in the melanger as you like the flavor. But in my experience, you have it backwards. More time results in the chocolate getting thicker once you get past a certain point. I’m not 100% sure why and it could well be a combination of reasons. Either the chocolate is picking up atmospheric water or it’s getting too fine. I saw one chocolate I was testing go from a good viscosity to VERY thick to the point it was like pudding….but it was in the melanger for 21 days (it started doing the pudding thing after about 7). Just recently I’ve been running some refining experiments and plotting time vs particle size with my new micrometer (more on this next week). The short of it is that I saw the viscosity drop down to about 20 um and then it leveled out until it hit roughly 10-12 um, but once it dipped under 10 um it started getting more viscous. Was it the particle size or time spend refining – who knows. It’s kind of difficult to split the variables. So I’ll just leave the observation out there.

Oh, and yeah, I mentioned the ‘bad’. Let’s try again use the right terms. If you are running a melanger (99.99%) of the people here, and you are leaving the tension on (99% of the people here), then you are not conching. You are refining. You are reducing particle size. I will grant that maybe you are conching, but you are also refining and the conching has nothing to do with the viscosity, so you should not be using the term as it is irrelevant. I’m really not trying to just be difficult and parse out words for the hell of it. Using the right terms make researching easier. And I personally find that it helps me make connections I otherwise might not if I understand what is going on, and part of real understanding is using the right terms. That’s all on that.

As for you next batch? Run down the list here. Ingredients. Water. Process. Percent fat. Is it all in line? If not, fix it and try again. If not, try more cocoa butter as it is your major unknown variable. 5% is my default suggestion to start with.

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At this point I have one question in the queue.  This series only continues if you have questions and send them in.

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Ask the Alchemist #137

Chocolate Alchemist, why did you decide to write a chocolate blog?

Huh? That’s in English, but I just don’t understand it. Huh? What chocolate blog? I’ve never written a chocolate blog. What are you talking about? Oh, and who is the Chocolate Alchemist?

Confused yet?

Ok, I confess. That response was exaggerated. But it is also serious. That middle part was and continues to be true. I’ve never written a chocolate blog.

I run a business called Chocolate Alchemy. And it happens to use Wordpress as its landing page. And granted, most people use Wordpress as a blog. But I’m not most people and it’s not why I used it. I picked it and use it because it does the job I need. It tells you (my customers) what is new and by its nature, it shows the newest information first. Handy that.

Maybe it is just a mindset, but I REALLY do not and have never considered this thing you are reading a blog. Frankly it makes my eye twitch. It isn’t that I have anything against blogs. Here is a definition:

“A blog is a frequently updated online personal journal or diary. It is a place to express yourself to the world. A place to share your thoughts and your passions. Really, it’s anything you want it to be. For our purposes we’ll say that a blog is your own website that you are going to update on an ongoing basis.”

I can hear it now. That sounds like what you are reading. Except for one critical difference. This isn’t personal. This is business. It’s never been personal. It has always, 100%, been business. Maybe, just maybe, I just barely might be convinced that part of Chocolate Alchemy has some a blog like similarities. But that is it. This isn’t a diary. Or a journal. And really I’m not trying to ‘express’ myself. It’s just a place to give you information, and it just happens file it away for me in chronological order.

The next part of me being obtuse. Chocolate Alchemist? Did you know I have never once referred to myself with that title? Other people seem to do it all the time. When pressed I have referred to myself as Alchemist John. Or sometimes just Alchemist. Or even AlChemist as I used to be a chemist. “Chocolate Alchemist” feels so pompous. Regardless, it's not how I think of myself. That said, you were asking a serious question and I’m not that dense.

“John, why did you decide to start Chocolate Alchemy?” Well, you could make use of the wordpress feature and go back to the first items I wrote and it pretty well explains it. It is right here. But the short of it is this.

Back in 2002 I tasted fresh hot chocolate from Mexico. I got excited about it and wanted to try making it. And that led to the idea of making my own chocolate. I already roasted my own coffee so I didn’t think it that crazy or outrageous. It turns out that at the time there were absolutely no cocoa beans sold on-line. NONE. Trust me, I looked hard.

At that point you can say I kind of became obsessed with the challenge. Eventually I was able to talk a broker into selling me 1 bag of Ghana. At that point I started back engineering how to make chocolate at home. In short order, the idea blossomed and then crystalized that what I had here was the opportunity to start something that was not around. A chocolate version of the green coffee bean sellers like Sweet Marias. Basically I wanted to BE the Cocoa Sweet Maira’s.

Over that span of about a year I worked out roasting, cracking, winnowing and making liquor. Oven, modified brewing grain mill, bowl and hair drier and the Champion Juicer. Those were all ‘discovered’ here. As was using India Wet grinders for Melangers about a year later. If you trace any one of those home chocolate making techniques back they lead here and the work I did back 2002-2003. Anyway, as soon as I was convinced I had a viable method to share I created the business Chocolate Alchemy, and powered the website with Wordpress. Circle closed.

Just a small aside. I hear time and again how lucky I was that my hobby turned into a business. I’ll grant I was a little fortunate, but luck had little to do with it. Showing people how to make chocolate at home and creating the tools and information that virtually every small bean to bar maker uses was not luck. It is called a Plan.

I knew what I wanted from day one as soon as I created Chocolate Alchemy. I wanted to kick start a bean to bar movement. Back in 2002 that was my goal. No one else new it, but I did. And look around. I’d say my plan came together. I am exactly where I wanted and planned to be. I am selling the largest variety of cocoa beans anywhere in one place, supply equipment large and small to home and artisan chocolate makers and doing my damnedest to make it all an open book. No secrets. Lots of sharing and support. Tons of paying it forward. There is a huge bean to bar movement and I am humbled and gratified to see my fingerprints all over it….even if some people don’t realize whose prints they are.

Chocolate Alchemy isn’t just some random online resource that put together pieces of chocolate making ‘how to’ that was already out there. Chocolate Alchemy is THE original source. All those other sources lead back here. You can read all about in in my wordpress powered website.

I love it when a plan comes together.

John Nanci

Alchemist John

Founding Alchemist for

Chocolate Alchemy



Ask the Alchemist #136

Warning – not chocolate related this week. But important as the holidays come up.

I got the error saying it is not a valid tracking number. Please give me the correct tracking number.

I ordered Friday. Why didn’t it ship until Wednesday? That’s 5 days!!!! I am so disappointed. I needed it Tuesday. I picked Next Day Air!!!!

I received nearly a dozen of these this week (and another two while writing this). Within an hour of processing the order. Is it the full moon? Do I sound annoyed? Perplexed really.

First off that actually isn't what USPS or UPS says. It says "The Postal Service could not locate the tracking information for your request. Please verify your tracking number and try again later." It is directly because I say "Please allow some time (12-24 hours) for the status of the shipment to correctly display at the above address". We say this because the number is assigned electronically. Then it needs to be packed and actually taken to a post office by a live human. You have to give it TIME!

Here is the routine around here. Usually the day before an order ships it is ‘processed’. This involves making the shipping label, printing and recording the sale. At that time, you the customer are sent a Shipping Confirmation with a tracking number. If you follow the tracking link too soon (read before 12-24 hours – and I am thinking now of changing this to 24-36) then there has not been time to both pack your order AND get it to the post office (or UPS) AND have time for them to scan it into their system. If your order contains roasted beans or nibs, there may be yet another day ‘delay’ as I tend to roast fresh as orders come in. Quite often we have enough around, but not always so it has to be roasted the day after it was “processed” and then is often not packed until the following day so it can cool and not condense in the bags.

I’m sorry, but we are not Amazon here (really, I’m NOT sorry) with a ton of people working around the clock to have your order packed and shipped within hours or even minutes of you ordering. That isn’t an excuse. Just the reality of how this small business runs. My sincere hope here that you appreciate the effort we put in and understand we are working as fast as we can to get everyone’s order out.

All this is in way of saying to plan well ahead and be realistic to ship times during the holidays. From past history I know they are going to stretch out due to just the sheer volume. But also where possible, we are happy to accommodate needs and deadlines if we can. There is a BIG catch here though. You have to make an EXTRA effort to tell us. You have to help us help you. Picking Next day Air does NOT assure it will go out the next day. Putting a note in your cart will NOT assure we can accommodate your request. You need to follow the directions in the Order Confirmation that says EMAIL US (with your order number, right? Right!). Otherwise we will in all likelihood not see your shipping method or note until it is already too late. As much as I would love to review every order as it comes in in detail and intuit your needs and deadlines, I can’t. And surprise, I’m not psychic.

That order on Friday? No note or email. 6 pm Friday BTW. Processed Monday. I spend the weekends with family. We process shipping ‘in bulk’ so were not aware it was Next Day Air. I hate this, but our system only shows “UPS”. It was 10 lbs of roasted beans that had to be roasted Tuesday. And thus shipped Wednesday. With an email, I would have found time to roast early Monday and get it out the same day. Without, it was processed as normal.

Communication please. I’m begging you. Keep the a minimum, communicate your special needs if you have them, and it’s all going to go much smoother for all of us, and result in less frustrations and disappoints all around.

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Mythbusters, makers and chocolate

I admit it and am proud of the fact that I am a huge Mythbusters fan. And it saddens me greatly to hear that they have been canceled and their upcoming season will be their last. Why? Adam and Jamie have been a fixture around here. What and how they do what they do. They have brought such an approachability to both making and science that I value so much. I credit the popularity of Mythbusters to the rise of Makers with a capital M. I’ve always made and built things. Nothing so grand as what I see them do many times. But until their contributions, I never thought of myself as a Maker. I just made things I needed and wanted. And I always get a kick out of seeing “left side” or “up” in sharpie on their stuff. It’s exactly how I build. Not for show, but practically. Their influence therefore pretty much related to me back engineering how to make chocolate at home and on the small scale. And how to make it approachable.

In many ways it is no more than the scientific method. Ask, research, plan, test, observe, conclude. Then of course rinse and repeat if it didn’t go as planned, realizing that failure is always an option and a great opportunity to learn more and that failure in this case isn’t failure in a bad sense. It’s just part of the process. And of course SHARE what you learned and pay it forward.

That all said, I really consider everyone that makes chocolate a Maker. It is not an insignificant amount of work and commitment. No, it’s not all that hard, but it’s not really turn key either. And I’ll share a little secret with you. I probably could make it a little easier. Videos, more photos, more detailed directions. But I have this little philosophy that you will appreciate something more that you have to work just a little bit on compared to something that is handed to you on a platter. And time and again I find that sentiment confirmed by people who write in. A little struggle makes the success all the more sweet. So, please, dive in. Ask questions., read, plan, make, judge and share it forward. And be proud of what you have made as a Maker. Because that is what you are by being here. A Maker.

I’m going to miss them both. Adam is the front man as it were. He loves to be in front of the camera and telling a story. I have to say I relate more to Jamie though. It’s a struggle for me to in front of a camera or in photos. I like doing what I am doing and do it best by myself. (But I love answering questions and helping people out thirsty for knowledge.) So although I will miss them both, I know Adam will stay out there making things in the public and Jamie will continue making things behind the scenes and be happier for it. I can respect that. And as the tag is going around, I’ll #Mythyouguys.

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Ask the Alchemist #135

What’s the purpose of lecithin? Does it make the chocolate thicker or thinner?

The easy one first. It makes chocolate thinner generally speaking. The caveat there is if you already have a chocolate with a high(er) level of cocoa butter, and/or lower level of water (there is always some) and you chocolate is already pretty thin, then it probably isn’t going to do much for viscosity. And now I am going to cheat. I’ve answered this a couple times in different ways. So I am going to refer you back to those Ask the Alchemist. But I’ll quote pieces from them here.

Ask the Alchemist 92

"..... 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."

Ask the Alchemist 39

“Lecithin is often described as an emulsifier. In chocolate, that is not really why it is used, but that property is used. What I mean by that is technically an emulsifier is used to bind somewhat equal parts of water and oil together. Like in a Caesar salad dressing. The egg is the emulsifier, and allows the oil and vinegar to bind together into an emulsion. In chocolate, as we all know by now, you don’t use water as it causes the chocolate to seize. But sometimes, either due to a lighter side roast, humidity or because certain ingredients (some sugars and milk powder) can easily absorb water, water does make it into the chocolate. The addition of a small amount of lecithin keeps the water from causing problems such as seizing or thickening the chocolate. But to repeat, it is an optional ingredient. I’m a big fan of ‘don’t fix what is not broken’. If your chocolate is not showing symptoms of moisture problems, and you like the chocolate, leave it be.

The other reason you may wish to use lecithin is actually for its emulsification properties. When baking, or cooking with homemade chocolate, more than once I found the recipe trying to separate, but the recipe was just fine with commercial chocolate. A little investigation led to the difference being a small amount of lecithin in the chocolate. The lecithin gives you just a little edge and leeway in having everything incorporate smoothly and evenly.”

So there you go. It is used as a viscosity modifier to make the chocolate thinner and an emulsifier.  It is completely optional if you find you don’t want to use it (some people are allergic to soy).

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Ask the Alchemist #134

Would spraying water via a water bottle work or would a small pipe running the length of the roasting drum with small holes in it to spray water be better? Of course, there's the question of how much water and when to add water during the roast. I know this can be used for flavor development and better micro kills at lower temperature; as I have read.

This seems to be a very common misconception. That being that adding water during roasting will give a better micro kill at lower temperature. This seems to be a classic variation of the telephone game, as so many things are. Someone hears something and repeats it slightly changed until it really does not resemble the original facts.

In this case, from the best I can piece together, it comes from a combination of two things. One is that you can have ‘moist’ heat and ‘dry’ heat kill curves and that the ‘moist’ are lower than the dry. The second is the fact that some coffee roasters are equipped with water spray systems. The issue is that to my knowledge these are completely unrelated.

In the first case, it has been taken way out of context. Here is context in full.

Of all the methods available for sterilization, moist heat (steam under pressure ) in the form of saturated steam under pressure is the most widely used and the most dependable. Steam sterilization is nontoxic, inexpensive, rapidly microbicidal, sporicidal, and rapidly heats and penetrates materials”

When you read that I think you will see very quickly that ‘moist’ converted to the lay term of moist or wet when in reality it means steam under pressure when read in context. In short, steam carries a lot of energy. But you have to keep it around, and really, the only practical way to do that is to have a pressurized vessel. None of our roasters are sealed. If you spray steam in, it quickly goes away and has no effect on the microbes. And notice I said steam. If you spray water, you are potentially doing less than nothing as the water, in order to turn into steam, must absorb quite a bit of energy. That energy comes from your beans and your roaster. The result is that if you spray water in, you cool off your roast. In no way does this help microbe kills.

But it does explain why water sprays are in roasters. It is a very effective way to get a very hot roast (one potentially out of control) in cooled down and in control again. Adding steam adds energy to a roast and helps kill things (if you can keep it contained for minutes). Water takes away energy.

As for flavor development, that is news to me. I would postulate that water’s only purpose is to keep the roast profile where you want it. It isn’t like it is going to be absorbed by the beans. At anything over 212 F it is going to flash evaporate thereby cooling the roast, or at least decreasing the rate at which the profile is increasing.

Funny how the telephone game works, and what we think we know, huh?

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Ask the Alchemist #133

Can am using a micrometer to measure the particle size of my chocolate but it doesn’t work. I get different results every time. Sometimes they are very large (over 100 microns) and sometimes very small (less than 5 microns). It doesn’t make any sense as the chocolate seems smooth to me. HELP!!

It's important to have the right tool for the right job. Every tool has its limitations, and once you determine the correct tool, it is just as important to understand how to use that tool. For most of the people reading this, a micrometer can be the right tool - as long as use it correctly. Actually, the mouth itself is probably the right tool. Given sufficient experience and feedback via a tool, I've found that some people can 'resolve' down to 10-15 um particle size (the largest particle), within +/-5 um. As I’ve said before, most people making chocolate are not going to need an understanding of particle size, shape, or distribution, and spending lots and lots of money to get a number that your tongue could probably tell you.

It is also very important to ask yourself "why do i need this piece of data, and what will I do with it". If the number itself isn't important to you , and really if the information you're looking for is 'Does my chocolate have a good mouthfeel or not?' then just put it in your mouth. If you want the number to gauge progression quickly, and to calibrate your mouth, then a micrometer could very well be the right tool for you.

I actually had to dig a little deeper with this person to find out what micrometer they were using and what their technique was. As it turned out, both were causing the issue of not having good reproducibility and values that were not right (both precision and accuracy were off). Over the past weekend at the NW Chocolate Festival I had the opportunity to speak with someone who has been in the chocolate industry for over a third of a century and whom I respect greatly. We talked a bit about micrometers, measuring technique and when it is and isn’t useful. Much of this comes from him, interspersed with my own knowledge of analytical techniques.

It is critical to have the right tool for the job. In this case, micrometers come in two types that deal with how they close and stop. One is a ratchet and the other is a slip clutch. You want the later. Very simply the ratchet can crush your sample giving you a false low reading. You do not want this style

The specific one that was suggested was this one:

Yep, dials. Analog. You have to learn how to read it. Can you use digital one? I’ve given you his and my recommendation and you can use what you want. But remember, you get what you pay for and GIGO. If your cheaper digital one isn’t accurate, can’t be calibrated or isn’t reproducible, you have basic just flushed your money away.

You now have the proper slip clutch micrometer. How do you use it? Well, first and foremost, NOT like this.


If you do the larger particles are going to follow gravity’s lead, and flow to the bottom, and then out as you close the barrel. The result will be artificially low biased numbers. You need to turn it 90 degrees like this:


Pic You place the drop of chocolate on the barrel and rotate it up until you feel the clutch slip. Record your number, clean it and test it again. I would personally recommend at least 3 times while you are learning and until your results are all within 10 % of the average. And even then, duplicates never hurt.

So, I skipped past the ‘sample’ preparation. Chocolate is thick. There are a lot of particles there and the more there are, the more the more they can resist crushing together. In a perfect world, you would want a single layer of particles. In reality, that isn’t needed and is actually really hard to get. A good compromise is to dilute your chocolate sample with somewhere between 2-5 parts cocoa butter. Frankly, experiment and see what works for you. Your goal is reproducibility.

Back to sample preparation. Take out one teaspoon full and mix it with one tablespoon of cocoa butter (1:3 dilution) and mix it very well with a spatula on a plate for a full minute. Make it look even.




Then put a drop on the barrel and there you are. Keep the barrel vertical, close it up. As you do, what particles are there are going to compress. Some will crush. They will compact against others and crush a little more. At some point the pressure of the slip clutch will push back enough and that will be that. You can take your reading.

What does that reading REALLY mean? It’s a number. It technically isn’t the largest particle because some have been crushed so it could be low. And some stack together so it could be high. And it says virtually nothing about the smaller particles and distribution is also not there. But it does give you a numerical ball part of your largest particle sizes. This has been shown to have a pretty good correlation to the maxima on a distribution plot. In this case, 10-15 microns seems to indicate good, smooth, very fine chocolate. But keep in mind that number is specific to this testing method and the dilution you pick. So keep your dilution and technique constant and for in house use for the most benefit of this number. And use it to try to correlate what you are feeling in your mouth to what your numbers say.

Do you need a micrometer? I personally don’t think so as I think your mouth is just fine. But that said, I’m a number’s geek and tracking progress objectively is almost never bad. You have to be the judge if it is right for you.

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Northwest Chocolate Festival and two new beans

We will be closed and away starting Wednesday 9/30/15 - Sunday 10/4/15 at the Northwest Chocolate Festival.  Please let me know if you will be there.  I'd love to meet up!  If in doubt, look for the kilt and vest - I should not be hard to find.No orders will be processed during that time, nor will emails be read or answered.  I travel technologically light.

In the mean time, we have two new elegant Guatemalans in.  Chimelb and Lachua.  Both are very restrained chocolates.  In a world of super IPA's, massively hot spices, monster quadruple shot power drinks and general 'how big can we make it' there is something to be said for a nice, well balanced restraint chocolate that you can enjoy.  Don't undersell 'approachable' - in this case it's a compliment.

Also, supply is very limited.  Enough so that I won't be offering them Wholesale.  So get them before they are gone for good.



Ask the Alchemist #132

Super interesting and inspiring! I wonder if the TAG content changes during conching? If so, has anyone measured the before conching, during conching, after “too much” conching?

I can’t imagine how it would. I want to take a moment and do a review as there is hardly a week that goes by that I don’t have the desire to clarify to someone the different between conching and refining.

Refining, in the context of chocolate making, is the physical process of reducing the particle sizes in your chocolate. In the basic sense, it is done by rubbing two hard surfaces together in the presence of the chocolate, crushing the particles in between. This can be done with pairs of steel rollers (roller mill), steel balls and a steel container (ball mill), steel plates slapping and sliding together (refiner) or by granite wheels rolling on a slab of granite (Melanger). In all cases you have two hard surfaces rubbing against another on (there roller mill is an exception where sheer forces between the two rollers break things apart) ‘wearing’ the chocolate particles down.

Conching, in contrast, is honestly much less understood. The two schools of thought (at least) on what is going on. In either case chocolate is stirred and agitated. But the key here is that nothing in the chocolate is getting smaller. There is no refining going on. Either way, it is thought that in one form or another chemical reactions are happening. In the classic sense, the chocolate is oxidizing, volatiles are being driven off and other ‘simple’ reactions are occurring. The second school of thought is that some ilk of molecular enrobing is happening, each particle of sugar and such are being ‘coated’ in cocoa butter, hence the smooth mouth feel. I personally find that a bit mystical and full of hand waving. And kind of ignores that chocolate is already smooth from a particle size point of view, due to the refiner, when it goes into conch. Whatever is happening then is pretty clearly does not involve the shape of the particles since they are already beyond detection. I think that descriptive ‘smoothness’ is nothing more than a sensory illusion created by the chocolate not firing off ‘sharp’ reactions in your mouth because all those ‘sharp’ molecules (acids and such) have been turned into something softer (fruity esters and Maillard reaction by products).

With those out of the way, you are asking if the TAG (triaclyglyceride or long chains of the cocoa butter molecule) can lengthen or shorten (the only changes that would change the TAG content). The short answer is no. I’m going to just blithely toss my chemist credentials down and say I’ve found no chemical reactions that would or could do this. If you can find one, please let me know and I’ll be thrilled to change my mind. The main reason is that you need what are considered active groups in a chemical for something to occur mano a mono, i.e. without a specialize enzyme (again, none of which I know of). And the only active groups in a TAG are at that three carbon chain hold the three chains together. The other end (or center) is basically inert and for lack of a better descriptor, are immune to chemical attack.

The list of reactions that could happen on the business end of the molecules are pretty short… the point that the only one that I can find that is applicable in a food setting would be saponification. Or the making of soap. And it has three major problems. It requires water, a strong alkaline solution and it would make the chocolate taste of soap.

And I can hear it now (I’ve actually had this conversation) - How about if we alkalize the chocolate, then there is base, and so a tiny reaction can occur and one fatty acid chain can swap places with another? That’s a pretty picture, but as I learned in first year Organic chemistry, chemistry doesn’t work that way. For ANY reaction of this type to proceed it has to be overwhelming feasible and pushed. And pushing in this case is LOTS of water, and LOTS of base (think lye). To put it in perspective, think of pushing a large truck uphill. One toddler (the weak base) can’t push a truck even on a flat surface. Even one 8 year old can’t get it rolling. A single adult might be able to get it rolling if flat, but in order for the reaction to occur, you need a LOT of force (base) and it is going to take many strong adults to push a truck up hill and get it going fast. That’s what it takes. A little does nothing.

So, since conching is now officially off the table, let’s talk about refining or melanging (the combination of the two). ‘Can’t the refiner grind off a piece of that long carbon chain, turning it into a different one?’ And of course, the answer is basically no. The scale is all wrong. Molecules don’t crush. Although not literal, you have to cut them. Can you ‘cut’ a carrot (long thin thing) with a wrecking ball? Or even better, how about a piece of string? Silly isn’t it? It just doesn’t work. It will move out of the way, and twist and turn and nothing will happen.

And even that scale isn’t quite right.

Picture if you will one of the Spectra Melanger wheels the size of the earth. What you need to cut is a piece of 1/2” diameter rope a little over a foot long…and the rope is floating in a pond (of cocoa butter). That’s the scale we are talking about. It’s hard to even picture it happening isn’t it? And basically, if you can’t picture it (i.e. come up with a realistic descriptive) it just isn’t going to happen in real life. The rope in water will just flow out of the way when the two earths come rolling past one another…and that is assuming you can even trap that piece of rope. Most likely, it will just sit protecting in the craters of uneven surface since even your smooth rollers are ‘pitted’ horridly on the molecular level.

As for adding on to the ‘rope’ of the individual TAG how would you stick two pieces of rope together…using the earth. There just isn’t a way. The ends are inert and won’t stick to anything else.

Long story short, I see no reason or even way the TAG composition could change with either refining or conching. Any changes you see during either of these processes are going to be from some other mechanism.

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Ask the Alchemist #131

How do I make chocolate taste like chocolate? I don’t want raspberry, peaches and leather in my chocolate! I just want chocolate! Please help. OK, that made me chuckle….but I know exactly what you are talking about.

First off, it does. Taste like chocolate that is. All those flavors you read about are on top of the basic chocolate flavor.

And it is worth going off on a minor tangent to tell you there is no single compound or chemical that tastes of chocolate. In the same way there isn’t one that smells like chocolate (chocolate smell is a combination various compounds that smell like sweat, cabbage and beef ( there many compounds that once combined make us say “chocolate”.

This is actually pretty critical and I guess not so much of a side tangent. More in a moment.

Back to the flavor of chocolate. I have found that it seems to happen in every ‘new’ or rediscovered area of food. Bread. Beer. Cheese. Everyone knows that those flavors are. You probably grew up with them. They taste and smell like home or childhood….and I bet you have not tasted them since. Why? Well, I am hypothesizing but I think a lot of it has to do with homogenization, industrialization and how modern food are/were made. Basically, they were made into the least common denominator. Something that tasted like bread, beer and cheese in general, but not like any one exact style.

Now you have artisan sourdough bread, French baguettes, and fresh rye bread.

You have hoppy IPAs, malty brown ales and roasty stouts.

And tangy fresh farm cheese, 6 types of aged cheddar and live culture soft rind cheese that is bursting with flavor.

The same thing happened with chocolate. Before there was chocolate. Now there is raspberry, peaches and leather!! And you want it back.

I could easily tangent (again) to soap boxing about the state of modern food, but it isn’t constructive here. Instead let’s determine the common factor and use it to our advantage to make that chocolate you want.

Everyone it seems is all about making their chocolate unique. Celebrating how different they are from everyone else. And thus was born Single Origin Chocolate. And there is nothing wrong with that. Heck, it’s what I’ve worked over a decade on, bringing single origin, bean to bar, to you Makers out there.

But, yeah, sometimes you want something familiar. Something that tastes like childhood.

The answer, I believe, is homogenization. It is what gave bread, beer, cheese and chocolate their taste. And there is a much simpler word. It’s called blending.

It is both that simple and that complicated. And no, it is not sacrilegious. We make our own chocolate because we want to enjoy it, and if blending lets you enjoy it, more power to you. It is all about YOUR tastes and enjoyment after all. And while we are at it, maybe we can make it taste even better than you remember. Let’s talk blending.

First, why do I think this is an answer? Remember that there isn’t a chocolate molecule? It is our perception of multiple molecules, taken as a whole, that make us perceive the flavor of chocolate. The same is true of many (if not all) flavors. If you mix a ‘raspberry’ chocolate and a ‘leather’ chocolate the chances are very good you are NOT going to get ‘raspberry leather’ chocolate. You might (or might not – this is just a made up example) get ‘apple’ chocolate. One time I mixed banana and pineapple in a smoothie. Doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Except it tasted lite classic pink bubblegum!! Just like mixing yellow and blue, the resulting color is ‘yellow blue’. It’s is all its own ‘flavor’ and it is green. More on this in a bit.

There are 2 or 3 basic ways you can blend beans to make chocolate

1) You can blend various beans together before or after roasting.

2) You can blend the roasted beans and make chocolate.

3) Or you can make multiple single origin batches of chocolate and then blend them together

Each one has advantages and disadvantages and like pretty much all the rules here (there are none (except don’t add water to chocolate)) there is no wrong or right way to do it. Just your own personal way.

The easiest and most approachable way to make a blend is to mix your beans and then roast them. I would personally suggest at least 3 beans on up to 5. Two is barely a blend and more than 5 is really just diminishing returns (unless you just happen to have 3 oz of 10 beans left over, then blend away!).

The drawback to this method is that most beans don’t roast to exactly the same level. One may be a little under roasted, one just right and one over roasted. You can mitigate this by picking beans that are roughly the same size and of similar ‘type’. Basically, I would not mix a lot of Forastero with a lot of Criollo. You are kind of asking for trouble in this regard. But Criollo/Trinatario and Trinatario/Forastero should be fine. And again, there are not hard rules.

To alleviate the roasting issue, you can of course roast each bean ‘to perfection’ and then blend them and make chocolate.

The last option is nice for R&D and dialing in a blend but not something I would suggest initially. That amounts to making multiple batches of single origin chocolate and then blending them together in different proportions and tasting the results. In effect, this is what I do every year when I combine all my test samples throughout the year to make holiday truffles. The result, year in, year out, is chocolate tasting chocolate!

So, now you know how to blend and how many beans to put in. But what about the exact beans? Well, this is where I am merely a Novice. My personal take has been to take beans that I like the overall flavors of (Papua New Guinea and Ghana are two favorites of mine) and mix them with something that is sort of opposite. Papua New Guinea has non-acidity tamarind. Ghana is ‘chocolate’. At one point I tossed in some Trinchera (nutty and a little fruity) and Jamaican (rum and dark fruit). The result is a well balanced, not acidic, not fruity, not smoky, not sharp blend. It’s also call Alchemist’s Blend #1 – Balance.

The big thing to note here is that by blending, the ratio of chemical compounds that made ‘tamarind’ and ‘cashew’ and ‘dark fruit’ were disturbed so they no longer tasted like those things. They were not diluted, but actually changed from a perception standpoint. Just like mixing colors on a palette. What also happens though is a kind of neat alchemy. “Chocolate” comes through more often than note. Just like mixing ‘brown’ on a palette, there are lots of ways to get there, and the same goes for the chocolate flavor. The more you mix, the better chances are you will get the needed compounds together that you recognize as ‘chocolate’. And really, it isn’t so surprising. We learned this flavor as chocolate because the majority of chocolate we grew up with were blends – blends instigated to keep a consistent chocolate flavor even though crops and origins changed.

Acidity, astringency and bitterness are not flavors though. Unlike flavors, these can be diluted and are therefore pretty straight forward. If you use nothing but high acid beans, your result will be high acid. The same with bitterness and astringency. But it is worth noting that these things are not necessarily linear. Quite often, you can cut a bitter (or astringent or acid) component by 1/3 and find it is only half as strong as it was.

Finally, and this is only my own personal recommendation, get outside your comfort level. I am not a bright, fruity chocolate fan – so it is good to toss in at least some percentage of bright and fruity. Or if you want a brighter chocolate ‘chocolate’, then go with a lot of high end flavors (Madagascar, Rizek, Peru) but get at least one base note in there for contrast and complexity (like Ghana, Ivory Coast or Bolivia). I’m often blown away buy certain paintings I see that look so real, but when you really look at them have these vibrant and colors you would never see in real life. But the whole is more ‘real’ feeling than if it was just monotone.

So, suggestions for blending.

1) Mix 3-5 beans of similar size and type and that you like in equal proportions.

2) Roast them together.

3) Mix in at least one ‘outlyer’ flavor

4) Have fun – it’s chocolate for goodness sakes.

Single origin is good, but blending is fine, and making what you enjoy is what it is ALL about.

Oh, and don’t take yourself TOO seriously. Otherwise, this might happen.

Hrm….custom bean by bean hand select blend….only $499/lb…



Ask the Alchemist #130

When is the best time to add the sugar and cocoa butter in the grinding process?

There isn’t one.

That said, you have some choices and those choices have the potential to change how your chocolate behaves and tastes.

I personally like to add the ingredients in the order that makes my life easier and does not over stress the machines. That means melting my cocoa butter, and lecithin if I am using it, and adding it to my warmed melanger bowl (the stones are warm too). This gives you what is called a working fluid. The melangers were after all initially WET grinders. Dry material has the tendency to pack down. After that I either add my melted cocoa mass or handfuls of the warmed cocoa nibs. Every 15 minutes or so I add another handful nibs. In that time the previous addition as started flowing. Once I have a pound or two in there I usually alternate between sugar and nibs, under the premise that sugar is hard and makes a good abrasive, even if it is getting ground down at the same time. Basically it helps speed/shorten the time between additions and lets me be done sooner.

But you have lots of options. You can add the sugar as I’ve done above. Or you can wait until all the nibs are flowing. Or you can let your chocolate mass refine a few hours to a day before adding the sugar. Depending when you add it, there is the potential for the chocolate to taste different. At the beginning there are more acids and water present. Under some circumstances (yes, I am being purposefully vague because the sugar chemistry is a bit much to get into here) this can lead to chemical reactions which may or may not be to your liking. Adding the sugar just an hour later is a good halfway point, and a day later eliminates most of these type reactions. Do you want these reactions? Well, maybe. It is very subjective and to one’s own tastes. Basically you have to try it and see. I’ll say my tastes tend to liking many complex reactions so it is fortunate that I add my sugar sooner. I have also tasted chocolate made from sugar added a day later and it was a thoroughly enjoyable chocolate….just different than my own.

The same goes for cocoa butter. When it is added at the beginning, your resulting chocolate is going to be less viscous. More fluid. That means two things chemistry wise and one from a physical standpoint. When thicker, reactions are going to be a little slower, but it also means volatiles won’t be volatilized as quickly. With a thicker mass, your melanger won’t refine quite as fast as directly compared to a thinner mass. This means a longer run time but also more time for reactions to occur. It is the same as before. I like running the melanger with a thinner mix where reactions happen faster and everything is ‘set’ early. But I have again tasted batches where the chocolate was run thick, but longer, and the cocoa butter was added right at the end as a viscosity modifier. It too was great, but different chocolate, than mine.

And don’t forget, all beans are not created equal. What works (for your tastes) for one, may not yield the most favorable results for another. And sadly I can’t help or predict that in the least. All I can tell you is you have to experiment and that in some (but not all) cases additions of sugar and cocoa butter at different stages can result in pretty different results.

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Ask the Alchemist #129

I am wondering what kind of glycerides of fatty acids affect crystallization, so I search more information, but I am not sure the answer. Some article point out palmitatic acid, stearatic acid, and oleatic acid many times. Are these three fatty acids the main matter of chocolate crystal?

If you notice the tag line for Chocolate Alchemy, it is about both the Art and Science of chocolate making. Today it is science. We are going to geek out on cocoa butter. Chemical structures, what that means, how to think about them….and why all that great information only takes you so far before you have to start bringing the Art into it.

Full disclosure. I am pulling a bit of my data from Wikipedia. But it is ALSO backed up by LOTS of cross referencing.

And fair warning. Wall of text (and a couple pictures) ahead – plus SCIENCE!

Before we really get into it we rather need to talk the same language. In my previous life I was a chemist, so this stuff is as intuitive to me as the alphabet is to you. I also know that a large proportion of people go glassy-eyed at the thought of chemistry. But really, they are just words, and to my mind (yeah, I’m biased) pretty logical. So, some working definitions and explanations. Have a look at the following chemical structure.


The first thing is that this is called a triglyceride. Tri means 3. See the three sets of ‘lines’. That is why it’s ‘tri’. Those lines are called fatty acids. Look to the far left. Those three “O” attached by other lines? That is a glycerin structure. Also called the glycerin backbone. When things (those ‘lines’ or fatty acids) are attached to the backbone it’s simply called a glyceride. Just think of it as different tenses of a word. Stand vs stood. Glycerin vs glyceride. And since there are three fatty acids attached, it is a…..Tri-glyceride. The layman’s term for this is fat or butter (if it is solid at room temperature) or oil (if it is a liquid). It’s generally called a fat if it is derived from an animal and a butter if from a plant source. Hence cocoa butter. A room temperature ‘butter’ from the cocoa plant. Nice and simple.

Next, each of those fatty acids (the lines) have a different name depending on how long they are. Most of them have two names. I high and fancy standardized name, and their common name, often based on the source it was first discovered in.

From the picture above, the top fatty acid is hexadecanoic acid. It has 16 carbon atom in it (each of those jogs back and forth represent a carbon atom). Hexa means 6. Deca is 10. 10 + 6 = 16. Got it? Good. It’s also called Palmitic acid. Guess where they found it first? Yep, from the pressing of the palm kernel. Again, that simple. We are just going to use the common names.

Now, cocoa butter is not one fixed triglyceride. The picture above shows one possible triglyceride in cocoa butter. It is made up of Palmitic, Stearic and Oleic acid. One of each, in the order listed. But cocoa butter has other triglycerides (BTW, in the literature they are also called TriAcylGlycerides or TAG). To state it again, cocoa butter is a mixture of different TAGs. For ease of reference and reading, it is often referred (in context) as PSO. Just the first letter of each fatty acid. Have a look at this table.


There are 6 named “common” fatty acids plus the catch all ‘other’. Just from crunching some numbers (6 3 : 6 for the 6 fatty acids, 3 for the ‘tri’) there are 216 possible ‘common’ (meaning I excluded the ‘other’) TAGs in cocoa butter. In reality it is actually much less – thank goodness. Mostly there is POP, POS and SOS with smaller amounts of PLP, POO, PLS, and SOO. 216 down to 7. But from a chemistry standpoint, that is A LOT! Why do we care? Because each fatty acid has a different melting point and each combination (each TAG) has a different melting point and the proportion of those TAGs causes each cocoa butter to have a different melting point.

And THAT is why tempering is aggravating to so many people. Because each cocoa butter has the possibility to have a different TAG mix and therefore a different melting point. In point of fact, that we can temper cocoa butter at all is pretty damn amazing once you see just how many structures there are for us to work with. This is why tempering temperatures are given in ranges. Because cocoa butters come in different ranges.

Let’s look at a couple simple examples and delve into the chemistry a little so you hopefully can appreciate it, maybe understand it a little, and with a tiny bit of luck, see what you can do with that knowledge in a practical sense if you so desire.

Fact: the length of the carbon chain (C16 for Palmitic acid) is proportional to it’s melting point. C16 will melt at a lower temperature than C18 (Stearic Acid).

Why? Analogy time. You have three people holding hands and you have 10 people hold hands. Melting is getting everybody to let go. If you have to do it, which takes more energy (heat)? 10 people of course because there are more of them. It’s that simple.

But it isn’t THAT simple. That is true for straight chain fatty acids. But look at Oleic acid. See that extra line in there? It’s called a double bond ? Don’t freak out. It’s just a word. It means one of the people is holding onto something (a chocolate bar?) and can’t use both hands to hold together. The result is it takes you less energy to get them to let go (or melt).

That means that Palmitic acid (C16) melts before Stearic acid (C18).

Both Stearic and Oleic acid are C18. But Oleic has a double bond so it will melt sooner. If we look at the data of melting points, that is exactly what we see.

Palmitic 62.9 °C /145.2 °F

Stearic 69.3 °C /159.7 °F

Oleic 13.5 °C /56.0 °F

And how about if we look at Linoleic acid. It has 18 carbons but TWO double bonds. Both hands are full of chocolate! That is going to melt really easy. And indeed it does.

−5 °C /23 °F) to −12 °C /10 °F. (it’s a range depending on how it crystallizes (sound familiar?)

Bringing this all together, this means if your cocoa butter has a lot of TAGs with Oleic acid in it then it will melt at a lower temperature and you will have to temper it cooler than ‘normal’. And if it has a larger than normal proportion of Linoleic acid it’s going to really melt at a lower temperature. And if those percentages are higher, than your chocolate will tend to melt at a higher melting point.

So what does it all mean? Does it help you temper your chocolate? No, not really. It just helps you have some understanding as to some of the reasons that the chocolate you made from this year’s cocoa beans from Peru are not acting like last year’s. In point of fact, that quite often it DOES temper the same is somewhat amazing and miraculous given how small changes in TAG composition can affect just the basic melting point.

And we have not (nor are we really) even talked about how different TAG compositions crystallize together. Each different TAG will pack differently depending what other TAG is near it. And different packings mean different final structures, and those final structures are what we term the different polymorphic structures of cocoa butter. Our goal being Type V. But as you can start to appreciate now, just by the reality of different TAG being made up by different fatty acids in different proportions, they are a near infinite versions of Type V crystals. It is a whole RANGE of structures that are similar but not exactly the same. I mean how can they be the same when you can have cocoa butter with POP, POS, and SOO, TAG’s of all different lengths. I can’t be the same, therefore it has to be different or a RANGE of structures that behave and look similar!!

Confused? Yeah, that was a lot. What can you do with it? Well, If you are not adverse to it, you now have the tools to change something things systematically.

You may have heard about other oils and fats being added to chocolate. Yes, sometimes it is for financial reasons. Cocoa butter is expensive. But sometimes it is being done to change the melting point and therefore the tempering properties of the chocolate.

You have a chocolate that is just not holding temper? It melts too low? Well, have a look above. What melts higher? Palmitic acid does. And recall, it was named for being from palm oil. How about adding some palm oil? Sure, let’s look it up.

The palm oil TAG is still a mixture, but a lot of it is PPO and that will raise the melting point a bit.

How about palm kernel oil? Well, it has a bunch of Lauric acid that is C12 so that is going to make your chocolate melt at even a lower temperature.

Coconut oil I hear someone asking about. Well that is a funny one. Again, lots of Lauric acid (c12) but there are also C10 and C8 in there and when coconut oil is added to chocolate what you end up getting is a chocolate that does not bloom. Great you say? Well, no. It is also very soft (lower melting point) and does not temper either. Just because something does not bloom does not mean it tempers. It can do nothing. Sort of like a number line. To the right of zero is positive and that is tempered, left of zero is negative and is bloom…but there is still zero. Untempered. Coconut oil (in sufficient amounts) inhibits the polymorphic crystallization of cocoa butter.

At some point I want to experiment with small amounts of shea butter. It’s primary TAG is SOO. From all of our discussions here you would expect it to melt very low, but it doesn’t. Now, it’s not breaking any rules. Shea butter extract is a complex butter that in has many non-TAG (they are called nonsaponifiable) components that raise the melting point. To a surprising degree too. 89-100 F for regular shea butter and a special high melting point one that melts at 104 to 113°F.

I’ve found references it is tempering compatible (unlike coconut oil). There was a PhD research position I heard about a couple years ago where the goal was to come up with a ‘new’ form of tempered chocolate that would be more resistant to melting but still retain it’s nice mouth feel. I can see this is the direction the research would have to take. Very minor additions of select TAGs that give a shove the range of Type V crystal to the upper end.

Finally, I want to put the disclaimer in that I’m not advocating or against additions to chocolate. I’m neutral. The whole point of this conversation was to open your mind to possibilities and give a peek inside of some of the chemistry. I find understanding things terribly exciting.

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Ask the Alchemist #128

I’m doing raw chocolate, that comes out really really good. The only thing is, that even though I do very proper tempering, after being out the fridge a bit, it will soften, hence will not keep firm on the shelf. I wonder if it’s because I use paste and butter, vs bean to bar (via a stone grinder)? Does bean to bar temper better? Is there any butter added to beans when doing bean to bar? The texture, snap, crunch etc I get are amazing once out of the fridge and maybe a few minutes out, yet more than a few minutes, all that texture is gone, and chocolate becomes soft.

I get this question or some variation a few times a month. The main issue here is misconception that whatever is being done is producing a temper. To say “I am doing a proper temper” and following up with ‘it will soften” or bloom, etc is contradictory.

If the chocolate was tempered it would not be soft at room temperature and would not bloom. It’s basically a definition thing.

It does not matter in the least how the bar looks or feels or tastes coming out of the refrigerator. All chocolate is hard and brittle when cold. The whole key about tempering is that it remains hard, glossy and brittle (has good snap) when at room temperature.

In short, it is clear your chocolate is not tempered. As to why, there isn’t enough information to say. I suspect it is just the lack of seed or the wrong temperatures. There is not a lot more it can be.

What I can say is it does not really have anything to do with it not being bean to bar. It might (or might not) have something to do with your chocolate being raw. Many raw chocolates are higher in moisture which can inhibit proper crystallization and thus temper. Likewise, butter can be added to bean to bar chocolate but it does not have to be. It is totally optional.

Much like last week’s question, the real key here is observing what is really going on and diagnosing the problem correctly. “It’s tempered but”….as soon as you put that qualifier in there (“but”) that contradicts your previous statement it should raise a red flag that something is wrong with your initial assessment of the situation. I don’t mean to nitpick. My goal is get you to realize that your chocolate isn’t tempering and that is where your problem is in all likelihood. Once that realization is made, troubleshooting on your own “problems in tempering in the Big G” becomes almost trivial.That said, I’m always here to help and I’ll be touching base personally about this issue to get your situation all fixed up.