Chocolate is a general term used to describe a number of foods made from the cacao bean. It is particularly used to describe a sweet confection made from cacao with sugar added. There are many different ways to prepare it, some dating back thousands of years. It is believed that chocolate use by the Mayans dates back more than 2,500 years, and the Aztecs are also known to have used it ritually and for pleasure. This chocolate was consumed as a bitter drink, sometimes with hot peppers added, and was an important item throughout the New World.
The cacao bean grows on the cacao tree, and the first step in chocolate production is harvesting these beans. The beans are then cut open, the pulp is taken out, and the husks are discarded or used for other purposes. The mix of pulp and seeds is then left to ferment, usually in wooden boxes in the ground, for between five to ten days. Once sufficient flavor has been imparted through fermentation, the beans are dried either by laying them out in the hot sun or by using a special kiln. After they are cleaned of twigs, dust, and other contaminants, they are ready to be bagged and shipped.
The cleaned beans are then roasted to make the flavors come out even more strongly and to lower the acidity somewhat. They are then cracked and blown through a fan to remove the shell from the meat of the bean. These chocolate nibs are crushed either by hand, using large stones, or by a machine, and the heat generated by the pounding liquefies them into a liquor. This liquid is then poured into a mold, where it hardens into blocks of dark, unsweetened chocolate.
At this point, the chocolate may have sugar, cocoa butter, vanilla, and other ingredients added to make it into something closer to what we think of as sweet chocolate. Cocoa butter, the fatty part of the nibs that is often separated during the grinding process, is used to give it a smooth texture, and it is a key ingredient in milk chocolate and in many sweet dark chocolates. The cocoa liquor may be left out of the final product, as in the case of white chocolate, so that the flavor is imparted solely by the fatty cocoa butter.
Once blended, the chocolate may be subjected to further blending in a process known as conching. Conching involves fine grinding using many small metal beads, breaking down the sugar crystals and the particulate chocolate into smaller and smaller bits to remove any grittiness and to leave the smoothest, richest feel possible. The better the product, in general, the longer it has been conched, and the smoother the final feel in the mouth.
Finally, the chocolate must be tempered to ensure that the crystals that form when it solidifies are of a uniform size. Tempering involves dissolving already crystallized chocolate into a liquid, gradually adding pieces and stirring them in until they dissolve. Once properly tempered, it can be molded and allowed to solidify, at which point it is ready to be packaged and consumed.