What's In a Name?

What’s the significance of the name of this blog, 99% Cacao Dark Chocolate?  I love dark chocolate – generally the darker the better (although I can absolutely appreciate a good-quality sweet chocolate too!).  Might as well pick a title that represents something I like – it’s my blog, after all.  My favorite baking chocolate happens to be a 99% cacao bar because there are few other ingredients to affect the flavor of the chocolate.

What’s the difference between cacao and cocoa?  Cacao refers to the bean pods and their seeds – the cacao solids.  Cacao is pronounced kuh-KOW (the second syllable rhymes with “POW”).  Cocoa is one of the products that can be made from Cacao.  Cocoa is made by pressing chocolate liquor and pulverizing the pressed result into a dust.  Cocoa is pronounced KOH-koh (both syllables rhyme with the word “go”).

What does the “99%” mean?  The percentage you often see labeling bars of chocolate refers to the amount of cacao solids in the bar.  Chocolate that has a higher percentage of cacao solids is darker – less sweet – than chocolate with a lower percentage of cacao solids.  99% is about as dark as it gets – its nearly entirely cacao solids, which means it is just about sugar-free, and therefore great to use in some types of baking where you really want the flavor of the chocolate to be bold and strong.  99% cacao chocolate is almost too dark to eat too much out-of-hand (except for a teensy nibble here and there).  Because the chocolate is so dark and nearly sugar-free, most recipes don’t call for it.  Most of the premium-quality bittersweet chocolate used for general purpose baking is in the 60-70% cacao range, and most recipes are written with that type of chocolate in mind.

But there’s more to it than just the cacao percentage.  The variety and quality of the bean, the way it’s been handled by the grower and the manufacturer, the quantity and quality of other ingredients that have been added to the chocolate, etc, etc, etc, all make a difference.  There are so many variables – you can’t just arbitrarily decide you like or dislike all chocolate that happen to be a certain cacao percentage.

Good quality chocolate is like good quality wine – each brand can vary greatly from the next (even when comparing chocolates with similar characteristics), and each chocolate type has a unique flavor profile.  Like wine, you’ll often hear descriptors such as “berries” or “coffee” or other similar words used when explaining the characteristics of a certain type of premium chocolate.

Why is there all this variation?  There are a lot of steps to make chocolate, which means there are lots of opportunities for variables to occur.  It makes more sense if you know how chocolate is made.

Chocolate comes from the seeds of the cacao bean, which grows on trees in climates near the equator.  Once the ripe cacao bean pods are picked, its seeds are removed and saved.  They are either placed in fermentation bins or in giant piles covered with banana leaves, and are allowed to ferment for several days.  The fermented seeds are then spread out and allowed to dry (preferably by air-drying – seeds that have had their drying time sped up by gas burners or the heat of a fire don’t taste as good in the final product).  Once the seeds have been thoroughly dried, they are shipped to the chocolate manufacturers.

After the cacao seeds arrive at the manufacturing facility, they are sorted, cleaned and roasted.  Like coffee beans, the cacao seed’s origin, the roasting time, and the roasting procedure are all big variables.  (The combination of seeds selected for roasting is important, and a darker roast will definitely taste different than a lighter roast will taste.)  The roasted seeds are cracked open, the shells are removed and discarded, and the interior cocoa nib remains for further processing.

The cocoa nibs are ground, which produces a substance referred to as chocolate liquor.  (Despite the term “liquor,” it is non-alcoholic.)  The chocolate liquor is mixed with supplemental ingredients (sometimes additional cocoa powder, sometimes just vanilla, sugar, or other flavoring).  It is further stirred and processed through special machinery to create a product with a smoother texture.  Since each company’s exact recipe, mixing/processing times, and selection of machinery used is different from the next, the result is a lot of variation from brand to brand.  Once all this processing is completed, the chocolate is tempered, then poured into molds to set.

To make cocoa powder instead of chocolate bars, the chocolate liquor is hydraulically pressed in a special machine.  This forces the cocoa butter to separate from the cacao solids.  The remaining solid cocoa “cake” is pulverized into cocoa powder.  And what is cocoa butter?  It is the naturally-occurring fat present in the cacao seed (it’s not a dairy product).  It can be used as the basis for white chocolate, added back into the mix for regular chocolate, or can be used in cosmetics or medicine.

If all this interests you and you want to learn more, there’s a lot of information available online.  You could check out the Field Museum's website.  They had a chocolate exhibit at their museum several years ago and still have lots of easy-to-understand information online.  You can also often find information on chocolate manufacturer’s websites – I’ve checked out both Scharffen Berger and Ghiradelli in the past.