The tropical, evergreen cacao tree is cultivated for its seeds (also called beans), from which cocoa butter, chocolate and cocoa powder are produced.
Cacao bean (also Anglicized as cocoa bean, often simply cocoa /ˈkoʊ.koʊ/ and cacao /kəˈkaʊ/; Mayan: kakaw; Nahuatl: cacahuatl [kaˈkawat͡ɬ]) is the dried and fully fermented fatty bean of Theobroma cacao, from which cocoa solids and cocoa butter are extracted. They are the basis of chocolate, as well as many Mesoamerican foods such as mole sauce and tejate.
A cocoa pod (fruit) has a rough and leathery rind about 3 cm thick (this varies with the origin and variety of pod). It is filled with sweet, mucilaginous pulp (called ‘baba de cacao’ in South America) enclosing 30 to 50 large seeds that are fairly soft and white to a pale lavender color. While seeds are usually white, they become violet or reddish brown during the drying process. The exception is rare varieties of white cacao, in which the seeds remain white. Historically, white cacao was cultivated by the Rama people of Nicaragua.
To make 1 kg (2.2 pounds) of chocolate, about 300 to 600 beans are processed, depending on the desired cocoa content. In a factory, the beans are roasted. Next they are cracked and then de-shelled by a “winnower”. The resulting pieces of beans are called nibs. They are usually sold in small packages at specialty stores and markets to be used in cooking, snacking, and chocolate dishes. Since nibs are directly from the cocoa tree, they contain high amounts of theobromine. Most nibs are ground, using various methods, into a thick creamy paste, known as chocolate liquor or cocoa paste. This “liquor” is then further processed into chocolate by mixing in (more) cocoa butter and sugar (and sometimes vanilla and lecithin as an emulsifier), and then refined, conched and tempered. Alternatively, it can be separated into cocoa powder and cocoa butter using a hydraulic press or the Broma process. This process produces around 50% cocoa butter and 50% cocoa powder. Standard cocoa powder has a fat content of approximately 10–12 percent. Cocoa butter is used in chocolate bar manufacture, other confectionery, soaps, and cosmetics.
Treating with alkali produces Dutch process cocoa powder, which is less acidic, darker and more mellow in flavor than what is generally available in most of the world. Regular (non-alkalized) cocoa is acidic, so when cocoa is treated with an alkaline ingredient, generally potassium carbonate, the pH increases. This process can be done at various stages during manufacturing, including during nib treatment, liquor treatment or press cake treatment.
Another process that helps develop the flavor is roasting. Roasting can be done on the whole bean before shelling or on the nib after shelling. The time and temperature of the roast affect the result: A “low roast” produces a more acid, aromatic flavor, while a high roast gives a more intense, bitter flavor lacking complex flavor notes.