Chocolate A Complete Beginner's Guide

Updated: December 28, 2011

Jayne Georgette

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This is a guest post by Jayne Georgette from Chocolates & Figs.

"Never be more than 12 steps away from chocolate." - Terry Moore
Personally I prefer not more than two steps away.

Admit it, you want to be a chocolate snob.  Wine snobbery just doesn’t have the same cachet anymore.  Chocolate snobbery is more fun and chocolate snobs are much more pleasant than the wine equivalents.

After all, people can get sad or angry from drinking wine, but chocolate makes everyone happy.  And if you can introduce your friends to the finer chocolates and the finer points to observe in judging them, they will recognize you for the glorious and brilliant friend you are.

According to Dave Barry, “If you want to become a rich, pretentious snot—and who doesn’t?-you should learn about wine.” And now the same applies to chocolate.

I’ve taught thousands of people in the proper points of chocolate snobbery in chocolate tastings and appreciation classes, and am happy to share the secrets of chocolate with you here.


For most of chocolate’s history it has been a drink. Chocolate has also always had an aristocratic air.  Here’s a brief overview of chocolate’s history:

  • Origins: The Maya of Mesoamerica discovered that grinding and mixing the cocoa beans with water produces a pleasantly bitter drink.  The drink was reserved for the nobility as only they were entitled to its restorative and aphrodisiac powers.  Meanwhile, the first cocoa bean plantations had been planted by the Olmecs near the Gulf of Mexico, not the Aztecs as popularly believed.
  • Industrial Revolution:  The first chocolate factories appeared in Europe in 1728, but they used very ancient production methods. Francois-Louis Cailler established the first sophisticated production facility in Corsier, Switzerland, in 1819 and made the first smooth chocolate bar.
  • Dairy Sensation: In 1875 the Swiss chocolate maker Daniel Peter turned the world of chocolate upside down by adding Nestle condensed milk to chocolate. Presto! Milk chocolate was born.  However, Rodolphe Lindt was the first one to produce a creamy chocolate that pleasantly melted on your tongue.
  • Chocolate for the Masses: The first mass production of chocolate was introduced by Milton Hershey in 1900.  Then, Henri Nestle produced the first white chocolate.  Soon after, chocolate production began to explode with truffles, bonbons, chocolate bars, and molded chocolates.

This is the process that determines whether the chocolate in your hand is a top quality one - or one that you should use for decorating the garbage can. A real chocolate snob should understand this process well.

Step 1: Harvesting

The cacao tree is a very delicate tree and only thrives in tropical regions.  It only starts to bear fruit in its second or third year.

  • First the blossoms appear on the trunk.
  • After insects pollinate the blossoms they become a cacao pod.
  • A tree bears about 25 to 50 pods up to 25 to 30 years.
Every 2 to 4 weeks the pods are harvested from the tree, carefully opened and the cocoa beans (seeds) and pulp are removed to begin the fermentation process.

Types of Cacao Beans

  • Criollo—the “premium” bean, grown in the Caribbean and Central America and making up less than 2% of the cacao supply.
  • Forastero—the most common bean, mostly from Africa and comprising over 90% of world production.
  • Trinitario—a hybrid of the other two is a hybrid of the other two beans and comprising about 5% of the total supply.
Some chocolate uses “single origin” cacao plantations for their chocolates, but most involve combining beans from many sources.

Step 2: Fermentation

  • Fermentation is a crucial step in the transformation of the cacao bean to “chocolate.”
  • It eliminates, or at least, reduces the “sharpness” of the bean.
  • The acid and the alcohol kill the cacao seeds.
  • A variety of new compounds and flavors develop.
  • The concentration of polyphenols (responsible for the sharpness) is reduced.
  • The chocolate fermentation process takes about 4 to 7 days to complete.
Note: Poor fermentation is usually masked by either adding a large amount of sugar or by alkalization, both of which conceal sharpness but also produces a product without real chocolate flavor.

Step 3: Drying and Shipping

  • The beans need to be dried by exposing them to sun and air to stop fermentation.
  • The process causes the beans to turn brown (this is the stage you usually see in pictures as “cocoa beans”).
  • The beans are ready to be shipped to the manufacturer.
Step 4: Roasting

After cleaning, the manufacturer roasts the beans at 230F to 428F (110 to 220C) for 40 to 50 minutes to develop the chocolate flavors of the nibs (this is the beans minus the shells).  Some inferior chocolates have been roasted to excess and will have burnt flavors as a result.

Note: You can actually eat the nibs, and it has become quite fashionable to do so.  The nibs are excellent in savory cooking as well. 

Step 5: Blending, Grinding and Mixing

In this process different varieties of cocoa beans are custom blended according to the manufacturer requirements.  The nibs are ground into liquid cocoa mass called chocolate liquor, which is a combination of cocoa butter and cocoa solids.

At this time sugar, milk/milk powder (only for white and milk chocolate), extra cocoa butter fat, lecithin (an emulsifier preventing fat separation) and vanilla can be added to the cocoa beans.

Note:  The milk in milk chocolate comes from either cream, whole or reduced-fat milk, and/or powdered, condensed, or evaporated milk.

Step 6: Refining

At this stage the chocolate mass is sheared into a smaller particle size (about 20 microns.) It is important to maintain this size.  If the particles are too large it will result in a coarse mouth-feel.  Too small, and the chocolate particles may result in stickiness on the palate.

Step 7: Conching

This is a crucial stage of chocolate making. Even if perfectly ground and blended, the product that emerges from the mill does not yet deserve to be called chocolate. Conching is a process of intense mixing, agitating, and aerating of heated liquid chocolate in machines called conches.  Conching can last as long as a few days. It eliminates any off-flavors and unwanted bitter substances that may be still present.

The longer a chocolate is conched, the finer and mellower it will be.

Note:  Unsweetened chocolates (baking chocolate) are often not conched, giving those chocolates a more astringent quality.  Chocolate brands that do conch their unsweetened chocolate include Valrhona and Scharffen-Berger. 

The conched chocolate is then cooled down and goes through the final stage, tempering, which I will give fuller treatment.



Tempering is one of the most important techniques in creating top quality chocolates. If done correctly, it results in a smooth and glossy chocolate with pleasant aroma, pleasurable mouth-feel, is resistant to warmth (not melting in your hand), and has a longer shelf life.

When you want to make your own chocolate creations, you may need to re-temper the chocolate, using one of the methods below.  You will need to use a food thermometer to measure the chocolate’s temperature.

Tempering sounds really scary, but it is possible to do it fairly simply.  And if nothing else, knowing how it works makes you an awesome chocolate snob.

The Basic Tempering Process

  1. The chocolate is heated to a certain temperature that depends on the type of chocolate (dark, milk, white) to melt the cocoa butter crystals completely.
Note: Cocoa butter contains various sizes of crystals (Alpha, Beta and Gamma) with different melting points that keep the cocoa butter stable; the production of chocolate only uses the beta crystals because they have the highest melting point of 35C-37C, about the same as body temperature. If the cocoa butter obtains a uniform crystal structure, the chocolate will be smooth, glossy and snap when broken.
  1. Next, the chocolate is cooled to a certain degree to allow “good” crystals to form.
  2. Lastly, the chocolate is re-heated again to eliminate any “bad” crystals that may have formed during the previous process.
(Note: If overheated at the last stage, you will need to start the entire process all over.) 

Methods of Tempering

Although there are multiple methods that you can use to temper a chocolate, they all consist of the same process described above. What method of tempering you want to use is less important than the creation of what we call “stable crystals” in order to create a top quality chocolate.

The chocolate that you bought in the store is always tempered.  Direct method means you melt the chocolate without getting it out “out of temper.” This means you don’t heat dark chocolate beyond about 90F or milk/white chocolate beyond 82F.

Note: the methods that you use for melting the chocolate when you want to use it in baking or in other product creation (i.e., in the microwave oven, or over simmering water) is a direct tempering method.

Unfortunately, it is very easy to overheat the chocolate with this method, in which case you would need to start the tempering process all over.

The most popular direct method uses the microwave oven. Melt the chocolate under 50% power and check it every 20 seconds if melted. Stir it at every interval; otherwise you do not see if all the chocolate is melted.

It is acceptable to take the chocolate out of the microwave with lumps. These lumps will melt away when you stir the chocolate.

  • Advantages of this method: Quick, simple, and easy.
  • Disadvantages of this method: It is very easy to overheat the chocolate if you are inexperienced.
Another direct method uses a double boiler.  Use very little water in the bottom dish and place the chocolate in a bowl over the lightly simmering water to melt.
  • Advantages of this method:  Needs only occasional stirring
  • Disadvantages of this method:  Chocolates do not like water. If one drop gets into the chocolate (and it could happen through the steam, as well) the chocolate may seize (turn into a grainy, clumpy mess in the bowl).
“Seized” chocolate cannot be “fixed”, but can be used in baking. Add butter, or warmed up cream (1 tablespoon to every 6 ounce of chocolate) and stir slowly into the mass, until the chocolate loosens and either the butter or the cream is completely incorporated.

Another popular direct method for the home chocolatier uses an ordinary home heating pad.  Just place the bowl with the chocolate over the pad on high.

  • Advantages of this method:  Chocolate will melt slowly, making it easier to avoid overheating it.
  • Disadvantages of this method:  If you need to work with larger quantities of chocolate, it can be very time consuming.

This is the easiest method of tempering professionally. It uses the stable crystals in the chocolate to cool a larger mass of melted chocolate. The usual ratio is 2/3 melted chocolate and 1/3 chocolate pieces used for “seeding” the melted chocolate.

Seeding Process

  1. Weigh out the total amount of chocolate the recipe requires.
  2. Either chop or grate the chocolate and divide it into 2/3 and 1/3.
  3. Melt the 2/3 chopped or grated chocolate, either in the microwave (see above) or in a double boiler.
  4. Gradually add part of the grated or chopped chocolate to the melted chocolate and start stirring it to incorporate the newly introduced solid chocolate pieces (try not to incorporate too much air).
  5. When the added chocolate is melted completely, check the temperature and proceed in accordance with the above mentioned temperature requirements. If the melted chocolate is still above the required temperature add more chopped or grated chocolate.
  6. When you reached the required temperature check the chocolate. Dip a knife into the chocolate and let it set.  If tempered correctly the chocolate will set fast, and will appear glossy without any streaks.
  7. If the chocolate was cooled too much the best method is to use an immersion blender. The friction created by the blender will warm up the chocolate.
Here is the temperature schedule for each type of chocolate:

Bittersweet or dark chocolate:

  1. Melted to 131-136F (55C-58C)
  2. Then cooled to 82 to 84F (28C -29C)
  3. And finally reheated to 88F-90F (31C-32C)
 Milk Chocolate:
  1. Melted to 113F-122F(45C-50C)
  2. Then cooled to 81F-82F(27C-28C)
  3. And finally re-heated to 84F-86F(29C-30C)
White chocolate
  1. Melted to 113F-122F(45C-50C)
  2. Then cooled to 79F-81F(26C-27C)
  3. And finally re-heated to 82F-84F(28C-29C)

This is the fastest and most efficient tempering method, but requires experience and a marble slab. You have to work with the chocolate fast in order to achieve successful tabling. In addition you need experience in working with an offset and a triangular spatula, simultaneously.

It is not for home use, because it is too complex and should be left for the professional only.

Troubleshooting in Tempering

  • Never stir the chocolate too fast or too long. It may create air bubbles that are harmful for the chocolate.
  • While you are working with the tempered chocolate it will start to lose heat and start to thicken. You can use a hair drier (one that is not used for drying hair) to warm up the surface of the chocolate.
  • Another method that professionals use to keep the chocolate in temper longer is to keep a warmed kitchen towel under the bowl where the tempered chocolate is.
  • Controlling the room temperature where you are working with the chocolate is also important. The ideal room temperature should be between 65F-70F (18.3=21.1C).
  • If the temperature in the room is too warm, the chocolate will take longer to set.  This may cause an unattractive grey “fat bloom.” Blooming occurs when the cocoa butter in the chocolate stays too long in a liquid state and travels to the surface of the chocolate.
  • Fat bloom can be identified by streaks of grey or white on the surface of the chocolate. In addition, the chocolate becomes crumbly. It also melts in your hand as you touch it because cocoa butter melts at body temperature.
Understanding the Percentages on the Label

What is a cacao percentage?

The cacao percentage that appears on chocolate labels refers to the total cacao content in the chocolate, which is everything that is derived from the cocoa bean: the cocoa butter and cocoa solids.

In the U.S., milk chocolate must be a minimum of 10% cacao and dark (bittersweet or semisweet) chocolate must be at least 35% cacao.  However, most manufacturers use cacao in much higher percentages.  The trend in chocolate has been to increase the cacao content, so today’s milk chocolate may have more cacao than yesterday’s bittersweet.

White chocolate is not technically chocolate—it is cocoa butter without any cocoa solids.  It also has sugar and powdered milk added.

Why should I care about cacao percentage?

  • The cacao content gives an indication of how intense or how sweet the chocolate will be. The preference for higher cacao content chocolate may change from person to person or from time to time. depending on whether you want something more sweet or more intense.
  • For baking chocolate, knowing the percentage allows you to control the sweetness and chocolate intensity in your baked good.
  • Cacao content is also important when pairing with other foods and beverages.
How much sugar does the chocolate have?

The higher the cacao content the lower the sugar content. If you buy a dark chocolate that is “70% cacao” it has 70 percent cocoa solids and butter and approximately 30% sugar. Most chocolate contain about 0.5% of vanilla, lecithin, etc., so the actual sugar content in this example would be about 29.5%.

If two chocolates have the same cacao percentage, are they basically the same?

No.  Cacao percentage refers to the combined mass of the cocoa butter and cocoa solids, but it tells you nothing about the ratio of cocoa butter to cocoa solids.

A cocoa bean is made up of 45% cocoa solids (the flavor) and 55% cocoa butter (the flavor carrier).  However, additional cocoa butter is often added during the manufacturing process and has a large impact on the chocolate experience.

For example, one 72% chocolate may consist of 30% cocoa solids and 42% cocoa butter, while another chocolate may consist of 26% cocoa solids and 46% cocoa butter.  The first example has a higher cocoa solid content meaning it will have a stronger chocolate flavor and a greater viscosity than the second example.

How can you tell how much cocoa butter is in the chocolate?

For dark chocolate, look at the amount of fat in the nutritional label, divided by the total weight, for a rough estimate.

Also, the same cacao percentage in two different chocolates may not mean the same quality.  Quality may depend on the origin of the beans, the quality of the added ingredients, and the manufacturing process.

Is a chocolate with a higher cacao percentage better?

Not necessarily.  It can be a little like selecting a wine for its alcohol content.  Chocolates with a higher cacao percentage are thicker, more intense, and more bitter.  Whether you enjoy that is a matter of personal taste.  I love it.

However, chocolate recipes that use dark chocolate usually are based on 60% cacao varieties.  Chocolates with 70% cacao, for example, would require significant recipe adjustments.


The Secrets of Quality Chocolate

There are many chocolates available worldwide but only a very small percentage of them are considered premium.

To create premium coverture a manufacturer must control every step in the production:

  1. Selecting the finest cacao beans – up to 7 different beans may be combined to create a final product that is complex and highly aromatic.
  2. Selecting the finest additional ingredients – milk, milk products, and vanilla.
  3. Roasting under strict controls.
  4. Conching up to 72 hours.
  5. Balancing cocoa butter, cocoa solids, sugar, and other ingredients for a well-rounded chocolate experience.
  6. Tinkering constantly with the final recipes to adjust for differing bean conditions in order to achieve a consistent flavor profile. 
When evaluating chocolate at a tasting, you have to use all your senses. You can see a more detailed description of the chocolate tasting process on my blog.

You must master this presentation to be considered the Master Snob.

  • VISUAL - To the eye, the deep mahogany tones of its outer covering should seem to shine with perfect uniformity. Milk chocolate should be auburn brown and the degree of darkness varying according cocoa content.
  • TOUCH - To the touch, fine chocolate is firm, yet will not crumble. (Do not try this in a store; no explanation will help.)
  • SMELL - When placed in proximity of your nose, subtle aromas both reveal and contribute to its taste while stimulating your anticipation. The expert hand circumspectly breaks it, releasing a wave of robust aromas and delicate flavors. (Note: the same as above; unless you find unwrapped chocolate, which would be rare. Whole Foods sells directly fom Callebaut and Valrhona, two major quality chocolate manufacturers.)
  • TASTE In the mouth, let it rest on your tongue and slowly dissolve, releasing its unmistakable full flavor in minute, dissolving morsels. Its texture reveals itself to your palate; radiant and striking, yet not overwhelming.  It has a harmonious, distinctive bouquet not unlike a great wine.
  • Carefully read the ingredients and the description of the production technique employed. This will at least provide you an indication of the quality of the finished product.


The ideal temperature for keeping chocolate is between 54F to 68F(12.2C-20.0C). Higher temperature will cause fat bloom (see above) Lower temperatures are less troublesome because the cocoa butter remains tightly bound.


Humidity is not friendly to chocolate, because the sugar in the chocolate will absorb the moisture and eventually will cause the sugar to bloom.

For instance if you keep your chocolate in the refrigerator and then take it out to room temperature, a condensation will form on the chocolate.  Sugar, being a “water lover,” will absorb the condensation.  Eventually the moisture will evaporate but will leave behind the sugar.  This sugar then recrystallizes on the surface of chocolate and show up as dull, whitish surface.

Relative humidity in the room where the chocolate is kept should not pass 50%.

To distinguish between fat and sugar bloom (both are not good, but if you know how to correct for it than it is important to identify the type of bloom) rub the affected chocolate on your palm.  Fat bloom will be smooth against the skin; sugar bloom will have a grainy, sandy texture.

If this happens to a chocolate candy, there is nothing you can do, except eat it yourself (the horror, the horror). A solid chocolate, however, can be re-tempered.

Light and Air

All chocolate should be protected from light and air – that is why they are wrapped when you purchase them. If you leave the wrapper open for a longer period, the chocolate will oxidize, change color, and worse, loses flavor.

Milk chocolate is the worst offender, and dark chocolate can tolerate the longest time to be exposed, because it has a high concentration of anti-oxidants.


Chocolates are known to absorb odors easily. Do not place them next to food that emits strong odors, like onion, garlic, etc.

Also, do not also handle cleaning products next to open chocolates.


Cleanliness is a critical factor when handling chocolate

  • Wash your hand frequently.
  • Equipment, if using any, and production room has to be vey clean all the time.
  • If any of the above methods are neglected the shelf life of the chocolate will be reduced.
Shelf Life

If stored properly:

  • Milk or White chocolate will be usable for 9 to 12 months.
  • Dark chocolates will be usable for 12 to 18 months.
Finally, if you paid attention what is happening in the media,  you must have noticed how the word “Health” is being used  and abused in everything, everywhere, and every opportune moment. There are a myriad of healthful diets, exercises,  foods that are the epitomy of health,  magical pills that  will make you super healthy and even cities that are healthier as compared to others. So, we must jump on the wagon, except that every claimed health benefit of chocolate is supported by quality research that was repeated multiple times.

So, Here Are the True Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate: 

Lately, if somebody asks me about my consumption of chocolate, I tell them “I am eating chocolate for its health benefits.” I want to have a healthy heart, I want to make sure that my blood cholesterol level is not above normal, I want to maintain a normal blood pressure and so on.  And it is all true.

Dark chocolate and ONLY dark chocolate contains high concentrations of a compound, called flavonoids, which are actually antioxidants. Although there are many other foods that contain this chemical, chocolate contains the highest concentration of it.


Flavonoids In 1.25 ounces of cocoa products:

  • Milk chocolate 300 mg
  • Dark chocolate 700 mg
  • Cocoa powder 1,300 mg
Flavonoids have been found to be responsible for:
  • Lowering blood levels of Low Density Lipoprotein [(LDL)(the bad cholesterol)] – due to its high concentration levels of polyphenols in blood
  • Increasing blood levels of High Density Lipoprotein [(HDL) (the good cholesterol)]
  • Reducing the risk of arteriosclerosis or plaque formation in blood vessels (If plaque is built up on arteries, it can lead to stroke and/or heart attack.)
  • Enhancing our immune system
  • Protecting us against the development of hypertension
  • Preventing free radical damage that can lead to cancer
  • Inhibiting the formation of blood clots
  • Suppressing persistent cough (theobromine in chocolate suppresses vagus nerve activity in the upper respiratory tract; 3 times more effective than codeine – considered the best cough medicine)
  • Assisting in weight reduction (yes you are reading it correctly); a cup of hot or cold cocoa before meals, diminishes appetite.
Other beneficial effects of dark chocolate include:
  • Boosts brain levels of serotonin, the “happy neurotransmitter”
  • Enhances mood (chocolate contains a chemical, named phenethylamine, (PEA) that triggers the release of endorphins in the brain, giving a sense of well-being.  It is also responsible for the aphrodisiacal properties of chocolate.
  • Increases the activities of the neurotransmitter dopamine, that is directly associated with the feelings of sexual arousal and pleasure.
  • Inhibits the natural breakdown of the neurotransmitter anandamide and as a result producing a feeling of euphoria.
Chocolate also contains healthful nutrients like calcium, phosphorus, iron, zinc, potassium and copper.

Cocoa is the highest natural source of Magnesium. A diet high in this mineral protects against the symptoms of hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, joint problems and pre-menstrual tension.

All this does not mean that you should replace other heart-healthy foods, like berries or grapes, with chocolate, but that you should consume it in moderation.

Although chocolate tends to be high in fat and sugar. It may not be bad for you, because not all fat is bad.

Good quality chocolates are made with cocoa butter, a fat comprised of oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat that is also found in olive oil. Oleic acid actually helps lower bad cholesterol levels in the blood. Interestingly, although stearic acid is a saturated fatty acid (SFA) it does not affect blood cholesterol negatively.

The only fat in cocoa butter that is not good for you is palmitic acid, but it is found to be in limited concentrations in cocoa butter.

Remember, however, that not all chocolate is made with cocoa butter, so be sure to read labels.

When you do want to indulge in healthful chocolate, choose the darkest, richest chocolate you can find made with quality cocoa.

I hope you found this a helpful introduction to the world of chocolate.  Keep tasting and savoring new chocolates, and life will always be beautiful.

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