Advice from Experts

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with two true chocolate experts. The first was Chloe Doutre-Roussel, author of The Chocolate Connoisseur: For Everyone With a Passion for Chocolate. We sat at Dandelion in San Francisco, where she was doing a book signing on her way up to the Northwest Chocolate Festival last weekend.

I felt honored to spend some time talking to Chloe about her vast experience with chocolate. I sat down with a Mission hot chocolate from Dandelion and when the chocolate-making staff at Dandelion joined us, I felt totally surrounded by experts. I had the opportunity to show them my bean to bar activities at home, and we discussed roasting and winnowing issues.

Landen and Chloe Doutre-Roussel

The second expert was Tad Van Leer. I’ll go into detail about my conversation with Mr. Van Leer – I learned a lot! Mr. Van Leer grew up and worked in his family’s chocolate manufacturing company, Van Leer Chocolate, until selling to Barry Callebaut in 1999, and more recently worked as General Manager of J. Emanuel Chocolatier, in Chester, NJ. His Van Leer chocolate was named the top chocolate in the world in a blind taste test at Chez Panisse in 1995 by Cook’s Illustrated also our cocoa powder was the top choice by Cook’s in 1999, and was the chocolate provider for the White House from Carter to Clinton’s presidency.

I also happened to go to high school with Mr. Van Leer’s daughter, Liz. So, it was an honor to be able to reconnect and discuss his background and recommendations in the world of chocolate. And some of what we discussed melded well with some of the lessons I’ve previously learned and other parts were entirely new and different! There is a wide range of advice out there as far as how to make chocolate, and we’re open to learning it all!

Let’s go through the chocolate-making process and I’ll highlight the new and different bits from my conversation with Mr. Van Leer.

Beans

Mr. Van Leer recommends getting cocoa beans from Ghana. He loves the Accra beans; they have “the cleanest flavor” and ferment better than anywhere else. Ghana beans also have the best yield, have more cocoa butter, and have the truest “chocolate flavor”. They are also the beans that went into the chocolate that won Van Leer Chocolate all its awards. Previously we had heard that most of the best bean genetics (Criollo) are in Latin America. Now we’re looking forward to expanding our bean sourcing horizon! He suggests that everyone develop their own taste rather than taking the advice of others.

Winnowing

Using screens to filter the nibs and husks could improve the speed and quality of the winnowing process. Using screens after cracking allows the nibs to go through the screen while keeping the shell above. One can then easily “blow” the shells away. Using a series of smaller screens mimics a true winnower, and will give you the cleanest nibs.

Roasting

Rather than our intensive kill step at 400 degrees, then dropping to 250 degrees, Mr. Van Leer recommends a completely new way of roasting (two step process): one to pop the shells, and again after winnowing and cracking the beans, never taking the temperature above 212 F. This allows for a more even roast with more of a consistent sized nib. Cocoa beans are of varied size- roasting them as whole beans over roasts small beans and under roasts larger ones. He suggests roasting with steam in a drum, something we haven’t heard before and are curious to try. Some of the roasting devices used by other bean-to-bar makers look like engineering feats out of Star Wars, particularly Art Pollard’s creation at Amano Artisan Chocolate. I encourage anyone interested in this to check out the documentary, Bean to Bar, which can be viewed on IndieFlix. If you roast in an oven ensure that the nibs are even on the pan. Coffee drum roasters also work well.

Refining

Mr. Van Leer’s refining recommendations were the most different from our previous advice. He suggests using a mill only to make the chocolate liquor. From there, the best refiner for uniform particle size is the three roll refiner. We’ve seen these before – Ritual Chocolate uses one, and goes into more detail on it here. Mr. Van Leer recommends a particle size of less than 25 microns, and encourages us to refine sugar to small particle size as well! He suggests refining the chocolate liquor and the sugar together. This makes for more uniform mass and also improves the conching flavor. Using a three roll refiner allows more fat release from the bean which makes the mass flow better, reducing the viscosity.

Conching

Another idea is to remove the chocolate from the Premier Wonder Grinder for further conching in a Kitchen Aid mixer, placed on a heating pad at about 145 F for 12 hours. At the moment, we’re conching directly in the grinder, so this could provide an alternative method! We learned that “cheap” chocolate is conched in a grinder- you usually get a less consistent flavor and the particle sizes are not uniform. He suggests tasting a cheap Easter Bunny from CVS or Walmart as an example.

Tempering

Tempering seems to be a point of agreement (besides the exact temperatures) among chocolate-makers. Mr. Van Leer recommends starting the chocolate liquor at 105, then cooling rapidly to 85 degrees, then heating it back to 90-92 F. He suggests a microwave at power level 3 (for about a pound of chocolate) and stirring often. His recommended test is not paper or a knife, but rather to pour it into a small flat mold and see if it shrinks with no discoloration. If that works, then the chocolate has been tempered appropriately.

Molds

Finally, Mr. Van Leer suggests using polycarbonate molds, found online at many sites including TomricMicelli, and Chef Rubber among others. At the moment, we’re using some polypropelene and some silicone molds – neither are amazing, so we’re definitely open to alternatives.

This was quite an educational conversation and we’re excited to stay in touch as we build out our recipes and process further! Let us know if there are additional chocolate experts you’d like to hear from, and we’ll try to get in touch to share their knowledge as well!

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Premier Wonder Grinder

The Premier Wonder Grinder was made to be an Indian spice grinder, but the Chocolate Alchemist, among others, recommends it as a small batch melanger. This recommendation was seconded by Greg D’Alesandre at Dandelion Chocolate, who has been an excellent mentor as we work with new recipes, ingredients, and processes.

[Update 12/14/14 – We previously linked to Chocolate Alchemy’s sale of the Premier Wonder Grinder. Unfortunately, John Nanci is no longer selling this unit (though check him out for replacement parts). So, if you’re thinking about buying a Premier Wonder Grinder, please consider clicking this link to Amazon, as Root Chocolate will receive a small percentage of your purchase. Thank you!]

On Friday, we received this beautiful box in the mail and were so excited to start using it!

Premier Wonder Grinder melanger

And Saturday morning, just over 12 hours after we received it in the mail, we tried using this melanger (beyond our trusty but tiny coffee grinder) for the first time. It was a big step, taking our itty bitty batch sizes of 100 grams of cocoa beans to 888 grams, pre-winnowing. (For our winnowing woes, check out this post.)

Our first use was mostly trial and error, with some guidance from the brilliance of the Chocolate Alchemist’s instructions on using a slightly different melanger and some advice from The Chocolate Life. (Have I mentioned how much I appreciate the online chocolate-making community?) Here are a few lessons we learned:

1. We cleaned the Premier Wonder Grinder with vegetable oil, as recommended by the Chocolate Alchemist. It came out of the box pretty dusty and the vegetable oil came out a muddy brown color. We wiped it clean with paper towels, then washed it with hot water and soap. We let it dry overnight to avoid any residue of water. Solid cleaning lesson, learned.

2. We realized the next morning that we had nowhere near enough beans for a typical batch size in this machine! Dandelion Chocolate to the rescue! We bought 2 kilos of Oko Caribe from the Dominican Republic after tasting their bar samples in the store. Yum – I don’t necessarily expect ours to turn out like that, but maybe someday! We roasted 888 grams of beans and they winnowed down to 773 grams. I wouldn’t recommend putting much more into this melanger, at least not when it’s dry.

roasting Oko Caribe beans

3. That leads us to lesson #3. The Premier Wonder Grinder is a wet grinder. That means, it works best when it is full of liquids, not solids or powders. That said, we don’t yet own an infamous Champion Juicer, as recommended by both Chocolate Alchemy and The Chocolate Life. It’s a little outside of our price range at the moment, though it may join our collection of inordinately large kitchen gear soon enough! So, we used our Nutribullet to grind the cocoa nibs to a powder. Then we heated them slightly in the oven. Our oven only goes down to 170, so we set it to 170, then turned it off and let the cocoa nibs sit in the warmth for about 15-20 minutes. The heat lowers the resistance and provides a closer-to-liquid experience for the melanger. We also used a hair dryer, blowing it on high heat into the melanger as we slowly added a spoonful at a time of cocoa powder. We realize that starting with a solid is not recommended in a wet grinder and that it may wear out the stones faster. We’re working with what we have for now, and it seems to be working ok!

Premier Wonder Grinder with cocoa powder transforming to liquor

4. Nice transition. The melanger can’t handle 773 grams of cocoa powder all at once. So, we added it slowly, and only after about an hour of melanging did we add in the sugar. We’re aiming for a 70% chocolate, so that’s 325 grams of sugar, ground up in our coffee grinder in advance.

Grinding sugar

5. Next lesson, the melanger is loud… kind of like a washing machine or a dryer. We have it far in a corner of our kitchen, but our one bedroom apartment isn’t quite big enough to avoid the noise entirely. We decided to consider it white noise and went to sleep with it in the background. It kept working, even through our surprise 6.1 earthquake!

6. Wow, does it work! Just tasting the liquor after about 4 hours in the melanger changed our world! It’s smooth and delicious and amazingly tastes like  the samples we tried at Dandelion earlier that day! Then again, I’m sure we have a lot to learn before we pump out bars like they do.

Premier Wonder Grinder pouring chocolate into double boilerdouble-boiling chocolate

7. It is hard to clean. After leaving it on for 15 hours and 25 minutes, we poured the chocolate into a double boiler, serving as our tempering machine. Another post, another time about our tempering troubles! Now Richard’s trying to get all the chocolate out of the stone wheels and it is not super easy!

And here we are, approximately 18 hours after we started the process… This chocolate is amazingly smooth and delicious. And, this being our biggest batch ever, we ended up with this chocolate war zone!

chocolate war zone

Winnowing woes

This weekend we attempted our first “big” batch. By big, I mean more than 100 grams of fermented cocoa beans at a time. This is very exciting, because we’re using our new melanger, the Premier Wonder Grinder for the first time!

I’ll go into more details about the Premier Wonder Grinder in another post. In the meantime, I’d like to bring it to the chocolate-making world’s attention my opinion about winnowing. It’s not my favorite part of making chocolate. In fact, it may even be my least favorite part.

For those who are new to the process, winnowing means to remove by air flow. In the chocolate sphere, we’re referring to removing husks from nibs. Cocoa beans are surrounded by a husk that needs to be removed before grinding, refining, and conching. To do that, you first need to crack the husk. And without some serious equipment, that cracking and removal just ain’t easy!

Dandelion Chocolate has a giant cracker and winnower (see the machine in back, the front machine is a roaster).

Dandelion cracker and winnower in back, roaster in front

Richard and I have attempted many iterations of cracking and winnowing. First, the rolling pin and hair dryer method. The cracking moves relatively quickly, as long as you have a very small batch (about 100 grams). And the hair dryer method works with an OK yield of remaining nibs, but be sure to wear those safety goggles and do this part outside. It’s a mess!

hair dryer winnowing rolling pin cracking

We’ve also tried a combined cracking and winnowing process using a garlic peeler. The Oxo garlic peeler does a decent job, but it takes quite some time and needs to be rinsed and dried frequently.

And today, with our large batch of beans (888 grams before cracking and winnowing), we had a new challenge. A pint-sized ziploc bag doesn’t fit that many beans, so we had to use a gallon. And even then, the cracking process came out all unevenly. So, Richard began to design a separating system, to ensure we had uniformly-sized nibs before winnowing.

cracking separator

This creation did help by separating the beans that somehow escaped the rolling pin from those that had been smashed to smithereens. However, we still had to winnow. And with that quantity of beans, it was NOT easy! In fact, as I write this now, a thin layer of cocoa husk particles coats my entire body!

Others have tried to build a winnower for home use, but they tend to require mad engineering skills (which Richard could supply if need be) and/or a minimum of about $200 cash. Explore with me, these interesting options for winnowing:

This part of the process clearly could use some solid innovation. I’m interested in the ideas and strategies out there from chocolate-makers, engineers, and geniuses. Does anyone have a design that costs less than $100 and requires little to no build time?

Let’s put our heads together and help keep chocolate-making fun!