Chocolate 101


By Stephanie Garr

Is it cacao or cocoa? What’s the difference between a chocolatier and a chocolate maker? What does fair trade chocolate mean? Here’s everything you need to know about chocolate—from tree to bar to your mouth—with this comprehensive glossary of chocolate terms.

Antioxidants: Natural substances in plants that help protect cells from damage caused by unstable molecules in the body called “free radicals.” A diet high in antioxidants can decrease your risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. Dark chocolate is one of the richest sources of antioxidants on the planet.

Baker’s Chocolate (vs. Baking Chocolate): A somewhat confusing term given that there’s an actual brand of baking chocolate called “Baker’s Chocolate”—the oldest American chocolate brand—named after physician and co-owner Dr. James Baker. Baking chocolate is typically a solid, unsweetened chocolate made from pure chocolate liquor (100% cacao). As its name suggests, it’s most often used as an ingredient in baking.

Bean to Bar Chocolate: The process in which a chocolate maker purchases dried cacao beans from farmers, cooperatives, or distributors and uses those beans to produce chocolate from scratch. After buying the beans, the maker roasts, cracks, winnows, grinds, conches, tempers, then molds the chocolate into a bar. This is one (major) step below “tree to bar” chocolate.

Bean-to-bar Chocolate: An image of a sack containing cacao beans

Bloom: There are two forms of “bloom” that happen when chocolate is exposed to extreme temperatures and they can change the look (but usually not the taste) of chocolate:

  • Sugar Bloom: This phenomenon typically happens when storing your chocolate in a cold, damp place like the fridge. The moisture of the environment draws out the sugar and pushes it to the surface, leaving faint white dots of sugar crystals and a slightly dry, gritty texture.
  • Fat Bloom (or Chocolate Bloom): Fluctuating temperatures will create fat bloom, in which the cacao butter melts then re-solidifies, causing the fatty particles to rise to the surface and leave an unappealing grayish-white film. Chocolate makers often struggle with this during the tempering phase of the production process, but chocolate consumers will likely see this occur if their chocolate has been exposed to heat or is improperly stored. Learn more about how to store chocolate.

Bittersweet Chocolate: Chocolate that typically has less sugar and more cacao than “semisweet chocolate,” but not always. In the U.S., both bittersweet and semisweet chocolate must contain at least 35% chocolate liquor—which term shows up on the packaging comes down to the manufacturer’s preference.

Cacao (or Cocoa?): “Cacao” is derived from similar words used in indigenous Mesoamerican languages, including “kakaw” in Classic Maya and “cacahuatl” in Nahuatl. There’s a widespread belief that “cocoa” originated from an English importer’s misspelling of “cacao” that appeared on a ship’s manifest in the 18th century. While cocoa became an exclusively English word, some still claim there’s a difference—that “cacao” refers to the unroasted, unprocessed version of “cocoa.” We prefer to use the original “cacao” to refer to every aspect of our chocolate, from cacao pods to cacao powder.

Cacao Beans: The source of all goodness! Cacao beans are the seeds found in the cacao pods of the Theobroma cacao tree. A pod contains roughly 20 to 50 seeds. Inside each bean is the nib used to make chocolate. There are three main types of beans, as well as many subspecies and hybrids grown throughout the world’s “cacao belt”:

  • Criollo: Named after “Creole” or “native” in Spanish, Criollo are the rarest and most revered of the three primary varietals and are grown mostly in areas of Mexico, Central America, and Venezuala.
  • Forastero: Meaning “foreign” in Spanish, Forastero originated in the upper Amazon but are now largely grown in Africa. They come from heartier trees, but are typically more bitter and bland. With their high yields, Forastero comprise around 80% to 90% of the world’s cacao production.
  • Nacional: Not one of the three main types, but worthy of note, Nacional beans are the world’s oldest cacao, a genetically rare variety found in the Arriba region of Ecuador. They boast delicate, complex tasting notes with a floral aroma.
  • Trinitario: Earning its name from its origin in Trinidad, Trinitario beans are mainly cultivated in Central and South America and Indonesia. The bean is a cross between Criollo and Forastero and often combines the soft aromas of the former with the strength and high yield of the latter.

Cacao Belt: The tropical strip of land that sits 20 degrees on either side of the equator—where cacao plants thrive.

Cacao Butter (or Cocoa Butter): A little more than half of a cacao bean is made up of this healthy fat. When cacao nibs are pressed, cacao butter is extracted and separated from the cacao solids (which become cacao powder). Cacao butter has a melting point that roughly matches your body temperature, which is why it melts so perfectly when it hits your tongue. It’s the main ingredient in white chocolate. Unlike most other vegetable fats, cacao butter is antioxidant-rich, allowing it to resist rancidity and maintain a long shelf life.

cacao butter: a small white bowl containing several pale-yellow chunks of cacao butter

Cacao Mass: The liquid or paste-like product of ground-up cacao nibs used to make chocolate, also called “chocolate liquor.” It contains roughly half cacao solids, half cacao butter.

Cacao Nibs: The inner goods of the cacao bean, exposed after it’s been fermented, dried, roasted, and removed from its shell in a process called winnowing. Cacao nibs can be great snacks, but are most often ground into chocolate liquor to make chocolate. Nibs can also be pressed to extract the fat (the cacao butter) out of the bean.

Cacao Percentage (% Cacao): The percentage cacao found on a chocolate bar’s label refers to the amount (by weight) of cacao mass plus any additional cacao butter and/or cacao powder that’s included in the product. The higher the percentage, the less sweet the bar—but not necessarily the better the taste or quality. Typically a 70% bar will be roughly 30% sugar.

Cacao Pods: The fruit of the Theobroma cacao plant that holds the cherished cacao beans. Pods are often cut open with a machete to expose the beans.

cacao pods: a yellow pod being held and cut open with a machete. several other cacao pods lay in the background

Cacao Powder (or Cocoa Powder or Cacao Solids): When cacao nibs are pressed, the cacao butter is separated from the cacao solids, which are sold as cacao powder. The powder is loaded with nutrients and boasts a myriad of health benefits.

Chocolate Liquor: The liquid or paste-like product of ground-up cacao nibs used to make chocolate, also called “cacao mass.” It contains roughly 52% to 54% cacao butter and 46% to 48% cacao solids. “Liquor” refers to its liquid state and does not denote alcohol.

Chocolate Maker: Typically refers to bean-to-bar (or tree-to-bar) chocolate producers who make chocolate from fermented and dried cacao beans.

Chocolatier: A chocolatier uses pre-made chocolate (crafted by a chocolate maker) as their medium, melting it down to create unique chocolate candies and confections. This title may also be given to those who supervise the chocolate making process, including the roasting and conching stages to ensure product consistency.

Conching: Derived from the Spanish word concha, meaning shell, this part of the chocolate making process is crucial in developing the smell, taste, and texture of chocolate. This is the step in which a chocolate maker can really experiment. From anywhere between a few hours to upwards of three or more days, a conche (aka concher) churns the chocolate, allowing it to develop flavor and create a smooth texture. Different conching times and temperatures can bring out varying characteristics in the chocolate.

Dark Chocolate: In its purest form (save for 100% cacao), dark chocolate contains just two ingredients: cacao beans and sugar. It may also include small amounts of vanilla and lecithin. At To'ak, our dark chocolate, aside from our Galapagos Bar, comprises just organic cacao beans and cane sugar. Dark chocolate is one of the healthiest foods on Earth.

Dark Milk Chocolate: The best qualities of dark and milk chocolate combined. While there’s no official guideline for what can be labeled “dark milk chocolate,” it will generally have a higher cacao percentage (typically around 40%-60%) and include milk.

Direct Trade: When a chocolate company works directly with the farmers and cooperatives who grow, harvest, ferment, and dry the cacao beans they use for their bean-to-bar chocolate. Direct trade is several steps beyond fair trade and allows chocolate makers to get high-quality beans at a reasonable price with no middlemen.

Dutch Cocoa Powder (Dutch-Process): Cacao powder made from cacao beans that have been treated with alkaline salts. This solution of potassium carbonate neutralizes cacao’s natural acidity and allows the powder to mix more easily with water. However, Dutch process also removes some of cacao’s complex flavors as well as its antioxidant count—up to nearly 80%, according to one study.

Fair Trade Certified: A trademarked term meant to guarantee a certain level of fair pay to cacao farmers. Fair Trade Certified products must follow guidelines created by one of two nonprofit groups: Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade. Fair trade chocolate aims to address social, environmental, and economic challenges like deforestation and slave and child labor in the chocolate industry—but doesn’t always live up to its noble goals. Read more about the problems with fair trade.

Fermentation: After cacao pods are harvested, they’re broken open to reveal the cacao beans and a sweet, white pulp. The pods are then left to ferment, a necessary process in which bacteria and yeast feed off the pulp and help the cacao beans start to develop their flavor. Fermentation lasts up to one week before the beans are left out in the sun to dry.

Fermentation: countless cacao beans sitting in a wooden container for fermentation

Grand Cru: A term taken from the wine industry, first by French chocolate makers Valrhona, to denote chocolate made with beans grown in the same area that reflect the terroir. Unlike wine, there’s no industry standard for the term when used for chocolate—it’s essentially equivalent to “single origin.”

Lecithin: Toward the end of the conching process, this ingredient is added to many (but not all) chocolate bars as an emulsifier to reduce the chocolate’s viscosity, making it easier to temper and mold into a bar. On chocolate labels you’ll often see soy lecithin (made from soybeans) as an ingredient, but it typically makes up less than 0.5% of the bar.

Melanger: A stone grinder used to grind cacao nibs into chocolate liquor. Sugar is added to the melanger to mix into the cacao evenly. The chocolate then goes through the conching process.

Melanger: a stone grinder containing crushed cacao nibs

Milk Chocolate: In its simplest form, milk chocolate contains cacao, sugar, and milk. Additives like vanilla and lecithin may be included. In the U.S., milk chocolate must have at least 10% chocolate liquor and 12% milk solids. Read more about the best types of milk chocolate.

Roasting: After cacao beans are harvested, fermented, and dried, they are often roasted. This is the first step for any bean-to-bar chocolate maker and involves a delicate heating process that helps develop and enhance the distinctive flavors and aromas of chocolate. Roasting times and temperatures will vary depending on the bean and the maker.

Semisweet Chocolate: Chocolate that typically has more sugar and less cacao than “bittersweet chocolate,” but not always. In the U.S., both bittersweet and semisweet chocolate must contain at least 35% chocolate liquor—which term shows up on the packaging comes down to the manufacturer’s preference.

Single Estate (or Single Plantation or Estate-Grown): Chocolate made with cacao beans sourced from a single plantation or estate. Even more specific than single-origin, single estate chocolate spotlights the distinct flavors and aromas of a small plot of land.

Single-Origin: Chocolate made with cacao beans sourced from a single farm, valley, region, or country. To’ak’s single-origin chocolate is made from cacao beans sourced from a single valley in Ecuador. Single-origin chocolate highlights the unique flavors and aromas of a particular place or terroir (see below). However, there’s no guideline about how big or small a “single-origin” area can be and the term is often used loosely.

Single-Origin: a panoramic shot of the Piedra de Plata valley in Ecuador

Sustainable: The future of chocolate. While still rare, sustainable chocolate is manufactured at or near the source of cacao, with 100% traceability from tree to bar. This philosophy promotes fair pay and healthy practices for workers and the environment. To encourage the growth of sustainable chocolate, To’ak helped launch Orijin, a digital supply chain traceability platform that helps farmers increase productivity while allowing consumers to see exactly where their favorite chocolate comes from.

Tempering: The process in which chocolate is slowly heated then cooled to allow the crystals in cacao butter to stabilize and spread uniformly throughout. Any small mistake in tempering can cause “chocolate bloom.” When tempered well, the chocolate will have a glossy sheen, smooth texture, and a sharp “snap” when broken.

Terroir: Another term borrowed from French oenophiles, terroir takes into account the complete natural environment in which cacao is produced, including micro-climates, surrounding plants, and the makeup of the soil. All of these factors can have a major impact on the resulting taste and flavor of a particular cacao bean.

Theobroma Cacao: The botanical name for a cacao tree, native to the upper Amazon and able to grow worldwide throughout the “cacao belt,” which sits 20 degrees on either side of the equator. Named in 1753 by Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus, who used the Latin name Theobroma, meaning “food of the gods.”

Theobroma cacao: an ancient Nacional cacao tree with several pods hanging from its branches

Theobromine: One of the main health-boosting compounds in chocolate, first discovered in 1841 and named after the cacao plant itself. This gentle stimulant is closely related to caffeine—but without the jittery side effects—and can improve cognitive function, support the cardiovascular system, elevate mood, and offer many more health benefits. Cacao is the richest source of theobromine on the planet. Read more about chocolate’s many other psychoactive compounds.

Tree to Bar: One (big) step beyond “bean to bar,” tree to bar chocolate starts on the land—not in the factory. A tree to bar chocolate maker like To’ak is directly involved with every step of the process, starting at the care and management of cacao trees. From there, they harvest, ferment, and dry the cacao beans to produce one-of-a-kind chocolate.

Unsweetened Chocolate: Chocolate without any form of sugar added. Sometimes referred to as “baking chocolate.” Yes, it’s bitter, but if it’s high-quality, it can burst with distinctive complex tasting notes.

White Chocolate: A sweet treat containing cacao butter, but no cacao solids (hence the lack of color). Most white chocolate includes sugar, cacao butter, milk solids, and vanilla. But is it really chocolate? Without the cacao solids, it certainly doesn’t have all the same health-boosting properties.

Winnowing: After roasting, a winnowing machine is used to crack and remove the shell of the cacao bean to release the inner cacao nibs.

Xocoatl (or Xocolatl): Widely thought to be the Nahuatl word referring to cacao, meaning “bitter water.” However, there’s been some controversy over this etymology, with some believing the original name is actually chicolatl, roughly translated as “beaten drink.”

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