Conching chocolate is a complex but important process in creating insatiably smooth, mouth-watering cacao delights.
Conching and refining are essential parts of the mystical chocolate-making process. They are key to creating the smoothest, melt-in-the-mouth chocolates and truffles. So what exactly is all this magic, and what impact does conching chocolate have on the end result?
What is chocolate liquor?
From bean to bar, we like to think we know a fair bit about making chocolate. This understanding has helped our talented chocolatiers improve our recipes and come up with new exciting combinations, year on year. And it all begins with the cacao bean. The dynamic, bounteous cacao bean.
Once harvested, chocolate makers ferment, dry, clean, and roast the cacao beans. They then remove the shells and grind the remaining ‘nibs’ into a paste. The grinding friction warms and melts the paste into a pool of ‘chocolate liquor.’
Not as boozy as it sounds, this precious liquid actually contains no alcohol and is ultimately the foundation of all chocolate bars. You might also see it referred to as ‘cocoa mass’ on ingredients lists. A mixture of cacao solids and cacao butter, the liquor could be poured straight into moulds and sold as pure chocolate. However, the flavour would be incredibly bitter, and this kind of chocolate would also have a somewhat gritty texture.
By taking an extra couple of steps, the not-so-delicious mixture can be transformed into something silky, flavoursome, and just begging for the chocolatier’s creative touch. These stages can be lengthy, but they unleash the cocoa bean’s true essence and all its flavour complexities. After all, good things come to those who wait.
What is conching?
So, while mixing pure cacao does create chocolate, it’s not the kind of smooth, luxurious chocolate you’re used to. The process of conching, along with the addition of sugar, extra cocoa butter and any other flavours and emulsifiers is where the alchemy comes in. The extra ingredients vary depending on the type of chocolate being created. For creamy milk chocolate products, we add milk powder. More intense dark chocolate, like our 70% Dark Chocolate Slab Selector, might include a higher percentage of cocoa butter. We’ve spent a long time perfecting our recipes for the ideal flavour, texture and melt.
Once the additional ingredients are added – slowly, to ensure full distribution – the mixture might taste good but will still have a grainy texture. Conching is a way of levelling out the concoction to give it the satisfying mouthfeel we know and love. The process was developed by Swiss chocolatier, Rodolphe Lindt, in the late 19th century.
Lindt placed an unrefined chocolate liquor mixture into a granite roller-grinder for three days — a lot longer than anyone had done previously. The original machine vessel was shaped like a seashell or ‘conche’ in French, hence the name. He found that consistently moving, heating, and aerating the mixture helped disperse the cacao solids and cacao butter particles for a more even texture and pleasant flavour.
During the conching process, heat generated by the friction allows the cacao solids to release different acids and melts the mixture into rich, pourable chocolate. Though modern conching machines can get the job done in a matter of hours, it depends on the type of chocolate the mixture will become. Sometimes, these large machines mix, rub and smooth the chocolate liquor for up to eight days.
What is refining?
While conching blends the chocolate mixture, refining is all about reducing the particle sizes of cacao solids and any sugar crystals or other dry ingredients. This stage usually happens before conching and involves large metal rollers that grind the mixture. In general, the smaller the particles, the more velvety the chocolate. However, there is a science to it! Go too small, and the chocolate won’t flow with the desired viscosity.
After refining and conching, the glorious melted chocolate is ready for tempering, where it will become glossy and free from any potential chocolate bloom.
Why are they necessary?
Phew — so much intricacy! As you can see, making rich, velvety chocolate involves a little more than just crushing some cacao beans.
Whether the plan is to make solid bars and fine shavings for luxury hot drinks or to delicately enrobe lavish Biscuits of the Gods, conching and refining are vital steps in the chocolate-making journey.
As well as ensuring a delectable texture, conching allows the cacao beans’ flavours to — literally — come out of their shell. Oxidisation and other complex chemical reactions take place here. They release the characteristic chocolatey aromas and distribute those delightful particles across the other ingredients. Rushing or skimping on the process can result in lower flavour and scent intensity. Aeration also reduces the moisture content and removes any unwanted volatile acids.
Can you conch chocolate at home?
It is possible to make your own chocolate at home. However, conching and refining chocolate well requires precision and monitoring. Temperature is a key aspect throughout the chocolate-making process, so you might want to invest in a thermometer for accuracy.
You can use a blender or juicer to blitz roasted and winnowed cocoa beans into a paste. Next, transfer the liquor into a chocolate grinder or ‘melanger.’ Countertop machines are available for making small batches. However, some juicers can also do the job. If using a melanger, you’ll want to preheat the inner wheels and components to 37.8℃ (100℉). You can either heat them up in the oven or use a hairdryer.
Depending on the recipe and type of chocolate you’re making, conching chocolate at home will often take between 6 and 24 hours.
Conching your own chocolate at home can be a fun and satisfying experience. And if you invest in a melanger, how about going the whole hog and creating some amazing chocolate shapes? They can add the piece-de-resistance to cakes and desserts or make thoughtful personalised gifts.
Alternatively, you can skip straight to the tasty bit. You can find an array of smooth chocolate treats conched to perfection (if we do say so ourselves) to suit all taste buds in our signature Hotel Chocolat collection. Whichever you go for, why not take a moment to savour the silky, refined texture and insatiable aromas?