How hard can it be to make bean to bar chocolate at home?
Roast some beans, peel and grind them into liquor, add some additional cocoa butter, sweeten, heat, grind some more, and then pour into bars. Sounds simple enough.
So we looked into it, and as it turns out, it’s really not that easy. There’s a certain finesse, specialized equipment, winnowing, tempering, and lots of trial and error to making the perfect chocolate bar.
Of course, we could skip some steps and make chocolate from cocoa powder and cocoa butter, but from what we’ve read, the results tend to be one dimensional.
Our dreams of becoming the next Willy Wonka were dashed. But we wondered if we could somehow make good chocolate at home with the tools we already had in our tiny kitchen.
Just because a bunch of European dudes like really smooth chocolate doesn’t mean that’s the way it needs to be done.Daniel Sklaar
There’s artistry in making high-quality chocolate and sure we could watch a bunch of YouTube videos and read article after article, but we wanted to speak with a professional chocolatier. And not just any chocolatier, but someone who was a true artist and understood the challenges of making good chocolate at home.
So we made our way up to Brooklyn to meet with Daniel Sklaar of Fine & RAW Chocolate.
Daniel is a small batch producer of some pretty amazing chocolates and he started out by making chocolate in his NYC apartment. After giving us a tour of his own chocolate factory, he was able to sit down with us and chat about making chocolate in our small kitchen.
So you were making chocolate at home in your apartment, at what point did you decide you wanted to go all in and do this for a living?
I was a financial analyst and I left that. About a year later, after I went into the culinary world, there was a point where I was sort of like “I could continue on cheffing [sic] or start a chocolate company.”
My parents were supportive but they were like what the hell are you doing? But they hadn’t tasted the chocolate. So they flew in from South Africa and I sat them down and they tried the chocolate. Once they tried the chocolate, they were all in. They’re like “D, okay you’ve got something here. Alright yeah, this works. Alright cool, go for it”. So that was like the culmination of supportive people and I’m like okay, great I’ve got a good bunch of people around me.
You know, fuck it, might as well. Might as well.
For someone just starting out, what would be easier to make – milk chocolate or dark chocolate?
I think that they’re equally simple. Or equally complicated.
You told us that you personally go down to South America to source your beans directly from the farmers, which obviously means you’re getting the highest quality beans. For someone who is making chocolate at home, can you recommend any places for purchasing good quality, organic beans?
I believe it’s pretty readily available online. If you search, you’ll find a bunch of resources. It’s not that obscure anymore.
When sourcing cocoa beans online or elsewhere, what are the keywords to look for? Organic and fair trade?
Yes, organic, fair trade – those are safe. There are some farms that’ll ship to you directly, so you can go deeper into it and not just rely on certificates. Have a relationship with the farm – I think that’s cool. They may even send you just a few pounds. It’s a more interesting experience.
Are there places that people could source them locally? For example, could I come here to your shop and purchase beans from you?
Some shops will sell their beans. We do have people come in and pick up some beans from us. It’s not something we typically do, but if we have special requests, we try and accommodate.
Sounds like you’re really trying to help your community. So now let’s say we get our hands on some good quality beans. When you’re roasting and making a chocolate, are you single farm or are you mixing your beans?
We blend our beans to add complexity to the flavor and consistency
So, the next step in making chocolate at home would be roasting our beans, are time and temperature pretty standard?
There is a lot of information online, so it’s easy to find these things. It’s really dependant on the bean, so you have to experiment and try a bunch of different things.
For example, you’ll take some beans and you’ll roast them and see what you get. Then you’ll change one variable. So, you’ll think maybe it’s under-roasted or over-roasted. Let’s say it’s under-roasted. Then you can roast them longer. Or you can increase the temperature. You’ll change one thing at a time until you get a roast that you want.
Your RAW chocolates are pretty popular. If the beans aren’t roasted, what is your process?
It’s a very interesting topic of discussion because it’s controversial what numbers determine what raw really means.
So we follow these guys who have done really great work in the raw food industry and essentially what they say is if you heat something and you can still sprout it, if you heat a nut or a seed and you can still sprout it, it’s still raw. So, they did a lot of experiments with nuts, seeds and legumes and they got pretty significantly above 150 degrees and were able to still sprout. But we don’t want to push the bar too far, so we use 150 degrees Fahrenheit as our bar.
It sounds like essentially, you are drying it or dehydrating it. If somebody wanted to do that at home, could they use a dehydrator?
Oh yeah. Or you could use your oven at a low temperature.
Obviously, that’s a longer process than your roasting of half an hour. How long are you doing that for? Is it like a day long process?
No, no it’s over an hour but it’s not like massively long.
So now we have our roasted beans, and we need to separate the husk from the nibs (chocolater speak: winnowing). Hand peeling seems like it would take forever, but using a hair dryer to blow the husk away seems to be popular. How did you start when you were making chocolate in your loft?
We actually built winnowers – not very successfully, I would say – but you can also do that, you can build your own stuff. And there are small winnowers that are like a few hundred bucks, so not crazy expensive but it will save you thousands of dollars.
It seems that the biggest difference between homemade chocolate bars and professionally made ones is actually grinding it down for 24 hours to get it below 20 microns in size. I’ve seen people using a mortar and pestle for an hour and obviously they’re not getting it anywhere close, but if someone wanted to try it at home, is that the best way to do it?
People probably have blenders – I feel like that’s a very accessible way to do this, but you’ll only get so far. Probably like a blender into a mortar and pestle.
But I feel that we’ll end up with some not-so-smooth chocolate, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing to have gritty chocolate?
No, not at all.
In the beginning when we first started making chocolate, we weren’t doing very fine chocolate. And people love it, people were totally into it. I think slightly textured, rough, jungle-style is great. Just because a bunch of European dudes like really smooth chocolate doesn’t mean that’s the way it needs to be done. You can get all sorts of flavor profiles out of grittier chocolate. And in fact, there are a bunch of European dudes who do gritty chocolate. There are some big companies in the States who do gritty chocolate too. Taza comes to mind.
Did you jerry-rig your own grinder too when you were making chocolate in your loft?
Originally, when I first started making chocolate and there wasn’t a small craft industry, guys were taking Indian lentil grinders, small little tabletop ones and we were using those. I mean, yes I jerry-rigged them, I jerry-rigged everything. You have to. But that’s where it started – with small Indian lentil grinders.
What are the results using a lentil grinder?
A lot of it is down to the nuances. If you are really familiar with pastry and know how to use your oven, and you can get a great roast, that’s going to get you very far. If you have really good beans, like top quality beans, that’s also going to get you super far into the process. And if you use the Indian lentil grinder and you’ve totally honed in on all the steps beforehand, you can produce amazing chocolate.
And all the ingredients have to be dry to avoid introducing any moisture?
Yeah. Two mortal enemies of chocolate – heat and water. Yeah, they’ll both destroy your bars.
By heat, you mean getting the temperature too high?
Yeah, like melting the chocolate bar. And water seizes chocolate.
Is there a way to fix the chocolate if it’s seized up?
Throw it out and start a new batch.
Are there any rules for the amount of cocoa butter to use?
No, it’s a flavor preference. You’ll have to experiment and see what you like in your bars.
We really like that you have vegan milk chocolate. What is your milk substitute?
We have a couple. It’s generally a nut butter base or a coconut butter. Hazelnut butter, almond butter, coconut butter and cashew nut butter are the main ones we use.
Okay so let’s say we’ve ground and roasted our beans, and added any additional ingredients, we’re not ready to temper yet, what is the best way to store our chocolate?
Store at room temperature, low humidity. Don’t store it in your bathroom and you’ll be fine.
I’ve read that tempering is the hardest part of making bars, any tips for someone starting out?
Yeah, tempering is a bitch. It takes practice. You have to do it a lot, you really have to work at it, but eventually you’ll get the feel for it.
Thank you for your time. I think we’re ready for making chocolate at home, any other tips you can offer?