The art and science of chocolate

Photos curtisy of Purdy's chocolates

The study of life is a key focus of the sciences, so if life is like a box a chocolates, there must be a great deal of science behind our favourite sweet indulgence.

Molecular gastronomy -- the application of our knowledge of physics and chemistry to cooking -- seeks to understand the processes involved in transforming ingredients into the best tasting, most nutritious food possible. Slowly, this knowledge is penetrating the age-old, secretive techniques cherished by chocolatiers the world over.

Take for example Vancouver's Wild Sweets, which produces chocolates on a micro-batch basis in their own laboratory. They also utilize a production technique known as bean-to-bar, where nearly all of the variables are overseen by the chocolatier. “With bean-to-bar we control our chocolates,” said Dominique Duby, Director at Wild Sweets. “We control the pH, colour, and viscosity.”

Duby and his partner Cindy share the goal of improving chocolate making procedures by building on the art and traditions passed down by experienced chocolatiers, while incorporating what has been learned in the laboratory.

One question on their minds, for example, has been wether you really needed an expensive machine to make the best emulsion. Along with students from UBC's Food, Nutrition, and Health department they investigated five different methods for creating a ganache emulsion. “We have had an interest in science for quite a long time, and we had been employing students for a number of years in our business,” said Dominique Duby. The students tested the emulsion based on stability and the amount of air oxidation, and as it turned out a relatively cheap method, an emulsion planter, produced great results.

The lab, however, is not the only place where chocolate inspiration happens. “Our recent Mayan chocolate line was inspired by a trip to Mexico,” said Gary Mitchel, Head Chocolatier for Vancouver based Purdy's Chocolates, “but my inspirations comes from everywhere, even my own kitchen.”

Sitting in his test kitchen, Mitchel goes over some of his more inspired creations; Himalayan Pink Salt Caramel, sweet Georgia browns, brown butter maple Caramel, a special creation for Dwali with Mango and coriander, and chocolate dotted with red Hawaiian salt. Getting to these creations takes more than inspiration; there is a science behind it.

The most important ingredient needed by a chocolate lab is of course coco, which can only be grown in equatorial regions. There are essentially three types of coco beans “Trinitario, forestaro, and criollo; criollo is the premium bean,” noted Mitchel, “but the tree is prone to disease so it is actually forestaro which is used most often.”

The different beans have different flavours, and much like vineyards the soil the coco trees grows in plays a part. Peruvian coco has a hint of banana because soil still holds remnants of the preceding banana plantation, while coco from Madagascar has a hint of spice for the same reason. In order to get to the good stuff, coco pods are cut open and the scooped out beans are fermented. This fermentation is the first part that can alter the flavour of coco. The beans are then dried and roasted. At this point what is left is a thin shell surrounding coco nibs - that's the good stuff - which are pure chocolate. Crushed to a paste, nibs are reduced to 50% butter and 50% coco mass. This mixture is then separated and remixed to obtain the desired coco cake to butter combination. The ideal combination is determined by the recipe for which the coco is intended.

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