From tree to nib: making a small batch of cacao
One of the many lovely things about Hawai’i is we can grow our own cacao or find the pods fresh for sale. Although making chocolate is pretty complex and involves some expensive equipment (Champion juicer, Cuisinart or melanger, molds), you can get a great chocolatey result from just using the nibs. Here is how to select a handful of fresh cacao pods and then ferment, dry, roast, and winnow them to create bitter yet delicious and nutritious nibs, and a few ways to use those nibs.
- Start with from six to 12 ripe pods. Their color at maturity differs by variety, but if they start green they turn a dark yellow when ripe, or if red when young, they turn orange. Also, as they ripen their accordion-like pleats open out. Another test for ripeness is to scrape a bit of skin with your fingernail; if it is still green underneath, the pod is not ripe.
- Open the pods by scoring with a knife or machete and then cracking open the shell without cutting through the seeds. The seeds, or beans, are held together by a white fuzzy mucilaginous pulp with a core. Here’s another test of ripeness - as the pods ripen, the seed mass pulls away from the outside of the pod and the beans are easy to pull apart. If the pods are not ripe, the beans will be too tightly packed together to separate from each other.
- For a treat, you can suck the pulp off of a few beans and spit out the beans. The pulp (technically called the “aril”) has a light, lemony, refreshing flavor, but the beans themselves are too bitter to eat raw. Leave most of the gooey aril on the beans, however, as it is needed for fermentation.
- Separate the beans, discard the cores, and place the beans in a Mason jar of a size that will fit them snugly but allow you to stir them. The pulp is the key to fermentation, but in a small batch you can ensure fermentation by sprinkling in around 1/4 teaspoon of baking yeast. Gently stir it in with a spoon. You also can try rubbing the beans on the underside of a banana leaf, which has a white bloom of yeast that I have heard is a natural fermenting agent. Since cacao is traditionally fermented in banana leaves, this makes sense, and it has worked for me several times, but I have not found verification.
- Cover with cheesecloth and a rubber band or a canning jar lid (although this is not anaerobic fermentation, a lid works fine). Place the jar where it will be quite warm, around 90-100°F. You can use an oven with a strong pilot light or an insulated box such as a cooler with hot water bottles inside. We use an old mini-fridge with a lightbulb set on a thermostat. After a day, bubbles of fermentation should be visible.
- Stir the beans gently every day. After the first day the smell will be fruity, or yeasty especially if you have used baking yeast, then over the next few days they will smell of sweet alcohol.
- Fermentation takes around one week. After a few days, check the inside of a few beans. It will probably still look pale purple.
- Around 6-7 days, the beans will smell more strongly of alcohol - keep checking the smell; you don’t want them to smell like ammonia (if they start to, move on to the drying step). When fully fermented, usually at around 7-8 days, the inside of the beans will be dark purple or brown, with separations showing between the folds within the seed embryo. Now they are ready to dry.
- Drain off any liquid from the beans. Spread them out one layer thick on drying racks. You can make racks using 1/8 inch pet screen stapled to frames, or use dehydrator racks with a fine mesh. You want to keep the bugs out, therefore the pet screen makes a good base.
- Put in a sunny, well-ventilated place, protected from bugs, mice, and birds. Try to find a sunny place to dry them, at least for a few hours (acknowledging many of us on the Hamakua coast don’t have too many dry hours under the sun). A non-humid greenhouse under a clear tarp, a warm dry attic, a room with a dehydrator, or a food dehydrator on low (under 115 degrees if you are aiming for a raw bean) all will work.
- Stir the beans around every day to keep them from sticking. They may get a light white bloom, which is fine. It takes one or two weeks to dry them, depending on temperature and humidity. Drying too fast can make them taste acidic. They are dry when you can crack the shells easily.
- To have raw nibs, just use them at this stage. Break them out of their thin shells by rolling between your fingers, discard the shells, and store your nibs in a jar. (Whenever I say discard, I mean use them as compost, of course!)
- Roasting brings out a more typically chocolatey flavors and also makes it easier to shell the beans. To roast, preheat oven to 275°F, spread the beans out on a baking sheet and bake for 20 to 40 minutes. Watch (and smell) them closely until the aroma of rich dark brownies baking fills the air, and the beans are lightly browned and crunchy.
- Separate the beans from their thin shells with a mortar and pestle, rolling pin, or just by rolling each one between your fingers. The shell is bitter and hard, so if you have a mixture of the lighter shells and the actual beans, you’ll need to separate them by winnowing. The broken up beans are now called nibs.
- If you need to winnow them, first, take your project outside! One method is to set up a fan on a table. Put around a half-cup of the cacao in a bowl, set another bowl on the table, and pour them against the current of the fan or breeze, letting the chaff blow onto the ground and table and the nibs fall into the bowl. Do this over and over until there are no more obvious chaff pieces.
From ten pods you will get around two cups of nibs. Store them in a sealed jar at room temperature and they will last for at least a year. In their bitter naked simplicity, cacao nibs are loaded with healthy flavanols, magnesium, theobromine, and other goodies. Be aware that they definitely have caffeine! Break them up and use them as crunchy additions to smoothies, yogurt, desserts, pancakes, granola, and baked goods, or add to chili or barbecue rubs. Grind them in a coffee grinder or with a mortar and pestle to make a coarse cocoa powder.
Here are some ideas for using ground nibs in all-local recipes:
Hot chocolate: add 1-2 tablespoons of well-ground nibs to some gently heated coconut milk and local honey or Hawai’i cane sugar to taste.
Pie crust: mash together 1/4 cup ground nibs, 1/2 cup fine coconut flakes, 1/2 cup ground macadamia nuts, 1 tablespoon coconut oil, 1 tablespoon vanilla, 1 tablespoon honey. Press into a pie pan and use as the base for a pie. Can freeze and use for a raw frozen pie, or bake at 350°F for 10 minutes before adding fruit or pudding filling.
Frozen Cocoa Loco Balls: combine 1/4 c. ground up nibs, 1/4 c. macadamia nut butter, 1/2 c. coconut flakes, 1 tablespoon honey, 1 tablespoon of Maui cane sugar, pinch of Hawaiian salt. Can add chopped mac nuts, coarser coconut flakes, other spices - play around with your favorite ingredients. Form into 12 cookies, logs, or balls, freeze.
Making Chocolate from Scratch - Skip Bittenbender, Cooperative Extension in Hawaii, Jan. 2009
Harvesting, post-harvest handling, fermenting, and drying for small farms in Hawaii - Skip Bittenbender and Tom Sharkey, powerpoint
Now fermenting cacao beans, http://dokmaidogma.wordpress.com/2011/02/03/now-fermenting-cacao-beans/ Dokmai dogma blog from Thailand
Farm and Forest Production and Marketing Profile for Cacao (Theobroma cacao) - Prakash Hebbar, H.C. Bittenbender, and Daniel O’Doherty http://www.agroforestry.net/scps/Cacao_specialty_crop.pdf
Rachel Laderman moved to Hawai'i Island three years ago to farm and live off-grid in a small community of friends and family. Before this she worked for 20 years as an Environmental Health Educator in Olympia, Washington. She feels extremely lucky to be able to spend her days planting, foraging, and preparing foods. Read her blog at http://marketlessmondays.wordpress.com/.