Back to that cacao pod: Cut into it and you’ll be greeted by a mass of gumball-size seeds surrounded by a fleshy pulp. The pulp is edible, tasting bright and tropical straight from the pod, but for the herculean task of making chocolate, it’s the seeds we want. To make chocolate from scratch, we’ve got to age them, cook them, pulverize them, and finally, temper them.

Getting your hands on cacao pods can be difficult if you live far from the tropics where farmers grow cacao trees, but you can order them from a specialty grocer online. Once you’ve found them, extracting the seeds is as simple as cutting the fruit in half and dumping its contents into a bowl. Now you’re ready for the next step.


Fermentation is how we get dry-aged steaks, sourdough bread, wine, beer, and yes, chocolate. According to Johnson, fermentation usually occurs on the farms and plantations where cacao is grown. After cutting into the pods, cultivators will age the seeds—often wrapped in banana leaves, which are naturally covered in microbes that fuel fermentation—to create fermented cacao.

This stage breaks down complex proteins into free amino acids, simpler compounds that help create chocolate’s flavor molecules. When fermenting at home you can opt to wrap your cacao seeds in a banana leaf or simply place a clean kitchen towel over the bowl containing your seeds, and allow them to sit for a week at room temperature. When they’re ready, the color will be slightly browner, with a smell that Johnson describes as similar to natural wine or vinegar (courtesy of the acetic acid that builds up during fermentation). From there, rinse off the remaining flesh, then towel-dry the fermented cacao seeds to prepare them for roasting.


Like coffee beans, cacao seeds develop much of their flavor through roasting. The free amino acids created during fermentation combine with sugars in the seeds and undergo the famed Maillard reaction, which “creates flavor and color in basically anything that’s browned and heated,” says Johnson. “No Maillard reaction, no chocolate flavor.”

Roasting takes far less time than fermentation: Dump your fermented seeds onto a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 30 minutes in a 275° oven, until they are browned and break down easily. Let cool, then crush the roasted beans with a mallet or rolling pin. This yields cacao nibs, which are widely available these days, all ready to be added to oatmeal, energy bites, and other recipes where you’d think to use chocolate chips. At this stage, the nibs should taste like unsweetened chocolate, although we’re not finished with them yet.

Grinding and Conching

At this point, we’ve already developed all of our chocolate flavor; all that’s left to do is refine it into a soft, smooth finished product with that signature chocolate bar snap. To do this, we need to break down our jagged, crunchy nibs into a fine paste.

Start by running the nibs through a food processor or high-powered blender until they’ve reached a wet, sandy texture, almost like natural peanut butter. The contents should look pasty and shiny, courtesy of the oils within the seeds that are released as the nibs are pulverized.

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