Here's How to Make Tree-to-Bar Milk Chocolate, According to Experts
Three months ago, I hopped on a plane and traveled to a stunning little Caribbean island known as Grenada. (Or shall I say, Spice Island?) I went there for the sole purpose of attending their Chocolate Festival—an annual event that celebrates the history of chocolate production—and fortunately for me, it doubled as a week-long master class on all things chocolate. Not only did I get to sample an array of tasty treats, but I also gained some insight into how they make their milk chocolate.
Now, it's worth noting that while there are multiple ways to produce this popular treat, Grenada is known for making tree-to-bar chocolate through its sustainable factories (more on this later). And during the festival, I had the opportunity to chat with a few experts about how to make milk chocolate—from scratch.
MEET THE EXPERTS:
First, What Is Tree-to-Bar Chocolate?
When chocolate makers grow their own cacao beans and make their bars from scratch, they create what’s called tree-to-bar chocolate. In other words, chocolate makers are involved in every step of the process.
Aaron Sylvester said, “Companies who purchase cocoa from the Caribbean are known as bean-to-bar chocolate makers because they would buy it from Africa, buy from the Caribbean, buy the beans from Latin America, then make chocolate.”
He continued, “In Grenada, and my friends in Africa and my friends in Latin America, they make chocolate in their countries of origin, so they’re known as tree-to-bar. Farmers will harvest the cocoa from the cocoa pods and go all the way through to making chocolate bars.”
What Percentage of Cocoa Is Needed to Make a Milk Chocolate Bar?
According to the Code of Federal Regulations, products can’t be marketed as milk chocolate in the U.S. unless they contain a minimum cocoa mass of 10 percent. But that percentage is quite low compared to other countries. For instance, in Canada, the minimum cocoa mass required for milk chocolate is 25 percent, and in Europe, 35 percent.
What Are the Ingredients Needed to Make Milk Chocolate?
Believe it or not, milk chocolate bars—minus the additives and artificial flavoring—only require four ingredients:
- Raw Cacao or Unsweetened Cocoa Powder: Raw cacao, which has bitter, earthy notes, might be the better choice if you’re health-conscious because it’s unprocessed. If not, cocoa powder can be just as effective. Here’s a more detailed breakdown of the difference between the two.
- Cocoa Butter: Often used as a moisturizer for skin, this is the edible fat that gets extracted from cocoa beans.
- Milk Powder: The smoothest, most creamy bars typically have milk powders that are higher in fat content, like whole milk powder. However, dairy-free varieties, like soy milk powder or coconut milk powder, can also be used.
- Sugar: The most common type of sugar that's used to make chocolate is refined white sugar, but other options include cane sugar, palm sugar and coconut sugar.
How to Make Milk Chocolate from Scratch, According to Experts
Step 1: Harvesting
At Tri-Island Chocolate, the farmers use long bamboo rods and cocoa knives to pick the pods from the trunk of the trees, which, believe it or not, can grow up to 24 feet tall.
Sylvester told us, “The pods come off the tree, then we use our Swiss army knife of choice to crack open the cocoa pod. We scoop the seeds out inside, and we fill big boxes with the cocoa seeds.”
Step 2: Fermentation
“We cover the box with banana leaves, and we leave them for seven days to ferment,” Sylvester explained. On the second, fourth and sixth day, we take off the coverings and we mix those seeds up, because on the outside are all those juices and the sugars, and we need, in the fermentation, for those sugars to seep inside the bean so we get really nice tasting cocoa.”
Grenada Tourism Authority
Step 3: Drying
After those seven days, the fermented seeds are placed in large cocoa drying sheds, where they’re left to dry in the sun for about seven days. According to Natoo, farmers would typically walk on the beans to get rid of any remaining liquids. Plus, this helps separate the husk, or the shells from the inner beans.
Natoo said, “You could use a rake and rake through them, but in Grenada, we use our feet. You take off your shoes and you walk on the cocoa. You don’t walk to crush them, but to separate them. That will allow air to pass through and the beans to dry properly.”
Step 4: Roasting
After drying, the raw beans are taken to the factory to be roasted. This lessens the bitterness and acidity, and it’s at this point that the chocolate flavor starts to develop.
Step 5: Sorting
The beans are then inspected to ensure that no flat, broken, burnt or moldy beans make it into the final product. Apparently, they could throw off the chocolate’s flavor entirely. Sylvester said, “What we want are the beans that are nice, fat and pulpy. Like nice, big almonds basically.”
Fernando Fernández Baliña
Step 6: Cracking and Winnowing
It’s worth noting that it’s possible to complete this step without roasting, since several brands have used raw, unroasted cacao to make their bars. However, when more heat is applied to the beans, it’s easier to remove the husks—also known as “cracking and winnowing.”
Fortunately, this process doesn’t have to be done manually. There are machines, like this DCM Cracker Cracker Winnower, designed to make the process quicker and easier.
Grenada Tourism Authority
Step 7: Grinding
Now it’s time to grind the beans into what’s called cocoa nibs, using a cocoa bean grinding machine. Once they’re turned into nibs, they’re placed in a stone grinder known as the chocolate melanger. Natoo explained, “The grinding stones would spin and grind the cocoa nibs down to a liquid, we call that chocolate liqueur, or liquid chocolate.”
It’s during this stage when additional ingredients, like sugar, are added. “If it’s only nibs, it’s 100 percent [chocolate],” Natoo said. “When you add sugar to it, that will lessen the percentage. For example, a 90 percent bar has 90 percent nibs, 10 percent sugar. If you’re making milk chocolate, you add sugar and milk. If you’re making dark chocolate, only sugar.”
Grenada Tourism Authority
Step 8: Refining and Conching
Refining refers to the process where particles in the liquid chocolate are ground together to ensure a smooth, even texture without the grit. To achieve this, the liqueur has to pass through a roll mill refiner. Then, the liquid goes into a mixing machine known as the “conche,” which evenly distributes the cocoa butter in the chocolate and enhances the flavor.
Some factories got through these steps separately, while others, like The Grenada Chocolate Company, have tools to achieve both simultaneously. “We use a professional conche/refiner machine that combines both of these processes into one,” the official website reads. “The first period of time in the machine is the refining stage, during which time the conching effect occurs simultaneously. The heat generated from the grinding action of the machine helps heat the chocolate to the conching temperature. During the following period of time, chocolate mixing, agitating and heating continues until the final flavor is achieved.”
Step 9: Tempering
When chocolate is tempered, it’s typically done on a cool marble or granite surface with a chocolate spatula. At this point, the temperature of the liquid changes and alters the crystal formation in the process. As for why this is done, it actually improves the chocolate’s consistency, gives it a more glossy finish and improves its ability to stay solid in warm temperatures. Plus, tempering allows the chocolate bar to give a crisp “snapping” sound when it’s broken.
FYI, there are multiple ways to temper chocolate. Another way to temper by hand is by using a double boiler for the seeding method, but perhaps the quickest and most efficient way is with a chocolate tempering machine.
Grenada Tourism Authority
Step 10: Molding and De-Molding
After tempering, it’s time to mold the chocolate into those fun solids you typically see in candy shops. The liquid chocolate is poured into a mold and lightly tapped against a hard surface to get rid of excess air bubbles. After this, they’re stored in a cool environment for up to 20 minutes so they can solidify. (The amount of time typically varies, based on the size of the molds.)
After this, the chocolates are de-molded and ready to eat!
Can I Make Chocolate from Home?
You sure can, although it wouldn’t be considered tree-to-bar. To simplify the chocolate-making process, you can skip the first few steps by purchasing your cacao nibs and grinding them with your own chocolate refiner. You can add cocoa butter, sugar and milk powder as desired, then move on to tempering your chocolate. (Psst, here’s a handy guide on how to temper your chocolate by using the microwave.)
Petru Blaga / Getty Images
What if I Want to Add More Ingredients?
After the chocolate is tempered, you can immediately add finishing touches like chopped nuts, seeds or dried fruit before transferring the mixture to your molds of choice. Just be mindful of the timing as you mix in those ingredients, so the chocolate doesn’t get too cold before they’re placed in the molds.