By Michael Laiskonis—ICE Creative Director

The final steps in processing our bean-to-bar chocolate make up the longest phase of the manufacturing process—a waiting game where the true essence of the bean, its complex flavor and its silky texture are unlocked. At this point, we focus on physically breaking the bean’s coarse texture, revealing subtleties beneath its bitter astringency and liberating its cocoa butter. Though we add ingredients at this stage, there is also an aspect of elimination—the refining stage is followed by conching, which peels away unwanted volatile flavors.

Sifting the Finished Chocolate

My last post dealt with handling the roasted bean—crushing it into nibs, separating its shell, grinding it into fluid cocoa liquor and extracting pure cocoa butter. During this final stage, the chocolate maker faces the challenge of tasting a bean’s full potential and identifying the subtle nuances within. While the goal of the “craft” chocolate maker working primarily in single origin batches is often to enable the expression of that bean’s inner essence, an industrial manufacturer’s typical aim is to create consistency from batch to batch, from year to year. Neither approach is qualitatively better or more difficult—just two possible approaches employed in the final stage of chocolate making.


Different kinds of machines can carry out the task of refining (stone melangeurs, roller refiners, scraped-surface refiners, etc.). In the lab, our coarse chocolate liquor enters a 10-kilogram capacity ball mill—a temperature-controlled tank that contains roughly 60 pounds of hardened steel-grinding media (ball bearings, essentially, in two sizes). With agitation, the steel balls begin breaking down the fairly large particles in the liquor, refining them down to a target of around 20 microns—in terms of scale, one micron (µm) is one-millionth of a meter (or one-thousandth of a millimeter). More accurately, true particle size in chocolate will lie along a curve, or a distribution, some smaller and some larger than our target. Looking closely at the structure of chocolate, it is simply very small solid particles (cocoa solids, sugar and sometimes milk solids) dispersed in fat—cocoa butter. Because the threshold of perception of a particle on our palate is in the neighborhood of about 35µm, a smooth, creamy mouthfeel depends upon breaking down the solids below that mark. Particles that are too small (below 15µm), however, will create too much surface area for the available cocoa butter, thus adversely affecting the flow properties of the chocolate with increased viscosity.

Most often, we add our ground liquor to the ball mill to refine for some time before adding any other ingredients. As the liquor continues to break down, more of its cocoa butter is released, providing sufficient fluidity to begin processing additional dry ingredients, namely sugar and, in the case of milk chocolate, whole milk powder. Virtually all of our chocolate receives an additional boost of cocoa butter as well. Vanilla, a common but not compulsory addition, can enter into the mix in various forms. I typically chop up whole vanilla beans and add them early in the refining process. Though the majority of the dozens of batches created in the lab have been of single origin, I have begun working on blending beans, and even introducing additional flavors—whole coffee beans, spices and nuts—to thoroughly integrate into the finished product. For our first attempt at a vegan milk chocolate, I replaced conventional milk powder with freeze-dried coconut milk. Refining time can vary, depending upon the batch size, particle size of the liquor and by agitation speed.

Measuring Particle Size on a Grind Gauge

measuring particle size on a grind gauge


Ball Mill

the ball mill

In addition to speed control, our ball mill also offers temperature control and heated airflow. Lacking a stand-alone conching machine, this heat and airflow help us replicate some of the effects of traditional conching. In basic terms, the conching phase is best described as heated agitation. Three key aspects of conching are moisture reduction, texture and flow enhancement and development of flavor. Residual moisture in chocolate can affect its flow properties, even though a great deal of the raw bean’s water was removed during the roast, trace amounts remain through the grinding and refining process. Prolonged mixing also helps ensure that all of the tiny solid particles are evenly dispersed in and coated by the cocoa butter, which improves mouthfeel and workability. And finally, the heat and forced air aid in driving off some of the remaining volatile acids – unwanted flavors that are a byproduct of fermentation back at the bean’s origin. Conching is an important part of the process, but each chocolate will require varying amounts. Long a marketing myth in the chocolate industry, a longer conching time does not necessarily equal higher quality. Some argue that excess conching may even destroy desirable flavors.

Once the chocolate is deemed ‘finished,’ it is extracted from the ball mill (we also employ two small stone grinders for smaller experimental test batches) and passed through a vibrating sifter—imagine a super-fine mesh strainer—which catches any particles not sufficiently refined. The radicle, the hard and bitter germ stem in every cocoa bean, may stubbornly evade grinding, along with the occasional bit of vanilla bean that sticks to the agitator. After sifting, it’s time for tempering and molding, right? Well, not so fast. Aging chocolate for a period of time, though unpredictable and not fully understood, is common practice. Some chocolate makers prefer to temper, mold and package chocolate immediately, others will age chocolate from two weeks to one month. Though there may be little one can do to change the finished product at that point, most believe that the true character of the chocolate will not reveal itself until it has had a minimum three-week mellowing period. One of the ongoing projects here in the lab is to hold back portions of each batch to sample at regular intervals to track some of these still-inexplicable changes over time.

As with other stages of the chocolate making process, success during refining relies on equal parts science, experience, taste, patience and arguably, some degree of intuition. The key is understanding that each part of the process presents a new set of variables. The next dispatch in this series will address formulation— the recipe development phase for each batch of chocolate.

Aging Chocolate

aging chocolate

Want to dive into the chocolate lab with Chef Michael? Click here for a list of his upcoming workshops at ICE.


By Michael Laiskonis—Creative Director

Every step of the chocolate-making process, from fruit to bean to bar, presents an opportunity to influence the flavor and texture of the finished chocolate. After harvesting, fermenting and drying at origin, beans are shipped around the world. Once received at the factory, raw cocoa undergoes several steps of transformation—what we call the “bean-to-bar” process. Previously I’ve discussed the bean-to-bar steps of sourcing and roasting. In this post, we will look at the intermediate steps necessary to turn flavorful roasted beans into the refined product we know and enjoy.

The nuanced flavors and smooth texture we associate with chocolate evolved during the Industrial Revolution, alongside the general advancement of technology and mechanization in the mid to late 19th century. This rise of the machine, so to speak, not only made chocolate products readily available to the masses, but it also catapulted what was a coarse bar or a rustic beverage to more sophisticated heights. Key players responsible for the machines and processes developed during this time remain some of the most recognized names in contemporary chocolate production today, including Van Houten, Peters, Nestlé and Lindt.

Machinery remains a constant in the contemporary chocolate-making process, and many visitors to the ICE Chocolate Lab are surprised by the sheer number and diversity of machines we employ. Below, I’ll explain the three processing steps, and their dedicated machines, that bridge the gap between roasting and refining.

Each bean has an outer shell, the germ stem (or radicle) and the nib, the latter of which contains a fat content of roughly 50-55%. Once out of the roaster and cooled, we must first break the bean and remove its shell. The removal of the shell is important for flavor, texture and food safety reasons: too much shell in our finished chocolate can produce a musty flavor and gritty texture and excessive wear and tear on our equipment. Additionally, while we have rendered the beans safe to handle from a microbial perspective by roasting, the high levels of heavy metals harbored in the shell are reason enough to discard them. In short, the shells do not positively impact flavor and are not considered “wholesome.”

cacao beans raw chocolate bean to bar chocolate

To remove the shells, we employ a winnowing machine, which yields only the nib, roughly 85% of its original weight, for further processing. We load the whole roasted beans into a hopper that funnels them through a rotating gear, crushing the bean and separating nibs from their shells, which have already loosened during the roasting phase. The fractured pieces then fall through a series of vibrating screens, causing the bits of nibs and shell to “dance” their way toward a vacuum which will suck the lighter shell from the screen while allowing the heavier nibs to pass through untouched. Our goal is to minimize the amount of shell in our nibs, while preventing any nibs from inadvertently getting discarded, so constant adjustment of the winnowing machine is necessary. We can control the rate of breaking the beans, the flow of particles along the screens and the intensity of the vacuum. Because shell weight can vary from bean to bean, we constantly monitor the nibs as they fall into a collection bin. From unsorted raw bean to cleaned nibs, it is not uncommon to lose 20-25% of our original weight of product.

Freed from their shells, the nibs then begin an intermediate grinding phase. Any number of grinding methods can perform this function, but in our lab we pass the nibs through a rotating hammer mill, which impacts the nibs at high speed, forcing them through three progressively smaller screens. The result is a coarse, semi-liquid paste that we refer to as chocolate “liquor”—confusing, as there is no alcohol present. This liquor is a suspension of dry cocoa solids, which vary in size up to a few hundred microns, in cocoa butter that is liberated from the nib and liquefied due to the heat of friction created during grinding. Each pass through the mill both saves time and reduces wear on the next stage of refining equipment. The final pass also often allows us the opportunity to isolate and remove a good deal of the hard, bitter radicles, which can contribute a harsh flavor and gritty texture to finished chocolate. Leaving the hammer mill, the liquor then enters a ball mill, along with any additional ingredients—at a minimum, sugar and additional cocoa butter—to achieve a final particle size near 20 microns.

micrometer chocolate mashup

The ability to press the added cocoa butter in the ball mill stage ourselves is one of the most exciting aspects of our production in the ICE Chocolate Lab. Up to two kilograms of our ground liquor is loaded into a heated pot and secured onto a hydraulic press. Gradually ramping up pressure over an hour or two—topping out at some 65 tons—will yield between 40-45% cocoa butter, which, unlike commercial deodorizer butter, emerges with significant flavor and aroma intact. This supplemental fat is used to boost the final cocoa butter content of the finished product, which for couverture-grade chocolate lies between 35-40%, maximizing fluidity and mouthfeel.

The machines we employ during these intermediary steps between roasting and refining typify how advancements in technology have helped make chocolate production more efficient and consistent. The next installment in this blog series will pick up with formulation, refining and conching—the final steps in which the chocolate maker can influence the finished product’s complex characteristics.

Interested in learning about chocolate firsthand? Click here for a list of upcoming classes with Chef Michael in the ICE Chocolate Lab.


By Lana Schwartz—Student, School of Culinary Arts

As a culinary school student, I spend most of my weeknights catching up on laundry, going to the gym or making dinner plans with friends. Last month, when ICE Chef Instructor Jenny McCoy approached my classmates and I in our sunny student lounge, my Wednesday night plans got a significant upgrade.

Top 10 Chocolatiers Dessert Professional

Chef Jenny was recruiting students to support a showcase for North America’s “Top 10 Chocolatiers,” an event hosted by Dessert Professional magazine with a guest list of 250+ industry insiders. As a Culinary Arts student, I haven’t worked much with chocolate, so I jumped at the opportunity to learn more about this growing industry.

Over the next few hours, I was exposed to an incredible level of talent. The diversity and creativity expressed through chocolate was inspiring from any culinary perspective. Self-expression reigned—from the vegan chocolatier who avoids milk products to a Mexican pastry chef infusing flavors of fruits and spices into his creations.

Top 10 Chocolatiers Dessert Professional

Beyond the obvious decadence and delicious tastings at this event, it was a fantastic opportunity to network with culinary professionals. When I started school, I knew that being in New York City would offer the perks of relationship building, but I never anticipated that I would have the chance to interact with so many industry professionals, exchanging experiences, ideas and contact information.

The event emphasized why I love being a part of the ICE community. Every person who attends school here shares a passion for food, but collectively, we are greater than that. As culinary, pastry, management and hospitality students, we have chosen to dedicate our lives to creating moments of joy and memories filled with happiness for others.


By volunteering at the Top 10 Chocolatiers event I had the opportunity to do just that, and I found clarity in the experience. What’s more, the award-winning chocolatiers were grateful for the extra hands, allowing them to take a moment to celebrate their moment of joy while simultaneously providing a top-notch experience for all the event’s guests.

I say with confidence that while this was my first volunteer experience as an ICE student, it won’t be my last!

Click here to learn more about networking and volunteering opportunities for ICE students.


Under the leadership of Creative Director Michael Laiskonis, every day in ICE’s Chocolate Lab is an opportunity for research and experimentation. Step inside the lab as we unwrap the chocolate-making process—from bean to bar—and discover just what it takes to create this beloved treat.

To discover the craft of bean-to-bar chocolate for yourself, request free information about ICE’s professional Pastry & Baking Arts program and continuing education courses for current pastry chefs.


Even as the editor in chief of a major food magazine, Dana Cowin never had the chance to try her hand at artisanal chocolate making. Luckily, no trip to ICE would be complete without a lesson in our new bean-to-bar chocolate lab.

For the ultimate chocolate masterclass, we paired Dana with ICE Creative Director Michael Laiskonis, who shared his tips for at-home tempering. From there, we asked Chef Michael to reimagine an interpretation of Dana’s favorite candy bar: the100 Grand.

Click here to learn more about chocolate studies at ICE.


By Michael Laiskonis—Creative Director

It may sound obvious, but the first step in the chocolate making process is bean selection. No two beans are alike, each offering distinctive flavor characteristics impacted by genetics, origin, farming and post-harvest handling—before they ever arrive at a chocolate production facility. Of course, individual chocolate makers are presented with numerous opportunities to imprint their personal stamp on the finished product during the chocolate making process, but to create an exceptional product, the best strategy is often to highlight the inherent qualities of the raw bean itself.

bean to bar chocolate - chocolate beans

Most popular texts on the subject of cacao divide beans into three primary varietals. However the latest research reveals that this classification is overly simplistic and somewhat flawed. With so much genetic cross-pollination, hybridization, mutation and recombination, it is rare and increasingly difficult to find any pure forms of the primary bean varietals. Modern commercial production is based on the conventional knowledge of these primary genetic clusters, known as Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario (a hybrid of the previous two).

Forastero dominates world production, accounting for 90% of the cacao grown and often referred to as “bulk” cacao, as opposed to “fine” or “flavor” cacao, which indicates the Criollo and Trinitario types. In the last decade, scientists have sought to refine and expand the longstanding classification to a dozen or more genetic sub-clusters that include such names as Amelonado, Beniano, Marañon and Purús. Adding further complexity are commercial breeds with sterile sounding names, such as CCN-51 or EET-103. The pursuit of these more detailed classifications isn’t in vain: the clearer our understanding of a particular bean’s genetic heritage, the easier it is to understand its ultimate potential.

When it comes to sourcing beans, large-scale manufacturers—and a growing number of small-batch artisans—work directly with farmers to understand a particular lot of beans and even influence its quality. The latter is especially true when it comes to the crucial fermentation stage, which takes place on the cacao plantation itself. Fermentation lasts from five to seven days, varying both by bean type and by the specifications dictated by the manufacturer purchasing the beans. Pods are harvested manually by making a clean cut through the stalk with a well-sharpened blade. After the ripe pod has been cut from the tree, it is opened, the rind is discarded and the pulp and seeds are piled in boxes or laid out in mounds for several days.

cacao pod bean to bar chocolate

During this time, the pulp liquefies and the process of fermentation takes place, through the action of wild yeasts and bacteria that convert the natural sugars in the pulp into alcohol and acids (lactic and acetic). This allows complex chemical changes to take place within the bean, including enzyme activity, oxidation and the breakdown of proteins into amino acids. These chemical reactions lead to the development of characteristic chocolate flavors, aromas and colors. Interestingly, just as house-fermented products are gaining traction throughout the culinary landscape, a deeper interest in fermentation is expanding in the cacao industry. Increasingly, beans are being inoculated with very specific cultures, manually influencing processes that happen spontaneously in tropical cacao-growing regions.

Another crucial processing step—and one that shouldn’t be overlooked—is drying, when the bean’s moisture content falls from about 60% to roughly 7.5%. The reduced moisture of the beans inhibits mold growth after they are packed and shipped—typically overseas. Beans are dried by two methods: the preferable option is to dry the beans in the sun, but in some regions artificial means are employed, such as heat provided by a wood or gas fire. A classic example of the latter takes place in Papua New Guinea, where the harvest coincides with the rainy season. As such, Guinean beans ferment under unusually humid conditions, and the necessity of oven drying imparts the beans with a slightly smoky flavor.

When beans initially arrive in the ICE Chocolate Lab, I make a quick study of the type and origin, applying as many general assumptions as I can. Beans of similar genetic background can express themselves differently from region to region, so it’s helpful to have as much additional knowledge as possible. While there may be no optimal treatment that can be applied to all beans, insights provided by knowledge of the cultivar and growing conditions can steer the chocolate maker, for example, toward a lighter or heavier roast. There are also visual cues an experienced chocolate maker can use to assess bean quality and guide the process.

chocolate bean cacao bean size bean to bar chocolate

Bean size will influence roasting time and temperature, so a bean count per 100 grams is a common method of expressing size, which can vary greatly even within a single lot. Recent lots of beans I have personally received for the lab include tiny Bolivian beans that averaged nearly 90 per 100 grams, to larger Peruvian beans where the count was closer to 70. Beyond bean type and size, I also consider the beans’ degree of fermentation. To assess this, I split open random samples of beans to assess for color (as well as for slaty or moldy beans). In such a cut test, beans with a purple hue may be slightly under-fermented while the color will deepen to various shades of brown with more fermentation. After sifting through a few batches of different beans, one can easily begin to understand how bean selection alone factors into an approach to chocolate making, demanding its own set of parameters.

Learning to assess bean characteristics has been an important first step in my chocolate education, from deeper-flavored Forastero beans from Ghana to the fruity notes typical of Madagascar beans. We’ve encountered unexpected results in the ICE lab, as with one particular lot of beans from the Dominican Republic that provided a distinct aroma of licorice—not unpleasant, but not at all what we expected to find from that origin. On the other hand, samples of beans from Ecuador’s Camino Verde—where various cultures and fermentation techniques are employed—all expressed varying notes while still aligning with the typical floral aromas we associate with the region.

cacao beans raw chocolate bean to bar chocolate

Each bean we’ve sourced requires different handling—from roasting through to winnowing, refining and conching—in order to fully express the inherent qualities that lie within. One of our most recent chocolate batches was a first attempt with beans from Papua New Guinea developed as part of a two-day professional development class. The subtle smokiness—a result of oven drying, as mentioned above—carried through to the finished bar and was not unlike a complex, peaty Scotch whiskey. The most exciting part of working in our modern age of small-batch chocolate is that these kinds of characteristics—which, historically, may have been viewed as defects—add a unique profile and a distinct sense of place.

With time and experience, seasoned chocolate makers can intuitively identify subtle nuances beneath the rough bitter overtones of simple roasted nibs or coarsely ground liquor. Even with all my hours in ICE’s Chocolate Lab, guessing at a finished chocolate’s final flavor is not a skill I’ve fully mastered. In my career as a pastry chef, few projects have offered as much opportunity for personal development and discovery. From the complexities of crafting true-to-character single-origin chocolates to exploring the art of blending different beans for balanced, consistent batches, I’m eager to continue this journey in craftsmanship. Beginning to understand the process from harvest to shipping is daunting, but it opens up a whole new range of possibilities to expand my palate, refine my skills and cultivate students’ intellectual discovery of one of the world’s most beloved food products.

Click here to watch a video about the ICE Chocolate Lab.


Over the past 10 years, the number of bean-to-bar chocolate operations in the United States has grown exponentially. Yet no American culinary school has invested in a chocolate lab where pastry students and seasoned professionals can experience the full cycle of bean-to-bar production…until now.

ICE’s Chocolate Lab was designed to expose students to the premier small-batch equipment in the industry—the very same tools used by some of the world’s leading research and development chefs and chocolatiers. Our partner in this groundbreaking venture is Cacao Cucina; the only American company that specializes in the production of artisanal, bean-to-bar chocolate equipment. The lab is also outfitted with premier chocolate moulding, tempering and finishing equipment from Tomric Systems.

“I once read an article where a chocolatier stated, ‘The most important step in making chocolate is every step.’ With the development of this center of research and development, I’m excited to show pastry chefs who aren’t chocolate makers how quantitative aspects of the process—roasting time and temperature, milling particle size, etc.—can effect the end flavor, and to explore the best applications of every type of chocolate.” – Michael Laiskonis, ICE Creative Director

To learn more about the Chocolate Lab at ICE, click here.

Jenny McCoy Ganache Chocolate Pastry

Photo Credit: Pernille Loof

By Jenny McCoy—Chef Instructor, School of Pastry & Baking Arts

Ganache—which calls for only two ingredients, heavy cream and bittersweet chocolate—is one of the easiest and most fundamental recipes in a pastry chef’s repertoire. Chop chocolate finely, add hot heavy cream, mix them together and voilà, you’re done! While the concept for ganache is quite simple, there are a few basic principles you should know. Once mastered, you’ll find that the uses for ganache are nearly endless, providing plenty of room for creativity in the kitchen!

The Golden Ratios

The ratios listed below are for bittersweet chocolate, not for milk or white chocolate. Milk and white chocolate have a lot of added sugar and/or milk, which means they react in an entirely different way.

  • For a chocolate sauce or a pourable glaze, use one part chocolate to two parts heavy cream.
  • For a thicker cake glaze or a whipped cake filling, combine equal parts chocolate and cream.
  • For a very thick ganache that you could scoop for chocolate truffles, combine two parts chocolate to one part heavy cream.

As you can see, the science is quite easy. If you want a thinner ganache, add more heavy cream. If you want a thicker ganache, add more chocolate. When you consider the textures of the two ingredients at room temperature—chocolate is solid and heavy cream is liquid—it makes sense, right? Once you cool or chill your ganache, the texture will be entirely dictated by the ratio of cream to chocolate that you’ve used.

Choose Your Ingredients

The type of bittersweet chocolate you choose will have a direct effect on the texture and flavor of your ganache. Typically, the more simple a recipe is, the more important it is that you use the best quality ingredients you can find. Fine chocolates, like wine, have a variety of subtle and bold flavors layered within them. Some chocolate might have a bright and fruity flavor while others might have an earthy or smoky flavor. Considering these subtle flavor qualities will make a big difference—particularly if you plan to make truffles, which are essentially a single bite of ganache.

You should also consider the cocoa percentage in the chocolate used. The higher the percentage, the more cocoa solids are present in the chocolate. A higher percentage essentially indicates that less sugar is in the chocolate and vice versa for chocolate with lower percentages. These percentages will affect the texture of your ganache. Like eating a bar of intense 80% chocolate versus a bar of 60% cocoa, the texture of a ganache made with darker chocolate will be more firm, whereas ganache made with lighter chocolate will be softer. Scientifically, this is because added sugar softens chocolate and acts like a liquid when chocolate melts.

As for the heavy cream, I recommend choosing a variety with the highest fat content possible. In grocery stores, most heavy cream has about 36% milk fat, but many professional kitchens opt for heavy cream with 40% milk fat. Higher milk fat content provides richer flavor, smoother texture and a more stable ganache. (Note: please do not be confused by “whipping cream.” It usually contains about 30% milk fat. While it can technically be used for ganache, the results are inferior.)

Chocolate Ganache Glaze Cake Jenny McCoy

Photo Credit: Pernille Loof

Key Techniques

There are a few key guidelines for preparing ganache, all of which are very easy to follow.

  • Finely chop your chocolate. This allows the chocolate to melt more evenly, especially when making a thicker ganache that requires more chocolate than heavy cream.
  • Bring the heavy cream to a simmer, not a full boil. It’s very easy to scorch heavy cream, so take care when heating it and stir frequently.
  • Pour the hot cream over the chopped chocolate and let it sit for a few minutes. Ensure that the chocolate is fully submerged in the hot cream as it sits. This begins the melting process of the chocolate and makes mixing the two ingredients quick and easy.
  • There are two ways to properly mix ganache:
    • For a perfectly smooth ganache, use a rubber spatula to combine the two ingredients. This will take a bit more time but results in exceptional truffle fillings or smooth cake glazes that are absolutely air bubble-free.
    • For a light, whipped ganache (used to frost a cake or as a cake filling), use a whisk. Whipping air into the ganache will also help it thicken and become more stable.

Add Extra Flavor

Ganache can be flavored with just about anything! Here are a few methods for developing your signature recipe.

  • Infusion: Infuse the hot cream with herbs and spices like fresh lavender, rosemary or whole pink peppercorns. You can also steep tea leaves or coffee in your heavy cream.
  • Incorporation: Add ground spices to the finished ganache, such as cinnamon or cayenne. Citrus zest, extracts or liqueurs are also fair game.
  • Substitution: For a fruity spin on ganache, substitute some of the heavy cream for fresh fruit purée.

With these guidelines in mind, it’s up to you to experiment and discover what ganache preparations you like best. Try using a whisk and a spatula. Infuse flavor into your cream. Or simply play around with the ratio of chocolate to cream. Take copious notes when you do! You never know when you’ll make a batch that comes out just right.

Ready to master ganache and other essential techniques? Click here to learn more about ICE’s Pastry & Baking Arts program.

Michael Laiskonis—Creative Director

What’s the latest news from Brookfield Place? The Chocolate Lab at ICE’s new facility is fully operational, and chocolate making on our bean-to-bar Cacao Cucina equipment has begun in earnest. Batches both large and small are ready for tasting, featuring beans from a wide range of origins, including the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Trinidad and the Ivory Coast. And after many a dark chocolate batch, our first milk chocolate just rolled off the assembly line – with a heady 50% cocoa solids.

As we gear up for increased production and the first of our bean-to-bar classes this fall, I’ve compiled some surprising facts about the different stages of the chocolate making process. These observations may be old hat to professional chocolate makers, but they are rarely—if ever—considered by chefs and consumers.

Raw Chocolate Sorting Beans Chocolate Lab Bean to Bar

Raw Beans
Straight out of the bag, fermented and dried beans present a serious microbiological risk, including E. coli and salmonella. Outbreaks linked to chocolate are rare, but the risk necessitates proper handling and storage. Simply put, I treat raw beans as if they were raw meat. Also, raw beans must be carefully sorted and cleaned of the various debris found in each bag (flat and moldy beans, stones, leaves, sticks, etc.). If that’s not enough, it isn’t uncommon for tropical moth eggs to hitch a ride on the surface of a cocoa bean! All of the beans that arrive at ICE’s lab are immediately bagged, sealed and chilled until roasting—before any of those tiny wings get an opportunity to hatch.

In addition to providing the only bacteria and moth “kill step” that renders the beans safe to consume, roasting allows for critical flavor development of the cocoa bean, further developing the precursors created during fermentation. Roasting also reduces the moisture content of the dried bean (chocolatiers always seek to minimize the amount of water in finished chocolate), which upon delivery is around 6-8%. Roasting parameters vary by bean type, origin, quantity and the desired flavor profiles—but typically roasters aim for 30-60 minutes or more at temperatures in the range of 300-350°F. Determining “doneness” is mostly subjective and instinctive. Chocolatiers primarily go by smell and taste, but also closely monitor the temperature of the bean mass throughout the process.

After roasting, the beans must be cracked and winnowed, separating the nibs from the shell. The shell alone can account for almost 15% of the roasted bean by weight and adversely affects the flavor and texture of finished chocolate. What’s more, the shell contains elevated levels of toxic heavy metals. Unsurprisingly, the acceptable industry standard for shell content in processed nibs is less than 1%.

Roasting Winnowing Chocolate Production Bean to Bar

Roasting beans and winnowed cocoa nibs

In most cocoa processing systems a “pre-grinding” of the nibs is necessary, to reduce both overall processing time and the eventual wear on refining machines. After grinding, the nibs are reduced to a thick paste referred to as “chocolate liquor,” with a mean particle size around 100 microns. (And yes, the term “liquor” is confusing to many, as there is no actual alcohol involved!)

Pressing Cocoa Butter
A portion of the liquor can be pressed to produce cocoa butter, which makes up roughly 50% of the beans’ weight. In the lab, this process takes one to two hours and nearly 65 tons of force. The remaining byproduct—known as “press cake”—can be further processed into cocoa powder.

Unlike the deodorized cocoa butter most chefs are familiar with, freshly pressed butter reflects the flavor compounds from the original beans. As most fine chocolate has a total fat content of 35-40% by weight, this additional cocoa butter can be added to boost the final percentage. For some single origin enthusiasts, this added butter makes or breaks a product’s bean-to-bar status, depending on whether or not the extra butter and original liquor are extracted from the same batch of beans.

Refining reduces the particle size of the liquor to an average of 20 microns. The human tongue can begin to detect grittiness at particle sizes larger than 35 microns, but reducing particle size below 20 microns increases the surface area of the cocoa butter, resulting in an unpleasantly thick consistency.

Refining is also the point in the bean-to-bar process at which other ingredients are introduced—sugar, additional cocoa butter, whole milk powder, etc. This process is achieved by an array of different machines, from stone melangeurs to roller refiners. Some systems, like our ball mill, work as a “universal,” allowing for “conching” to occur simultaneously with refining, due to the addition of temperature and airflow control.

Cocoa Butter Sifting Chocolate Refining Bean to Bar

Freshly pressed cocoa butter and sifting chocolate liquor

Conching—which involves heat, airflow and agitation—is critical for flavor development (removing unwanted volatile compounds), texture (coating the solid particles with cocoa butter) and further moisture reduction. This process can last for hours or days, depending on the desired results. However, conching time alone is not necessarily a measure of quality.

The final “recipe” for a batch of chocolate is determined by the addition of other ingredients, and will vary depending on such factors as bean type, desired flavor profile and application. The percentage you see on the label of finished chocolate refers to the total amount of cocoa solids by weight—meaning the nibs or liquor plus any added cocoa butter. This number alone is quantitative, not qualitative—a 70% chocolate may be 70% nibs or any equivalent combination of nibs and cocoa butter. Therefore, these percentages may not offer much insight into flavor, but they can tell us how much sugar was added. The percentage of sugar simply equals 100 minus the cocoa percentage (accounting for less than 1% additional vanilla or stabilizers like lecithin, etc.).

Before tempering, it is beneficial to sift or strain the finished chocolate through vibrating screens to remove any large particles that are difficult to refine—notably the “radicle” (or germ stem) that is a part of each bean. This hard stem is very bitter and can produce a gritty texture if left in the chocolate. Integrating a pass by powerful magnets into the sifting process can also eliminate the worry of any remaining hard metals in the chocolate.

Finished Chocolate Bean to Bar Aging

While the aging process is not well understood or widely researched, both large manufacturers and small-batch artisans agree that several weeks of aging finished chocolate allows for better, rounder flavor. Large companies inherently allow for this process in their distribution network, while artisan producers will hold chocolate batches in reserve for two months or more before tempering, molding and packaging. None of our batches is more than three or four weeks old at this point, but I’m eager to experience the aging process for myself. I’m reserving most of each batch to evaluate the effects of aging, but with so many of our students and staff eager for a taste, I’m also already molding small quantities for the instant gratification of our efforts!

Can’t wait to check out ICE’s Chocolate Lab? Sign up for bean-to-bar classes with Chef Michael.


By Michael Laiskonis, Creative Director and Instructor, Advanced Pastry Studies

On the surface of things, there were no overt signs that I would ever become a professional cook. I’ve only come to appreciate any early, subtle triggers in hindsight. So many of our tastes and habits stem from the rituals we participate in at a young age, especially those that involve food. For many chefs, these rituals act as catalysts, informing their career paths. These memories are so strong that we are constantly looking to feed a hunger for nostalgia, both for ourselves and for those we cook for. In particular, as a pastry chef, I’ve come to appreciate the subtle and not so subtle roles sweetness plays in our lives.


No offense to my well-meaning parents, but I didn’t grow up with much exposure to the wonders of gastronomy. I had no revelatory, life-changing encounters with caviar, oysters or foie gras at a young age. Nor was I some constant, curious shadow lurking in the kitchen, an ever-present tot tugging at my mother’s apron strings. Mealtime was always an important family gathering, but the food at the heart of it tended toward the utilitarian. We ate from a steady rotation of modest middle class fare: pot roast, spaghetti, meatloaf and casseroles of all kinds. My mother was a good cook, but the budget never allowed for much beyond the basics, and dining out at restaurants was a rare luxury.

Of course, coming of age in early 80s suburbia didn’t set the stage for much culinary adventure. The average supermarket chain was still barren of the bounty of fresh ingredients we take for granted today—exotic fruits, fancy cheeses, or any semblance of authentic ethnic or seasonal fare. Though both of my parents grew up on farms, the cultural turbulence of the 60s and the transition from rural to suburban life nearly severed that connection within one generation. By the time I was born, both sets of my grandparents had all but sold off their land in northern Michigan.

Only later, as a cook, would I truly appreciate the agrarian tradition in my not-so-distant past. I eagerly soaked up any stories I could coax from both sets of my grandparents before they passed away. (My father grew up with several dozen head of dairy cattle and a modest egg business supplied by nearly 400 laying hens. As a youngster, his chores included feeding the newly born calves twice a day and gathering eggs. As soon as he was old enough to manage the wheel of a tractor, he spent summers in the fields—some 150 acres his father planted with soy, corn, buckwheat and string beans.) I wanted to know when my grandfather, Stanley, planted the winter wheat, and the detailed laying cycle of his hens. I treasure the amusing tales told of cattle breeding mishaps and his rather unscientific experiments in homemade hooch and dandelion wine. When I was eight years old, I stood squeamishly by my grandfather’s side as he quickly scaled and gutted a tiny bluegill—the first fish I ever caught on my own. It was an important rite of passage. Neither of us could have known at that visceral moment that I’d one day work at one of the world’s most renowned fish restaurants.

One of Michael's many experiments with gelatin-based confections.

One of Michael’s many experiments with gelatin-based confections.

The colder, shorter days that descend with the slow creep of autumn always brought special associations. Until I was old enough to know better, I believed that the true purpose of Thanksgiving was that my birthday always lay within a few days of our traditional family gathering. Thanks to Geraldine, my paternal grandmother, I still associate pumpkin pie with birthday cake. The lavish holiday spreads she produced—seemingly out of thin air—catered to every taste at the table, though I appreciated most the special attention she paid to my own particular likes and dislikes (whatever they were at any given time of my adolescence). Geraldine also curated a secret cookie drawer, packed so full it barely opened and closed. Upon every arrival and departure from the house, my sister Amy and I always had free reign to whatever we could hold onto or stuff into our mouths. Though today I might incorporate sophisticated gelées into decidedly adult desserts, the history of my competitive nature is also linked to gelatinized desserts—by way of Jell-O “races” I challenged my great uncle to. A quiet mentor to me throughout my adolescence, Uncle Ed always made sure I won, though I rarely made it through a full bowl without forfeiting to giggle fits.

Another annual ritual would take place a few weeks later, perhaps some snowy afternoon in December. The four of us—Mom, Dad, my sister, and me—would pore through the dog-eared collection of cookbooks and handwritten recipe cards in the cupboard, and we’d each choose our favorite cookie recipes. Then we’d commence production: Dad measured, Amy and I mixed, and then Mom navigated the endless trays of dough in and out of the ovens. As a half dozen or more varieties cooled on every available inch of counter space, the windows would begin to fog, and the whole house was awash with the scent of all that freshly baked goodness. Over the coming days these cookies would be divided into parcels to be delivered to friends, family and neighbors. With any luck, our own personal stash would hold out until at least Christmas Eve. Even amidst the rush and clatter of a professional kitchen, I occasionally channel that feeling of anticipation and collective effort when reflecting upon an oven full of pastry.

While pastry chef at Le Bernardin, I always looked forward to the annual holiday party for the staff and their families, held on a Saturday in mid-December. Setting aside the sophisticated sweets served in the dining room, it was the one day of the year our pastry kitchen turned out simple classics like cream puffs, brownies and even sugar cookies in the shape of snowmen. Over the years, a clear favorite from that repertoire emerged among the cooks, waiters and their children alike: my triple chocolate chip cookies. Comprised of a cocoa-enriched dough packed with milk and white chocolate chips, these humble, nostalgic cookies evoke the essence of my own roots and family rituals.


Triple Chocolate Cookies

Yield: 700g or about two dozen medium-sized cookies

  • 130g all purpose flour
  • 50g cocoa powder, Dutch-process
  • 4g baking soda
  • 110g sucrose
  • 55g dark brown sugar
  • 115g unsalted butter
  • 1 whole egg
  • 100g milk chocolate chips or chunks
  • 100g white chocolate chips or chunks
  1. Sift together the flour, cocoa powder and baking soda. Set aside.
  2. Separately, in the bowl of an electric stand mixer, combine the sugar, brown sugar and butter. Beat with a paddle attachment until smooth and creamy. Add the egg, mixing until combined.
  3. Slowly add the sifted dry ingredients, mixing just until combined, followed by the chocolate chips.
  4. Divide the dough into roughly 25g portions and arrange on prepared parchment or Silpat-lined sheet pans.
  5. Bake the cookies in a convection oven pre-heated to 320°F (or 350°F in a conventional home oven) for 10 to 12 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through the baking process.

Interested in taking classes with Chef Michael? Check out his full range of Advanced Pastry Classes at ICE.

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