The cacao bean or cocoa bean is the dried and fermented seed extracted from the cacao plant, which is used to make one of the most popular and most consumed ingredients in the world, chocolate. 

What is Cacao?

Cacao, scientifically known as Theobroma cacao, is a perennial tree that grows in tropical areas. Originating from the Amazon, the cacao tree is now cultivated across continents like Asia and Africa. Its seeds, called cacao beans, are the magical ingredient used to make chocolate, cocoa powder, and cocoa butter. 

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The cacao tree grows between 20-40 feet high and has long leathery leaves that shed sporadically. Cacao flowers grow throughout the year (bark and branches) but reach their peak blossom during certain months. The flowers usually grow in bunches and have different colors depending on the cacao variety. It takes around 4 years for the cacao tree to mature and produce fruit (around 70 fruits per year). 

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The tree yields fruit in the form of pods which are either yellow or purple. The pods take about 6 months to ripen and contain about 20-60 cacao beans which are coated with sugary, gummy pulp. Most of the cacao pulp is utilized in the fermentation process of the cacao beans, while the rest is powdered and leveraged into commercially produced confections, beverages, and other food items.

Varieties of Cacao

The cacao plant exists in three main varieties: Criollo, Trinitario, and Forastero. Forastero is the most used variety and comprises around 80-90% of the world’s production of cacao. 

Cacao Fermentation process

The sticky beans harvested from the pod taste nothing like the chocolate we consume. That’s because the raw beans undergo several steps and processes to get to the form that we love and eat. The initial step is called fermentation, in which the harvested cacao beans are left to ferment in bins. This step is essential in developing chocolate’s signature scent and taste. 

The beans are then dried and roasted (sometimes) to develop a stronger chocolate flavor. This step also adds sweetness. Later, the beans are crushed and separated from the outer shells which result in small bits called cacao nibs. Lastly, the nibs are ground to be turned into a cacao liquor (non-alcoholic) and from here, they’re ready to be made into various chocolate products. 

To make cacao powder the liquor is pressed to remove most of the fats. For chocolate, this liquor is mixed with other ingredients like sugar, vanilla, milk, and cacao butter. The differences in chocolates arise in the proportion of cacao powder and cacao butter that is added. 

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Flavor of Cacao

Raw cacao is less processed and unsweetened, and often regarded as a “vegan chocolate”. It can be extremely bitter and not everyone can grow accustomed to the taste. However, cacao is considered more nutritious and natural in contrast to cocoa, which is more processed. Cocoa offers a much sweeter flavor, and hence is used in most chocolate bars and other processed chocolate products.

Benefits of Cacao

Various scientific research has shown that the fiber found in cocoa helps in digestive functioning; the flavonoids and polyphenols naturally present in cocoa reduce inflammation, lower the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Moreover, it is packed with protein and minerals like iron and potassium.

Uses of Cacao

Even though raw cacao beans have an intense and bitter flavor that is not to everyone’s liking, it is still incorporated into various recipes. Since these beans are packed with nutritional value some people like to munch on them as a snack. Raw cacao beans are crunchy in texture and taste like an unsweetened dark chocolate bar. 

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Cacao can be used in various salads, pastry crusts, tarts, biscuits, cereal bars, and cream toppings for dessert. It can also be incorporated into smoothies or milkshakes for a chocolaty kick. To give it a try, swap cacao powder in our mouthwatering sweet recipes like Hazelnut Chocolate Buns and Chocolate Stout Cake.

Cacao and espresso powder, when combined, can produce some exceptionally good recipes. How could you resist an espresso hot chocolate?! You can try this powerful combo in our recipe for Molten Chocolate Brownies, but don’t forget to swap cocoa out with the more intense cacao powder.

People who don’t like raw unsweetened cacao can still make multiple recipes using cocoa powder or cocoa butter. Both of these forms are highly popular in desserts. Last but not least the best form of cacao- chocolate can be incorporated into a huge number of recipes like brownies, tarts, bars, mousses, cakes, and pastries. You can also use chocolate for decorating desserts and coating fruits. 

Feature Image: Angelica Vaihel from Pixabay 

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