CHOCOLATE: Food of the Gods

Coenraad Van Houten

Photograph of Coenraad Van Houten from "The True History of Chocolate," by Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe (New York: Thames and Hudson).

Anyone who loves chocolate owes a huge debt of gratitude to this Dutch chemist. He invented a process that created an easily prepared powdered hot chocolate, which, in turn, led to the production of creamy, solid chocolate as we know it.

The modern era of chocolate making began in 1828 when Van Houten patented his method for removing most of the cocoa butter from processed cacao, leaving a powdered chocolate. Untreated cocoa mass, or “liquor,” the end result of grinding cacao beans, contains about 53% cocoa butter. Van Houten invented a hydraulic press which reduced the amount to about 27%, leaving a cake that could be pulverized into a fine powder, which we know as cocoa. To improve this powder’s ability to mix with liquid, Van Houten treated it with alkaline salts, which came to be known as “Dutching.”

With the cocoa butter separated from the mass, chocolate makers now had a new and intriguing substance. Adding it to chocolate creates a creamier and more malleable product, making it supple enough to be molded into bars and more elaborate filled confections.