Raw chocolate is a misleading term. The idea of consuming “raw” foods stems from the belief thatfoods in their uncooked and unprocessed form are healthier, and better for the body and environment. People generally agree that a food is “raw” as long as it’s never heated above 118°F/48°C, the temperature at which certain enzymes are destroyed. Therefore, raw chocolate is made with cacao which has never been heated above 118°F/48°C, which would make flavor development in chocolate extremely difficult.
Yet there are still raw chocolates being sold, marketed as high in antioxidants and enzymes. What they fail to mention are the issues with bacterial contamination from the farm, difficulty in peeling beans, and the lack of flavor development in truly raw chocolate.
Fermentation is a key step in the chocolate making process, as it’s necessary for forming the flavor precursors we associate with chocolate. Temperatures during fermentation regularly hit 122°F/50°C and sometimes even higher, rendering most properly-fermented cacao no longer “raw.” Fermentation is one of the least well-known steps in chocolate making, however, so many “raw chocolates” are actually unroasted chocolates, such as Raaka Chocolate. After cacao is harvested, fermented and dried, it’s sent to chocolate makers for cleaning, roasting, peeling, and grinding. Even if cacao was very carefully monitored during fermentation to ensure it never went over the temperature threshold, there are two more steps in flavor development which require high heat: roasting and grinding.
Roasting cacao is done at a variety of temperatures, but most cacao is roasted between 275-400°F/135-205°C. During the roasting process, the flavor precursors formed during fermentation are transformed into the fudgey, fruity, and nutty flavors associated with chocolate. Which flavors develop depends upon cacao origin, varietal, and roasting time and temperature, but roasting below 118°F/48°C won’t allow those flavors to fully develop, leaving the beans with the strong earthy undertone which characterizes “raw” chocolate.
Even once the unfermented and unroasted cacao is put into the grinder, it runs the risk of heating above the temperatures for raw chocolate. Similar to how many of those volatile acids were formed, the cacao must be heated to high temperatures during grinding in order to drive off the volatile acids which make chocolate taste sour or astringent. Beyond the issues with cacao are the sweeteners used in raw chocolate. Most sweeteners must be heated above the raw threshold in order to remove excess moisture and concentrate the sweetness. Adding a wet sweetener such as honey would cause chocolate to seize, ruining the texture of the chocolate and making it difficult to mold into bars.
Making raw chocolate isn’t impossible, but it’s not advisable, either.