Raw cacao beans have a reasonably long shelf life, but they don't last forever. Stored properly, raw cacao beans can stay reasonably fresh for six months to one year. Once the raw beans are broken down into nibs, their quality deteriorates more quickly because more of their surface area is exposed to air, even if you store them well. Once the raw beans are roasted, you should use them even sooner because they're start to taste stale after only a month.
Storing Raw Cacao Beans
Raw cacao beans should be stored at relatively cool temperatures, with as little exposure as possible to air and moisture. The ideal temperature range is between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit, and the beans should be kept out of direct sunlight and away from heat sources such as ovens and radiators. A tightly sealed, plastic container will keep your beans away from airflow, another variable that affects their quality and makes them grow stale more quickly. Avoid humidity and keep your beans as dry as possible. In addition to increasing the likelihood of mold, moisture compromises the quality of the chocolate you make with your cacao beans. It takes only a few drops of water to ruin an entire batch of chocolate, which is an expensive and heartbreaking prospect.
Is Raw Cacao Really Raw?
People who follow raw foods diets tout the benefits of protecting foods from temperatures hot enough to kill the beneficial enzymes they contain. Cacao is often hailed as a super food, one that is especially rich in enzymes, so raw cacao has been marketed as an especially beneficial super food. However, even cacao that has not been fully roasted doesn't technically meet the criteria necessary to qualify as a raw food. Right after they are picked, cacao beans undergo a fermentation process that develops their flavor and brings out the magical notes associated with artisan chocolate. The fermentation process raises the temperature of the beans to 122 degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than the 116-degree limit for categorizing a food as raw.
Is Raw Cacao Healthy?
Aside from the question of whether raw cacao is technically a raw food, there are good reasons to roast your cacao beans before eating them. Cacao beans are air-dried during the fermentation process, and are exposed to a variety of potential pathogens that can cause food borne illnesses, including salmonella and e coli. These pathogens are most likely to be on the shells, which are the parts of the beans that are exposed. If you do want to eat your cacao beans raw, it's at least a good idea to remove the shells.
How to Shell Cacao Beans
Chocolate makers shell cacao beans using a winnowing device. Many winnowers are homespun, made with a juicer that cracks the beans, a configuration of PVC pipe that allows the shells and nibs to be sorted, and a fitted vacuum that sucks the lighter shells away from the heavier nibs.
Raw cacao beans are harder than roasted ones, so they're likely to wear out juicer blades more quickly, but any apparatus that works for roasted beans will work for raw ones as well. However, if you don't have winnowing equipment and simply want to shell some beans for snacking, you can break the shells by applying gentle pressure. If you press them just right, you can crack the shell and then peel a bean whole. If you press harder, you'll break the bean into nibs, which will still be tasty and edible, but you'll have to pick out the shells by hand.