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Water Activity/Shelf LIfe


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Hi there! 

 

I've poured over the threads where this subject has come up, in the past, and just want to make sure I've got the most accurate, current information.

 

We're trying to decide if we should go the route of more "wholesale" sales for my company or focus on growing the retail. One of the problems with retail is, with one teen starting college next year and the other one only two years behind, we aren't ready to take the risk of starting up our own shop quite yet. My online sales are growing steadily, but the only retail options I end up having are Farmer's markets, which are so fickle, in terms of weather and people's interest in sweets, that it hasn't particularly done much more than get my name out there. 

 

One of my biggest concerns with pursuing more wholesale locations is the issue of shelf life. I try to stick with the Valrhona technique of ganache making and Peter Grewling's book, for recipes and proportions, but am nervous about what to tell locations, when it comes to how long certain items will last, on their counter.

aW meters, as far as I can tell, are far out of affordability for us. Which leaves me looking for options of local testing laboratories (about $40 per sample), and/or software. I'd love to hear about any experience folks have had with software options out there, that can calculate this sort of thing, based on ingredients. Also, if anyone has a recommendation of places to look for used aW meters, that would be excellent. 

thanks in advance!

 

-Kristi

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There is a program called Prochoc that will allow you to calculate aW. link here

 

Still not inexpensive - but less costly than an aW meter. 

 

I got my aW meter by calling the company when they happened to have a refurbished unit around. I've found another for someone on e-bay and I think one was on Craigslist If I recall correctly.

 

 

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I sell my chocolates wholesale (in this case, I sell them to a shop that then offers them--at an increased price, of course--at retail). I have an Aw meter (the Pawkit model from Aqualab, now named Meter Group). Shelf life is a big concern for me, and I don't make any fillings that have an Aw reading above 0.85--in reality, all are well below that figure. What I do is to put the individual boxes in plastic bags and seal them with an impulse sealer. Then the store keeps them in a cooler for sale. Each box has an insert giving handling instructions--to let the box, still in its plastic bag, come to room temp before opening it. I provide one free box for display, which can be opened, covered with plastic wrap, and left out on the counter. I also provide a folded card printed on heavy paper showing the various flavors in a particular assortment; on the back of the card is a list of the ingredients in that batch. That is left on the counter beside the display box. This has worked quite well. The only part of my procedure that others might not like is that I sell the chocolates on consignment. If, at the end of approximately a month, there are any unsold chocolates, I remove them, and the store pays me only for what it has sold. I know this means I occasionally lose some money, but I think one's reputation for the product is more important than a few dollars. After a few times at this arrangement, I can now estimate how many boxes will be sold and don't often have any to reclaim.

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I also have a PawKit.  Found it on Craigslist for about $500, which was easily paid for considering that would be 15 fillings tested and travel time to the certification lab.  Just keep checking, and use ONESCRAIG to do a larger search.  Also, if you use Wybauw's book Fine Chocolates Gold, it has the Aw listed for many of his recipes.  He also gets into the specifics of modifying recipes to lower the Aw.  I've found that using his techniques as I tweek a recipe and then check with the PawKit makes me feel much more secure about offering my chocolates, especially my own recipes, to the public.

Edited by VistaGardens
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Ahh, shelf life, the chocolatier's other nemesis besides packaging!

 

I agree, farmers markets can be unpredictable.  They weren't really worth it for me the last couple of summers - if it's cool enough for chocolate, attendance is lower, and if the sun is out at all, everyone is eating ice cream and their car will be hot.  You can mess around with dry ice or ice packs but to me it's not worth the struggle, I'm better off doing wedding catering on summer weekends.

 

But back to shelf life.  I have a couple of wholesale accounts and a couple of consignment accounts.  The little independent stores and boutiques are going to be more likely to trust your judgement but they also don't always have refrigeration.  So I stick to bars and caramels for wholesale and save the more perishable stuff for events.  Some stores will have their own requirements; I've heard Whole Foods asks for a 6 month shelf life.  You have to figure that the product might sit on the shelf for a month, then some people actually have self control and hide their candy and don't eat it for another month or two ...  So I'm going with better safe than sorry.  I recently got a quote for an aW meter because it would be super useful and I'd love to have that extra confidence but I opted for other tools and toys instead. People do get excited by bonbons but they're not my top priority.

 

42 minutes ago, Jim D. said:

I sell the chocolates on consignment. If, at the end of approximately a month, there are any unsold chocolates, I remove them, and the store pays me only for what it has sold. I know this means I occasionally lose some money, but I think one's reputation for the product is more important than a few dollars. After a few times at this arrangement, I can now estimate how many boxes will be sold and don't often have any to reclaim.

 

Yes, I sometimes have returns from consignment stores, if I have a lot I might donate it if it's still good, otherwise I give them to friends & family or occasionally throw things away.  My brothers are totally willing to eat a chocolate Santa Claus in February :)  And I figure since other stores want net 30 terms, I get paid just as fast with consignment.

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Thanks everyone! 

 

I'm doing a deep-dive search on the books and such. I didn't realize that Wybauw's book had the water activity attached to the recipes- that would be helpful! And Vistagardens, thanks for the tip on how to search all of Craigslist! I could not figure out how to stop it from only searching within 200 miles of my zip code. Drove me batty. 

Jim D., the consignment idea seems like a good option. I hadn't thought of that. And Pastry Girl, I'm a step or two away from limiting my wholesale to the stuff you mentioned... Those have much more stable life spans, when they have to be out of a temp controlled candy counter. I just have to work on transitioning my market regulars to make their purchases there. 

 

Off to scour the used options for Wybauw's book... 

 

Thanks again! And if anyone happens to spot a refurbished or used PawKit, please give me a shout out! :-D

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  • 1 year later...

Super helpful thread. Thanks everyone for sharing their wisdom. I am just starting to offer some wholesale and bumping up against shelf-life issues that weren't really a problem at the farmer's market. Thinking I might follow @pastrygirl's advice and shift away from cream-based ganaches and stick to bars and caramels. Pastrygirl, can I ask about your flavors? I currently only do one caramel (burnt orange) and it's very popular. I'd like to offer 2 more...

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6 hours ago, sbain said:

Super helpful thread. Thanks everyone for sharing their wisdom. I am just starting to offer some wholesale and bumping up against shelf-life issues that weren't really a problem at the farmer's market. Thinking I might follow @pastrygirl's advice and shift away from cream-based ganaches and stick to bars and caramels. Pastrygirl, can I ask about your flavors? I currently only do one caramel (burnt orange) and it's very popular. I'd like to offer 2 more...

 

Caramels as in caramel ganache?  Or soft chewy caramels?  Caramel, like chocolate, goes with a lot of things.  Without chocolate, I add espresso, sea salt, apple cider & spices, honey & vanilla, maple syrup, black pepper.  With chocolate (and caramel) I've done rosemary, peppermint, orange, sea salt, white/blond chocolate, brown butter ...

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  • 4 weeks later...

@pastrygirl can I ask you a follow-up question? when you do a chocolate and caramel mix, does it improve your shelf-life? My cream based ganaches only seem to be good for a week or two, while my caramels last for many weeks, so I am hoping adding caramel to a cream-based ganache (thus reducing Aw) it would improve stability. How's my logic? :)

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24 minutes ago, sbain said:

@pastrygirl can I ask you a follow-up question? when you do a chocolate and caramel mix, does it improve your shelf-life? My cream based ganaches only seem to be good for a week or two, while my caramels last for many weeks, so I am hoping adding caramel to a cream-based ganache (thus reducing Aw) it would improve stability. How's my logic? :)

 

This is not the main point of your post, but how do you know your cream ganaches last only a week or two?  And under what conditons/temperature?  That is a very short period of time. 

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  • 2 weeks later...
On 12/10/2019 at 12:56 PM, Jim D. said:

 

This is not the main point of your post, but how do you know your cream ganaches last only a week or two?  And under what conditons/temperature?  That is a very short period of time. 

I am currently doing a more scientific test (same recipes, made each week, comparing how they age), but I was mortified a few months ago when I bit into an old (4 week?) raspberry ganache bonbon and it was moldy inside! Yikes. That was stored at room temp (60-70F). They usually seem to get eaten before that long, so it had never been a problem before. but now that I am selling some wholesale I am getting paranoid. I never want someone to bite into a moldy bonbon, especially one of mine! 

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9 hours ago, sbain said:

I am currently doing a more scientific test (same recipes, made each week, comparing how they age), but I was mortified a few months ago when I bit into an old (4 week?) raspberry ganache bonbon and it was moldy inside! Yikes. That was stored at room temp (60-70F). They usually seem to get eaten before that long, so it had never been a problem before. but now that I am selling some wholesale I am getting paranoid. I never want someone to bite into a moldy bonbon, especially one of mine! 

 

That experience would be very disturbing. When I sell wholesale, I insist that the shop selling the chocolates retail have refrigeration, so keeping them around 40F (or for long-term storage, a freezer plus information on how to move chocolates from freezer to cooler). Do you know the Aw of that raspberry filling? The information would be especially useful in this case. And is your recipe a published one or something you came up with?

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  • 11 months later...
On 3/28/2018 at 2:16 AM, VistaGardens said:

I also have a PawKit.  Found it on Craigslist for about $500

 

I know I reply to a post which is super old. But a Pawkit for $500? Wow. Lucky you. :D

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Btw, I also have a question. I've been looking at a unit for around 2000 EUR. But how do you even find reviews of these things? It's not like I can go to Amazon and read what people thinks about them.

 

Like I don't want to put down 2000 EUR without knowing if the units measures well etc.

 

@Muscadelle I don't know, it's jsut a guess. But I would mos def let it set for a day before measuring it. It should be in the temperature that it will be stored. Different temperatures give different aw readings, so if you measure it just when mixed it will be way hotter than when it would be inside your bonbon.

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4 hours ago, Muscadelle said:

I have a question for those who own a water activity meter. Do you let your ganache crystallize before putting it into the meter? It would makes sense to me... but i'm not sure

It has to cool at least - it’s reading vapor so warm triggers an error 

 

 

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6 hours ago, Rajala said:

Btw, I also have a question. I've been looking at a unit for around 2000 EUR. But how do you even find reviews of these things? It's not like I can go to Amazon and read what people thinks about them.

 

Like I don't want to put down 2000 EUR without knowing if the units measures well etc.

 

@Muscadelle I don't know, it's jsut a guess. But I would mos def let it set for a day before measuring it. It should be in the temperature that it will be stored. Different temperatures give different aw readings, so if you measure it just when mixed it will be way hotter than when it would be inside your bonbon.

What's the unit you are looking at?

 

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52 minutes ago, Kerry Beal said:

What's the unit you are looking at?

 

 

https://www.novasina.ch/labstart-aw/

 

This one - https://www.novasina.ch/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/005371.00_Spec-Sheet_LabStart_EN.pdf

 

The distributor thinks this low end version will be enough. I told them I don't need it to be PERFECT. An extra decimal is 800 EUR more. :D

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13 hours ago, Muscadelle said:

I have a question for those who own a water activity meter. Do you let your ganache crystallize before putting it into the meter? It would makes sense to me... but i'm not sure

 

As Kerry pointed out, the machine cannot read the sample until the it and the sample are approximately the same temperature.  It makes sense to me that the sample should be measured when it has crystallized, but, for a filling that eventually firms up quite a lot, it's very difficult to get it into the little cup if you wait, especially since the entire bottom of the cup is supposed to be covered for best results but there isn't supposed to be any of the sample at the top edge of the cup--in other words, the "target" area is quite restricted.  I have no scientific evidence about this, but it seems to me that the filling would be at its most "watery" (and therefore have its highest Aw reading) when it is just made.  I'll experiment and see if I can get more information.

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24 minutes ago, Jim D. said:

 

As Kerry pointed out, the machine cannot read the sample until the it and the sample are approximately the same temperature.  It makes sense to me that the sample should be measured when it has crystallized, but, for a filling that eventually firms up quite a lot, it's very difficult to get it into the little cup if you wait, especially since the entire bottom of the cup is supposed to be covered for best results but there isn't supposed to be any of the sample at the top edge of the cup--in other words, the "target" area is quite restricted.  I have no scientific evidence about this, but it seems to me that the filling would be at its most "watery" (and therefore have its highest Aw reading) when it is just made.  I'll experiment and see if I can get more information.

Thank you Jim! Maybe we could pour the ganache in the little cup when it's still warm so it can flatten out and cover the bottom perfectly and then wait the next day to place it into the meter to get a reading?

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1 minute ago, Muscadelle said:

Thank you Jim! Maybe we could pour the ganache in the little cup when it's still warm so it can flatten out and cover the bottom perfectly and then wait the next day to place it into the meter to get a reading?

 

That should work.  If we really want to see what effect time has on Aw, I could take several samples just after the filling has been made, then put on the lids (yes, the tiny little cups come with tiny little lids) and test them over a period of days.  An after-Christmas project.

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59 minutes ago, Muscadelle said:

Thank you Jim! Maybe we could pour the ganache in the little cup when it's still warm so it can flatten out and cover the bottom perfectly and then wait the next day to place it into the meter to get a reading?

The filling that I tested yesterday - I put in the cup while I was piping the fillings, left it to firm up and cool and measured it the same evening, 

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