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A Guide To Tempering Chocolate


One cooking technique that I've come to love is tempering chocolate. There's nothing I enjoy making more than desserts, and knowing how to temper chocolate opens up a whole world of beautiful sweet creations.

So what exactly is tempering chocolate? Well, it just means specially treating melted chocolate so that it dries to a hard, shiny finish – so you get chocolate that doesn't melt at room temperature, breaks with a nice snap instead of crumbling apart, and is perfect for coating candies.

The first time I tried coating a dessert with chocolate, I coated the tops of sugar cookies. I just melted chocolate, dipped the cookies, and let it set. Well, the chocolate stayed soft, and the cookies were kind of sticky and messy.

They were still delicious, but that kind of coating just wouldn't cut it for something like truffles. You need a hard coating for truffles, because you'll be touching the chocolate when you eat it. Plus a nice shiny truffle looks perfectly beautiful!

Tempering chocolate isn't hard to do, but it is a bit of a delicate procedure. And underneath it all there's some complex but very cool scientific processes at work. And in this article, we'll go over it all. First, I'll talk about what happens to the chocolate when you melt and temper it, and then I'll go over what you need to temper chocolate, and how to do it.

How Tempering Chocolate Works

Just about everyone loves chocolate. The smooth texture and awesome rich taste are hard to resist. But it's so easy to get chocolate that we tend to take for granted what goes into getting that texture: tempering chocolate.

Chocolate has a special structure, and to get the nice hard chocolate we love, you have to handle it very precisely.

Different Kinds Of Crystals

Chocolate is actually made up of a bunch of little crystals. And the size of those crystals are what give the chocolate its texture!

  • Big crystals give a soft, crumbly chocolate that melts really easily.
  • Medium crystals also give a melty chocolate, but it's a bit more firm.
  • Small crystals are the perfect size. They give you hard, shiny chocolate that doesn't melt until you're eating it, and that breaks into pieces with a satisfying snap.

The chocolate we buy is generally tempered chocolate, nice and hard with the right crystal structure. But if you want to use that chocolate to coat something, you have to melt it. And that destroys all the crystals, and you have to create new ones. That's the tricky part!

Forming Chocolate Crystals

Once chocolate is melted, you need to recreate the crystal structure. The way you do it is by stirring the melted chocolate. The agitation causes little crystal seeds to form, and those seeds grow into the actual crystals. And here's the key – the size of the crystals is determined by the temperature of the chocolate when the seeds form.

  • If the temperature is too low, between 60F and 80F (17C and 27C), you get the big crystals and your chocolate won't be good for coating.
  • If the crystal seeds form at about 93F (34C), you'll get perfect, small crystals, and your chocolate will dry hard and shiny.
  • Any hotter than 97F (36C), and it'll be too hot for crystal seeds to form.

So here's what you have to do when tempering chocolate – we'll go over the actual methods in more detail in the how to temper chocolate section.

  1. Melt the chocolate and get it hot enough to melt all the crystals in it. It'll need to reach about 110F to 115F (about 45C).
  2. Cool the chocolate to about 82F (28C). Stir it and agitate it to help the right crystal seeds to form. This will make sure you only get smallish sized crystals.
  3. Heat the chocolate back up to about 90F (32C). It'll get rid of any bigger crystals that might have formed. It'll also make the chocolate a bit easier to work with, especially if you're using it to coat something.
  4. Now, maintain that temperature while you're using the chocolate. If you let it heat up too much, you'll melt the crystals and have to start over again, but if you let it cool too much it'll get hard to work with.

It might all seem a little complicated to worry about crystals and crystal seeds – but knowing why you need to heat and cool and heat again really helps the process of tempering chocolate make so much more sense. For me, knowing about all this made me feel a lot more confident about it!

And remember, none of this is hard to do. It's just melting chocolate and watching a thermometer. But knowing why you're doing it makes it easier to understand what happened if something goes wrong.

What You'll Need

One of the nice things about tempering chocolate is that you don't need a whole lot of fancy equipment to do it. Here's what you do need.

Double-Boiler

The best way to melt chocolate is the low, indirect heat of a double-boiler.

  • If you don't have a double-boiler, you can use a stainless steel bowl over a pot of water. The bowl should completely cover the pot, to keep the heat in and prevent any moisture from getting into the chocolate. Moisture could make your chocolate seize up and then it wouldn't be any good for tempering.
  • If you don't have a double-boiler or anything that can act as one, you can melt the chocolate in a pot directly over the heat, but you have to be very careful. Direct heat can make the chocolate scorch.

Rubber Spatula

rubber spatula is the best option for mixing the chocolate because you can make sure it's perfectly dry before putting it in the chocolate, and it lets you scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl to make sure nothing is scorching and everything is heated evenly.

Thermometer

It's really important to keep track of the temperature when you're tempering chocolate. It's a very precise process, and it's not easy telling the different between 85F and 90F without a good thermometer. And if you don't get it just right, it can completely ruin the temper. The best option is a good, accurate instant-read thermometer.

Chocolate

Chocolate. You need a good quality chocolate to melt. Be sure that it contains cocoa butter and not some substitute, otherwise you can't temper it.

  • Chocolate chips are your best options. They're small and uniformly sized, so that they melt quickly and evenly.
  • If you have bigger chunks of chocolate, chop them up into small chip-sized pieces.
  • Tempering chocolate is easier the more chocolate you have to work with. It helps the temperature stay more stable and gives you a little more margin for error.

Those are the basics. There are a few methods for tempering chocolate, though. For the simplest method, all you need is the basics. But if you're feeling more adventurous, you can also use the more traditional method, which needs a large, heat-absorbing surface like a marble slab or granite counter-top.

How To Temper Chocolate

Alright, we've gone over how tempering chocolate works, and what you need, and now it's time to find out how to do it. I'll go over two different methods here – the seed chocolate method, and the marble slab method.

Method 1: Seed Chocolate

This method is definitely the easier of the two. First of all, it doesn't need any special equipment. But it also lets you make nicely tempered chocolate even if you don't have years of experience looking for when the chocolate has just the right consistency.

So here's how it goes. Remember, when you're tempering chocolate, the key is to form little crystal seeds so that they can grow into the perfect chocolate crystals. But the chocolate we buy is generally already tempered and full of the right crystals and seeds. So we're going to use that to our advantage.

Here's how to do it:

  1. Take the chocolate and chop it up into small, chocolate chip sized bits. Set about one third of the chocolate aside.

  2. Bring a pot of water to a boil, then remove it from the heat. Put the chocolate in the double boiler on top of the pot.

    • Be sure that the top pot doesn't touch the water. Melting chocolate works best with indirect heat.

    • Make sure that the top pot completely covers the bottom pot. You don't want steam escaping, because any moisture can make your chocolate seize up.

  3. Stir the chocolate occasionally until it's melted and smooth, and reaches 110F to 115F, or about 45C. Remove it from the heat.

    • This allows all the chocolate crystals to melt, giving you a blank slate to work with.

  4. Stir in the remaining one third of chopped chocolate, and keep stirring until the chocolate reaches about 80F to 82F (about 27C).

    • The remaining one third of chocolate will cool down the mixture, and so its crystal won't melt like the others. That'll provide you with lots of nice crystals and crystals seeds.

  5. Over the double-boiler, heat the chocolate back up to 88F to 90F (about 32C). This will make the chocolate easier to work with, and it'll get rid of any of the bigger crystals that might have formed.

    • Maintain this temperature while you're using the chocolate. You can put it back on the double boiler if it starts to cool down too much.

Notes

  • This method takes advantage of the fact that you're using already tempered chocolate. That means you need a good quality chocolate that contains cocoa butter, not additives or substitutes.

Method 2: Marble Slab

The second method for tempering chocolate is a little messier, and it takes a little more experience to get it just right.

For this one, you'll need a marble slab, or any other big surface that'll help your chocolate cool down quickly. This'll let you cool the chocolate to the right temperature to create the right crystals seeds.

Here's how you do it.
  1. Chop your chocolate into chocolate chip-sized bits. It's not necessary, but it helps the chocolate heat and melt more evenly.

  2. Bring a pot of water to a boil and remove it from the heat. Place all your chopped chocolate in a double boiler on top of the hot water.

    • Be sure the pot doesn't touch the water. You want the heat to be low and indirect so that the chocolate doesn't scorch.

    • Be sure that no steam is escaping from the bottom pot. Any moisture in the chocolate could make it seize up and ruin the tempering process.

  3. Stir the chocolate occasionally, until it's all melted and smooth. Let it reach 110F to 115F (45C) to make sure crystals are all melted.

  4. Pour two thirds of the chocolate onto the marble slab, and scrape and stir the chocolate over the surface. This will cool the chocolate down. Keep doing this until the chocolate reaches 80F to 82F (about 27C), and is starting to become kind of sludgy. The sludginess means crystal seeds have started to form.

  5. Return the cooled chocolate to the pot with the rest of the chocolate, and heat it gently until it reaches 88F to 90F (about 32C). Keep the chocolate at this temperature while you work with it.

    • The slightly hotter chocolate will be easier to work with, and being a bit hotter will help get rid of some of the unwanted bigger crystals that may have formed.

Notes

  • Even with a thermometer, knowing just when the chocolate is at the right temperature and consistency takes some experience. But with practice, you can do it.
  • The good thing about this method for tempering chocolate is that if you don't get the temper right, you can just start over. Just heat the chocolate back up to 110F, and start over. Since you don't need any unmelted chocolate, there's no problem!


And that's how to temper chocolate. If it's done right, you'll get beautifully coated truffles, wonderful chocolate-dipped strawberries, or be able to trace pretty chocolate designs on wax paper and then peel them off for decorations.

And don't worry if it's not quite right, especially the first time. When I started tempering chocolate, I made lots of mistakes. Sometimes it didn't ever really become firm, and sometimes the chocolate got nice and hard but was streaky and discolored.

But neither of those things affected the taste. The treats may not have looked as nice but they were still delicious! So don't worry. Even if it's not quite right the first time, it'll still be lots of fun, and very delicious!

Tips

  • To test if your chocolate is properly tempered, dip the tip of a clean, dry knife into the chocolate, and let it dry. It should be firm after a few minutes. If it's not, and it's still sticky, you'll need to start over.
  • If any moisture gets into the chocolate, it'll seize and get hard and lumpy. At this point, the only thing you can do is add more liquid like milk or cream to smooth it out. It won't be any good for coating, but you can make a delicious chocolate fondue!