Category Archives: Tempering Chocolate

How to Temper Chocolate

The best way to learn how to temper chocolate is just to do it a few times. It doesn’t take very long, maybe twenty minutes including set-up, then maybe half an hour to an hour for the chocolate to harden, depending on how thinly you spread it. I suggest simply practicing on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Two or three times through the process and you’ll be a pro. All the temperatures I’ve listed assume you’ll be using bittersweet chocolate, which is the most common chocolate for pastry coatings.

Start by breaking up some chocolate bars into small pieces and putting them in a bowl. I recommend bars for tempering as opposed to chips. Firstly, because I don’t completely trust that chips are made from the same quality chocolate that bars are. Second, because there aren’t terribly many varieties of bittersweet chips on the market and I like to pick my product. I have a four-ounce bar in here:

Next, set up two bowls of water that will hold the chocolate bowl easily. One hot, one cold. The hot should only be hot to the touch, not boiling. Good hot tap water is fine. The cold water should be cold, but not ice water. You don’t want the chocolate cooling down too fast or the desirable (known as Beta V form or “Form V”) crystals won’t have time to spread. Cold tap water with a few ice cubes thrown in, I find, is ideal.

The microwave, in my opinion, was invented for melting chocolate. It’s a far better tool for the job than a double boiler. Zap the bowl on high for twenty seconds. Stir, and apply as many more ten-second bursts (and stirs) as necessary until the chocolate reaches 120 degrees Farhenheit. Try not to go over.

Oops, I did. Oh well, bittersweet chocolate can handle a little of that. No problem.

Immerse the chocolate bowl in the cold water and stir, being careful not to splash (you don’t want to get any water in the chocolate or it could “seize”). The chocolate will thicken as crystals begin to form.

Keep stirring until the chocolate gets down under 84 degrees. It’ll take about five minutes. Is it a bit under temperature? Eh, that’s not the end of the world, either.

Now move the bowl to the hot water and guess what? Stir.

You’re shooting for a range between 89 and 91 degrees, and you need to be precise. I took mine out of the water bath when it was 89 and it carried over (which is to say it continued to increase in temperature) almost two degrees. You’ll want to be mindful of that.

Now just spread your chocolate out on the surface of your choice and wait for it to cool down. Here I’m using a sheet pan as I suggested and you can see I didn’t do much more than pour it out. The chocolate appears a little dull here, but I was gratified to find that it had a very nice brittle snap when I broke (and ate) it an hour later. Sadly, I can’t think of a way to demonstrate that over the internet.

Something to avoid is putting tempered chocolate into the refrigerator before it’s hardened completely. As I said, gentle cooling is what gives the chocolate time to form a uniform crystal structure. You want to avoid spreading tempered chocolate on a refrigerated cake for the same reason.

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Temper, Temper

It’s easy to lose your cool trying to create a perfectly tempered batch of chocolate. I know I usually do. The thing is, professional chocolatiers have high-tech mechanical temperers that keep melted chocolate at just the right temperature for hours at a time. The rest of us have to make do with the tools we have available: bowls of hot and cold water, a thermometer and our wits. The good news is that while tempering itself is a precision sport, chocolate itself is infinitely forgiving of mistakes. Which is to say that if you fail to get the texture you want, you can simply melt the chocolate back down and try it again. And again, and again.

There are three possible methods for tempering chocolate. Only one of them is really practical for the home baker.

The first method simply involves slowly melting previously tempered chocolate at a perfect 89 degrees Fahrenheit (the melting and forming point of the ideal “Beta V form” cocoa fat crystal), maintaining it at that temperature, then applying the chocolate as desired. Sounds easy, right? Nope. Until the day arrives that we all have our own sous vide water circulating equipment in our kitchens, we’ll never be able to maintain that sort of perfectly steady temperature. This method is, practically speaking, impossible in a home kitchen.

The next method is slightly less, er…impossible. It involves gently heating a quantity of chocolate up to 120 degrees, the point at which all the various kinds of fat crystals that exist in the chocolate melt totally, then allowing the chocolate to cool to 89 degrees. At that point the chocolate is “seeded” with uniform fat crystals in the form of finely chopped tempered chocolate. This “seeding” sets the pattern for crystal formation in the main mass. The chocolate is then maintained at 89 until the seed chocolate melts and the newly tempered can be used. But of course here again we have the temperature maintenance problem. It’s next to impossible without precision equipment.

The final method takes advantage of the up-and-down temperature cycles that are typical of the home kitchen. Like the previous method, it begins by heating a mass of chocolate to 120 degrees to “wipe the slate clean” as it were. At that point the chocolate is gently cooled…past the Form V crystal-forming point, down to about 83 or 84 degrees. What kind of crystals are in the chocolate bowl at that point? The answer is: quite a few different ones. In fact if the chocolate mass were simply allowed to cool all the way down from there, it would be the typical riot of disorderly crystals.

So, we heat the chocolate back up again, slightly, up to 89 degrees. What does that accomplish? The answer is it melts the undesirable random crystals, but leaves the desirable Form V crystals intact. With no other competition in the tempering bowl, these desirable crystals then “seed” the rest of the mass, setting the pattern for crystal formation as the chocolate gently cools — and it must be cooled very gently indeed order for the new pattern to “take.”

Very clever, yes? Yes. And in the broad scheme of things, really not all that difficult to do.

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How the pros do it.

Whenever you buy chocolate, it’s tempered. Bars, chips, disks, chunks…whenever chocolate leaves the factory, it’s tempered. The only time you’ll ever bring home untempered chocolate is if it’s been baked (say, in a chocolate chip cookie) or if you happen to leave it in a hot car and it melts. In either case, the carefully manipulated, uniform crystal structure is destroyed and a new, random one forms in its place — with the predictable consequences for the chocolate’s texture and appearance.

Here’s a factory-fresh chocolate bar that I’m about to melt down to make a chocolate coating. Notice the crisp definition around the logo emboss and the shiny luster of it. That almost gleaming surface is what happens when tempered chocolate is cooled in a metal or plastic mold. The already quite orderly cocoa butter crystals are given even more structure by their contact with a smooth surface, with the result that they reflect more light.

Compare that to the back side of the bar, which was exposed to the air as it cooled. It still has some luster, it’s not totally dull, however it has considerably less shine.

This is essentially the finish you can expect when you apply tempered chocolate to the top of a cake. And if you’ve ever wondered how it is that chocolates can be un-molded so easily without being reheated, it’s because tempered chocolate takes up 2-3% less space than untempered chocolate. All those tight crystal formations, donchaknow. The tempered bars thus loosen themselves from their molds as they cool.

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