A basic guide to tempering chocolate

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What is more luxurious than a pool of perfectly smooth, perfectly ready-to-do-your-bidding chocolate? One that will coat whatever you want, and harden almost instantly to a shiny, firm-to-the-touch surface that snaps when you break it?

copper bowl

Our love affair with chocolate is never-ending, but as in all good relationships, there are some things that work and some that just… don’t. The wise person knows all they can about their true love, and accepts that certain behaviors get better results. That’s why knowing about tempering chocolate is important.

Sure, you can melt chocolate chips or those melting discs you see at the store and coat things, but the flavor and texture aren’t quite what true chocolate apprecianados are looking for. Kind of like dating the brother of the guy you’re really interested in.

The part of chocolate that allows it to melt so sumptuously in your mouth is cocoa butter, and it’s made of a family of crystals (six types altogether). What makes working with chocolate tricky is each type of crystal forms or sets at a different temperature, and some of those forms aren’t very stable; they can change over time and in storage.

The chips on the left have bloomed; the disks to the right are still in temper.

The chips on the left have bloomed; the disks to the right are still in temper.

When chocolate gets too warm, but not warm enough to melt, some of the cocoa butter crystals can migrate to the surface; this dusty-looking chocolate has “bloomed.” It’s fine to eat or bake with, but it’s no longer “in temper.”

Before we get to the tempering process, we need to do a little explaining about what is and isn’t chocolate.

All the colors above are vanilla flavored; the brown one "contains real cocoa."

All the colors above are vanilla flavored; the brown one “contains real cocoa.”

Candy coating/candy melts/summer coating/almond bark: made of sugar, milk solids, vegetable oils, flavorings and colors; for “chocolate” flavors, you’ll also find some cocoa powder. The great virtue of these things is their convenience. Melt, dip whatever (cake pops come to mind), let them set at room temperature. Their almost bulletproof useability is offset by a waxy feel in the mouth, and as for flavor? Meh. Kids like them, partly because you’ll find them in a wide range of colors. But they’re not chocolate, and therefore, not for me.

Chocolate chips: are chocolate that has soy lecithin added to it to raise its melting temperature, so the chips hold their shape when baked. This increase in melting temperature makes them a little trickier to coat things with, which is why we use them to make…

Dipping chocolate: usually chocolate chips with some shortening added, we’ve used this many times to coat things in our recipes. Ratio: 1 tablespoon shortening for each cup (6 ounces) of chips. This formula doesn’t set as firmly as tempered chocolate will, and on a hot day you may need to put whatever you’ve dipped into the fridge for a bit, but it’s perfectly serviceable for coating those pretzels, Oreos, or snack cakes.

What is it with those chocolate percents anyway? To quote Chef Peter Greweling, CMB, from his excellent book Chocolates & Confections, “Simply put, the percentage listed on a label describes the portion of the chocolate that came from the cacao tree. The percentage of chocolate represents the combination of chocolate liquor [chocolate (cacao) solids] and cocoa butter, but fails to differentiate between them. As a result, two chocolates, each of them labeled 65%, can be radically different from each other.”

Which brings us to couverture. For dipping and coating, this is the stuff you’re after. Our couverture chocolates are from Guittard  (semi-sweet disks, 61%); Merckens (bittersweet bar, 51%) and Belcolade (bittersweet disks, 57.8%). As Chef Greweling states above, the percent indicates cacao mass; for couvertures, the ratio of cocoa to cocoa butter favors the latter. More cocoa butter means the chocolate will be thinner when melted, and therefore coat or drape more easily. You can temper and coat with most any chocolate, including semisweet, milk, or white; they just need slightly different handling, mostly regarding temperatures.

There’s more than one way to temper chocolate. One of them is called tabling, which you see below.

chocolate on marble

Chocolatiers like this method because it’s efficient, and they get an immediate feel for how the chocolate is behaving. An amount of chocolate is melted, then 2/3 of it is spread on a clean marble slab and moved around to cool it until it starts to thicken. This paste is added back to the remaining melted chocolate to “seed” it; once tempered it’s held between 86°F and 90°F and ready to use. Tabling is a wonderful method to use, provided you have lots of space and a large block of marble hanging around. Moving it around is kind of hypnotic.

The nougat candies you’ll see at the end of this post were tempered by Frank (one of our test kitchen bakers and a former pastry chef), using the direct melt method: by very carefully melting and stirring the chocolate, he kept it in temper the whole time. It’s tricky to do, and takes some practice.

For many home bakers though, the most practical method of tempering chocolate is a process called seeding. When my fellow blogger MJ took a chocolate class with former White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier, he joked about the tabling method, saying “Who has time for that these days?” and such. He used the seeding method in class, too, so don’t think this method is inferior in the least.

But you’re dreaming of dipped berries, candies, biscotti, piped decorations or phrases you can pick up and place on a cake…so let’s get started.

What tools do you need?

An accurate digital thermometer is important.

A bowl, a spatula to stir with, a saucepan with an inch of water in it, or a microwave to melt the chocolate. Parchment paper to place your cooling chocolates on. Depending on your project, you may want dipping tools, molds, parchment paper cones (for writing with melted chocolate), or an offset spatula for spreading tempered chocolate on the back of a baking sheet or transfer sheet.

tempering

In a nutshell, seeding can be shown and explained in just a few pictures and steps. The short version: Get the chocolate hot (but not too hot) and melted. Add chunks of unmelted chocolate. This is the seeding part. Stir and cool, take out the unmelted leftovers, test to see if it sets properly, then dip, dip, dip. The real key, though is in the details of the temperatures you need to achieve.

Melt the chocolate: Chop the chocolate with a knife or chocolate chipper. Or, use our disks, which are already in an easy-to-melt shape and don’t need any chopping at all. It’s best to have a pretty healthy amount: at least a pound to start with. Two is better. The more volume you have, the better it will hold the temperature where you need it to stay to be workable.

It’s typical for chocolatiers to work with 10-pound batches at a time. Tempering a movie-size bar of Special Dark is possible, but it’s going to be tricky, because its temperature is going to fluctuate wildly and, frankly, in this process, every single degree counts. There’s not enough thermal mass in that small an amount to stay at one temperature for seconds, much less the minutes you’ll want for working with it.

Place the chocolate in a bowl and put it over simmering water, or microwave it at half power in short (30-second) bursts, stirring in between. There will come a point where your chocolate is partly melted, with shiny-looking chunks that haven’t lost their shape. That’s about as far as you want to go, because you can melt it the rest of the way just by stirring. Your goal is to get all the different types of crystals melted and the chocolate to smooth liquid, with no lumps. Take the chocolate’s temperature.

  • For bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, your goal is 122°F/50°C
  • For milk or white chocolate, your goal is 105°F/40°C

Two important things to avoid: scorching (microwave); and getting any water in the chocolate (simmering water). Both of these things will ruin your chocolate and you’ll have to start over. Water in melted chocolate “seizes” it, causing instant recrystallization –  not in a good way. The chocolate will be unworkable and look like this:

seized chocolate

Seeding: Add a good-sized chunk of chocolate (“block seeding”) or some more chopped chocolate to your lovely pool of melted chocolate. The stable crystals in this new addition encourage stable crystal formations in the melted chocolate. Stirring becomes very important here, because agitating the chocolate ensures smaller crystals will form and stay in suspension.

Cool: Stir continuously until the chocolate is at or below 90°F/32°C; as low as 86°F/30°C for dark chocolate or 84°F/28.9°C for milk or white. Every chocolate has its own “sweet spot” for this, and you almost have to learn the personality of individual brands and types. I’ll tell you right now, it takes longer than you want it to. You have to be at peace with the process, because it takes what it takes.

Test: Dip a knife, spoon, or spatula into the chocolate and set it down at cool room temperature (65° to 70°F). If the chocolate is in temper it will harden quite quickly (within 3 to 5 minutes) and become firm and shiny. If you touch it, your finger will come away clean.

Bottom test is in temper; top test is starting to be too cool and has some spots showing.

Bottom test is in temper; top test is starting to be too cool and has some spots showing.

If the chocolate is too cool or out of temper, it will often set in streaks, like this:

streaky1Hold at working temperature and dip away: Usually between 88° to 90°F. You can put your bowl over another bowl of warm water, put it on a folded towel over a very low heating pad, or even try using a mug warmer. As you work with it, the chocolate may cool down; to bring it back up to a better working temperature try grabbing your hair dryer and warming the chocolate with it, stirring the whole time. You’ll have the best results if whatever you’re dipping is close to the temperature of your working chocolate. As chocolate sets it contracts – which is one reason it pops out of molds easily.

Think of what you can do with your lovely, tempered chocolate. Berries…

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dipping candies…

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or dressing up biscotti.

biscottiWhen the chocolate is right, and it’s performing its miracle in front of your eyes, it’s just the greatest feeling. If you’re fascinated and want to give this a go, here are a few things to remember.

  • The chocolate wins. Always. You need to work on its terms, not yours. Dry, cool days are good for your first try.
  • Don’t try to rush; make sure you have a few hours to devote to the task.
  • The leftover chocolate can be re-tempered, turned into ganache or sauce, or chopped to put in cookies or brownies.
  • If you’d like to download and print a handy guide to keep on file about tempering, click here.

Before you go, I just want to give a shout out to Chef Wilhelm Wanders, who makes our own signature King Arthur Flour Bakery Chocolates; and to MJ, who tag-teamed with me on getting this one off the ground.

The next time you’re gazing longingly at the case in a chocolate shop, give a nod to the patience, talent, and dedication of the people who made each of those beautiful chocolates by hand.

 

Susan Reid
About

Susan Reid grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Bates College and the Culinary Institute of America, and is presently enjoying her fourth career after stints in advertising, running restaurants, and teaching at the New England Culinary Institute. She joined King Arthur in 2002 to ...

comments

  1. Andrea

    As an impatient person, working with chocolate is a good life lesson for me. I can’t tell you how many times my chocolate has separated because I wasn’t patient enough. I tried the seeding method for the first time in December for dipping my peppermint crunch marshmallows. It’s the first time I’ve succeeded in tempering. Seeding method from now on for me! Thanks for giving me a good source to go back to for the step-by-step. Keeping the chocolate at the right temperature while working is also a challenge; thanks for the tips–I like the heating pad and hairdryer ideas.
    Hooray, Andrea! Chocolate can be humbling, but as with any worthwhile quest, the rewards are very satisfying! Susan

    Reply
    1. MaryJane Robbins

      Sounds like a great idea to me. Nothing like a little sweet to start the day sweetly! ~ MJ

  2. Lauren Morando Rhim

    I love your blog Susan! After reading the blog about chocolate I immediately wanted to drive to KAF and buy some chocolate but I don’t think I swam enough yards today to justify…

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid , post author

      Thanks, Lauren! Valentine’s is coming up, you’ll have to create an opportunity. I’m sure Coach Barbara will put us through our paces hard enough between now and then! Susan

  3. Michelle

    I have an allergy to soy and soy lecithin. Sadly, that means no chocolate unless it is simply cocoa powder. You identified soy lecithin in the chocolate chips, however, I’ve found it also in most commercial baking bricks/bars as well. Do you know of any brand that uses a different product for emulsification?

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid , post author

      Hi, Michelle. It’s not easy, but there are chocolate makers who produce product without soy and soy lecithin. This blog page has a list of them, with links to more information. Susan

  4. Diane Hayes

    I have been making Butter Crunch for 40 years and it seems with every batch the chocolate is different. Last I read, said to only heat to less than 95 degrees and keeping it at that temp was all that I needed. So I see I am wrong. Though the last batch did harden to a sheen and set quickly. Does the initial heating (I am a chemist) render all the crystals in the same form, so when cooled they all become in the same form? I have printouts that say not to heat it so high??

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid , post author

      Hi, Diane. Sounds like you’re thinking about the direct method, which a lot of chefs use. They melt the chocolate very carefully, stirring frequently, and basically never let it come out of temper. We’re working on a more comprehensive fact sheet that we’ll be linking to from the end of this blog and putting in our tips section that talks more about that (should be ready soon). The seeding method described here melts all six crystal types by going up to 120°F; the beta crystals in the matrix are the ones that you’re working on forming using the method described here. Susan

  5. Mary@SiftingFocus

    I learned how to temper chocolate years ago but have not re-visited the process since then. I do remember it being time consuming and lots of patience is required, but the results are so worth it. I have been in the mood to make candy and with Valentine’s Day around the corner, these quieter days of winter are the perfect time to do just that. In addition to the fudge, divinity and caramels I have planned, I am going to coat ‘something’ in tempered chocolate. Your post has inspired me. I’ll let you know how it goes! :)

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid , post author

      Mary, we’ll be looking forward to your results! Best of luck and we’re excited to help send more chocolate into the world! Susan

  6. Dee Dee

    Thanks for the great lesson. I’ve always struggled with those recipes that want you to melt semi-sweet chips to make a thin chocolate coating. It never comes out right, and now I know why. I’m definitely going to try this on a day when I can dabble and play with it and make something amazing!

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid , post author

      Hooray, Dee Dee! There’s so much to know, and this is a subject that can (and certainly does) fill volumes. I came out of the whole experience with a huge respect for people who work with this magical food every day. Susan

  7. Bill Collins

    Susan,

    I’m near the end of writing a how-to book for Storey Publishing on making chocolate candies. Your blog on tempering is perfect. Thank you.

    Reply
  8. Donna Lawny

    Wow! Thanks for the tips! I am attending Triton College in River Grove, IL to achieve my Baking/Pastry degree. I have not yet taken the class on chocolate, but I bet these tips help me learn a lot faster. I cannot wait to try!! Maybe…Valentine’s Day..it is the day I started going out with my (now) husband..it will be 39 years this year and in May, we will celebrate 35 years of marriage. Lot of struggles, but lots of love..and BAKING!!!!

    Reply
  9. Tom

    I see there’s a lot more to chocolate than I realized! Thanks! Are “back-to-the-basics” blogs a regular feature? I could sure use additional, concise ‘basics’ knowledge to fill in the gaps.

    Reply
  10. Laurel

    Valentine’s candy-dipping, here I come! I’ve tried tempering chocolate with mixed results and I’m looking forward to experimenting with the seeding method . Do you know if the temperatures or process should be adjusted at all for high altitude? I’m about 5,000 feet up in Colorado.

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid , post author

      Hi, Laurel. I think, for this subject, you’re in luck, and may well have an advantage. The air is dry where you are, and that’s one of the things that’s good for working with chocolate. I don’t think you’ll need to make any modifications or corrects. If any readers can chime in with their experience, we’d love to hear! Susan

  11. phil

    i have a revolution2 chocolate tempering machine for home use which i use often, does this
    give the same results as your article?
    Actually, for small amounts, maybe even better. The machine is very reliable and does a very nice job of holding temperature for you. We’ve relied on it many times in the test kitchen for photography. Susan

    Reply
  12. judy

    thank you for a great lesson on my favorite food. I often wondered what was going on in my pot when I tried melting chocolate for various uses. well written and very helpful.

    Reply
  13. Kristen Homer

    I have always used the seed method to temper chocolate but recently came across a new method via Alton Brown. It uses the food processor to temper the chocolate. I haven’t tried it yet but it looks interesting. Here’s a link to the methodhttp://www.topwithcinnamon.com/2012/12/how-to-temper-chocolate-the-easy-way.html

    Reply
  14. Sarah P.

    Thank you SO much for this. I have tried tempering with my lovely Valhrona Manjari chocolate and am not quite sure if I’m doing it right… this is very thorough and I can’t wait to try it again!

    Reply
  15. Laura Richardson

    Dear Susan, I am wondering if you might have guidance for working with chocolate at high altitude? Here in Lander, WY water boils at 200F rather than 212F. This has obvious effects on boiling rice, cooking dried beans, making jelly and jam, and frankly, I have not dared to try candy-making here. My high-altitude pamphlets discuss baking only. Any guidance? I’d appreciate it.
    Yours truly,
    Laura Richardson

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid , post author

      Hi, Laura. I’ve done some homework, and I’m fairly certain that you won’t have to make any adjustments. There’s no water or leavening involved, and even if boiling happens 12 degrees lower at 5300 feet, where you are, that’s still more than enough to melt the chocolate to 115-120°F, where you need it to be. The air up high is generally cool and dry, which is great for chocolate work, so you may actually have an advantage over the rest of us. I’d say go to it, and let us know how things work out! Susan

    1. PJ Hamel

      A candy thermometer is fine, Amy – anything that responds quickly and measures temperatures in that tempering range. Good luck – PJH

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