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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
If the chocolate is too cool or out of temper, it will often set in streaks, like this:
Hold 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…
or dressing up biscotti.
- 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.