One of my all-time favorite jobs was working as a tour guide at a chocolate factory. No one is in a bad mood when they visit a chocolate factory. And yes, I ate chocolate every day. Lots of it.
Every factory tour began with a chocolate tasting. I’d pass out samples and hold mine up, breaking it in half. “Hear that snap?” I’d say. “See how the surface of the chocolate itself is shiny, with no white blotches? That’s the sign of well-tempered chocolate.”
I relayed this spiel multiple times a day for years, going into detail about what it means for chocolate to be tempered, and why it’s important. People listened as they savored their chocolate samples. Then we’d walk through the factory and I’d point out the various equipment, including the tempering machine. It looked like a supersized water heater with an open top, affording everyone a view of a mechanical arm stirring a vast quantity of molten chocolate. People oohed and ahhed.
I have no samples for you, but I do have knowledge. Here’s our tour of how to temper chocolate at home. You can do it on the stove over a double boiler or in the microwave.
What Is Tempering Chocolate?
Chocolate is made up of sugar and cocoa solids from cocoa beans. The fat in cocoa beans is cocoa butter, and it’s a tricky fat to work with because its crystals will set in chaotic patterns unless they are goaded into the right form. If you don’t, the chocolate will be crumbly and mottled-looking (what’s called bloomed).
Imagine each cocoa butter crystal is a chair. You want nice stacks of chairs, not chairs all thrown in a heap. Tempering chocolate forms a stable stack of chairs (or, more properly, a chain of stable cocoa butter crystals). You achieve this by melting the chocolate gently, stirring it to spread the stable crystals around, and then using it for molding or dipping once it’s ready.
Have you heard of tempered glass? Same general idea. Both tempered glass and tempered chocolate are more resilient than their untempered counterparts.
What Happens If You Don’t Temper Chocolate
Have you ever opened a chocolate bar and seen a powdery white film on it? This is called bloom. It happens when tempered chocolate remelts and goes out of temper, usually because it’s been stored somewhere warm and then cools down again. You may have seen a similar phenomenon happening on chocolate that you melted and then let harden.
That powdery white film is cocoa butter that’s leached out to the surface of the chocolate. When chocolate melts and then hardens again without being tempered, the cocoa butter crystals rearrange themselves into random patterns that don’t form tidy chains. Bloomed chocolate is crumbly, doesn’t melt smoothly in your mouth, and looks “old” or “stale”. It’s unattractive, and because it melts poorly, isn’t as fun to eat.
Cheats for Not Tempering Chocolate
If you don’t want to bother tempering chocolate, there are a few workarounds.
- Refrigerate or freeze the chocolate. An example is our Christmas Cracker Candy recipe, which is topped with melted chocolate. If kept at room temperature, the chocolate would bloom. But if it’s kept in the refrigerator or freezer, the chocolate can go without being tempered. So in that recipe, the finished candy is kept frozen or refrigerated. Why does this work? Because of science. Just trust us.
- Add a little bit of another kind of fat. You can add a little shortening, paraffin, or vegetable oil (about 1 teaspoon per pound) to the melted chocolate before letting it set. This introduces a different kind of fat crystal that tricks the cocoa butter crystals into not blooming. It can make the hardened chocolate itself somewhat softer, so I recommend using this for recipes where you want just a thin exterior layer of chocolate (like our Peanut Butter Buckeyes recipe).
The Easiest Way to Temper Chocolate
I assume you don’t have a giant chocolate tempering machine around, but don’t let that stop you. Here’s the easiest way to temper chocolate. It’s fun and relaxing and takes about 20 minutes until the chocolate is ready for molding, dipping, drizzling, or enrobing.
There are a number of chocolate tempering methods, but what follows is called seeding. You cheat by adding finely chopped, already tempered chocolate to a bowl of melted chocolate. Then you stir, and the tempered chocolate “seeds” the melted chocolate with the desirable cocoa butter crystal shape.
For this method to work, you need at least 4 ounces of chocolate that’s still in temper. If you’re re-melting chocolate that’s bloomed, you’ll need to make sure to buy some tempered chocolate for seeding.
Equipment for Tempering
A heat-resistant rubber spatula and a glass chocolate thermometer are very helpful, but you can also use an instant-read thermometer. The temperature range you need for tempering chocolate is very narrow, so a thermometer with clearly visible hash marks or a digital thermometer is best. You’ll also need an accurate scale to weigh your chocolate. I know people who have tempered chocolate so much they can do it by look and feel, but it takes a while to get there.
Pro Tricks for Tempering Chocolate
A lot of tempering how-tos stress reaching certain temperatures in the process. That’s important, but it’s missing a few other key points.
- Stir, stir, stir. Agitation is what spreads those ideal cocoa butter crystals through the mass of melted chocolate. As you stir, these seed crystals bump into rogue crystals and cause a reaction that triggers an increase in the desired crystal shape. The longer you stir, the more those randomized cocoa butter crystals become organized–literally in temper.
- Don’t go by temperature alone. The look of the melted chocolate itself is a huge indicator. The melted chocolate can reach the desired temperature and still not be in temper. Chocolate that’s getting thick, tacky, and starting to set up on the edges of your stirring spatula and around the edges of the bowl is telling you it’s in temper.
- Test for temper. When you think your chocolate is in temper, dip the tip of a table knife or metal spatula in there, set it aside, and let it sit for a few minutes. If it sets up quickly and gets a matte look, it’s in temper. If it’s still wet, it’s not.
Tempering Takes Patience
The real key to tempering success is to get in the zone not to rush through the process. Despite all of my specialty chocolate industry experience, my attempts at tempering in my own kitchen all ended in failure. Luckily, the chocolate was free. I was doing it all by the book and hitting the right temps, so where was I wrong? I was rushing–not stirring enough and not letting the chocolate do its thing.
It wasn’t until I was attempting to temper chocolate at a different job that I got it right. This was in a cookware shop and I was in the middle of trying to temper chocolate when a customer needed help, so I just walked around stirring the bowl as I casually chatted with them. Instead of speeding through, I was able to relax into it and let the chocolate tell me when it was ready. A batch of homemade rocky road bark was our reward.
Chocolate is a miracle food. Enjoy your time tempering and it will reward you, too.
Tempering Chocolate in the Microwave
If you have a microwave, you are lucky. It’s a fantastic way to melt chocolate. Here are modifications for using the microwave to temper chocolate.
- On 50 percent power, microwave the bowl with 12 ounces of chopped chocolate for 30 seconds. Remove and stir with a silicone spatula. Keep microwaving the chocolate in 30-second bursts, stirring after each burst, until it’s mostly, but not quite all the way, melted. This can take around 3 minutes, depending on your microwave.
- Use an instant-read thermometer to get the temperature. Stir until the chocolate reaches 100°F; return the bowl to the microwave for 10-second bursts if it never reached 100°F.
- Add 4 ounces of finely chopped tempered chocolate and stir. From this point on, follow the recipe below, picking up at Step 3.
Ways to Use Tempered Chocolate
- Truffles: Truffles that are coated in untempered chocolate need to be refrigerated, but truffles that have been fully coated in tempered chocolate are safe to have out at room temperature for 1 to 2 days.
- Chocolate-dipped matzo: This is one of my favorites. I break a sheet of matzo into about six pieces and dip them 3/4 in tempered chocolate, which I sprinkle with chopped nuts, dukkah, or flaky salt. Pretzels are classic, too.
- Crystalized ginger: This one is especially nice with dark chocolate, and makes a bracing finish to a meal.
- Fruit or nut barks: Add your favorite chopped dried fruits, candied peels, and toasted nuts or seeds to tempered chocolate. Spread on a baking sheet and sprinkle with some more goodies, if you like. No need to freeze or refrigerate tempered bark!
- Homemade rocky road: This recipe idea from David Lebovitz is a good starter project because it’s made with easier-to-temper milk chocolate. Temper milk chocolate and stir in enough roughly chopped toasted almonds plus miniature marshmallows so they are lightly coated. Spread on a parchment-lined baking sheet (the rocky road will be uneven, which is the point). When set, chop into chunks with a knife.
Chop the chocolate and prep your work station:
Chop 16 ounces of tempered chocolate into uniformly small (about 1/2-inch) pieces so it will melt quickly and evenly. Place 12 ounces of the chocolate in a large glass or metal bowl. Set the remaining 4 ounces of chocolate aside.
Gather everything you’ll need for whatever chocolate project you’re working on: parchment-lined baking sheets, the things you’ll be dipping, garnishes, and any other tools required. This way you can launch right into it once your chocolate is in temper.
Melt the chocolate:
Stovetop Method: Fill a medium saucepan with a few inches of water and bring it to a steady simmer. Set the bowl with the 12 ounces of chopped chocolate on the saucepan and stir constantly with a silicone spatula, until it’s mostly, but not quite all the way, melted. It’s best to melt the chocolate gently and steadily.
Microwave Method: On 50 percent power, microwave the bowl for 30 seconds. Remove and stir with a silicone spatula. Keep microwaving the chocolate in 30-second bursts, stirring after each burst, until it’s mostly, but not quite all the way, melted. This can take around 3 minutes, depending on your microwave.
Allow the temperature to hit 100°F, then add the reserved chocolate:
Remove the bowl from the heat. Insert the probe of the thermometer in the bowl; make sure it’s deep enough to get an accurate reading. You want the tip to be submerged at least 1 1/2 inches. You may need to tip the bowl a little to create a pool of chocolate that’s deep enough.
When the temperature is 100°F, add the remaining 4 ounces of the chopped chocolate, stirring until all the chocolate is melted and it’s reached the desired temperature: about 91°F degrees for dark chocolate and around 88°F for milk or white chocolate. You might feel like you’re stirring for ages. Be patient and it’ll pay off.
When the chocolate is getting close to temper, it will get thicker, almost tackier. The chocolate at the edges of the interior of the bowl will start to harden. This is good!
Test for temper:
To test for temper, dip the tip of a table knife or small metal spatula in the chocolate and set it aside. In a few minutes, it should be hardening. If it’s still wet, it’s not tempered yet–keep stirring.
Use your tempered chocolate:
Your tempered chocolate is now ready to use. Because projects like enrobing (dipping) can take a long time, your chocolate may set up and get too thick. If this happens, flash it back over the simmering water or in the microwave at 50% power again in short bursts (just a few seconds at a time) and stir until it loosens up just enough to work with. Too much heat and it will go out of temper!
Scrape any unused tempered chocolate in a container and let it harden so you can use it later in recipes, or use it as seed chocolate for future tempering projects.
What if your chocolate blooms as it sets? This can happen sometimes, even hours later. My advice is to pretend everything is cool and say nothing. People like chocolate and ideally no one will notice. If it’s only chocolate with nothing else dipped or coated in it, you can simply remelt the chocolate and try again another day with new seed chocolate. Or use it for other recipes, like brownies or tortes, where you’re not tempering.
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