How to Temper Chocolate
Tempering chocolate is a complex science in nature, but a simple technique to perform. And if you want a shiny chocolate coating that has a crisp break and retains its firmness when handled by warm hands, tempering is an absolute necessity.
Some people temper chocolate in the microwave, which I find terribly dangerous to ruining good chocolate, moreover incapable of producing a crisp break and really high gloss. (Consider my bias in my admission that I refuse to allow a microwave anywhere in my house. I have, however, tried the microwave method many times in my neighbor’s kitchen with poor success each time. Her success was the same, but “wasn’t it convenient?”)
My tried-and-true method, one I have used hundreds of times, is the old fashioned one: melting chocolate over a double boiler, lowering the temperature, then reheating, all using specific temperatures and judicious temperature monitoring along the way. It is the only method that guarantees me a perfect tempered break and a deep glossy shine to the finish. And to ensure my success, I take my dear, sweet time every step of the way. I also reward myself for my patience by slowly sipping a couple of glasses of delicious cabernet during the process…
Before beginning the tempering technique, I need to offer some background information, a warning or two, and some tips.
Tempered chocolate has a lot in common with cooked sugar syrups. In both materials, the goal is to bring the material to a specific temperature and optimize crystallization. In the case of chocolate, the cocoa butter is brought to the most stable crystalline form through heating, cooling, and reheating, then retained at the final temperature.
There are many different types of chocolate, based primarily on their cocoa butter contents. Before you go out and invest in any chocolate, educate yourself by reading my page Extraordinaire du Chocolat and save yourself from a quite expensive blunder.
TIP: When I dip or coat candies with chocolate, I strongly prefer E.Guittard couverture in a 60/40/38 style – a deep, dark, full-bodied slightly bitter chocolate that assails your senses with its aroma. Couverture has more cocoa butter solids than other chocolates and is therefore much, much smoother. You may not be as anal as I am, though: Scharffen Berger 70% Cacao Bittersweet is always at my local grocer (at a very steep price) and I’ve used it quite successfully in a pinch.
TIP: For greatest success whenever and however you are working with chocolate, always do so in a cool (68-degree (F)) room with low (less than 60%) humidity.
WARNING: The biggest danger in tempering chocolate using the double-boiler method I will describe is water. One single drop of water splashing into your tempering bowl from aggressively boiling water beneath will seize your chocolate into a ruined, rock-hard mass that you will be forced to throw away. If you use a heavy double-boiler with an inset pan that has a high rim, you don’t really have a worry. But if you are making a double-boiler using a glass or metal bowl that sits inside the top of a large saucepan, you’d better be careful, because the “seal” around the edge of the bowl where it meets the saucepan will be uneven. Two pieces of advice here: (1) Don’t allow the hot water beneath to erupt into a boil; and (2) cut an old washcloth or tea towel into 2-inch strips and lay these strips over the rim of your pot before placing your bowl on top. (Make certain the strips are far away from the heat source of a ceramic or electric range, and NEVER use them if you have a gas open-flame cooktop!)
The Tempering Technique
Chop your chocolate blocks into small chunks using a large heavy knife. (I use a Chinese meat cleaver.)
Fill the bottom of your double boiler so the hot water does not touch the bottom of the upper pan. Do not let the water boil in the bottom of the boiler, but SIMMER! Stir the chocolate while melting to ensure even heating. Try to avoid creating air bubbles. Heat the chocolate to 120 F. to 122 F.
Remove the bowl of chocolate and replace the hot water in the bottom of the boiler with 70 F. water, no cooler. Return the chocolate bowl atop the bottom water and stir until the chocolate cools to between 79 F. and 80 F. It may occasionally be necessary to add additional cool water to the bottom of the double boiler in this cool-down phase. (Usually two 70-degree refills for me.)
Again remove the chocolate bowl and now replace the 70 F. water with warm water between about 92 F. and 93 F.) and raise the temperature of the chocolate to between 88 F. and 89 F. for dark chocolate or 84 F. to 86 F. for milk chocolate or white cocoa butter coating (“white chocolate”). Maintain the final temperature while dipping.
WARNING: If the tempered chocolate exceeds 90 F., it will be necessary to repeat the entire tempering process before using it. Usually just keeping the unused chocolate in the bowl over the warm water will suffice, but you may need to turn on the heat below the water for a couple of minutes to re-warm sufficiently. If it thickens, this is an indication that crystallization has begun (you will see it on the bowl sides first). Merely slowly reheat, stirring constantly, until the entire chocolate returns to 88 to 89 F.
You may now dip a myriad of items into the chocolate in the bowl, or ladle the tempered chocolate quickly over items placed on a metal rack inside a cookie sheet (to catch the drippings).
Always allow the coated chocolates to completely cool before handling, usually about four hours at room temperature will produce the final crisp shell.