Everything you need to know before you start chocolate-making in your home kitchen.
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It's no wonder that chocolate and candy sales hit a record high in 2021—we all deserved a treat. According to the National Confectioners Association's 2022 State of Treating Report, sales of chocolate grew 9.2% over the previous year.

While there are plenty of top-notch places to buy chewy salted caramels and glossy, ganache-filled hearts, making chocolate confections at home is also a treat. Before trying to emulate the perfect, airbrushed bonbons you see in store windows, though, it pays to learn the principles of chocolate-making, says Justine MacNeil, pastry chef and owner of Fiore Fine Foods in Philadelphia. "It's really a science first and art second, and the science needs to be understood."

Chocolate-making takes research, practice, and plenty of patience, but the finished product—from dark chocolate-dipped marshmallows to mango-sprinkled mendiants—makes the process worthwhile. We talked to pastry chefs and chocolatiers to learn their best advice, including essential equipment and tried-and-true methods for tempering chocolate, plus the most essential tool in your clean-up arsenal.

Temper chocolate with a heating pad

There are several ways to successfully temper chocolate—i.e. the process of slowly heating and cooling chocolate to prepare it for making confections. While makers use several methods for tempering, including a double broiler or a microwave, Erik Landegren, confectionist and founder of Connecticut-based Bridgewater Chocolate, uses a clever technique to keep his chocolate in temper. "Lay a heating pad underneath the tempered chocolate to help maintain the temperature of 90 degrees, which is a great go-to temperature for dark chocolate," he says.

Test the temperature on your lip

Although it's not permitted in professional kitchens, Christopher Curtin, master chocolatier and owner of Éclat Chocolate in West Chester, Pennsylvania, learned a trick to test the temperature of tempered chocolate while working in Europe. "Put a dab on your bottom lip," he says. "It's like the cliche of testing baby's milk on your wrist—you can feel if the chocolate is a proper temperature."

Have patience

Making chocolate candy is akin to baking, in that it requires patience, organization, and an attention to detail. "The process of making bonbons, from painting cocoa butter, shelling, filling, and capping is a long process, and patience plays a big role," says Krystle Swenson, pastry chef at the green o in Montana. "It's important to not rush throughout any of the stages, and take the time you need to finish each step."

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Tropical Mendiants
Credit: Photo by Jennifer Causey / Food Styling by Torie Cox / Prop Styling by Lydia Pursell

Don't use chocolate chips

Couverture, or chocolate formulated with a higher percentage of cocoa butter, is essential for making chocolate bonbons, says Ocean House Collection pastry chef Maya Hayes. "Make sure you are using bars, chunks, or callets, not chocolate chips," she says. "Chocolate chips contain thickeners such as soy lecithin so that they can stay in the chip form even in the oven. This will make the chocolate very thick and difficult to temper."

Do invest in high quality chocolate

Deirdre Maguire, chocolatier at Gotham Chocolates (part of NYC's Gotham restaurant), avoids baker's chocolate, or chocolates with added palm oils. She suggests using bean-to-bar chocolate, noting, "The end result will be much better than using a commercial brand like Hershey's." Hayes likes working with a brand like Valrhona or Barry Callebaut, while Swenson adds Guittard and TCHO to the list. MacNeil likes Italian chocolate brands Amedei and Domori, and says Cacao Barry is also great, and a bit more accessible.

Dip gently

Dipping takes practice, says Erik Landegren. "I suggest using a two prong fork and placing the confections on parchment paper after so it comes off easily," says the chef.

Stock these tools

There's no need to spend a bundle on fancy equipment to make confections at home. A temperature probe, spatula, offset spatula, and piping bags are the must-haves, according to Maguire. "Use rubber silicone molds for bonbons when just getting started instead of plastic ones," she says. "The bonbons pop out nicer and are easier to work with." MacNeil adds microwave-safe bowls, a two-ounce ladle, and inexpensive paint brushes, for when you're ready to start painting bonbons.

Keep coconut oil on hand

Mistakes will happen! An easy trick for fixing chocolate that's gotten too thick, says Landegren, is to add a little coconut oil to thin it out.

Chocolate Sandwich Cookies
Credit: Photo by Greg DuPree / Food Styling by Ali Ramee / Prop Styling by Christine Keely

Get creative with fillings

Go beyond vanilla buttercreams and dream up something more imaginative. Eclat's chocolate bars range from Coffee and Cardamom to Porcini and Thyme. Krystle Swenson loves meshing fruity and floral teas or herbaceous ingredients into her chocolate, and pastry chef Ashley Robinson of Chicago's 16 on Center uses fresh (and freshly ground) spices. But the key is to make sure they're high quality. "If you're going to put spices with chocolate, you'd better be sure those spices can hold up to the flavor," she says. "No sense wasting good chocolate on stale, bland spices."

Ocean House's Maya Hayes creates ganache based on what's in season. In the winter, for example, she loves a dark chocolate couverture with a white chocolate mint ganache, while in spring she steeps lavender flowers into the cream before adding it to the chocolate for the ganache. She also incorporates nuts and nut pastes into my chocolate. "If you haven't yet eaten gianduja chocolate bonbons, you are missing out!"

Pay attention to your climate

"Working in high humidity and high temperatures can be quite challenging when working with chocolate," says Krystle Swenson, who has found Montana's dry climate to be far easier than former kitchens in Hawaii, California, and North Carolina for tempering chocolate. "Don't be discouraged if it doesn't work out or takes a couple tries when tempering chocolate in warm environments," she says. "Try to turn off any ovens or kitchen equipment that may warm your working area, if possible, and try to work at the coolest time of day also helps a lot."​

Taste test

Perhaps the most fun part of the job, Ashley Robinson recommends tasting chocolate varieties side by side. "Chocolate is an incredibly variable and complicated substance. Even if two chocolates have the same cocoa percentage, the flavor can vary wildly depending on growing region, production, and many other factors. It's important to develop a palate for what chocolates you like for which projects.

Save money

Making chocolate candy doesn't have to be an expensive endeavor. Deirdre Maguire recommends saving money by using fillings you already have in your kitchen. "For example, a simple caramel can be made out of sugar, butter, cream and salt," she says. "Also jams and peanut butter are fantastic fillings."

Don't forget the cleanup

Chocolate making can be quite messy. Justine MacNeil only uses Dawn dish soap for post chocolate-making cleanup. "Don't get store brands," she says. "Dawn is queen to break down the fat of the cocoa butter in the cleaning process."