How to Temper Chocolate

Patience and a good thermometer will get you perfect, glossy chocolate.

The Art of Tempering Chocolate
Photo: Iuliia Isaieva / Getty Images

Thanks to Valentine's Day, February is the unofficial month of chocolate, a time when pastry shops everywhere are putting out their finest creations and home cooks are wondering if making chocolate-covered truffles at home is a sane idea or something that will just leave every surface in the kitchen coated in smears of chocolate. But if you want to coat anything in a beautiful, glossy chocolate shell, there's a catch: You need to temper the chocolate.

What does tempering chocolate mean?

Tempering is the process of heating and cooling chocolate in order to manipulate the molecular structure — and thus the texture — to achieve the best results. "Tempering is important because it determines the final gloss, hardness, and contraction of the chocolate," says legendary pastry chef Jacques Torres. "When you melt chocolate, the molecules of fat separate. In order to put them back together, you temper it." 

To temper chocolate, you want to bring it to its melting point, about 115°F, and then cool it back down between 88°F and 92°F before using it to glaze or coat fruit, candy, or confections. Tempering chocolate is an extra step, but worth the effort. Properly tempered chocolate will have a glossy exterior and a satisfying snap, and it won't easily melt in your hand. Improperly tempered chocolate will have a dull, waxy appearance, with little white splotches (or "bloom") on the surface. Even worse, it melts easily when you pick it up, meaning that your chocolate-covered strawberry will immediately get messy on its way to your mouth. Improperly tempered chocolate may still taste good, but it's way less impressive than those beautiful pastry cases full of perfect, shiny, chocolate-dunked treats.

Here's how to temper chocolate using a double boiler, an immersion circulator, and a microwave.

Roasted White Chocolate & Coffee Truffles
Belinda Leong made many kinds of ganache (a rich, smooth chocolate-and-cream mixture) during her time at the venerable Pierre Hermé pâtisserie in Paris. Here, she slow-roasts white chocolate, which adds an enticing caramel flavor to the super-creamy ganache filling in her truffles. © Christina Holmes

First, get ready to temper

The best way to ensure that chocolate melts evenly and tempers well is to chop it into small, even pieces. Ideally you want them pretty small — think chocolate gravel. Using a food processor makes the whole process a snap; pulse the chocolate in the bowl until it's broken down into even, nubby bits. Stop before it turns to dust, but you want it fairly finely cut up. If you are chopping chocolate by hand, a serrated knife is your best tool; the teeth of the serrated edge will dig into the chocolate and help you turn blocks of chocolate into shards.

If you're melting chocolate in the microwave or a double boiler, the best way to temper it is a process called "seeding." Essentially, you set aside a fourth of your chopped chocolate before melting the rest. Then, stir it into the melted chocolate; this bring down the temperature of the melted chocolate. You can divide the chocolate using a kitchen scale, but if you don't have one, a measuring cup will do — just set aside a quarter of a cup of chopped chocolate for every cup you're tempering.

Make sure you have a thermometer on hand so you know exactly the temperature of your chocolate as it melts and then cools. Guessing the temperature of melted chocolate without using a thermometer is pretty difficult. A good instant-read thermometer makes a huge difference in figuring out when the chocolate has hit 115°F and is ready for tempering. A thermometer is particularly crucial when melting chocolate in a double boiler, since the chocolate cooled a lot more slowly with this method.

When you are ready to test the tempered chocolate, spread it on a knife and wait for it to set, gauging the shine and snappiness. As Torres notes, if the chocolate has been correctly tempered it will harden evenly and be glossy within five minutes.

For the most precision, go sous vide

All three tempering methods worked well, but using the immersion circulator is the most precise and least messy. If you don't have a vacuum sealer, place the chopped chocolate in ziplock plastic bags, push out as much air as you can, seal the tops, and slip them to the side of a pot with the circulator in it. Once the chocolate heats to 115°F, gradually drop a cup of ice into the water bath and wait for the temperature to drop down to 84°F. Then, slowly raise it back up to 89°F, right in the optimal range. Because the immersion circulator's precision allows you so much control, you don't need to worry about adding seeding chocolate when using this method. This method is reliable and consistent.

Heat up a double boiler

A double boiler is simply two small pots designed to stack on top of each other. When you bring water to a simmer or boil in the bottom pot, the contents of the top pot heat gently over indirect heat. If you don't have a double boiler, simply place a heat-safe mixing bowl on top of a small pot. Make sure the water level in the bottom pot is low enough that it does not touch the bottom of the bowl. The mixing bowl should be wide enough to fit tightly over the saucepan. You want the outer edges of the bowl to touch the rim of the saucepan; this creates a seal that traps steam in the bottom pot. It's especially important to keep steam away when you are melting chocolate; the moisture from steam can cause the chocolate to seize up. When tempering chocolate in a double boiler, make sure to keep the heat at medium-low, so the chocolate melts slowly and evenly. This method takes several minutes and is best for small batches of chocolate.

Zap it in the microwave

If you don't have an immersion circulator and you don't want to mess with a double boiler, the simplest tempering method is one recommended by the Jacques Torres: Just use the microwave and go really, really slow. Put the chocolate in a non-reactive, microwave-safe bowl (Torres uses a glass bowl) and set the microwave to 50% power to be safe. Microwave the chocolate for 30 seconds at a time, stirring in between. Be careful; the chocolate may retain its shape, or have lumps in it, but a quick stir should eliminate those. This method takes upwards of 5 minutes, but works beautifully.

No matter which technique you use, make sure you give the chocolate your full attention. Tempering requires precision; if the chocolate is too cold or too hot, it won't set correctly. If you're running around trying to do other kitchen tasks at the same time as tempering the chocolate, it's easy to miss that window. Tempering is one of those processes that requires you to slow down and concentrate on doing one thing well for a bit. The reward is beautifully shiny chocolate, ready for making all those peanut butter cups or truffles like a pro.

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