How I Learned to Temper Chocolate Without Losing My Mind
The key is patience. And a good thermometer.
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 like me 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 Ghirardelli. But if you want to coat anything in a beautiful, glossy chocolate shell, there’s a catch: You also need to temper the chocolate.
“Tempering” refers to the process of heating and cooling chocolate in order to manipulate the molecular structure—and thus the texture. 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, and melt easily when you pick it up, meaning that your chocolate-covered strawberry will immediately get messy on its way to your mouth.
And, famously, tempering chocolate is a pain. There’s no way around it, unless you’re a professional chocolatier who has access to a tempering machine to do it for you. Every time I’ve tried to do it, I end up with matte chocolate with little white splotches (or “bloom”) on the surface. It still tastes good, but it’s way less impressive than those beautiful pastry cases full of perfect, shiny, chocolate-dunked treats.
Luckily, though I do not have access to such a machine, I do have access to our extraordinarily patient and wise Associate Food Editor Kelsey Youngman, who agreed to walk me through the process of tempering. We conducted three tests using both dark and milk chocolate. For one batch, we tempered the chocolate using the microwave, for another, we used the double boiler, and for the third, we used an immersion circulator. Here’s how I learned to temper chocolate without losing my entire mind.
Divvy Up Your Chocolate
To temper chocolate, you want to bring it to its melting point, about 115 degrees Fahrenheit, and then cool it back down between 88 and 92 degrees Fahrenheit before using it to glaze or coat your chosen fruit, candy, or confection. If you’re melting chocolate in the microwave or the double boiler, the best way to encourage the chocolate to set back into that beautiful, snappy, glossy formation is through a process called “seeding.” Essentially, you set aside a fourth of your chopped-up chocolate and stir it into the melted batch. We divided the chocolate using a kitchen scale, which makes it easy, but if you don’t have one, using cup measure will do—just set aside ¼ of a cup of chopped chocolate for every cup you’re tempering.
Reduce Your Chocolate to Rubble
The best way to ensure that chocolate melts evenly is to cut it up into small, even pieces. Ideally you want them pretty small—think chocolate gravel. Doing that with a knife is pretty tricky, as I found out after attempting to evenly chop chocolate for upwards of 15 minutes. You know what makes the whole process a snap? A food processor. Pulse the chocolate in the bowl until it’s broken down into even, nubby bits. Stop before it gets to be dust, but you want it fairly finely cut up. Do it for all your chocolate, including the part you set aside to seed the chocolate.
Rely on a Thermometer
Guessing what temperature melted chocolate is without using a thermometer is pretty difficult. A good instant-read thermometer makes a huge difference in figuring out when the chocolate has hit the sweet spot in temperature when seeding will work. For the double boiler method, it was particularly crucial, since the chocolate cooled a lot more slowly than I would have guessed.
Breathe Deep and Summon Patience
It became clear to me through the tempering methods we went through that a major part of my previous failure had to do with impatience or distraction. 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. It’s one of those zen-like processes that means you need to slow down and concentrate on doing one thing well for a bit.
For the Most Precision, Use a Sous Vide
All three tempering methods worked well, but by far the least messy and least wasteful was using the immersion circulator. We didn’t have a vacuum sealer, so instead we placed chocolate into zip-top bags, pushed as much air out of them as we could, and slipped them to the side of a pot with the circulator in it. Once the chocolate was heated to 115F, we gradually dropped a cup of ice into the bath and waited for the temperature to drop down to 84F, and then slowly raised it back up to 89 degrees, right in the optimal range. (Because the immersion circulator's precision allows you more control, you don’t need to worry about adding seeding chocolate when using this method.) To test the temper, we spread chocolate on a knife and waited for it to set, gauging shine and snappiness. Bonus: The bags allowed for easy clean-up.
For Everyone Else: Just Use the Microwave
If you don’t have a sous vide, and you don’t want to mess with a double boiler, the simplest tempering method we found was one recommended by the legendary Jacques Torres. To sum it up: Just use the microwave and go really, really slow. Put the chocolate in a non-reactive microwave-safe bowl, set the microwave to 50 percent power (Torres recommends high power, but the microwave we were using was particularly powerful, so we dropped the percentage to be safe), and microwave it for 30 seconds at a time, stirring in between. It takes upwards of 5 minutes, but it worked beautifully, and we didn't have to go near the stove or haul out a sous vide, either. The result? Beautifully shiny chocolate, ready for making all those peanut butter and jelly cups like a pro, no tempering machine required.