A basic guide to tempering chocolate

What is more luxurious than a pool of perfectly smooth, perfectly ready-to-do-your-bidding chocolate? One that will coat whatever you want, and harden almost instantly to a shiny, firm-to-the-touch surface that snaps when you break it?

copper bowl

Our love affair with chocolate is never-ending, but as in all good relationships, there are some things that work and some that just… don’t. The wise person knows all they can about their true love, and accepts that certain behaviors get better results. That’s why knowing about tempering chocolate is important.

Sure, you can melt chocolate chips or those melting discs you see at the store and coat things, but the flavor and texture aren’t quite what true chocolate apprecianados are looking for. Kind of like dating the brother of the guy you’re really interested in.

The part of chocolate that allows it to melt so sumptuously in your mouth is cocoa butter, and it’s made of a family of crystals (six types altogether). What makes working with chocolate tricky is each type of crystal forms or sets at a different temperature, and some of those forms aren’t very stable; they can change over time and in storage.

The chips on the left have bloomed; the disks to the right are still in temper.

The chips on the left have bloomed; the disks to the right are still in temper.

When chocolate gets too warm, but not warm enough to melt, some of the cocoa butter crystals can migrate to the surface; this dusty-looking chocolate has “bloomed.” It’s fine to eat or bake with, but it’s no longer “in temper.”

Before we get to the tempering process, we need to do a little explaining about what is and isn’t chocolate.
All the colors above are vanilla flavored; the brown one "contains real cocoa."

All the colors above are vanilla flavored; the brown one “contains real cocoa.”

Candy coating/candy melts/summer coating/almond bark: made of sugar, milk solids, vegetable oils, flavorings and colors; for “chocolate” flavors, you’ll also find some cocoa powder. The great virtue of these things is their convenience. Melt, dip whatever (cake pops come to mind), let them set at room temperature. Their almost bulletproof useability is offset by a waxy feel in the mouth, and as for flavor? Meh. Kids like them, partly because you’ll find them in a wide range of colors. But they’re not chocolate, and therefore, not for me.

Chocolate chips: are chocolate that has soy lecithin added to it to raise its melting temperature, so the chips hold their shape when baked. This increase in melting temperature makes them a little trickier to coat things with, which is why we use them to make…

Dipping chocolate: usually chocolate chips with some shortening added, we’ve used this many times to coat things in our recipes. Ratio: 1 tablespoon shortening for each cup (6 ounces) of chips. This formula doesn’t set as firmly as tempered chocolate will, and on a hot day you may need to put whatever you’ve dipped into the fridge for a bit, but it’s perfectly serviceable for coating those pretzels, Oreos, or snack cakes.

What is it with those chocolate percents anyway? To quote Chef Peter Greweling, CMB, from his excellent book Chocolates & Confections, “Simply put, the percentage listed on a label describes the portion of the chocolate that came from the cacao tree. The percentage of chocolate represents the combination of chocolate liquor [chocolate (cacao) solids] and cocoa butter, but fails to differentiate between them. As a result, two chocolates, each of them labeled 65%, can be radically different from each other.”

Which brings us to couverture. For dipping and coating, this is the stuff you’re after. Our couverture chocolates are from Guittard  (semi-sweet disks, 61%); Merckens (bittersweet bar, 51%) and Belcolade (bittersweet disks, 57.8%). As Chef Greweling states above, the percent indicates cacao mass; for couvertures, the ratio of cocoa to cocoa butter favors the latter. More cocoa butter means the chocolate will be thinner when melted, and therefore coat or drape more easily. You can temper and coat with most any chocolate, including semisweet, milk, or white; they just need slightly different handling, mostly regarding temperatures.

There’s more than one way to temper chocolate. One of them is called tabling, which you see below.

chocolate on marble

Chocolatiers like this method because it’s efficient, and they get an immediate feel for how the chocolate is behaving. An amount of chocolate is melted, then 2/3 of it is spread on a clean marble slab and moved around to cool it until it starts to thicken. This paste is added back to the remaining melted chocolate to “seed” it; once tempered it’s held between 86°F and 90°F and ready to use. Tabling is a wonderful method to use, provided you have lots of space and a large block of marble hanging around. Moving it around is kind of hypnotic.

The nougat candies you’ll see at the end of this post were tempered by Frank (one of our test kitchen bakers and a former pastry chef), using the direct melt method: by very carefully melting and stirring the chocolate, he kept it in temper the whole time. It’s tricky to do, and takes some practice.

For many home bakers though, the most practical method of tempering chocolate is a process called seeding.

When my fellow blogger MJ took a chocolate class with former White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier, he joked about the tabling method, saying “Who has time for that these days?” and such. He used the seeding method in class, too, so don’t think this method is inferior in the least.

But you’re dreaming of dipped berries, candies, biscotti, piped decorations or phrases you can pick up and place on a cake…so let’s get started.

What tools do you need?

An accurate digital thermometer is important.

A bowl, a spatula to stir with, a saucepan with an inch of water in it, or a microwave to melt the chocolate. Parchment paper to place your cooling chocolates on. Depending on your project, you may want dipping tools, molds, parchment paper cones (for writing with melted chocolate), or an offset spatula for spreading tempered chocolate on the back of a baking sheet or transfer sheet.

tempering

In a nutshell, seeding can be shown and explained in just a few pictures and steps. The short version: Get the chocolate hot (but not too hot) and melted. Add chunks of unmelted chocolate. This is the seeding part. Stir and cool, take out the unmelted leftovers, test to see if it sets properly, then dip, dip, dip. The real key, though is in the details of the temperatures you need to achieve.

Melt the chocolate: Chop the chocolate with a knife or chocolate chipper. Or, use our disks, which are already in an easy-to-melt shape and don’t need any chopping at all. It’s best to have a pretty healthy amount: at least a pound to start with. Two is better. The more volume you have, the better it will hold the temperature where you need it to stay to be workable.

It’s typical for chocolatiers to work with 10-pound batches at a time. Tempering a movie-size bar of Special Dark is possible, but it’s going to be tricky, because its temperature is going to fluctuate wildly and, frankly, in this process, every single degree counts. There’s not enough thermal mass in that small an amount to stay at one temperature for seconds, much less the minutes you’ll want for working with it.

Place the chocolate in a bowl and put it over simmering water, or microwave it at half power in short (30-second) bursts, stirring in between. There will come a point where your chocolate is partly melted, with shiny-looking chunks that haven’t lost their shape. That’s about as far as you want to go, because you can melt it the rest of the way just by stirring. Your goal is to get all the different types of crystals melted and the chocolate to smooth liquid, with no lumps. Take the chocolate’s temperature.

  • For bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, your goal is 122°F/50°C
  • For milk or white chocolate, your goal is 105°F/40°C

Two important things to avoid: scorching (microwave); and getting any water in the chocolate (simmering water). Both of these things will ruin your chocolate and you’ll have to start over. Water in melted chocolate “seizes” it, causing instant recrystallization –  not in a good way. The chocolate will be unworkable and look like this:

seized chocolate

Seeding: Add a good-sized chunk of chocolate (“block seeding”) or some more chopped chocolate to your lovely pool of melted chocolate. The stable crystals in this new addition encourage stable crystal formations in the melted chocolate. Stirring becomes very important here, because agitating the chocolate ensures smaller crystals will form and stay in suspension.

Cool: Stir continuously until the chocolate is at or below 90°F/32°C; as low as 86°F/30°C for dark chocolate or 84°F/28.9°C for milk or white. Every chocolate has its own “sweet spot” for this, and you almost have to learn the personality of individual brands and types. I’ll tell you right now, it takes longer than you want it to. You have to be at peace with the process, because it takes what it takes.

Test: Dip a knife, spoon, or spatula into the chocolate and set it down at cool room temperature (65° to 70°F). If the chocolate is in temper it will harden quite quickly (within 3 to 5 minutes) and become firm and shiny. If you touch it, your finger will come away clean.

Bottom test is in temper; top test is starting to be too cool and has some spots showing.

Bottom test is in temper; top test is starting to be too cool and has some spots showing.

If the chocolate is too cool or out of temper, it will often set in streaks, like this:

streaky1Hold at working temperature and dip away: Usually between 88° to 90°F. You can put your bowl over another bowl of warm water, put it on a folded towel over a very low heating pad, or even try using a mug warmer. As you work with it, the chocolate may cool down; to bring it back up to a better working temperature try grabbing your hair dryer and warming the chocolate with it, stirring the whole time. You’ll have the best results if whatever you’re dipping is close to the temperature of your working chocolate. As chocolate sets it contracts – which is one reason it pops out of molds easily.

Think of what you can do with your lovely, tempered chocolate. Berries…

IMG_8140piping decorations…

IMG_1393

dipping candies…

nougat1-562x750

or dressing up biscotti.

biscottiWhen the chocolate is right, and it’s performing its miracle in front of your eyes, it’s just the greatest feeling. If you’re fascinated and want to give this a go, here are a few things to remember.

  • The chocolate wins. Always. You need to work on its terms, not yours. Dry, cool days are good for your first try.
  • Don’t try to rush; make sure you have a few hours to devote to the task.
  • The leftover chocolate can be re-tempered, turned into ganache or sauce, or chopped to put in cookies or brownies.
  • If you’d like to download and print a handy guide to keep on file about tempering, click here.

Before you go, I just want to give a shout out to Chef Wilhelm Wanders, who makes our own signature King Arthur Flour Bakery Chocolates; and to MJ, who tag-teamed with me on getting this one off the ground.

The next time you’re gazing longingly at the case in a chocolate shop, give a nod to the patience, talent, and dedication of the people who made each of those beautiful chocolates by hand.

 

Susan Reid
About

Chef Susan Reid grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Bates College and the Culinary Institute of America, and is presently the Food Editor of Sift magazine. She does demos, appearances, and answers food (and baking) questions from all quarters.

comments

  1. Anne

    Hi – Just curious why most chefs don’t seem to use Ghirardelli chocolate and seem to gravitate toward Guittard instead? I’ve grown up thinking Ghirardelli was the best but I’m noticing a lot seasoned chefs don’t use it. Any thoughts on why Guittard is preferred? Thanks!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We can’t speak for other chefs, Anne, but we prefer the flavor and texture of the Guittard chocolate. A lot of bakers like Ghirardelli for bar chocolates or cocoas but tend to lean towards Guittard for baking or melting it down to create tasty confections. You could do some very delicious experiments to see which you prefer! Annabelle@KAF

  2. AM

    I am working on a recipe for homemade chocolate chips (coconut oil, vanilla, maple syrup, cocoa powder), and I am finding that when the chips are added to cookies, they end up melting completely. The end product tastes fine, but I would like the chips to hold their shape while baking. I am thinking of adding lecithin in to raise the melting temperature, but how much do I add? And is the amount I add independent of whether I use coconut oil or cocoa butter as the base?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Ashley. We think you’re on the right track with adding lecithin to the chips in order to stabilize them. However, we’ve never tried DIY chips here in our test kitchen so it may take some (tasty) experimentation on your part. Enjoy! Annabelle@KAF

  3. Nathalie T.

    I’ve been attempting to temper chocolate for a few weeks and was successful a couple of times. I am trying to drizzle tempered chocolate onto tea cakes and I use a plastic bottle with a decorating tip to do so. I use Callebaut dark callets #811. I have an infrared thermometer and use the seeding method (115-122 degrees Fahrenheit, down to 82-84, and back up to 88-90). The problem I have is keep the temperature of the chocolate between 88 and 90 degrees when I transfer it into the bottle and while I am working. Lately, I have been warming up the bottle slightly while tempering, before I pour the chocolate into it, and that seems to help a little but the window is so narrow (88-90) that I never know if I will end up being successful. If I am not, I then have a large batch of cookies that I can not use because the chocolate tends to melt when I bag the cookies and when they are being held to be eaten. I would love suggestions on how to make this foolproof. Thank you so much in advance!

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid, post author

      Hi, Nathalie. I’ve had some success putting the tempered chocolate in the microwave at half power for 5 second bursts to keep the temperature in a good working range. Also, the larger the volume of chocolate the longer it will hold its temperature for working; small amounts are just more difficult to control. Susan

    2. Nathalie T.

      Thank you for your response, Susan. Does the chocolate absolutely have to stay between 88 and 90 degrees or is there a little bit of wiggle room, for example 87-91? Thank you!

    3. Susan Reid, post author

      That can depend, Nathalie, on the volume of the chocolate you’re working with. If it’s 1/4 cup, I’d say no forgiveness (not enough thermal mass). If you have a pound of melted chocolate though, there’s going to be some on the outside or edge of the bowl that’s cooler that can be reincorporated with a quick stir. Hope that makes sense. Susan

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      It depends on how quickly you work, Marianne, as well as the temperature of the environment. If the chocolate starts to set, you can always put it back over heat briefly to re-warm it and keep it in temper. You can also put the bowl of chocolate into another bowl filled with warm water, or keep it over a turned-off (but still warm) water bath to keep the chocolate in a workable state. Work quickly! Kye@KAF

  4. jjmcgaffey

    Another suggestion I’ve seen (haven’t tried it, yet) for holding the chocolate at temperature, especially for small amounts – melt and temper in a canning jar, then put the jar(s) into a slow cooker half-full of (warm) water. If your cooker can maintain the right temperature or close (and that depends on brand and age – some can, some run cool at Warm/Low and too hot at High), it’s a good way to hold them – especially if you’re working with multiple types of chocolate (milk/dark/white).

    Reply
  5. Sue

    Thank you so very much! I knew you’d have an answer for me. Do I need to separate them in layers so they won’t scratch each other and if so can I use plastic wrap between the layers?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      You might want to use a high-quality parchment paper to separate the layers of chocolate hearts. That way the surfaces will stay clean and shiny looking. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

  6. Sue

    I am making about 200 heart molded chocolates for a wedding in December. Melted some Merkens milk chocolate disks and poured it into the molds. Worked great. Hearts had a nice sheen. How do I store the finished hearts to maintain the sheen for the next 2 months?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Store your chocolate hearts at a cool room temperature (about 68°F, beware of sunny spots!) in an airtight container. They should be just fine. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

  7. Areli

    So much great information here, thank you for the post! I’m wondering if you can help troubleshoot an issue I’m having tempering white chocolate Guittard chips. I tried a method that suggested using a double boiler over recently boiled water (no flame, to keep from going too hot) to bring the chocolate to an initial temp of 110 F, but even at that temperature the chocolate melted to a very thick, almost pasty consistency. When I took it off the heat it got even thicker and I was reluctant to seed it because I was afraid the chips wouldn’t melt. It loosened up a little when I heated it back up, but never to the nice loose consistency I get with bittersweet that’s so good for dipping and drizzling. Any idea what I might have done wrong here?

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid, post author

      Hi, Areli. I have a couple thoughts. How much chocolate are you trying to temper at once? It sounds like you either had some water get into the white chocolate or they somehow got overheated. White chocolate can be particularly fussy. I have the best luck when I try to melt it only halfway, depending on stirring to finish the melting. Half power in the microwave can be worth a try; no water anywhere as a risk factor. Susan

  8. Rora

    Thank you for your valuable info with this interesting subject . I really want to ask what is the best time to add sugar if you gonna use black bitter chocolate?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Roda, if you’d like to sweet unsweetened chocolate, you’ll first want to melt the chopped or grated chocolate slowly over a double-boiler. Once it’s smooth and all melted, you can add measure out your sugar, to taste. (We like to use a ratio of about 2 tablespoons of sugar per ounce of unsweetened chocolate.) You can add the sugar in small amount, about 1-2 teaspoons at a time and then stir until it dissolves. Repeat until all the sugar is incorporated and the mixture looks smooth. (Beware of grit; this means the sugar hasn’t fully melted.) Once the mixture is homogenous, you can let the chocolate cool or proceed with your recipe. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

  9. Laurel DeSilvey

    Hi, I was wondering what the tool you are using in the very first picture is? I am trying to determine a way to dip multiple oreo balls at once while maintaining a perfect ball shap with no puddle. Thanks!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Laurel, it’s a chocolate mold that you see here, and it’s typically used to form hollow shells of chocolate. Not sure if it’s what you’re looking for or not, but a quick google search should turn up a number of different options. Best of luck! Mollie@KAF

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