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. Angela Maddox

    Hi! I was wondering if this technique will work when drizzling on Popcorn. How long will it take to harden? I want my customers to be able to customize their orders and if they want chocolate drizzled over their order I don’t want it to take long for it to harden so it can be placed in a bag to go when ordered at the store.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      That’s a good question, Angela! Unfortunately, warm kitchens, short timing, and hardening chocolate don’t mix very well. We’d anticipate it would take nearly an hour for it to totally cool in a commercial kitchen environment, leaving your customers with a bit of a melty mess. It’s a dream on popcorn if you’re making bags in advance for folks to purchase pre-made, though! Kat@KAF

  2. Kathy King

    Any advise for tempering at high altitudes? I have done it but only by experimentation. I’ve had both good and bad results.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      That’s a little out of our wheelhouse, Kathy, simply because we aren’t at high altitude here in Vermont so we haven’t been able to test chocolate tempering in your conditions. However, the Colorado State University Resource Center may be able to assist you, as they’re the one who helped us create our High-Altitude Baking Guide. Their contact info can be found at the top of that page. We hope they can help! Annabelle@KAF

  3. Sue Murphy

    What is the best way to store your tempered (or any quality) chocolate? Room temp in dark environment or fridge? Always sealed against air and moisture, I assume…

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Sue! Chocolate is best stored in a cool, dry area, such as a pantry. Being in an airtight container can help keep out moisture from the air. Annabelle@KAF

  4. Bailey Moore

    Hey! How would I temper chocolate if I wanted to add in sugar and/or milk? At what point would I add these ingredients in? Still don’t understand the tempering process…

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Bailey. Tempering is only the act of melting the chocolate in a way that once it hardens back up, it will be shiny, snappy, and strong. If you’re making something that requires you to add cream or milk, say, for a ganache, there’s no need to temper the chocolate. You’d just melt the ingredients all together. Annabelle@KAF

  5. Sharie Maloney

    Thank you for your thorough article. I’m hoping you can give me tips on white chocolate. I want to make my white chocolate from cacao butter (food grade) so I’m controlling the sweetness level. (If you have a go to recipe for white chocolate I would appreciate that as well). I read in your article that 84F was a good tempering temperature for white; any other suggestions? I live in the south where it is hot and humid.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Sharie, we’re really impressed with your dedication to making your white chocolate from scratch! That’s honestly something we don’t have a ton of experience with; we do a lot of baking with chocolate, but making it isn’t something most of us have tried. Based on our limited knowledge though, this seems like a good recipe from folks who know their stuff: White chocolate. Aside from the temperature, all the tricks for tempering white chocolate are the same as those for other types, so we don’t have any special instructions or tricks. Enjoy the process, and have some very happy chocolate-making! Kat@KAF

  6. Raji

    Hi, I would like your advice on storing chocolates. Usual refrigerator temp is max 7 degrees celcius. I understand molded chocolates need to be stored at about 15 degrees and then at room temperature. Mine melts after refrigeration. Can we let the molded chocolates set at room temperature of 21 degrees? Please help

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Raji, it sounds like there might be an issue with your tempering. If the chocolate is tempered correctly, it shouldn’t melt after refrigerating. This can also be a common issue for folks who use coconut oil with their chocolate, as it will melt at room temperature. We’re not familiar enough with your tempering process to know exactly where you might have gone astray, but we encourage you to get in touch with our Baker’s Hotline team by phone, email, or instant chat. They can help you troubleshoot your chocolate and help you get the well-tempered result you’re looking for. Kat@KAF

  7. Eugen

    I find it easier to temper mine by putting the bowl with melted choco in a pan with ice cubes and stirring until cools down to 27-28 degrees. Then reheat it at 31-32,leave it to rest for 5 min. and pour it in molds.If I am patient enough and not trying to cut corners, it’s always perfectly tempered. It stays perfect at room temperature,but it becomes soft and starts to melt if I take it with me on a sunny day…

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid, post author

      Yes, Angie, you can. Tempering has to do with the fat crystals in the cocoa butter, not the sugar (or lack of it) in the chocolate. Unsweetened chocolate in stores has been tempered before packaging. Susan

    1. Susan Reid, post author

      As with most things, practice with chocolate makes perfect, and it sounds like you’re on the way. Good luck, and let us know how it goes! Susan

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