Real chocolate must be tempered to achieve the correct snap and glossy shine. Cocoa butter forms several types of stable and unstable crystal structures at different temperatures, so in order to achieve the ideal characteristics in texture and appearance, chocolate needs to be “tempered.” Essentially, the chocolate is melted to the point that all the crystals break apart and then cooled, and/or “seeded” with tempered chocolate in order for the correct crystal structures to form. When melted chocolate is just left to cool and set up without going through the tempering process, it will form unpredictable crystals, resulting in a streaky and dull appearance and chalky, crumbly texture, no one wants that.
When shopping for a good chocolate, look for the word “couverture.” It is a regulated term in the EU, like the word “chocolate” is in the US, and requires chocolate to contain at least 35% cacao and 31% fat. In Milk, White and Ruby chocolate, some of that fat comes from the added milk but in Dark couverture, the fat is nearly always 100% from cocoa butter. Up to 5% vegetable fat is permitted and it must be clearly labeled, however, high-quality European dark chocolates will not include additional fats. In the US, up to 5% milk fat is permitted in dark chocolate. Different types of chocolate, Milk, White, Dark and Ruby require different temperatures for tempering. They can also vary a bit from brand to brand. Don’t worry if you forget the temperature curve though, on quality couverture it’s printed right on the bag.
The other key element to tempering, besides temperature, is agitation. It is important to stir your chocolate as it goes through temperature changes in order to trigger crystal formation and to distribute these newly formed crystals evenly.
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On the other hand, compound chocolate/melting wafers do not need to be tempered but don’t taste as good and aren’t as good for you. Instead of, or in addition to cocoa butter, compound chocolate contains added fats (often hydrogenated oils) and bulking agents. Since they do not fit the legal definition of “chocolate” they are often labeled as “coatings.” In the case of some commercially available “white chocolate,” there is actually nothing in the ingredients list that even resembles chocolate. I was shocked by this when I read the ingredients on the back of the Ghirardelli white chips that I had been using for many years. I typically regard Ghirardelli chocolate reasonably highly but when I discovered that their white chips weren’t, in fact CHOCOLATE I knew it was time to make the switch. Since doing so, I have had customers tell me that mine is the “best white chocolate [they’ve] ever had.” (I don’t claim that mine is better than anyone else’s who is using the same ingredients, only that white chocolate made with real cocoa butter is far superior the stuff that isn’t.)
Melting wafers and Almond Bark (another chocolate-like product) have recently gained popularity with home bakers and those that are delving into the hot cocoa bomb craze. They are billed as “easier to work with” but in my opinion, once you learn to temper and work with real, high-quality chocolate, there is no reason to compromise on flavor and ingredients. Just like anything, tempering is a skill that can be learned with a little practice. While compound chocolate is also less expensive, it lacks the flavor and melting quality of high-quality chocolate.
There is science behind tempering, so you can’t “fake it.” If your chocolate isn’t in temper, it’s usually pretty obvious. It will look dull or possibly “dusty” not shiny and glossy as it should. It’s not just for appearances though, tempering also creates ideal textures and mouthfeel. You can’t just cover it up with luster dust to hide flaws if it goes wrong. As you move on to more advanced candy-making, like molded bonbons, a mastery of tempering is critical. Chocolate that isn’t perfectly tempered won’t release properly from your molds or might leave some of your colored cocoa butter behind. It’s heartbreaking when a batch doesn’t turn out after all the time and effort you’ve put in. Making sure your chocolate is in temper is one of the best ways to ensure consistent success.
Tempering is an absolute must but if you make errors, it can be redone. One of the great things about chocolate is that it is infinitely reusable as long as you don’t contaminate it or burn it. Just heat to a high enough temperature to melt out the crystals and go through the tempering process again. You can check and practice as many times as it takes to get it right.
Melting wafers, Almond Bark and other compound chocolates are common among people who make hot cocoa bombs. This is not "real" chocolate so does not need to be tempered. However, keep in mind, that what you gain in simplicity of use, you loose out on BIG TIME when it comes to flavor, texture and mouthfeel.
There is more than one way to achieve the same goal. Different chefs and chocolate makers have their favorite methods. I, personally, employ the “seeding method” but others swear by “tabling” or using tools like a sous vide machine or EZ Temper. There are also machines on the market that will temper your chocolate for you (with varying amounts of automation or input from you during the process.) While tempering machines can really increase output and temperature control, they aren’t strictly necessary unless you are a higher volume chocolate company. For the home cook, I don’t recommend the investment. (more on that coming soon in another post).
There is very little equipment required to get a perfect temper. A bowl, spatula and heat source (whether that’s a microwave or double boiler) and arguably most importantly, a good thermometer. During the heating and cooling process, different crystal structures break and form. Having an accurate thermometer will enable you to get a perfect temper every time.
So now that you know the “Why” behind tempering
Method 1: “Seeding”
Melt your dark chocolate to 45-50° Celsius (113-122° F). This can be done in short bursts in the microwave, or a double boiler. Make sure to stir periodically so hot spots don’t develop. This is particularly important when using the microwave. Chocolate can easily burn which will create graininess, and is not fixable.
Stir to begin cooling and add in additional solid, tempered chocolate. This is referred to as “seed” chocolate and will introduce the correct crystal structure for the melted chocolate to join. Seed chocolate can be in a large chunk or in smaller pieces like coins or grated bits. Continue stirring and cooling to 32° C (87.8-89.6° F). Add more seed chocolate if it has all melted. When you reach this “working temperature,” you can remove any unmelted seed chocolate or use an immersion blender to break up any small bits.
Test your temper by dipping a spoon or corner of parchment into your chocolate and allowing it to rest on the counter. If your chocolate is in proper temper, it should set up relatively quickly and be free of streaks or splotches. You are looking for an even, color with a bit of a sheen (you will not achieve a high gloss on this test, that results from perfectly tempered chocolate in a perfectly smooth mold).
Method 2: “Tabling”
As before, melt your chocolate to 45-50° Celsius (113-122° F). Pour about 2/3 of your chocolate out onto a marble slab or countertop (granite will work too) and begin agitating it. Use an offset spatula to spread the chocolate out then use a scraper to push it back toward the center of the pile, scraping the chocolate off with the offset spatula. The stone will rapidly cool your chocolate and start forming your desired crystals (along with some less-stable ones – but don’t worry about those right now).
Continue agitating your chocolate until it begins to thicken a bit (27° C/80.6 °F) then scrape it back into your main bowl of melted chocolate and stir. This will seed your warm chocolate with crystals and melt off the less-stable crystals that were created during the cooling process. Continue to stir and cool to 32° C (87.8-89.6° F) which is your ideal working temperature. You can repeat the tabling process for a small amount of your chocolate if it is still too warm after returning it to the bowl.
Method 3: “Incomplete Melting”
If you are starting with tempered chocolate and you don’t heat it high enough to break down all the “good” crystals, your chocolate will remain in temper. If you are starting with a block of chocolate or callets/drops/chips straight from the bag, your chocolate should be in temper to begin with. They temper the chocolate at the factory before it is shipped to you or the store where you bought it. However, if the chocolate melted on its way to you and lost its temper, choose another method.
Simply melt the chocolate most of the way but not all the way. Then stir off the heat to melt the rest, ideally ending up at 32° C (87.8-89.6° F). The theory is, solid chocolate is in temper and is therefore “seeding” the melted chocolate around it. If you melt your chocolate to a higher temperature than necessary, you will destroy all the good crystals and need to add them back in either seeding or tabling.
HEY, didn’t you mention some other methods a while back?
Sure did! Sous vide and machines like the EZ Temper are use to create perfectly pre-crystalized cocoa butter that is then use to “seed” your melted chocolate. These methods are very popular among certain chefs (I would even go as far as saying that the EZ Temper has somewhat of a “cult following”) but as with automatic tempering machines, they are overkill and unnecessary for a home, hobby chocolatier.
Now that you're a tempering pro, why not try out your brand-new skills?
Chocolate truffles are a great intro to working with chocolate. I've created a FREE step-by-step guide to getting started with truffle-making. It'll give you the exact steps that I used to learn to make incredible truffles and some common mistakes to avoid along the way.
Owner - Pyroclastic Chocolate
Becca Larson has been handcrafting chocolate truffles for her family for nearly a decade and launched her first seasonal flavor collection in the Spring of 2019. Dedicated to using high quality ingredients, Pyroclastic Chocolate crafts a rotating, limited menu, made up of seasonally inspired flavors and perennial classics.