Working with chocolate puts me in a temper (Hahaha!…wait, you don’t get the joke? Keep reading, then…). That’s not to say that I don’t love eating the food of the gods…good dark chocolate is one of the pleasures in life, and it’s healthy, too – full of anti-oxidants and flavonoids and all sorts of other buzzwords that I use to justify my nibbles. No, it’s tempering chocolate that’s the problem…water is your enemy (it will make your chocolate seize up), and temperature, well, let’s say that being precise is just the beginning.
(But exactly what is tempered chocolate, and why is it important?)
The answer lies with science…specifically, the crystalline fat structure that makes up a piece of chocolate. (Nerd alert…here comes the science-y stuff!). In regular, ole’ (i.e.untempered) melted chocolate, the fat crystals (specifically the beta crystals) have not been aligned, leading to some undesirable qualities when that chocolate used for dipping, say, a cake pop…a dull finish, a wimpy, bendy bite, and a general air of “I-just-melted-some-chocolate-to-dip-stuff-in-leave-me-alone” hanging about. Tempering the chocolate brings those fat crystals into line, and the heavens open and the angels sing for now those chocolate dipped cake pops will be show worthy…glossy, smooth, with a sharp mouth-pleasing snap when bitten.
(So what’s the big deal? Isn’t most chocolate you buy already tempered?)
Yes, but melting untempers it and getting the chocolate back in temper is a pain-in-the-tuchas, to say the least. I’ll go in to the exact process below, but basically you heat the chocolate until it’s fully melted, then cool it down until it reaches a specific temperature range (and that range differs for different types of chocolate). After you get it to the correct temperature, you have to keep it at that temperature(i.e. not let it cool) while you’re working with it or the chocolate becomes too hard with which to work. This process is not for the faint of heart (or the impatient).
Searching the internet will yield many sites with instructions on how to temper chocolate…King Arthur Flour has a good, clear overview of the topic and methods. There are several ways to temper, but I’ll focus on the one that I use because, well, it’s how I do it. (Note: I generally use dark chocolate for dipping, but I’ll also give the temperature ranges for milk and white chocolate as well).
Tempering melted chocolate in 4 easy steps
- Chop the chocolate block into manageable pieces** using a serrated knife (I break the chocolate into chunks if I can).
- Put ¾ of the chocolate into a microwave-safe bowl, then melt in 20-30 second bursts until the chocolate is almost melted. Using a digital thermometer, make sure the melted chocolate doesn’t go over 120°F (for milk and white chocolate, that limit is 105°F).
- Once the chocolate is melted, add the reserved chocolate (1 piece at a time) and stir until the chocolate cools to 91°F. This is the step that takes the most time and is the most aggravating…I’ll check the temperature and react the same (“it’s not cool enough yet?!?”). Have patience…it’ll get there. When (finally) the chocolate reaches the correct temperature. it’s ready for use.
- Keeping the chocolate in the correct temperature range (86° to 91°F for dark chocolate; 84° to 86°F for milk and white chocolate) requires a bit of ingenuity. Again, there are numerous ways to go, but I use a neat trick I found on the interweb…place your bowl on a regular heating pad turned to low/medium heat and covered with a dish towel. Check your temperature occasionally to be sure you’re still within range.
** Note: You might be tempted to use chocolate chips instead of chopping a block chocolate but try to avoid that impulse. Many types of chocolate chips have ingredients (stabilizers and preservatives) that interfere with tempering. Best to stick with high quality baking chocolate and leave the chips in the pantry this time.
Now it’s time to dip to your heart’s content. I bought some special dipping tools to aid in the process. Deciding on what to dip might require some thought…after the cake pops, I dipped strawberries (an obvious choice), then pretzel rods, graham crackers, marshmallows, and even potato chips. When the bowl was almost empty, it’s time to smooth out the remaining chocolate on a Silpat or parchment paper and make bark…I like to press things into it like chopped nuts, granola, dried fruit, or crushed-up pretzels.
While the process to get the chocolate to temper might be tedious, the results are generally worth it…I brought this plate of dipped treats to my co-workers and there was general delight in the room. Be the hero of your social circle by bringing in some chocolate dipped goodies, and if you do let me know how it goes! I’ll be calm and even-tempered by then.
Slainté! L’chaim! Cheers!