The following excerpt is from my book Chocolate for Beginners: Techniques and Recipes for Making Chocolate Candy, Confections, Cakes and More (Rockridge Press, 2019)
You’re about to learn a magic trick; it’s called tempering. Like most magic, it’s based in science, so it actually works. In scientific terms, tempering is the process of controlling the crystallization of the cocoa butter in chocolate by heating, cooling, and moving it around. Chocolate that has been properly tempered allows it to set quickly, and harden to a smooth, satiny, unblemished sheen. Tempered chocolate is useful for coating ganache centers so that they keep for a longer period of time at room temperature. In magical terms, pouring melted, tempered chocolate into an Easter bunny mold, will allow you, quite literally, to pull a perfectly glossy chocolate rabbit out of your hat.
There are three basic methods for hand tempering chocolate: Seeding, Partial Melting, and Tabling. In this post, we'll cover the Seeding method.
First of all, it is important that you start with a well-tempered bar of chocolate (or discs in good temper). All of the chocolate you will purchase off the shelves of your grocery store, or from a chocolate distributor, will be in temper, because that’s how it’s sold. The only way it will have fallen out of temper is if it has melted during shipping, or from poor storage at the store. Inspect the chocolate before you use it for tempering. A bar of just-purchased chocolate should be shiny and smooth. Chocolate in good temper should break with a clean, satisfying snap. If it is dull, ashy, and crumbly in texture, the chocolate has probably fallen out of temper, and can not be used for these tempering methods.
Chopped Seed Method
You’ll notice that the amount of chocolate you’ll practice with for this method varies. I think it’s good to practice with both small and larger amounts. The process is the same, but the issues that manifest vary according to the amount of chocolate you’re working with. Because you’ll be dividing your chocolate before you melt it, I suggest keeping the total weight easily divisible by three.
What You’ll need:
- 12-48 ounces bittersweet, milk, or white couverture chocolate (chocolate with extra cocoa butter)
- Sauce pan
- Instant read food thermometer
- Heatproof silicone spatula
- Offset metal icing spatula
- Melt the chocolate. If the chocolate is in bar or brick form, chop it into 1/4-inch chunks. Melt 2/3 of the chopped chocolate in a heat-proof bowl over a pot of hot (but not boiling) water. Melt bittersweet chocolate to 115°F; melt milk and white chocolates to 105°F. It is necessary to heat the chocolate to these temperatures in order to melt out all of the fat crystals. Remove the melted chocolate from the heat. Reserve the unmelted 1/3 of the chopped chocolate (this will be your seed chocolate).
- Seed the chocolate. Divide your seed chocolate into three small piles. Add one of these piles to your melted chocolate (do not place the bowl over the hot water. Seeding must be done while the chocolate is cooling). Stir the chocolate with a heatproof spatula, using a figure-eight motion, until all the chocolate is melted. Check the temperature of the chocolate. If it is 90 or above, add the second pile of seed chocolate. Stir until all of the seed has melted. Do a temperature check. If it is still 90 or above, add the third pile of seed in small amounts, stirring and checking the temperature between additions. Your goal is to reach a temperature between 84 and 85, with no unmelted bits of chocolate left in the bowl.
- Do a temper check. As you add your seed chocolate to your melted chocolate, you will want to be checking its temper regularly. Drizzle a ribbon of chocolate over the flat of your metal icing spatula and allow the chocolate to set at a cool room temperature. If the chocolate is in temper, it will dry quickly, with a satiny, unblemished sheen. If it is not in temper, it may take longer to dry, and the finish will be dull, and streaked or spotted. It’s helpful to conduct temper checks throughout the entire tempering process, drizzling the ribbons of chocolate alongside each other on your icing spatula so that you can compare each one to the last.
- Heat your chocolate to working temperature. Once your chocolate is in perfect temper, and there are no bits of unmelted chocolate swimming around in your bowl, place the bowl briefly over the hot water, and heat the chocolate to 88. As soon as the chocolate reaches 88, remove it from heat, and stir. The residual heat from the bowl will bring it to between 89 and 90, which is exactly where you want it. You are ready to use your tempered chocolate.
- Keep your temper. As you work with your tempered chocolate, it will cool, and eventually thicken and become difficult to work with. Keep your thermometer and your hairdryer handy. When your chocolate falls below 88, turn the hairdryer on, and, holding it about an inch above the surface of the chocolate, give the chocolate a good blast—about 30 seconds at high heat. Stir well and check the temper after applying heat to the chocolate.
- Problem: There are bits of unmelted chocolate left in your bowl when you’ve reached proper temper.
- Solution: Do your best to fish them out.
- Explanation: Chunks—even very small ones—will get in your way if you are trying to dip centers in your tempered chocolate. They will also make molding more difficult, especially when you are trying to scrape excess chocolate from your mold. Tempering is the process of controlling the crystallization of cocoa butter fat crystals. Crystals, whether they are made up of cocoa butter, or magma, or minerals, basically behave in the same way: as they cool, they gather together in a repeating pattern based on the shape of the crystal. By adding seed chocolate, we’re introducing stable (V-shaped) fat crystals to an unstable pool of warm cocoa butter. As the pool cools, and we move around the seed chocolate so that it comes into contact with as many unformed fat molecules as possible, the molecules begin to adhere to the stable fat crystals and mimic their shape. The crystals will continue to gather together until crystallization is complete—or, in other words, until the chocolate is cooled and completely set. The more crystals that gather together, the thicker the chocolate becomes, making it very difficult to work with. Having chunks of seed in your now-stable pool will only hasten that process.
- Problem: You’ve used up all your reserved seed chocolate but you’re still not getting a good temper check.
- Solution: If you are at, or very close to 84, you are probably very very close. Just keep stirring, and do a temper check every few minutes until you get a good one. If, however, you’ve used all your seed, and your melted chocolate is closer to 90 and still not in temper, continue to add more seed chocolate in very small amounts until the temperature reaches between 84 and 85, and you are in temper.
- Explanation: The measurements we use for seeding chocolate are estimates. Which brand you use, the temperature of your kitchen, the size of your bowl, etc., are all factors that affect how and when you will reach temper. Be patient. Don’t expect to get it right the first time. Stick with one brand of chocolate, and master that one, before moving on to another.