Temper, Temper

It’s easy to lose your cool trying to create a perfectly tempered batch of chocolate. I know I usually do. The thing is, professional chocolatiers have high-tech mechanical temperers that keep melted chocolate at just the right temperature for hours at a time. The rest of us have to make do with the tools we have available: bowls of hot and cold water, a thermometer and our wits. The good news is that while tempering itself is a precision sport, chocolate itself is infinitely forgiving of mistakes. Which is to say that if you fail to get the texture you want, you can simply melt the chocolate back down and try it again. And again, and again.

There are three possible methods for tempering chocolate. Only one of them is really practical for the home baker.

The first method simply involves slowly melting previously tempered chocolate at a perfect 89 degrees Fahrenheit (the melting and forming point of the ideal “Beta V form” cocoa fat crystal), maintaining it at that temperature, then applying the chocolate as desired. Sounds easy, right? Nope. Until the day arrives that we all have our own sous vide water circulating equipment in our kitchens, we’ll never be able to maintain that sort of perfectly steady temperature. This method is, practically speaking, impossible in a home kitchen.

The next method is slightly less, er…impossible. It involves gently heating a quantity of chocolate up to 120 degrees, the point at which all the various kinds of fat crystals that exist in the chocolate melt totally, then allowing the chocolate to cool to 89 degrees. At that point the chocolate is “seeded” with uniform fat crystals in the form of finely chopped tempered chocolate. This “seeding” sets the pattern for crystal formation in the main mass. The chocolate is then maintained at 89 until the seed chocolate melts and the newly tempered can be used. But of course here again we have the temperature maintenance problem. It’s next to impossible without precision equipment.

The final method takes advantage of the up-and-down temperature cycles that are typical of the home kitchen. Like the previous method, it begins by heating a mass of chocolate to 120 degrees to “wipe the slate clean” as it were. At that point the chocolate is gently cooled…past the Form V crystal-forming point, down to about 83 or 84 degrees. What kind of crystals are in the chocolate bowl at that point? The answer is: quite a few different ones. In fact if the chocolate mass were simply allowed to cool all the way down from there, it would be the typical riot of disorderly crystals.

So, we heat the chocolate back up again, slightly, up to 89 degrees. What does that accomplish? The answer is it melts the undesirable random crystals, but leaves the desirable Form V crystals intact. With no other competition in the tempering bowl, these desirable crystals then “seed” the rest of the mass, setting the pattern for crystal formation as the chocolate gently cools — and it must be cooled very gently indeed order for the new pattern to “take.”

Very clever, yes? Yes. And in the broad scheme of things, really not all that difficult to do.

2 thoughts on “Temper, Temper”

  1. Actually, it looks like getting a sous vide rig in every kitchen is getting more and more feasible – I’ve seen several articles recently on (relatively) affordable immersion circulators for exactly that purpose.

    1. Yep, I’ve noticed the same thing. Mine was $400 and even that looks on the high side these days!


      – Jane

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