Committing Chocolate Shaving Seppuku

I started cooking in an actually fairly decent restaurant when I was fifteen and a few months later, when I was 16, started soloing as a cook. For the rest of high school, through my college summers and for a couple of years after college I worked in a variety of kitchens, from cafeterias to steak houses. In my 30’s I went back to the kitchen and spent about five years baking and making pastries professionally.

In that time — about ten years total — I saw a lot of accidents. Lots of burns, plenty of cuts, knocks on the head, slips and falls, even a couple of broken bones. However by far the worst injuries I ever saw resulted from attempts at making chocolate shavings. Why? Because even experienced pastry chefs and bakers I knew made their chocolate shavings like this:

In other words by scraping a big knife along a solid bar of chocolate…toward their bellies, one hand grasping the handle of the knife, the other bare hand holding the point. This photo isn’t terribly accurate since my other hand is holding a camera at the moment. Also in a professional kitchen the chocolate bars are a lot bigger. So are the knives. Anyway, I never saw anyone actually disembowl themselves making chocolate shavings, but because of the ridiculous grip and all the pressure involved, I saw several very deep and serious finger and hand cuts. Some that caused permanent muscle/nerve damage.

The great pity is that it was all so completely avoidable. For example, a great way to make small, curly shavings is with a vegetable peeler:

As you go the curls get wider and you get a darn nice product. Very good for garnishes or cupcake or doughnut toppings. If the bar you’re using isn’t shaving well, try warming it with a five-second blast in the microwave.

Of course larger curls are what the knife scraping is all about. For those I melt my chocolate with a series of 10 second bursts in a microwave…

…and pour some on the back of a sheet pan that I’ve chilled in the freezer for about five minutes.

I spread it thinly…

…and wait about five minutes for it to cool and acquire a dull finish. At which point I grab the nearest scraper…

…and scrape it up into shavings.

Easy peasy, and not a drop of blood spilled. Now then, the one drawback of this method is that the chocolate loses its temper, but which I do not mean it turns red in the face and starts hurling baseless accusations. Rather that its uniform crystal structure changes. When that happens the chocolate is not only less shiny when it cools after melting, but it’s a bit softer in the bargain.

You can mitigate this problem by using a good quality couverture or dark chocolate that’s high in cocoa butter. Even after melting and cooling it will remain fairly firm at room temperature (you won’t know the difference texturally if it’s refrigerated). The alternative is to use tempered chocolate, which I admit is a bit of a hassle, but a whole lot better than stitches, trust me.

Nice, right?

15 thoughts on “Committing Chocolate Shaving Seppuku”

  1. I admit I know nothing about chocolate, so…

    In terms of using chocolate shavings, does it matter whether the chocolate is tempered? I’ve only ever seen shaved chocolate pressed into some kind of frosting on the side of a cake. My eye wouldn’t be able to judge the shininess of the chocolate. And I’ve always figured the reason it was softish was because it had gotten that way from being pressed against gooey frosting.

    1. Hey Ted!

      It’s not critical, no, especially if they’re going to stay refrigerated. Indeed they’re kept that way most of the time since even shavings made from temperated chocolate melt on warm days, being so thin. But yes, shininess isn’t so much the issue, it’s texture/rigidity. That’s why a good chocolate is handy since the the higher proportion of cocoa butter helps them retain their shape even though they aren’t tempered.

      Thanks for the question!

      – Joe

  2. Can you use compound chocolate analogs for making the large shavings/curls? I know they don’t taste as nice as actual chocolate but neither do sprinkles and a lot of us use those all the time.

    1. Hi Jeannie!

      Yes you can, though in that case they’ll almost certainly need to be kept cool since chocolate analogs have no cocoa butter. But you can make very nice thick curls and tube shapes with that stuff. Have fun with it!

      – Joe

  3. Great safety information. As a complete aside, while you wre cooking in fairly decent restaurants I was flipping burgers at a fast food place that features a clown as the CEO. Not quite 10 years for me, but about 5 years overlapping high school and college. The worst accident I saw was seeing my hand encounter the tomato slicing machine. They used a contraption that transformed a tomato, with a simple push of the hand, into perfectly consistent 4mm slices. I know that measurement well because I’ve been wearing the 35 year old scars.

    1. If it’s any consolation, I was a consultant to them for about the same number of years. I spent a lot of time working with their Operations Development people. These days, you may be comforted to know, the tomatoes arrived pre-sliced.

      Which I guess makes you some sort of living archive. Kinda makes you feel special, no?

      – Joe

      1. Not quite on topic, but for a while that chain experimented with fast food with an adult ambiance and palate in mind. They had the standard fast food fare but also larger and more interesting salads, some items looked more like conventional entrees and they served wine and beer in rooms with fireplaces and a leathery Starbucks feel.

        Was that after you left, Joe?

        I was, briefly, living in Bakersfield, CA where they were testing them and I was actually very sorry to see that they never expanded the concept. The salads were good and they were pleasant rooms. I thought they would do well in urban areas, myself.

        1. I actually worked on and helped launch that whole project, Rainey. Which is probably why it was one of the biggest Titanics in the history of the company. It was an entire adult-oriented parallel menu called Arch Deluxe, and it had all kinds of groovy things on it including those bigger salads you mentioned. It also had healthier, fresher-tasting sandwiches that had whole leaves of lettuce and slices of vine ripened tomato. Sadly all those high-end components cost a fortune to procure and ship. The entire initiative tanked in less than a year and almost took the corporation down with it. I don’t put that on my resume, so please don’t tell anyone.

          – Joe

          1. Well, I thought it was really a fabulous idea. I suspect the error, if there was one, was choosing Bakersfield for the trial.

            I think they would have done very well in my upmarket area of suburban LA.

            I remember writing home to my husband about it to see if there was any franchise opportunity there. Turns out there wasn’t…

            I’m trying hard to remember the name. __Grill? I remember initials that gave me a clue to the parent company. An “X” in there somewhere but it’s not coming into focus.

            Joe, I’m sorry it didn’t work. I think it would have been a real contribution to popular and available food choices if it had had a more fair trial. I mean it!

          2. Wait, wait, wait!

            It looks like you’re talking about a chain with a different clown in the Board Room. I’m thinking of one named Jack.

            Whatever. It was nice to have that choice for a brief while.

          3. Ah yes, there’s that one as well. Actually they’re a cautionary tale for most quick service restaurants chains. You may remember that devastating food poisoning incident in 1993. Tragic as that was, it led to huge food safety improvements at a lot of other chain restaurants. You’re hard pressed to find them anymore here in the Midwest. People just stopped going. That may be why that started experimenting with the menu, to entice some of their customers back.

            – Joe

  4. When my chocolate loses its temper, I put it with my feral pears. They seem to make a nice couple. 😉


  5. I have never had a lot of reasons to shave chocolate & never thought of trying to do it with a knife but don’t drag it toward you seems like basic common sense.

    Nastiest thing I saw happen was with this industrial can opener, It was mounted on the edge of a table. You lifted the thing up & slid a #10 can under then plunged this giant dragons tooth shaped thing into the can & cranked the handle. A women I worked with held the can with her hand on top & ran that tooth though the little flesh between her thumb & first finger removing it cleanly. But hand cuts bleed the worst. It seemed to me everyone in the kitchen had cuts and/or burns all the time. That kept me from going into the job seriously.

    1. Yow!

      This better not pop the cap on horrible kitchen accident stories. That happened once a few years ago and I finally had to stop approving comments it got so disgusting. Consider yourself warned!

      – Joe

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