If you’ve ever accidentally  melted a chocolate bar in the sun and then tried to let it set to revive it, you know that regular old melted chocolate will not return to its original glossy, firm consistency. Chocolate has to be put through a process called tempering before it can be manipulated into bars, candies or whatever chocolate garnish you want to make.  Granted, chocolate tempering is hardly a necessary skill in the kitchen. And if you don’t like chocolate or have a desire for spectacular (if occasional) presentation, then you can ignore this technique altogether. But I think there are lots of folks out there who might like to occasionally make a delicious crafty wonder out of chocolate, if the time and equipment investments could be minimized. Most methods for tempering chocolate require lots of time (usually at least half an hour), special equipment (a nice big slab of marble and lots of stainless steel scrapers come in handy) and lots of chocolate (one pound is the absolute minimum). So… not very accessible to the casually interested, thrifty home cook. While classical methods of tempering are necessary if you want to use certain techniques like dipping candies, there are ways to work with chocolate that don’t require tons of special equipment, or many pounds of chocolate. The method I’m describing is for just a few ounces of chocolate at a time, and you’ll have tempered chocolate ready to work with in under ten minutes. The instructions following are just for bringing the chocolate into temper– but what you do with tempered chocolate is the next exciting question. Of course you can dip strawberries in chocolate or fill little candy molds, but I’ve worked out a few less common projects that you can make with small quantities of chocolate. I’ll update here as I add new projects, but lets start out with pretty lacy chocolate dessert bowls.

For those of you who are interested in the science behind the process, I’ll give a brief overview the science behind the technique. Chocolate has a couple of different types of crystals that is forms, and (forgive me for being very reductive) you want to encourage one type of crystal formation and minimize the others. Usually this is done by manipulating the chocolate in very specific ways so that is passes through different temperatures in the right order. The method I’m describing, called seeding,  is to melt the chocolate very gently and then to introduce some finely chopped chocolate and stir until this chocolate has spread its “good” crystaline structure throughout all of your melted chocolate. With just a little patience, microwave tempering is easy to master, and it can open up the world of chocolate decorations to the adventurous/crafty home cook. If you don’t have a microwave you can use a double boiler to melt your chocolate– but the timing and materials will be different. To use a double boiler, melt your chocolate in a stainless steel bowl. Melting will take a bit longer with this setup, and you have to take care that absolutely no water drips into your chocolate (It helps to wipe off the bottom of the bowl with a clean towel right when you remove the boil from the pan).

 


Small Batch Chocolate Tempering


Equipment:

at least 3 oz. high quality chocolate.  White, milk or dark chocolate will all work equally well.
cutting board
bread knife
metal spatula (substitute butter knife if you don’t have one)
metal dough scraper (substitute metal spatula if you don’t have one)
small glass or ceramic bowl

Assemble your equipment.

All your tools should be spotlessly clean and dry. Once the chocolate is in temper, you’ll only have a limited time to work with it, so it is imperative that your necessary tools will be within reach.

Chop.

Your tempering will go more quickly and smoothly if you chop your chocolate very finely. In fact, this method depends on it. A serrated knife makes quick work of chocolate. Chop your chocolate very finely so that no chunks are larger than a lentil.

Melt.

Set aside 1/3 of your chopped chocolate (It’s okay to eyeball this measurement).  Place the rest into your ceramic or glass bowl. Microwave on high for 40-50 seconds.* Let the chocolate sit, undisturbed for 2 minutes. Remove the bowl from the microwave. Using a flexible spatula, stir the chocolate chunks (which should now be just starting to melt). Keep stirring, until the chocolate is melted. If the chocolate has not melted after stirring for a minute, return the chocolate to the microwave and heat for an additional 10 seconds. The chocolate should be completely melted and smooth, and the bottom of the ceramic bowl should feel warm, but not hot.

Seed.

All at once, pour  in the reserved third of your chopped chocolate. Gently stir the chocolate until all of the chunks are dissolved. (This will take a few minutes of patient stirring.) At this point your chocolate should be smooth, slightly thickened and feel just barely cool to the touch. If there are still chunks left in your chocolate after a few minutes of stirring, you can heat the bowl again in the microwave for 5 seconds. Then stir until all the chunks have disappeared. Be very careful not to overdo it at this point- your chocolate needs to be fluid enough to work with, but if you overheat it, you’ll undo all the tempering work you just did. If you reheated the melted chocolate, stir it for an additional minute before you start to shape it. Be sure to scrape any chocolate from the sides of the bowl into the center while you are stirring– all of the chocolate needs to be exposed to agitation to achieve a smooth, tempered finish.

*this time is an approximation based on tempering 3 oz. of dark chocolate. The melting point of milk and white chocolate is lower, so I would recommend decreasing this time by around 5 seconds. If you are tempering more chocolate, you can increase the initial heating time a little, but never make it longer than one minute. If you are in doubt: heat for less time, stop and stir. You can always heat the chocolate for another 10 seconds, but there is no way to rescue burnt chocolate.


Tips and Troubleshooting

Stir chocolate gently.

I can’t think of any culinary equivalent to how chocolate should be stirred– it’s not the lofty whipping like you would use for cream, and it’s not the delicate folding that you use for cake batters. You want to thoroughly stir chocolate, but you don’t want to incorporate air into the mix. Gentle, steady stirring is what you want–  and more stirring is better. If your stirring is making any noise, you’re probably stirring too vigorously.

Avoid water.

Even a drop of water in your chocolate will cause it to seize up and be ruined. Seizing is not the same as the chocolate not being in temper– chocolate that has seized cannot be melted, retempered or used in cooking. So make sure that all of your tools are clean and dry before you start.

Clean the edge of your bowl.

If you’re not careful, chocolate work can get messy in a hurry. Keeping the top edge of your bowl clean is a big help in keeping down the mess. It is all too easy to pick up the bowl getting some chocolate on your hand which then gets on your tools which then gets on the counter… you can see how this goes. After mixing chocolate, use a clean towel or paper towel to wipe clean the top rim and half inch of your bowl.

Wait until chocolate has firmed up to clean up.

You can save more of the leftover chocolate if you wait until it has firmed up to scrape off your tools. These chocolate scraps can be retempered or used for cooking.

My chocolate wasn’t in temper.

If your chocolate sets up with swirly chalky patterns and it takes forever to firm up, then something went wrong in tempering. The most common reason that chocolate tempering goes astray is that it was too hot. You might have heated your chocolate for too long, or not added enough seeding chocolate to bring the temperature down. If you reheated the chocolate, you might have heated too much. Or you might not have stirred the chocolate sufficiently to spread the crystalline structure throughout the chocolate. The chocolate, though not pretty, is not ruined. You can try tempering the chocolate again by melting the first attempt and adding fresh chocolate to seed it. You can also use untempered chocolate for any other baking or cooking purposes.

Work with small or large quantities; not in between.

You can use the microwave to temper larger quantities- and with a larger quantity the thermal mass of the chocolate will help it stay in temper once it is there. If you try to work with too small a quantity, your chocolate will end up hardening before you have a chance to work with it. Since tempering chocolate with this method takes just a few minutes, I find it easiest to temper just the quantity I will use in one cornet which comes to about 2 ounces. My guidelines: 3- 6 oz. or or a pound or more.

If you retemper  the same chocolate, add in some new chocolate of the same type.

The new chocolate (which is more perfectly tempered) will help ensure that you have lots of good crystals to spread throughout your chocolate.

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