Tempering chocolate – a simple guide

By Nicky Grant 18th April 2018

How to

An easy method for tempering chocolate

What does it mean to temper chocolate and why?

One of the questions that my students ask me on my Introduction to Chocolate courses, is: “How can I temper chocolate quickly but without using a Bain Marie, melting tank or an expensive tempering machine?” Well, the full answer takes a while to get to grips with and on my courses, Tom and I will dedicate at least a morning going through the science of chocolate to help our students better understand the process. The chemistry is not for the faint hearted but it is essential to know this before one can become an intuitive professional chocolatier. In short though tempering or more to the point, the precrystallization of chocolate, is the process of encouraging the fat (cocoa butter) to set in such a way that the chocolate possesses the following characteristics (an hour or so after setting):

  • It’s surface has a uniform sheen
  • It has shrunk away from the surface it is in contact with (important for demoulding)
  • It makes a snapping noise when broken

If any of these factors are not present, the chocolate will not look and do what it should for you. Another sign that the chocolate has been precrystallized is that it should set in 3-5 minutes at 18-20’C. It is this fact that helps us to decide when we are able to begin using the molten chocolate for all the different techniques we will then bring in, such as dipping or moulding. As we get close to the point that we feel the chocolate is ready to use, we will test the time it takes to set. We do this by simply taking a strip of greaseproof paper or a pallet knife and dip it into the chocolate. If after a few minutes the chocolate has not begun to set (with a sheen), we will take action to ensure it will.

What is precrystallization?

Whilst this article is not going to go into the science a great deal (that’s for a later date or you might like to book on a course) I will provide some useful facts to take into consideration. For chocolate to set in 3-5 minutes and for the above characteristics to exist, it is all about the quantity of the different types of fat crystals that you have in your chocolate and the temperature of the chocolate that is important. Hard set, tempered chocolate is the way it is because, when in it’s liquid state and beginning to set, the chocolate and more importantly the fat in the chocolate contains certain fat crystals. When you precrystallize chocolate, you are encouraging the formation of fat crystals, called Beta 5. The action of cooling molten chocolate, moving (stirring) it and other factors encourages the creation of these crystals. You only need 0.2%-0.8% of these crystals present in your chocolate for setting to occur. As the chocolate sets, the crystals attach to one another, creating chains of crystals that form a strong stable bond. More and more Beta 5 fat crystals are created and more chains are laid down. This process (over that magic 3-5 minutes) happens rapidly, expending a lot of heat, causing the chocolate to become denser (shrinking) and so creating solid chocolate that snaps when broken. After the chocolate has set, it will still continue to produce beta 5 crystals until, after a few days, the solid cocoa fat is made up of up to 70% Beta 5 crystals. So the chocolate is still shrinking, still setting, still crystallizing for days afterwards! Phew! Told you it was tough to get your head around. Enough of the science (well nearly).

A quick method for tempering chocolate

If you want to have a go at tempering chocolate to make decorations or dip ganache balls, heres what to do. Buy a good quality chocolate (bar or buttons). The minimum quantity I would use is around 200 grams. This chocolate is already tempered (break it to see). So, based on what I mentioned above, it should be stable and contain around 70% Beta 5 crystals. Great you might think, but how do I get to to a point where it contains enough of those Beta 5 crystals (0.2%-0.8%) and have it liquid enough that I can do something with it? Here you go:

The microwave method

This method involves heating the chocolate gradually and gently in the microwave.

  • Chop the chocolate into small pieces
  • Place the chocolate in a plastic bowl. The size of the bowl does count! As a rough guide the chocolate should come up to at least a third of the way.
  • Have the microwave on full power and heat the chocolate. Start with long periods of around 30 seconds and then take it out and stir it.
  • As it begins to melt, reduce the time in the microwave.
  • Use a probe thermometer to constantly check the chocolate.
  • You need to get to a point where most of the chocolate has melted but you still have solid chocolate left. (see below)

As a general rule, never completely melt out all the solid chocolate in the bowl, keep warming and stirring, warming and stirring, until you still have some small lumps of solid chocolate left. Finish off the melting by stirring not by heating. What this process does is it obviously melts the chocolate, but by warming the chocolate you are also melting Beta 5 crystals. The (very) gradual process of warming and stirring, takes out most of the Beta 5 crystal until, when you get to what is known as the working temperature (see below), you should have 0.2%-0.8% Beta 5 crystals and you are ready to use the chocolate. The working temperature of chocolate:

  • Dark chocolate 31-32’C
  • Milk chocolate 29-30’C
  • White chocolate 28-29’C

Maintaining it

You just need to maintain the temperature of the chocolate for the duration of your chocolate work. Simply put it back in the microwave for a 5 second burst, take out and stir. Do this every 2 minutes or so. Don’t over do it! If you warm the chocolate over 33.5’C you have lost it. (Unless you have more chocolate you can add.) Have a go, remember to test your chocolate when you think it is ready. If it sets in a 3-5 minutes with that lovely sheen you are ready to do what you want with it. My next blog post will look at troubleshooting the precrystallization and tempering process. Good luck and feel free to use the comments block below to get in touch or use your social share of choice.