- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 8, 2005

Have you ever wondered why the chocolates you buy have hard, shiny surfaces but homemade chocolates are dull and splotchy? This is because of tempering.When you melt chocolate, you melt the cocoa butter crystals, the fat in chocolate. Unfortunately, cocoa butter can recrystallize into any of six different forms (polymorphs, as they are called), and only one of these, the beta crystal, hardens into firm, shiny chocolate. When you buy commercial chocolate, it is in the form of beta crystals, but these are lost if heated above 94 degrees.

When the chocolate cools, other types of crystals set up, and the chocolate takes on a dull, soft and splotchy appearance. Even the taste changes. Tempered chocolate has a snap when you break it and a different mouth feel than the other cocoa butter forms.

How can you get chocolate to set up in these hard, shiny beta crystals? The process of melting and cooling so that the beta crystals form is called tempering. Tempering is necessary only for real chocolate, which contains cocoa butter, not for compound chocolate or summer coating, which contains fats other than cocoa butter.

Controlling temperature is the key to tempering. If you do much chocolate work, you should consider investing in a laboratory-quality thermometer. Kitchen digital instant-read thermometers can be off by 10 degrees. Dickson, a lab-equipment supplier (www.dicksonweb.com; 800/323-2448) has an economy temperature indicator (D154) for $39.

Chocolate expert Paul Dimick, formerly of Penn State University, explains that the simplest way to temper chocolate is to never let it heat higher than 91 to 92 degrees. Beta crystals do not melt until 94, so if you stay below 92 degrees, you never lose the betas. What a wonderful idea.

Chocolate melts at 89 to 90 degrees, even though all the beta crystals do not melt until above 94.

To keep the temperature below 92, grate the chocolate or chop it finely in the food processor so that it will melt evenly.

Heat the chocolate over a very low heat source, such as a heating pad on low or a small coffee warmer or hot tray, stirring constantly, until about two-thirds of it melts.

Remove it and patiently continue stirring until all the chocolate is melted. For dark chocolate, you will want to end up with a temperature, ideally, of 89 to 91 degrees (87 to 89 degrees for milk or white chocolate). If you have kept the chocolate below 92 degrees, it will still be tempered and ready to use.

If the chocolate temperature rises above 94 degrees, the beta crystals will be lost and you will need to go through the full tempering process. First, you must carefully melt all of the chocolate.

Dark chocolate should be melted no higher than 122 degrees (110 to 118 degrees for milk or white chocolate). If the chocolate gets too hot, it will separate into golden cocoa butter and grainy black cocoa particles. The big secret is constant stirring. Even if the chocolate gets a little too hot, it can be saved with constant stirring.

To get good crystallization of the beta crystals started, cool the chocolate rapidly to 82 degrees for dark or 79 degrees for milk and white. (Constantly stir, because cooling this low allows undesirable beta-prime crystals to form.) Warm the chocolate gently to 86 degrees for dark or 84 degrees for milk and white. Hold it at this temperature for a few minutes, then warm up to 91 to 92 degrees for dark (87 to 89 degrees for milk or white). As the chocolate warms, the undesirable beta-prime crystals will melt and the chocolate will be ready to use.

To encourage rapid cooling, Mr. Dimick places a stainless-steel bowl of melted chocolate into a bowl of ice water and stirs constantly until the chocolate cools to 82 degrees for dark, 79 degrees for milk or white.

Next, he warms it to 86 degrees for dark (84 degrees for milk or white), lets it remain at this temperature for a couple of minutes, then heats it back up to 91 to 92 degrees for dark (89 degrees for milk or white). Regardless of the method, the one thing you must do is to stir constantly.

Some cooks lower the temperature fast by stirring the melted chocolate with a big piece (3 inches or so) of tempered chocolate. As the tempered chocolate melts, it cools the melting chocolate and seeds it with the right kind of beta crystals.

Lift the lump out when you reach the correct temperature. You can also lower the temperature with grated chocolate, but if you use too much, fine unmelted particles will remain.

Other cooks spoon two-thirds of the chocolate onto a cold surface such as a marble slab and scrape the chocolate back and forth with a spatula until it is about 82 degrees.

This cooled chocolate is then blended with the warm reserved chocolate to bring it back to the desired temperature. The downside to this method is that one must work fast, and it is difficult to get a temperature reading of the chocolate on the slab.

For cooling large batches, chocolate expert Alice Medrich, author of “Bittersweet: Recipes and Tales From a Life in Chocolate” (Artisan), uses a submersible blender, taking care to keep it submerged.

Tempering machines can stir constantly and control temperature. Some machine directions recommend placing a lump of tempered chocolate in front of the machine stirrer to seed the chocolate with beta crystals.

To check for temper, smear a little chocolate on a piece of waxed paper. If it dries shiny and hard within five minutes, it is tempered.

Mr. Dimick uses the “string” test. After the chocolate reaches the correct temperature, he spoons up a little and drizzles a string of chocolate on the melted surface.

If it disappears instantly, he knows he does not have enough crystals — it is not tempered.

Stirring constantly with a lump of tempered chocolate may fix it, but if it is simply not tempered and you have the wrong kind of crystals, you must begin again and go through the entire melting and cooling process.

Here is a great truffle recipe to make good use of your tempered chocolate:

Smoothest-ever Chambord truffles

10 ounces semisweet chocolate, broken into 1-inch pieces

6 ounces milk chocolate, broken into 1-inch pieces

5 tablespoons butter, cut in tablespoon-size pieces

1/4 cup heavy whipping cream

5 large egg yolks, lightly beaten

1/4 cup Chambord or other berry liqueur

2 cups tempered melted semisweet chocolate for coating (about 1 pound chocolate; see melting directions above)

Chop both chocolates together in the food processor with a steel knife until finely grated.

In a 9- to 10-inch pan over medium heat, melt the butter. Turn heat down to low. Remove from heat, and stir in cream and egg yolks.

Return to low heat; stir constantly by scraping the bottom with a wide spatula. Heat, scraping the bottom constantly, until tiny bubbles form around the edges and you see a wisp of steam.

Remove from heat and continue to stir. Add both chocolates and the liqueur. Stir gently to melt all the chocolate. You may need to return the pan to the heat for several brief periods, stirring constantly until the chocolate is completely melted.

Place pan in refrigerator so that chocolate cools. When chocolate is partially set, remove from the refrigerator. With a large melon baller, a tiny ice cream scoop or a spoon, spoon up and shape into 1- to 11/4-inch balls.

Allow to stand at room temperature about 30 minutes, then dip one at a time into tempered melted chocolate. Allow to stand on a piece of foil to cool and set.

When chocolate is firm, refrigerate. Serve in little fluted candy cups. These should be kept refrigerated until shortly before serving. Makes about 30 11/4-inch truffles.

Food scientist Shirley Corriher is author of “CookWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking” (William Morrow).

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