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The Magic Behind Tempering Chocolate: What it is & Why it’s so Important

Tricky, complicated and frustrating, but immensely satisfying.

This is how craft chocolate makers usually describe tempering, the most intimidating step of the bean-to-bar process.

After the chocolate has served its time in the melangeur or conching machine, it’s time to put it on a rollercoaster of high and low temperatures. This is what tempering is all about: heating up and cooling off the chocolate before it gets moulded into any desired shape.

Why? To give chocolate bars and bonbons a longer shelf life, a healthy glow and an irresistible mouthfeel. Untempered chocolate is still totally safe to eat and bake with, but tempering is that extra step that makes chocolate look and feel its best. The main protagonist in this process is cocoa butter.

tempering chocolate

Understanding the fatty acids in cocoa butter (not complicated)

Cocoa butter, the fatty part of a cocoa bean, is composed of fatty acids. When the chocolate is in a melted state (coming out of the melangeur or the conching machine), the fatty acids of the cocoa butter are all over the place.

They have no structure, no organization and run around like crazy loose crystals inside the chocolate. To make the chocolate stable and less sensitive to changes, these fatty acids need some discipline, and they have to be crystallized in a specific form.

They can take up many forms, from 1 to 6, inside the chocolate, and different forms mean different melting points, appearances and textures. Dandelion Chocolate, a renowned bean-to-bar maker in San Francisco, explains it best:

“Forms 1 (I) and 2 (II) are crumbly in texture and to the bite. The snap is non-existent and the chocolate melts easily, almost too easily. Forms 3 (III) and 4 (IV) will have a good snap and the texture will be more consistent, but then the appearance will be a little dull or matte and will still melt too quickly on your hands or in your mouth. Form 5 (V) crystals are the crystals we are looking for.”

Without making it too complicated, all we need to know is that the fatty acids have to be organized into Form 5 to keep the chocolate stable, shiny and the most enjoyable for the palate.

These undisciplined fatty acids aren’t going to be proactive and organize themselves spontaneously, so chocolate makers have to roll up their sleeves and get to work before the moulding step.

sugar bloomed chocolate

The tempering process and how it’s done

Here are the simple steps of the process: the chocolate is first heated to 45°C (113°F), then cooled down to 27°C (80°F), and then heated again to 32°C (89°F).

Temperatures will vary according to the chocolate maker’s preference and tools, but the nitty-gritty is this same for everybody. Sounds pretty doable, right?

Well, it wouldn’t be known as the trickiest part of the chocolate-making process if it were that simple.

Just to name a few difficulties:

– Temperatures need to be constantly monitored to the teeth; the temperature of the room impacts the ending result big time; overheating will make the chocolate burnt with no hope of resurrection; if the chocolate comes into contact with even one drop of water during the process, it’s game over.

– Before being able to afford the luxury of a tempering machine, an aspiring craft chocolate maker usually pays her/his dues by tempering the chocolate by hand before the deserved upgrade arrives.

– Hand tempering is the quintessence of bean-to-bar craftsmanship, like a real art that takes knowledge and patience to learn. This is why videos online of chocolate professionals hand tempering on marble slabs are so captivating!

– When some money finally starts flowing, it’s time to buy a tempering machine. These follow the same process: keep the temperature high in the first stage, lower it on the second, and finally rise it again on the third.

– Despite the added technology, attentive chocolate makers will still need to make adjustments even when using machines. The cocoa bean origin, the season of the year, the brand of the tempering machine are all variables that can impact the final result.

The hustle seems to be worth it though, as well-tempered chocolate brings unparallel advantages.

Wrapping chocolate

Why it’s important to temper chocolate

First of all, SHELF STABILITY. The fatty acids have been disciplined, put into their best structure, and well-integrated with the rest of the ingredients. The tempered chocolate won’t melt below 29°C (84°F) because the fatty acids are so tightly locked together that it would take higher temperatures to pull them apart.

The second advantage of a good temper is a BETTER TASTING EXPERIENCE (compared to untempered chocolate). Not only a surface that is glossy and flawless but also a sharp snap and a perfect mouthfeel, as the chocolate will melt around body temperature.

Lastly, a good temper helps to AVOID FAT BLOOM. Fat bloom is the natural separation of unstable cocoa butter crystals from cocoa solids (because the fatty acids haven’t been properly disciplined and organized in Form 5). This results in bad looking chocolate with whitish/greyish spots or streaks on the surface and a grainy/coarse consistency. Still safe to eat and bake with, but not in the best conditions for savouring.

white stuff on your chocolate bar

In conclusion, you can appreciate well-tempered chocolate when you open a bar or a box of bonbons and the look is shiny and uniform, the snap is firm and the mouthfeel is delightful. 

Now you know all the work that goes into achieving such perfection.

Sharon is a Chocolate Blogger that reports the latest news and trends in the chocolate industry from around the world. Read more of her work on: thechocolatejournalist.com.

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